Eliezer is twelve in 1941. He lives in a town called Sighet, in territory then controlled by Hungary. His father is respected in the Jewish community. As a boy, Weisel studies the Torah (the Jewish Bible) and the Talmud (rabbinical teachings), while his sisters Hilda, Béa, and Tzipora help his parents run a shop. Eliezer is very religious and wants to study cabbala, Jewish mysticism, but his father says that he's too young.
The narrator doesn't give many details of daily life for the rest of his family or the rest of the townspeople. He focuses on how, as a pre-teen and teenage boy, his own profound faith shapes his activities and his priorities.
Moché the Beadle works at a Hasidic synagogue in the town. Poor and physically awkward, he has a dreamlike and spiritual quality about him. Eliezer and he discuss religion and begin to study cabbala together. Soon, though, all of the foreign Jews are expelled by the Hungarian police. Moché, a foreigner, is forced onto a cattle train and sent away.
Moché is a saint-like figure, an innocent soul, and in that sense he's a good candidate to prophecy the terrors in store for the townspeople. But these same reasons—his dreaminess and simplicity—make it unlikely that the people will believe him.
A few months later, Moché appears in town again, telling a horror story. Once the train arrived in Poland, the Gestapo took the Jewish passengers off the train, drove them to a forest, made them dig graves, and slaughtered them with machine guns, using babies for target practice. Moché miraculously survived with a leg wound and returned to warn the people of Sighet.
Moché makes the journey back to Sighet to warn the townspeople of the atrocities to come because at this point they still have time to leave Eastern Europe.
The people of Sighet do not believe Moché's story. Even Eliezer does not believe him, although he notices that Moché has changed, and no longer speaks about God or the cabbala. Moché despairs that no one pays attention to his warning.
Moché's apparent lack of interest in religious discussion foreshadows Eliezer's own eventual loss of faith once he witnesses the Nazi's atrocities.
Life seems normal enough in the village in 1943. People are encouraged by radio reports of the bombardment of Germany and the progress of the war. Eliezer continues his religious studies and the family thinks about Hilda's marriage prospects.
This is the calm before the storm. The people of Sighet don't have any idea about the concentration camps.
Things begin to change in 1944, although the Jews in Sighet still doubt that Hitler wants to exterminate them. Eliezer wants his father to sell the business and move to Palestine but his father says he's too old to start a new life. The Fascists come to power in Hungary. They allow German soldiers to enter the country, but in Sighet the Jews remain optimistic.
The villagers' lack of urgency suggests how difficult it was for many people to believe that Hitler could and would actually carry out his stated desire to eliminate the Jews of Europe.
The German soldiers come to Sighet, staying at the houses of local citizens—sometimes Jews. One officer stays in a house across the street from Eliezer's. The soldiers are polite, and the Jews hope things will be fine. They keep a low profile, worship at home instead of at the synagogue. Then, during Passover, the Germans arrest the leaders of the Jewish community.
The bad news comes in small steps, and at each step the majority of the Jewish community convinces itself that things might not get much worse.
The authorities issue a series of orders. First, the Jews are commanded to remain in their houses for three days. Then they're ordered to hand over all of their valuables to the Hungarian police. The Jews are next forced to wear a yellow star on their clothing, and are banned from restaurants, trains, and the synagogue. A six o'clock curfew for Jews goes into effect.
At this point, the Jews of Sighet are clearly being singled out and discriminated against. However, they've been singled out and discriminated against at other times in their history. The Hungarians don't seem to have a problem with doing the Germans' bidding.
Jews are forced to move into one of two ghettoes in Sighet. Eliezer's house is already in one of the designated areas, so his family doesn't have to move, but relatives kicked out of their homes move in. Germans use some Jews for labor, but the population remains hopeful that it will remain in the ghetto until the Russians arrive and the war is over.
They have very little access to information, so the Sighet Jews try to put a bright face on the situation. They expect hardship in wartime, but hope that the situation is temporary.
One night, Eliezer's father is hurriedly summoned to a meeting of the Jewish council. Neighbors gather at the house to wait. Eliezer's mother has a feeling something bad is going to happen. His father comes back late at night with the news that they are all being deported.
As a respected and influential man involved in the Jewish affairs of the village, Eliezer's father takes part in the meetings where the Jews learn their fate.
All night the Jews in the ghetto prepare themselves for a journey to an unknown destination. In the morning, Hungarian police enter the ghetto and order the Jews out of their houses into the streets, striking them with rifle butts. The Hungarians keep the Jews standing in the street for hours under the sun, for roll call after roll call, while the Jewish police discreetly try to bring water to the people.
When the Hungarian police have an opportunity to use violence against Jewish civilians, they take it. This suggests a degree of anti-Semitism present among the Hungarians, not just their German masters.
Eliezer watches the people of his town—friends, teachers, the rabbi—pass by with a small bundle of possessions. The scene is surreal, like something out of a book about ancient Jewish history—Biblical stories of the Jews fleeing cruel rulers.
Eliezer views this deportation through the eyes of someone steeped in the Torah. His religious upbringing helps him link the current trial with a long history of trials faced by the Jews.
Eliezer's family isn't part of the first deportation. Instead they are going to be sent to the smaller ghetto. When it's their time to leave their house, they are ordered to march. Eliezer sees his father cry for the first time. The Hungarian police order them to run and Eliezer begins to hate them.
These tears are the first sign of weakness—a hint that Eliezer's father may not be able to protect his family. The forces now stacked against them are too large, too well-armed, too far beyond rational thought.
In the little ghetto everything is in disarray—the people who lived here had been ordered to leave more quickly. The family's old servant comes to see them and begs them to come to her village and hide. Eliezer's father says that Eliezer and his two older sisters can go if they want to, but the family does not want to be separated.
The family's desire to stay together is understandable. Maybe things would have turned out better if they'd tried to hide in another village. Or maybe they all would have been discovered and shot.
That night, according to Eliezer, no one prays. The next day, people try to feel hopeful. They suggest that they are being deported because the front is coming too close, or because the Germans just want to steal their valuables. For a few days, the differences among the remaining villagers vanish and everyone gets along well.
Again the lack of information is their downfall. This day of calm might turn out to have been the last chance for escape, but without knowledge of the horror that awaits them, the Jews of Sighet don't take desperate measures.
On Saturday, the Sabbath, the Jews leave their homes and head to the synagogue. The streets are deserted, as if the non-Jews are waiting for the Jews to leave so they can pillage their houses. The synagogue is crowded with people, the altar is broken, the decorations are gone. The Jews spend twenty-four hours there. The next day they're marched to the station and herded onto cattle cars, eighty people per car. One person is responsible for each car; if anyone escapes, this one person will be shot. The Gestapo watches, pleased. The trains begin to move.
The Jews have lost a little bit of their humanity at each step. First their movements are restricted. Then their possession are taken. Then they're moved out of their homes. They wait in the desecrated remains of what had been their holy place. Finally, they are herded like livestock onto cars designed for animals.