Night begins in the Jewish community in the small town of Sighet, in Transylvania (now Romania) in 1941. World War II rages.
The story is told by Eliezer, a fourteen-year-old Jewish boy who is the third of four children in the family, and the only boy. He begins his story by describing a poor man in the village named Moche the Beadle, who was much liked by everyone. Eliezer first got to know him in 1941, when Eliezer was twelve and wanted to know about Cabbala, the mystical aspect of Judaism. Moche turned out to be a wise man who understood spiritual matters and was an expert on the Cabbala. He and Eliezer now study it together.
But trouble was brewing for the Jews of Sighet. One day all foreign Jews were expelled from the town. This included Moche. Several months later, toward the end of 1942, Moche returned and told a terrible story. The Jews who had been expelled had reached Poland when the German Gestapo took control of them. The Gestapo then killed their prisoners. Moche was wounded in the leg but managed to escape. But people in Sighet do not believe Moches stories, thinking he only wants to gain attention. Even Eliezer does not believe him, and the Jews in Sighet feel that they were safe. The war is beginning to go against Germany, and they believe better days are on the way.
In Spring, 1944, they still feel safe. Germany is being defeated on the Eastern front by the Russians. The Jews of Sighet expect the war to end soon, and believe that Hitler will not be able to harm them. Although it is still possible to emigrate to Palestine, there is no sense of urgency. Eliezers father says he is too old to start a new life.
The Fascist party then comes to power in Hungary, and German troops enter Hungarian territory with government permission. At this point, Sighet is under the control of the Hungarian government. Some of the Jews in Sighet start to feel anxious as they hear about violence against Jews in Budapest, the Hungarian capital. Then German soldiers arrive in Sighet. At first, they behave well, and the Jews continue to feel unthreatened. But on the seventh day of Passover, the Germans arrest the leaders of the Jewish community. From then on things get worse. Jews are not allowed to keep in their houses gold, jewels, or any objects of value. All valuables had to be handed over to the authorities. Eliezers father buries their savings in the basement.
Then the Germans decree that Jews are not allowed in restaurants or cafes, and may not travel on the railway, attend the synagogue or go out on the street after six oclock. Then they set up two Jewish ghettos, a large one in the center of the town and a smaller one on the outskirts. Eliezer and his family live in the first ghetto. For a while, life returns to normal as the ghetto is run by a Jewish Council. The Jews all believe they are to remain there until the end of the war.
Then one evening, Eliezers father is summoned to an extraordinary meeting of the council. When he returns at midnight, he informs everyone that all the Jews are to be deported, starting the following day. No one knows where they are to be taken, although the rumor is that they will go somewhere in Hungary, to work in brick factories.
That night the news spreads around the ghetto. Eliezer plays his part by informing one of his fathers friends, an old man, about the deportation order. The man cannot believe it at first, but then he wakes all his family.
At eight oclock the next morning, the Hungarian police arrive and order everyone out of their homes. It is Sunday. By ten oclock, all the Jews are assembled in the street, where the police keep taking roll calls. The children are thirsty, but are not allowed to go inside for water.
By one oclock, the expelled Jews start to leave, taking with them the few belongings they are allowed. The process takes time, and Eliezers family does not leave until Tuesday. Then they are herded into the deserted smaller ghetto, where they live undisturbed for several days before being expelled on the Saturday. Their convoy heads toward the main synagogue, through the deserted town. They spend a cramped and horrible twenty-four hours at the synagogue. The following morning they march to the railway station, where they are put in cattle wagons-eighty people to one car. They are given a few loaves of bread and some buckets of water, and then sent off to an as yet unknown destination.
It is important to remember that Night is not a novel but a memoir. These events really happened. Eliezer is the young Elie Wiesel, who experienced all these things himself. In the beginning, Wiesel the author creates a picture of a harmonious Jewish community in Sighet that is held together by age-old religious beliefs and traditions in which the synagogue is the center of community life. Eliezer is a serious, religious boy who studies Talmud during the day and at night runs to the synagogue to weep over the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem in A.D. 70. This is an ominous foreshadowing of what is to come, and a reminder that the story of the Jewish people is the story of suffering. Eliezer has a mystical side to his mind, since he is eager to study Cabbala, even though his father says it is better to wait until he is an adult. Eliezers initial enthusiasm for religion is an important theme of the story, since it will soon be put to the severest test. Moche tells him that “Man raises himself toward God by the questions he asks Him.” He adds that man does not understand the answers God gives to him. “You will find the true answers, Eliezer, only within yourself!” he says. Eliezer, with the optimism that at the moment he has no cause to doubt, believes that Moche will draw him into eternity, “into that time where question and answer would become one.” Never again during the book will he permit himself such confident statements. He will ask questions of God, just as Moche says, but there will be no answers, either from God or from within Eliezers mind and heart. The section emphasizes how reluctant the Jews of Sighet are to envision the worst. At every point, they put the best possible face on unfolding events. They refuse to believe that Hitler intends to annihilate the Jews. When Moche the Beadle, the wise man and prophet, warns them of their fate, no one listens. He is like a Biblical prophet crying in the wilderness. No one believes him, but his words are true. This demonstrates how unimaginable the Holocaust was. The events recorded in the book are so horrifying that they defeat any attempt to explain them. No one could really believe it was happening until they were caught up in it themselves.