Chapter 5 "The summer was coming to an end"
For Rosh Hashanah all the Jews gather together at the assembly place and are a little nervous, wondering whether the last day of the year might really be their last. Eliezer angrily compares God's greatness with the weakness of the assembled Jews. Thousands of men prostrate themselves to God, but Eliezer refuses to bless a God who has allowed crematories to exist. Though he used to be a mystic and used to love New Year's Day, this year he accuses God of injustice and feels strong, yet alone, without God or man. Eliezer runs to find his father when people start wishing each other a happy new year, but neither he nor his father say anything when they see each other. They both understand that the other is reluctant to observe the Jewish holiday. Eliezer and his father refuse to fast for Yom Kippur, and Eliezer feels a pleasant revolt against God. Nevertheless, he still feels a void in his soul.
Eliezer is transferred without his father to the building unit, where he has to drag blocks of stone around, and he learns that a selection (exam for assigning people to the crematory) is planned for that day. The head of Eliezer's block gives some helpful advice: run as fast as possible in front of the SS doctors, and don't be afraid. When Dr. Mengele appears, all the prisoners march in front of him as he writes down the numbers of those to be cremated. When Eliezer's turn comes, he runs as fast as he can, and his friends Yossi and Tibi tell him he was running too fast for Dr. Mengele to write his number down. Eliezer's father tells him that he also passed the selection. Afterwards, the head of the block tells them that nothing will happen to anybody and not to worry about the numbers Dr. Mengele wrote down. After a few days, the head of the block reads out a list of numbers of people who are to remain in the blocks instead of going to work, and everyone knows what is to happen to them. Eliezer's father runs up terrified, saying that his number has been called, and he gives Eliezer a knife and a spoon as parting gifts. Eliezer feels like he is is sleepwalking that entire day. After work, Eliezer finds out that his father had convinced the SS that he was still strong and luckily escaped the crematories. However, Akiba Drumer went to the crematories. Recently he had lost his faith and, simultaneously, all reason for living. He was not the only one who abandoned God during this time. Before his death he asked his fellow prisoners to say the Kaddish (the prayer for the dead) for him. Although they promised him they would, they forgot.
Winter arrives, and it is bitterly cold. Eliezer's foot begins to swell because of the cold, and he has to get an operation to prevent it from being amputated. The hospital is much more bearable since there is no work and better food. His bedside neighbor, a Hungarian Jew, warns him that all the invalids will be killed with the next selection and that he should try to leave the hospital right away. Eliezer does not know whether to believe him or to suspect that he just wants Eliezer's hospital bed. After he awakes from his operation, Eliezer worries that his leg has been amputated but is afraid to ask the doctor. The doctor tells him to trust him and that he will soon be walking in a fortnight. Two days after his operation, Eliezer hears that the front is advancing to Buna, and that very day the camp is ordered evacuated. Hospital occupants will not be evacuated, however, and Eliezer worries that all invalids will be exterminated. He runs to meet his father outside, and his right foot leaves bloody marks in the snow. After some deliberation, Eliezer and his father decide to leave the hospital and be evacuated with the rest of the prisoners. Later Eliezer learns that the hospital occupants were liberated by the Russians two days after the evacuation.
Eliezer returns to his barracks even though his wound is open and bleeding. The prisoners prepare for their journey with food and extra clothing. They go to sleep for their last night in Buna. The next morning Eliezer wraps his foot and tries to find more food. The head of the barracks orders the block thoroughly washed so that the liberating army will not think that animals had lived there. Finally, after night falls, they begin to march in blocks. It is snowing extremely hard.
In this section Eliezer revolts against God and refuses to celebrate the Jewish New Year. However, he does not entirely lose his faith in God. At no point does Eliezer deny God's existence. Instead, he questions God's sense of justice and blames him for allowing the concentration camps to exist: "Why, but why should I bless Him? In every fiber I rebelled. Because He had had thousands of children burned in His pits? Because He kept six crematories working night and day, on Sundays and feast days?" Eliezer refuses to prostrate himself before an unjust God, but he never despairs. Instead, as the above passage indicates, he remains full of anger at God, never apathy, and this emotion keeps him alive. As Moché tells him in the beginning of the book, "Man questions God and God answers. But we don't understand His answers. We can't understand them." In refusing to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Eliezer is questioning God, but he will not receive any answers that he can understand yet. Although Eliezer's lack of religious devotion seems far removed from his earlier days diligently studying the cabbala, his experience in the concentration camps and his anger at God proves to be simply a testing of his faith.
In the nightmare world of the concentration camps, the Nazis replace God. Eliezer describes the scene at the selection: "All the prisoners in the block stood naked between the beds. This must be how one stands at the last judgment." The reference to the last judgment is a religious allusion to the end of the world, when God will decide who will be saved into heaven. In the perverse world of the concentration camps, Dr. Mengele takes on the role of God, deciding who will live and who will die. He casually wields the power of life or death over the prisoners, writing down identification numbers at will. In this world there is no justice and no goodness: everyone is at the mercy of the Nazis and their minions. And even though the head of the block tells the prisoners that no one will die, no one believes him. When he eventually reads out the numbers of those destined for the crematories, the prisoners know that the perverse justice of the Nazis has finally caught up with them: "We had understood. These were numbers chosen at the selection. Dr. Mengele had not forgotten."
Men like Akiba Drumer lose their faith when they start to believe that the Nazi evil is greater than the power of God. When they start to believe that it is impossible to escape the evil of the concentration camp, they lose their faith and, simultaneously, their will to live. Wiesel describes Akiba Drumer: "It was impossible to raise his morale. He didn't listen to what we told him. He could only repeat that all was over for him, that he could no longer keep up the struggle, that he had no strength left, no faith." Men like Akiba Drumer lose their faith when they start believing that the perverse justice of the Nazis is the only standard there is to live by.
Eliezer's experience in the hospital underscores how difficult it is to trust a fellow human being in the concentration camp. When a neighbor advises him to escape the hospital before there is another selection, Eliezer suspects his motives and does not know what to believe. After his operation, he is visited by the doctor, and he panics that his leg may have been amputated without his prior knowledge. He is too afraid to ask if his leg is gone but finally summons up the courage: "'Shall I still be able to use my leg?' He was no longer smiling. I was very frightened. He said: Do you trust me, my boy?' I trust you absolutely, Doctor.'" Although this doctor seems honest and kind, the brief conversation emphasizes Eliezer's vulnerability and complete helplessness. He has no reason to trust the doctor, seeing as every other authority figure in the camp has proved untrustworthy or cruel. Eliezer is constantly at the mercy of people who don't care about him and possibly even hate him, and the fact that this doctor-patient interaction seems so normal to the reader only emphasizes how abnormal and cruel every other interaction in the book is.
It is a painful irony that Eliezer and his father decide to be evacuated from Buna with the rest of the prisoners. Wiesel's tone in describing this tactical mistake is understated and quietly ironic. After Eliezer suggests to his father that they leave with the other prisoners, his father replies, "Let's hope that we shan't regret it, Eliezer." The very next paragraph reads: "I learned after the war the fate of those who had stayed behind in the hospital. They were quite simply liberated by the Russians two days after the evacuation." This casual, almost off-handed paragraph clearly conveys the bitter regret that Wiesel feels for having made the wrong decision, and like the narrator, we are haunted by how things could have turned out differently had they decided to stay.