As the Jews get off the train, they are separated by gender. Men have to go to one side, women to the other. Eliezer is therefore separated from his mother and sisters. He remains with his father. A prisoner comes up to them and tells them roughly that they should lie about their ages. Eliezer should claim to be eighteen not fifteen, and Eliezers father should claim to be forty, not fifty. This will save them from the crematory. A second prisoner warns them of the horrors that await them at Auschwitz. He points to the chimney, from which flames can be seen, and tells them they will all be burned.
The Jews are marched to the square, where Dr. Mengele, the notorious Nazi camp doctor, questions Eliezer. Eliezer says he is eighteen, and a farmer. The men are then divided into two groups. Eliezer is still with his father. Ahead of them, Eliezer sees a ditch where babies are being burned. A little farther on is a larger ditch for adults. His father, and everyone around them, begin to weep.
They are forced to march toward the ditch, but when they are two steps from it, and apparently only moments from death, they are ordered to turn left. They enter a barracks. At the barracks, they are forced to undress. Some of the stronger men are selected by the SS officers to work in the crematories. The others are sent to the barber, where their heads are shaved.
The following morning the new prisoners are driven out into the cold, still naked, their shoes and belts in their hands. They are forced to run to a new barracks where they are soaked in disinfectant and then allowed to take a hot shower. They are forced to run to another barracks where they are given prison clothes. Herded into yet another barracks, they are told to stand in ranks of five. There is no floor, and their shoes sink into the mud.
After some while an SS officer enters and tells them that at Auschwitz, they must work or be sent to the crematorium. He selects the skilled workers, while the rest are sent to another barracks, where a gypsy deportee is in charge. Eliezers father asks him where the toilets are, and the gypsy strikes him and he falls to the ground.
The prisoners are told to go outside and form fives, and then they are forced to march for half an hour, leaving the camp behind them and arriving at another one. Eliezer realizes the new camp must be Auschwitz. His first impression is that it is better than Birkenau, since the buildings are of concrete, not wood, and there were gardens here and there.
They are forced to shower and run naked to their barracks, where they are greeted by another prisoner, a young Pole, who speaks kindly to them, telling them to have courage and faith. They finally get to rest and sleep.
In the morning, their morale has improved, and the general opinion is that the war will end soon. At noon they are brought soup, although Eliezer refuses to touch it. Later in the afternoon, all the prisoners have numbers engraved on their left arms with needles. Eliezers number is A-7713. That is the only way he is to be identified; he now has no other name.
Days pass in the same routine: black coffee in the morning, soup at noon, roll call at six, bread and something to eat, and then bed at nine. One day a relative of Eliezers father, a man named Stein, seeks him out. Eliezers father does not remember him, but Eliezer does. Stein wants to know if there is any news of his family in Antwerp, and Eliezer, who does not know what has happened to them, tells a lie, saying they are well.
Eliezer and his father stay in Auschwitz for three weeks. This is because they are not skilled workers, who are quickly sent to other camps. The laborers are left to the last. Eventually, Eliezer and his father and the other hundred or so laborers are marched for four hours to another camp, Buna.
Bit by bit, the Jews are stripped of all their former identity. They have already had to hand over their valuables. Now the women are separated from the men, leaving Eliezer with only his father. His only thought is to hang on to his father, so he will not be alone. This thought is with him all time during these first days at the camp.
Eliezer realizes that in such a short period of time, everything has changed. He is no longer the person he was a few days ago. His former identity has been obliterated: “I too had become a completely different person. The student of the Talmud, the child that I was, had been consumed in the flames. There remained only a shape that looked like me. A dark flame had entered into my soul and devoured it.” The removal of all former identity was a deliberate policy of the Nazis in the death camps. This is why the prisoners are made anonymous, identified only by the numbers tattooed on their arms. The intention was also to sever the connections between family members. Eliezer feels this is already happening. When the gypsy strikes his father, Eliezer says nothing in protest. If the attack had happened a day earlier, he thinks, he would have attacked the gypsy in retaliation, and he now feels remorse for his lack of action. Eliezers relationship with his father, as they both try to cling on to their humanity, will become a central theme of their life in the camps.
In this section, for the first time, Eliezer begins to question his religion and the justice of God. More than that, he is in full revolt. As the other men recite the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, which includes the line, “May His Name be blessed and magnified,” Eliezer thinks he has nothing to thank God for. His loss of religious faith will also be a continuing theme as the story unfolds.
With its evocation of night, of flames, and of silence (the silence of God and the rest of humanity about the fate of the Jews), Eliezers thoughts on his first night in the camp become emblematic of the book as a whole. The many repetitions of “Never shall I forget” make this a very powerful passage:
“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night . . . . Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.
“Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.
“Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”
These words are not only at the heart of the book, they also describe Elie Wiesels life as a witness and a chronicler of the Holocaust. His life is one long act of remembrance of the victims.