The color-coded boxes under "Analysis & Themes" below (which look like this: ) make it easy to track the themes throughout the work. Each color corresponds to one of the themes explained in the Themes section of this LitChart.
Analysis & Themes
On the evening of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) the Jews in Buna gather for a prayer. Eliezer, who once lived for prayer and religious study, rebels against this. He feels that humans are, in a sense, greater than God, stronger than God, to still pray to a God who allows such horrors. "I was the accuser, God the accused… I stood amid the praying congregation, observing it like a stranger."
By Eliezer's reasoning, God is the weaker party since He rejects and punishes those in the Bible who are unjust or cruel—whereas the Jews in Buna still honor a God who permits them to be gassed and burned by the millions. In other words, the people show more forgiveness to God than He does to them.
Eliezer shares a silent, powerful moment of sadness and understanding with his father. For Yom Kippur, when Jews traditionally fast, his father forbids Eliezer from fasting. Eliezer no longer believes in such rituals, anyway.
This is one of the few moments in the narrative of pure love and comprehension. But it occurs in an instant when both father and son share with each other their lost faith in God.
The prisoners must go through a "selection" when they come back from work. The veterans say the newer prisoners are lucky—not long before, corpses were collected by the hundreds each day, and selections took place every week. The head of the block tells them to move around beforehand, to give color to their skin and to show they are healthy. Dr. Mengele watches the prisoners go past him and occasionally writes down the tattooed number of one of them. A few of the feebler ones are written down, but Eliezer is not. However, no one is immediately taken away.
More on Josef Mengele: he castrated boys and men for no reason and without anesthetic; he forced women to endure high-voltage electric shocks; he sterilized and horribly burned a group of Polish nuns using x-rays; he sewed two gypsy children together to try to create conjoined twins; he performed stomach surgeries on prisoners without anesthesia; he routinely killed people in order to dissect them.
A few days later, the head of the block reads off the numbers of those who have been selected to die. Eliezer's father is among them, as is Akiba Drumer, the singer. His father hurriedly gives Eliezer a knife and a spoon, all that he owns. Eliezer is sent off to work. All day he wonders if he will ever see his father again. When he returns to the camp with his work group that evening, his father is still there, having convinced the Nazis that he is still fit for work.
This is another instance in which Eliezer can do nothing to help or protect his father.
During this period of selection, an old rabbi from Poland who used to pray constantly and recite pages of the Talmud loses his faith in God. So does Akiba Drumer, the religious singer, who gives up, and doesn't try to avoid selection. He asks the other prisoners to say a traditional prayer for him three days after his selection. They promise to, but then forget.
Eliezer is not the only one whose faith is shattered by the concentration camps. The prisoners have become indifferent to the life and death of others. Back in their normal lives it would have been unthinkable not to say a prayer after the death of a friend.
Winter arrives and the prisoners truly start to know what it is to be cold. Christmas and New Year's pass. In January, Eliezer's foot swells. He goes to see a doctor—a Jew and a fellow prisoner. The doctor tells him he needs an immediate operation or else amputation will soon be necessary.
This doctor seems to have Eliezer's best interests at heart, unlike the dentist who examined him earlier.
The surgery is successful, and two days later Eliezer hears a rumor that the Red Army is only hours away and that the camp is being evacuated and the invalids will be left behind. However, Eliezer's neighbor in the hospital tells him that the invalids will be killed and sent to the crematorium. Eliezer doesn't know what to believe, but doesn't want to be separated from his father. He and is father confer—the doctor could enter his father onto the hospital roll as a patient and they could wait for the Russians. Eventually, they decide to leave with the evacuation.
Eliezer and his father are again forced to make what could be a life-or-death decision without having reliable information to work with. Their decision not to stay behind seems reasonable—since the Nazis are continually killing and burning people who are no longer useful to them, they might dispatch with the invalids.
After the war, Eliezer learns that those who stayed in the hospital were liberated by the Russian Army two days later.
Once again, it seems as if God has played a cruel trick on them.
Eliezer spends the night back in his block. The prisoners are given bread and margarine for the trip ahead. The next morning, the prisoners, wearing every layer of clothing they can find, are about ready to leave when the head of the block orders them to clean their living space, to show the liberating army that "there were men living here and not pigs."
The prisoners make an effort to assert their humanity...
The evening, surrounded by SS guards and dogs, with the snow falling heavily, the prisoners march out of the camp block by block. At last, Eliezer's block—Block 57—marches out into the darkness.
...but the meaninglessness of this gesture is soon brought home by the terrors, harshness, and pointlessness of the march.
More help on this section...
• See quotes from Chapter 5