Night begins in 1941, when, the narrator of the story, Elie, is twelve years old. Having grown up in a little town called Sighet in Transylvania, Elie is a studious, deeply religious boy with a loving family consisting of his parents and three sisters. One day, Moshe the Beadle, a Jew from Sighet, deported in 1942, with whom Elie had once studied the cabbala, comes back and warns the town of the impending dangers of the German army. No one listens and years pass by. But by 1944, Germans are already in the town of Sighet and they set up ghettos for the Jews. After a while, the Germans begin the deportation of the Jews to the concentration camp in Auschwitz.
The Jews of Sighet are forced into crowded cattle wagons, each car consisting of eighty people. The conditions of the train ride are horrific; they are treated no better than animals. A woman named Madame Schachter starts to go mad. She yells, "Fire! I can see a fire!" (Chapter 2, pg. 22) Periodically, throughout the train ride, she yells about fire, flames, and the furnace. At first, the others try to quiet her.
When that does not work, they merely ignore her. When the train arrives at its destination, they are at Birkenau, the reception center for Auschwitz. The air smells of burning flesh. At Birkenau, Elie is separated from his mother and sisters.
Realizing the importance of being together, Elie and his father lie about their age. As they prepare to enter the camp, they see a ditch where babies are thrown into a burning flame. Elie cannot imagine that this is actually happening. It feels like a nightmare that he can never forget. The male Jews are shaved, showered, and given work clothes. After a long march, they enter Auschwitz, where Elie becomes number A-7713.
After a brief stay at Auschwitz, they are moved to a new camp, Buna. At Buna, Elie goes through the dehumanizing process of the concentration camps. Both he and his father experience severe beatings at the hand of the kapos (overseers). In one instance, Elie receives twenty-five strokes of the whip from Idek the Kapo for walking in on him while he is with a girl. All the prisoners are overworked and undernourished.
Many lose faith in God, including Elie. He witnesses several hangings, one of a boy with an angelic face, and sees him struggle for over thirty minutes fighting.