Chapter 3 "The cherished objects we had brought with us"
The men and women are separated, and Eliezer sees his mother and sisters vanishing in the distance. He holds onto his father and is determined not to lose him. A fellow prisoner tells Eliezer to say that he is eighteen (though he is really fourteen) and that his father is forty (though he is fifty). The prisoners who have been at Auschwitz for awhile are brutal and cruel to the new arrivals, and one of them tells them about the crematory. Some of the young men talk about revolting but are silenced by their elders. Then, everyone is forced to march past SS officer Dr. Mengele, who uses a baton to pick out who will remain alive and who will go to the crematory. Dr. Mengele looks cruel yet intelligent, and Eliezer tells him that he is eighteen and a farmer. Eliezer and his father are placed in the same group, which they are informed is the one destined for the crematory. Eliezer watches in horror as a truck full of children drives up to a giant, fiery ditch and the children are put into the flames. Eliezer's father is sad that he is going to see his only son consumed by fire, and he tells Eliezer that humanity is not present in the concentration camps. As the parade of men starts to recite the prayer for the dead for themselves and his father begins to weep, for the first time Eliezer feels himself revolt against God. The men march closer and closer to a fiery ditch, but at the last minute, they swerve away from the fiery ditch. Eliezer says he will never forget that night and the children's faces that he saw burned in flames. On that night his faith was consumed, and the silence of the night made him lose his will to live.
At the barracks, veteran prisoners began to beat the new arrivals and told them to get undressed. The new prisoners threw their clothes into a huge pile. SS officers selected strong men who were taken to work in the crematories. The new arrivals were then taken to the barber, where all their body hair was shaved off. People began to greet friends and relatives and were filled with joy to see the people who were still alive. Eliezer tells a friend not to waste his energy crying, and he feels his fear vanishing and being replaced by "an inhuman weariness." Everyone feels numb and without any sort of emotion, and Eliezer describes them as "damned souls wandering the half-world." At five in the morning, the prisoners are then made to run naked to a different barracks where they are doused in petrol and hot water as disinfectant and then given clothes. At this point the prisoners have ceased to be men. Eliezer feels that the person he was has been destroyed and cannot believe that he has only been at the camp for a single night.
The prisoners are taken to a new barracks, the "gypsies' camp," and made to stand for hours in the mud. Eliezer falls asleep standing up, and Kapos (prisoners in charge of barracks) come in repeatedly looking for new shoes. Eliezer manages to keep his shoes because they are caked in mud and not visible. Finally, an SS officer comes in and lectures them, telling that they must choose between work and the crematory. The unskilled workers (including Eliezer and his father) are taken to a new barracks, where they are allowed to sit down. Eliezer's father asks the gypsy in charge where the lavatory is and is knocked viciously to the ground. Eliezer does nothing and will never forgive the Nazis for making him passively watch his father being beaten. The prisoners then march to Auschwitz, where they must strip, run, and shower again. A plaque at Auschwitz reads "Work is liberty." Conditions are better at Auschwitz than at Birkenau, and the prisoner in charge of their block speaks to them humanely and kindly. He tells them to keep faith and lets them to finally go to bed.
The next day seems almost pleasant: they are given new clothes and coffee, and the veteran prisoners treat them kindly. At lunch Eliezer refuses to eat his ration, a plate of thick soup. The prisoners rest in the sun and talk with each other. In the afternoon they have identification numbers tattooed on their left arms. Eliezer becomes A-7713. At dusk there is roll call, and all the prisoners line up in ranks as their numbers are checked. For three weeks the prisoners follow a set routine of morning coffee, soup, roll call, bread, and sleep. Eliezer and his father meet a distant relative, Stein of Antwerp, who wants news of his wife Reizel and his children. Eliezer's father does not recognize the man since he was generally more interested in community matters in his old life, and Eliezer lies to the man, telling him that his family is doing well. Stein weeps with joy at the news. He continues to visit them for the next few weeks and occasionally brings them extra bread. He is thin and dried up, but he says that he is kept alive by the thought that his family is still alive. When a transport arrives from Antwerp, however, he discovers the truth about his family, and Eliezer never sees Stein again.
