Elie and his family are introduced. Elie, his three sisters, Mother, and Father all live in a small town of Sighet, Hungarian Transylvania. Early in his life, Elie becomes interested in Jewish mysticism. He learns that Moshe the Beadle is a master in these areas and is willing to teach him.
World War II has been going on for 3 years. The people of Sighet begin to wonder if the front is moving closer to them or if the war will end before it reaches Hungary. At this time, all foreign Jews are deported. This includes Moshe. However, Moshe is able to escape while the SS murder the other foreign Jews. He returns to Sighet to warn people, but they do not listen.
German soldiers enter Elie's town, and soon, ghettos are formed. There, they learn that they will be deported to a concentration camp. While making the three day journey, Elie and his father are put in the same car as Mrs. Schächter. She screams relentlessly about seeing fire.
The family arrives at Birkenau and the men are separated from the women. From there, they go to Auschwitz and eventually travel to Buna to work in an electrical factory. There, Elie recants the atrocities of death, despair, and the loss of hope he experienced under the Nazi occupation.
After months in the camp, Eliezer undergoes an operation on his foot. At this time, the camp is evacuated and the prisoners begin a death march: a fifty mile run to Gleiwitz. Many die, only twelve remain alive when the train reaches the concentration camp Buchenwald. Throughout the ordeal, Eliezer and his father help each other to survive.
In Buchenwald, Elie's father dies, leaving Eli feeling a guilty mixture of emotions: despair and relief. Elie survives the ordeal. However, he is left not knowing who he is: “From the depths of the mirror, a corpse gazed back at me. The look in his eyes, as they stared into mine, has never left me.” He was liberated on April 11, 1945.