Wiesel was a Jewish teenager in Hungary when World War II began: he describes the town of Sighet, where he grew up, as well as the figure of Moche the Beadle, a non-Hungarian who works in the Hasidic temple. Elie studies the kabbalah with Moche.
Before Germany's invasion of Hungary, non-Hungarians were deported from Sighet to a German concentration camp. Moche returns to the town, having escaped, and tries unsuccessfully to convince the local Jews that they are in grave danger. After Germany invades, the Jews are first placed in ghettoes, and then deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Wiesel describes arriving at Birkenau, being inspected by Joseph Mengele, and ultimately being beaten and placed in the camp at Auschwitz. Wiesel describes in detail the horrors of the camp, and the many deaths he saw, first-hand. Wiesel is open about his refusal to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur while in Auschwitz, explaining that he still believed in God at the time, but was angry with him for allowing the Jews to be imprisoned and killed.
Finally, Wiesel and his father are evacuated from Auschwitz just ahead of the Russian army, and taken with many others on a long, death-filled journey to Buchenwald. His father survives the trip, but dies in early 1945 at Buchenwald. The story ends shortly thereafter, with Wiesel freed from the camp in April, 1945.