In the evenings the prisoners sing Hasidic melodies and discuss religion and God. Akiba Drumer in particular has a beautiful voice and is very devout. At this point Eliezer stops praying. Although he still believes in God, he now doubts his absolute justice. Eliezer and his father pretend that the rest of the family is still alive in the concentration camp. After three weeks, all the unskilled laborers left in the camp (including Eliezer and his father) are rounded up to be transported to another camp. They take a four-hour march to their new home, Buna.
In this section, Eliezer and the other prisoners are fully exposed to the horrible inhumanity of the Nazis. Due to the brutal methods of the Nazis, they are transformed from respected individuals into obedient, animal-like automatons. How does this transformation take place? When the prisoners first arrive at the camp, some of the young men want to rebel: "We've got to do something. We can't let ourselves be killed. We can't go like beasts to the slaughter. We've got to revolt." Despite these early feelings of rebellion, the prisoners rapidly become docile and fearful, and they follow the rules set out by the Nazi authorities. Why do they obey people who are so obviously intent on destroying them?
The answer to that question is very complex. First, the Nazis make it very clear to their prisoners that they hold the power of life and death over them. When the prisoners arrive, they are made to think that they are all going to die in the fiery ditch, and they are periodically beaten and abused by the SS guards. Then their individual identities are completely erased when they are shaved, doused in petrol, and given identical, ill-fitting clothing. They are denied any sort of personality whatsoever, and the only way to deal with the constant abuse is to shut down all human emotions: "Our senses were blunted; everything was blurred as in a fog. It was no longer possible to grasp anything. The instincts of self-preservation, of self-defense, of pride, had deserted us.Within a few seconds, we had ceased to be men." Treated as animals, the prisoners know that the Nazis will have no qualms at destroying them. For this reason, it makes logical sense to obey the Nazis' commands.
At the same time, however, the prisoners must have faith that they will survive the horrors of the concentration camp. When the young men think of revolting, their elders tell them, "You must never lose faith, even when the sword hangs over your head. That's the teaching of our sages" In addition, the head of Eliezer's block kindly offers advice to his new charges: "We shall all see the day of liberation. Have faith in life. Above all else, have faith. Drive out despair, and you will keep death away from yourselves." In order to survive, the prisoners must believe that survival is possiblethat death is not an inevitability and that individual strength will allow one to escape the Nazi crematories. Denied their individuality by their captors, the prisoners must nevertheless struggle to maintain their individual faith in God.
However, it is difficult to have faith in God when one is constantly surrounded by death and inhumanity. As Eliezer approaches the fiery pit, he feels anger towards a God who allows Nazi inhumanity to exist in this world: "For the first time, I felt revolt rise up in me. Why should I bless His name? The Eternal, Lord of the Universe, the All-Powerful and Terrible, was silent. What had I to thank Him for?" Although the only way to survive the concentration camps is to have faith that God will see you through, it is nearly impossible to believe in a God who allows concentration camps to exist in the first place.
At this point in the narrative, the prisoners have not been completely broken down yet, and they still recognize the value of human relationship. For Stein of Antwerp, just thinking that his wife and children are still alive is enough to make him want to live also. Similarly, Eliezer and his father hope that Tzipora and her mother have survived also. Other human beings give people a reason for strength and hope and make them want to survive. The prisoners are still able to consider people other than themselves and retain a human concern for family and friends. However, the Nazis will later succeed in destroying the humanity of their prisoners so that affective ties between family and friends become virtually meaningless.
In this section Wiesel continues to develop the symbolic meaning of the title Night. After describing the fiery ditch and the truck full of children consumed in flames, Wiesel writes: "Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little face of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky." Upon arriving at Auschwitz, Eliezer enters into a world of eternal nightmares and hellish visions. Both day and night are filled with horrors and evil, and night itself is no longer restful, but instead representative of the continual, creeping Nazi menace. Even after leaving the concentration camps, Wiesel is haunted by the nightmarish visions he saw at Auschwitz, and even day seems threatening and dark.