Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
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.
Summary (Masterplots II: World Fiction Series)
In “The Old Man and the Child,” the first of the three parts of The Oath, Azriel begins telling a young man a little about Kolvillag, his native village, somewhere in central Europe between the Dniepr River and the Carpathian Mountains. Kolvillag had been ruled by several nations but no longer exists. “I am Kolvillag,” says Azriel, “and I am going mad.” His madness results from an oath not to tell the secret of his village.
The young man learns that Azriel is highly regarded for his extensive learning by a wide variety of people: “He made them understand what was happening to them; it was always more serious or simpler than they had imagined.” Because Azriel cannot tell his friend more about Kolvillag, he talks instead about his life after leaving there, about wandering through Europe during the years between the two world wars, and about Rachel, the only woman who has ever mattered to him.
The young man is tormented by memories of his mother, a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps who lost her first husband and son in the Holocaust. Because the young man has been contemplating suicide, Azriel decides to break his oath of fifty years: “I’ll transmit my experience to him and he, in turn, will be compelled to do the same.... He must stay alive until he has transmitted his message.” This message is contained in the Pinkas, the history of Kolvillag kept over many generations, the last chronicler being Shmuel, Azriel’s...
(The entire section is 607 words.)