In the inhuman conditions in the concentration camps, where people are brutalized and treated as objects, the relationships between fathers and sons become extremely important. Can these bonds of family survive, as islands of humanity in a sea of hatred? Eliezer reports on some terrible incidents in which even the close bond between father and son breaks down. At Buna he sees a boy of about thirteen beating his father because the man had not made his bed properly. On the last train journey to Buchenwald, when a man seizes some bread that has been thrown into the wagon, his son snatches the bread from him. This is the level to which the Jews have been reduced by the inhuman treatment of the Nazis.
There are other models of father-son relationships, however. Eliezer and his father look after each other and stay close. They do not lose their humanity. Even when his father is very sick, Eliezer does not give in to the temptation to leave him so that he, Eliezer, can have a greater chance of survival. He remembers what he saw happen between Rabbi Eliahou and his son on the run from Buna to Gleiwitz. The rabbi and his son had been together in the camps for three years. They always stuck together, through every ordeal. But then on the night run to Gleiwitz, they get separated. Eliezer sees that the rabbi's son knows his father has been left behind, but he does not stop to help him. Eliezer guesses that the son has come to believe that his father is an encumbrance, and that he would be better off without him. The relationship has finally been broken by the almost unimaginable strain it has been placed under.
Eliezer prays that he never thinks this of his own father, but he is wrong. These thoughts do occur to him, and he feels bitterly ashamed of them. To his credit, he overcomes them, sticking close to his father and trying to help him right up to the end. But after his father's death, Eliezer has a moment of brutal honesty, when he acknowledges the ambivalence of his thoughts: "I did not weep, and it pained me that I could not weep. But I had no more tears. And, in the depths of my being, in the recesses of my weakened conscience, could I have searched it, I might perhaps have found something like-free at last!"
Loss of Faith
The story chronicles Eliezer's loss of faith during his year-long ordeal in the Nazi camps. When the story begins he is a pious youth, very observant of his own religion, as are all the Jews in Sighet. When they are first expelled, they all pray, "Oh, God, Lord of the Universe, take pity upon us in Thy great mercy. . . ." When they arrive at Birkenau, and are told that conditions are good there, they give thanks to God. Even when they first begin to see the horrors of Auschwitz, the older men among them say that they must never lose faith, "even when the sword hangs over your head."
But Eliezer soon rebels against this notion. He feels he has nothing to thank God for, and is angry because God appears to be silent in the face of the oppression. He says he will always remember his first night in Auschwitz, "those moments which murdered my God." He ceases to pray, even though others in the camp continue to talk of the mysterious ways of God, the sins of the Jewish people, and their eventual deliverance. Eliezer does not doubt God's existence, but he does doubt His absolute justice. When he sees the child hanging on the gallows, he believes that God Himself is dead. Even though he feels a great void in his heart, he can no longer believe.
The theme is brought home when even Akiba Drumer, who had never doubted his religion, becomes a victim of the selection, and loses his faith. So does a rabbi from Poland, who used to pray all the time. He says to Eliezer at Buna, "It's the end. God is no longer with us."
The theme of silence has several levels of meaning. The word itself, like "night," appears often in the book. For example, "Suddenly the silence grew oppressive," when an SS officer came into the barracks at Auschwitz. That is meant in the literal sense. But silence has wider meanings too. First, the Jews are a people whose voices are being silenced, one by one, as shown by the hanged child who slowly suffocates-his breath, his voice, is painfully stifled. Second, silence refers to the silence of the world, which stands by and does nothing to help the Jews. "How could it be possible for them to burn people, children, and for the world to keep silent?" asks Eliezer. Third is the silence of God, who does nothing to stop the slaughter: "The Eternal, Lord of the Universe, the All-Powerful and Terrible, was silent. What had I to thank Him for?" Later on, Eliezer believes there is no longer any reason to fast on the Day of Atonement because "I no longer accepted God's silence." Finally, there is the silence of death: "All round me death was moving in, silently, without violence. It would seize upon some sleeping being, enter into him, and consume him bit by bit."