The story begins with a description of Elie's normal life in Sighet, Transylvania with his parents and three sisters. Elie is a young boy who wants to learn the practice of mysticism known as Kabbalah, which his highly respected father does not want him to study. Moishe the Beadle offers to teach Elie one day, creating a strong mentor-student bond between the two. At this point, no one in Sighet was directly affected by the war and it felt far away from them.
Even after Moishe returns from being deported to share his gruesome story, the people of Sighet still do not believe the war will move closer. But, one day German soldiers move in and create two ghettos the Jews are forced to stay in, while also putting harsh restrictions on them. Elie and the other Jews adjust to life in the ghettos, even creating their own governmental apparatus, but they still wonder what will happen next.
Finally, Elie's father speaks with his friend in the Hungarian police and learns that all of the Jews will be deported to an unknown location. Moishe escapes and the Wiesel's maid begs them to leave, but Elie's family decides to stay together and be deported with the others. After waiting a few days in the ghetto and later in the synagogue, Elie and his family are loaded on to cattle cars. On the ride, the Mrs. Schacter screams about her visions of fire while everyone is becoming increasingly impatient on their long ride.
After Elie and his father are split from the rest of their family, they struggle through many concentration camp sites, growing increasingly weak and hopelessness every day. After an especially rough march and train ride from Buna to Buchenwald, Elie's father becomes very sick with dysentery and stays in the infirmary. No doctor is able to help Elie's father no matter how hard Elie tries, and eventually his father dies in his sleep.
After his father dies, Elie lives on in a haze, living in the children's block in Buchenwald, spending his days thinking about the precious commodity that was food. Finally, on April 11, 1945, American troops enter Buchenwald and free all of the prisoners. All any of the starved prisoners care about is getting the leftover provisions after being barely fed the past year or longer.
After being released, Elie comes down with an illness from some kind of poison. He was moved to a hospital where he struggled to survive for weeks. After a while, Elie is able to stand and see his reflection in the mirror, probably for the first time in the past horrific year. The person he sees in the reflection is almost unrecognizable to him. He describes himself as corpse from his poor physical condtion and health, but also the emptiness he felt inside.