Study Guide

A Beggar in Jerusalem

by Elie Wiesel

A Beggar in Jerusalem Summary

Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

A Beggar in Jerusalem is told in the first person by David, heir to a bloody history of anti-Semitic persecutions. It is a novel in which Jewish survivors of destruction must confront their miraculous escape. In the process, although they suffer from guilt and anger, they ultimately forge an identity based on hope.

In June, 1967, the forty-year-old David goes to fight against the united Arab armies. He wishes to die in order to finally overcome the despair caused by God’s abandonment of the Jews during World War II and by his own pointless survival. At the front, he meets Katriel, and both soon agree that whoever comes back will tell the other’s story. Israel wins a resounding victory in what comes to be called the Six-Day War, and as the narrative opens, there are celebrations all over the land, especially in Jerusalem. Katriel, however, does not come back.

David not only tells his comrade’s story—much as King David told of Absalom—but also wonders whether he ought to live it as well. This he does, at the end, by marrying Katriel’s widow, not out of love, which would imply a total gift of self and of which he does not feel himself capable, but rather out of affection and sympathy, perhaps out of friendship. The hero has realized that, beyond suffering and bitterness, he can arrive at self-discovery.

Whereas Albert Camus favored revolt in the face of the absurd, Wiesel advocates laughter. By laughing one...

(The entire section is 432 words.)

A Beggar in Jerusalem Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The year is 1967. The Six-Day War has Israel under threat, but the Jews win. The ancient western temple wall in Jerusalem is recovered. As David, the novel’s narrator, tells the story of this struggle, the Jewish triumph reverberates with recollections and questions whose Holocaust-related themes shadow the victory.

A beggar has been in the struggle. He has seen Jerusalem secured by Israeli troops, but the result does not add up to satisfaction, for the beggar cannot forget the prices paid—particularly the loss of his friend, Katriel, and the repeated “destructions of Jerusalem elsewhere than in Jerusalem.” In joy and sadness, the beggar finds companionship with kindred spirits who gather at the Wall. They are waiting—some for understanding, some for lost friends, and all in their own ways for God. They also swap stories.

The beggar remembers, for example, Jews being marched into a forest. It is hot. Most of the men, women, and children are permitted to sit on the grass while a few dig pits. The job completed, an officer drives up and finds everything in order. He proposes that the action be carried out in family units and lets the people talk things over. Some of the young try to resist, but they are no match for their German guards. The killing is delayed only for a moment. It goes on for hours, interrupted twice. Tevye the Tailor has ten children. It takes time to line them up along the grave. There is also a young man who sings. Apparently the shooting cannot silence him, even though he has no wish to be a lone survivor, a madman whose tale neither can be fully told nor fully heard and believed.

Is this story literally...

(The entire section is 682 words.)

A Beggar in Jerusalem Summary (Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Shortly after the Six Day War in June, 1967, a group of Jews gathers near the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem as the sun sets. Each night they assemble to recount the stories of their lives and to boast of their roles in the recent spectacular victory. Dan, for example, tells of his kingdom beyond the mythical river Sambatyon, which throws up stones six days a week and rests only on the Sabbath. Moshe speaks of participating in a theological dispute with Christian priests sometime in the Middle Ages. Zalmen recalls a visit from his regimental commander just before the outbreak of hostilities; the commander is Judas Maccabaeus. Shlomo tells of meeting Jesus on the day He was crucified. Velvel boasts of securing the capture of Jerusalem by rejoicing: “Had I stopped, had I shed a single tear, we’d have lost the war....” His listeners dismiss this claim because each knows that he alone achieved the victory, Zadok by his prayers, Moshe by his singing.

David, who listens to all these stories, has two of his own to tell. One concerns his life, the other Katriel’s. David was born in Transylvania; when World War II breaks out, he becomes a refugee. After the war he returns to his native town, where once a large Jewish community flourished. Now only three Jews remain, and all are insane. Two imagine that they still see the old world; the third tells David that he knows he is possessed because he cannot see it: “Imagine my seeing this town without its Jews. It...

(The entire section is 509 words.)