In The Oath, Azriel’s home has been destroyed in a pre-Holocaust pogrom produced by an anti-Semitic rumor: It claims that the Jews of Kolvillàg have killed a Christian boy in an act of ritual murder. Moshe, eccentric saint of the Jewish community, offers himself as guilty of the nonexistent crime. However, hate will not be satisfied so easily, and the Jews prepare. Abandoned by their Gentile friends, a few arm themselves. Some celebrate life in the darkness. Most follow age-old wisdom: They rally strength quietly to wait and endure.
The captive Moshe is allowed to speak to his people. By neither word nor deed has Jewish example through the centuries been sufficient to alter inhumanity, nor to persuade God to intervene against senseless killing. So Moshe persuades his people to try a different strategy, to accept an oath of silence. No survivor will reveal anything of what is about to befall Kolvillàg. Only the young Azriel survives. He becomes a wanderer, torn between speech and silence, true to his promise.
Years later, Azriel meets a young man who wishes he were dead. This young person is driven to despair because he is the child of Holocaust survivors. He has no past to match that of his parents, and that of his parents is beyond him. They cannot see him for what he is because they see others—now lost—in him. He cannot locate himself within his family or within the tradition of his people. Azriel decides to intervene, but how to make the young man choose life is the question. Azriel answers by breaking his oath. He tells his tale-that-cannot-be-told, hoping to instill rebellion, responsibility in the place of emptiness, life to counter death.
“Could I have been spared in Kolvillàg so I could help a stranger?” Azriel’s question remains without closure, at least without closure that is simply satisfying. The answer of friendship remains as well: “By allowing me to enter his life,” the young man says of Azriel, “he gave meaning to mine.” Again and again in Wiesel’s writings, the importance of friendship shines through. It does not put Azriel’s questions to rest entirely, but friendship, as The Oath testifies, may make life very much worth living.