Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)


Azriel (AZH-reel), the only survivor of the Kolvillàg pogrom. Bound by an oath not to reveal how he survived or how the rest of his village was massacred in the pogrom, he wanders from city to city in central Europe as a Jewish Na-venadvik. Others see him as a saint or a madman, a bringer of deep understanding and insight to people of whatever class or age he encounters. Even as he sees all in the lives of others, no one knows the despair of the secret he bears until he counters that hopelessness by telling his story to a suicidal young man. By transmitting his community’s history to another person, he saves the young man to live as a messenger of truth and frees himself to return to Kolvillàg and die.


Moshe (moh-ZHAY), a brilliant mystic and mentor to Azriel. Considered a madman by his Jewish community, he wears rags and lives a solitary existence in the woods until he is persuaded to marry the homely Leah out of pity. His entrancing eyes and ability to see into the thoughts and dreams of people frighten them away from him, and Azriel becomes his only student and disciple. As the tension leading to the pogrom builds, he offers himself as a martyr to save the Jewish community and is imprisoned for the murder of the gentile Yancsi. In an address in the synagogue, he binds the Jews of Kolvillàg to a vow of silence over the atrocities of the coming pogrom in the belief that by refusing to preserve the history of suffering, the suffering itself might be halted.


Shmuel (ZHMEW-ehl), the father of Azriel and chronicler of Kolvillàg’s history in the Pinkas. A strong believer in...

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The Oath The Characters

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Azriel’s motivations are complex. By giving him the Pinkas, Shmuel hands his son the values of memory, tradition, language, and community. Azriel increasingly respects these values as he grows older, but he is burdened by his duty to Kolvillag, saying that the oath “ties me to a destiny that is not mine.” He has become more a symbol than a human being: “My life does not belong to me.... All I can call my own is a forbidden city I must rebuild each day, only to watch it end in horror each night.”

Moshe chooses silence and death, and, in abiding by Moshe’s oath, Azriel is living a form of death even as Kolvillag lives in him. In deciding to break the oath, he gives life to the suicidal young man and preserves the memory of his village. Azriel says that he is afraid only of indifference, and his story releases the young man from indifference to life: “Azriel knocked down the walls I had erected around myself.... By allowing me to enter his life, he gave meaning to mine.”

Azriel may be the protagonist of The Oath, but the story is dominated by the mysterious and unpredictable Moshe, who responds to the indifference of man and God with silence and to sympathy with laughter. According to Moshe, God understands silence; man does not. Silence bypasses man for a direct relationship with God. For the Jews of Kolvillag, Moshe personifies “the combined virtues of the sage, the prince and the visionary.”

Moshe is the opposite of his friend Shmuel, because he is concerned with eternity rather than history. He longs to transcend the world rather than transform it (as Azriel wants to do during a brief period as a revolutionary). Moshe is most significant for his effect on others, especially Azriel: “Thanks to him, like him, I fell under the spell of the inaccessible.... I aspired to trace new paths. I hoped to influence destiny.” Through the oath, Moshe creates Azriel’s destiny.

The Oath Bibliography

(Great Characters in Literature)

Berenbaum, Michael. The Vision of the Void: Theological Reflections on the Works of Elie Wiesel, 1979.

Brown, Robert McAfee. Elie Wiesel: Messenger to All Humanity, 1983.

Estess, Ted L. Elie Wiesel, 1980.

Fine, Ellen S. Legacy of Night: The Literary Universe of Elie Wiesel, 1982.