Elie Wiesel was born on 30 September 1928 in Sighet, a town in the Carpathian mountains of northern Transylvania, to Chlomo Wiesel, a shopkeeper, and his wife, Sarah, née Feig. The family lived in a community of 10,000–20,000 mostly Orthodox Jews. Northern Transylvania had been annexed by Hungary in 1940, and restrictions on Jews were already in place, but the period Wiesel discusses at the beginning of the book, 1941–1943, was a relatively calm one for the Jewish population.
That changed at midnight on Sunday, 18 March 1944, with the invasion of Hungary by Nazi Germany, and the arrival in Budapest of SS-Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann to oversee the deportation of the country's Jews. From 5 April Jews over the age of six had to wear a 3.8 x 3.8 inch (10 x 10 cm) yellow badge on the upper left side of their coats or jackets. Jews had to declare the value of their property, and were forbidden from moving home, travelling, owning cars or radios, listening to foreign radio stations, or using the telephone. Jewish authors could no longer be published, their books were removed from libraries, and Jewish civil servants, journalists and lawyers were sacked.
As the Allies prepared for the liberation of Europe, the mass deportations began at a rate of four trains a day from Hungary to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, each train carrying around 3,000 people. Between 15 May and 8 July 1944, 437,402 Hungarian Jews are recorded as having been sent there on 147 trains, most gassed on arrival. The transports comprised most of the Jewish population outside Budapest, the Hungarian capital.
Between 16 May and 27 June, 131,641 Jews were deported from northern Transylvania. Wiesel, his parents and sisters – older sisters Hilda and Beatrice and seven-year-old Tzipora – were among them. On arrival Jews were "selected" for the gas chamber or forced labour; to be sent to the left meant work, to the right, the gas chamber. Sarah and Tzipora were sent to the gas chamber. Hilda and Beatrice survived, separated from the rest of the family. Wiesel and Chlomo managed to stay together, surviving forced labour and a death march to another concentration camp, Buchenwald, near Weimar in Germany. Chlomo died there in January 1945, three months before the 6th Armored Division of the United States Army arrived to liberate the camp.