Chapter 8 "At the gate of the camp"
At the camp the prisoners are counted as usual and told to go to the showers. However, they are so weak that it is difficult for the guards to get them to move. Eliezer's father goes over to a pile of snow with his son and tells him that he can no longer go on. Eliezer is enraged that his father is ready to die after having survived for so long, and he argues with him for a long time not to stay in the snow. When the sirens go off, Eliezer is driven to the blocks, and everyone immediately falls asleep in the beds, without even paying attention to the cauldrons of soup.
In the morning Eliezer remembers that he has to look for his father. Part of him wants to forget about his weak, burdensome father, and he feels ashamed at these thoughts. Eliezer looks for his father for hours and finally finds him in the coffee line. His father is feverish and is unbelievably grateful when Eliezer brings him a cup of coffee. Later on, Eliezer's father tells him that the guards are refusing to feed the sick because they think they will die soon anyway. Eliezer unwillingly gives him the rest of his soup and realizes that he is no better than Rabbi Eliahou's son. On the third day of their arrival, everyone has to go to the showers. Eliezer sees his father in the distance, but when he goes to meet him, the man runs by him. The man was actually somebody else.
Eliezer's father has dysentery and is becoming increasingly weak in his bunk. In a delirious fever, he tells Eliezer where he buried the gold and money. Eliezer manages to bring his father to see a doctor, but the doctor refuses to look at him. Another doctor comes into the block, but Eliezer's father refuses to get up again. This doctor shouts at the sick, calling them lazy, and Eliezer feels like killing him but is too weak. When Eliezer returns from getting bread, his father tells him that his bunkmates have been hitting him. Eliezer promises them extra bread and soup, but they simply laugh at him and then angrily tell him that his father is upsetting them because he can no longer go outside to relieve himself. The next day his father tells Eliezer that his neighbors stole his bread and hit him again. He begs piteously for water, and even though Eliezer knows it is bad for him, he gives him some.
The head of the block gives Eliezer advice regarding his father. He tells him that in the concentration camps, it is every man for himself and that ties of family and friendship no longer count. He advises him not to give his food rations to his father and to instead his father's for himself. For a moment Eliezer agrees with him, but then immediately feels guilty.
Eliezer's father begs repeatedly for water. At night he calls out in the silence for water, and the SS guards shout at him to be quiet. When he keeps calling out to Eliezer, the guard hits him violently on the head with his truncheon. Eliezer is afraid to move from his bunk. His father once again says, "Eliezer," and is still breathing. After roll call, he gazes at his father's face for over an hour. When it is time to go to bed, his father is still alive. The next day, January 29, 1945, his father has been replaced by another invalid and taken to the crematory. Eliezer does not weep because he no longer has any more tears. And he admits that deep down inside himself, he feels freed by his father's death.
In this section the father-son role is reversed, and Eliezer is forced to take care of his father. Overcome with cold and fatigue, Eliezer's father simply wants to lie down and rest in the snow, even though to do so means an almost certain death. He no longer cares about living, and like a child, begs to simply be left alone to sleep: "'Don't shout, son.Take pity on your old father.Leave me to rest here.Just for a bit, I'm so tiredat the end of my strength' He had become like a child, weak, timid, vulnerable." Eliezer's father has given up and no longer wants the responsibility of trying to stay alive. As his son, Eliezer takes on this responsibility for him, but it is not one that he is sure he can handle.
In an earlier section, the reader hears about the behavior of Rabbi Eliahou's unfaithful son, and this episode foreshadows what happens in this section. Like Rabbi Eliahou's son, Eliezer cannot help but think of his dying father as a burden. Even though he hates himself for wanting to be rid of his father, he feels that the responsibility of looking after his father is lessening his own chances at survival. For example, when Eliezer goes to find his father, who he has left lying in a pile of snow, he thinks to himself, "Don't let me find him! If only I could get rid of this dead weight, so that I could use all my strength to struggle for my own survival, and only worry about myself." Similarly, after his father's death, he is ashamed that he feels relieved: "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 likefree at last!"
Compare Eliezer's feelings here to the feelings of Stein of Antwerp earlier in the book. For Stein, the idea that his wife and children are alive are enough to keep him alive for weeks. Similarly, early on in the book, Eliezer and his father persuade themselves that Tzipora and her mother are still surviving in order to keep their hopes up. In just a short time, however, a huge transformation has occurred in Eliezer and the other surviving prisoners. Family members no longer retain the same value as they did before, and in fact become almost irrelevant. Due to unbelievably harsh living conditions, Eliezer's world has narrowed to such an extent that only his own basic survival matters anymore. Anything that threatens that, including his father, proves to be a burden. Wiesel's point in describing this transformation is not to expose himself as a hideous scoundrel. Instead, he is revealing how effective Nazi brutality was in destroying men's souls and in making the prisoners devalue everything they had previously held so dear.
When Eliezer runs to meet someone who he has mistaken for his father, the image that the narrator conjures up is very mysterious and haunting:
"Seeing my father in the distance, I ran to meet him. He went by me like a ghost, passed me without stopping, without looking at me. I called to him. He did not come back. I ran after him: Father, where are you running to?' He looked at me for a moment, and his gaze was distant, visionary; it was the face of someone else. A moment only and on he ran again."
This passage has symbolic significance on several different levels. First, it is unusual that Eliezer completely misrecognizes his father, especially since the father is so weak that it would be nearly impossible for him to run. Eliezer continues to think that the man is his father even after he sees him up close and even after the man is obviously not paying much attention to him. Eliezer has been spending every day with his father and surely knows what he looks like. The incident cannot be just a simple mistake because then Wiesel would not have bothered to record the event in his memoirs. Instead, this moment of misrecognition emphasizes how interchangeable, anonymous, and faceless all the prisoners have become. Their personalities have been destroyed, and when Eliezer looks at this stranger, he may as well be seeing his father.
Second, Eliezer sees this ghostlike apparition just before his father dies. The whole scenario seems very surreal and mystical, and the passage can be read as the ghost of his father preparing to leave the horrors of the concentration camp. The man is running through the camp, with his eyes focused on the world of the afterlife. Eliezer mistakes the man for his father because this is God's way of letting him know that his father will be moving on to a better world.
Third, the passage can be interpreted as having religious significance, and in this case the running man represents God. In the first section of the book, Moché teaches Eliezer that he must learn to ask God the right questions, and this passage can be seen as Eliezer trying to understand the problem of why a just God would allow the concentration camps to exist. Throughout the book, Eliezer has been trying to work this question out in his head, and in this passage it is visually represented by of the unheeding man running and looking off into the distance. Eliezer receives no answer from the man, just as he will probably never understand the answer that God has to give.