A Beggar in Jerusalem Characters

Elie Wiesel

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

David ben Sarah

David ben Sarah, a wanderer and first-person narrator of the novel. A survivor of the Holocaust, the forty-year-old David is rebellious and skeptical of any value in a world that has lost its innocence. He is filled with memories of his childhood and spends much of his time exchanging tales and testimonies with a group of beggars in Jerusalem. At the outbreak of the Six-Day War, he joins a tank unit commanded by an old friend. Soon after meeting Katriel, another member of the unit, David makes a pact with him that if one of them should survive the war, he will bear witness for the other. David’s tale, then, is a process of bearing witness for Katriel, a man whom he envies for his compulsion to magnify humanity in an inhuman world.


Katriel, a teacher who goes back into the army to fight in the Six-Day War at the insistence of his father, a blind rabbi from Safed. Tall, slim, and quiet, Katriel knows how to tell tales and how to listen to them. He loves life and the mystery of life, despite the death of his child Sasha. He is distinguished by his power to affirm the dearness of life, and in this lies his importance to David. At the time of the war, he has been married for twenty years. the one thing that most disturbs him during the war is that he has had to kill others. When the war is over, he is missing in action, leaving David to tell his story.



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The Characters

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

To an extent, David represents the author. They have a common birthplace, and both experienced the horrors of the Holocaust. Both are refugees; both are storytellers. David also resembles Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ancient mariner, a man obliged to tell his harrowing tale to anyone passing by, a man transformed by his experiences into a kind of specter. “Do his eyes disturb you?” Elie Wiesel asks. “They are not his, and he doesn’t know it.” They are not his because they belong to everyone. David has seen the Crusades, the Cossacks. “He who says ‘I,’ has said everything,” David comments. “Just as every man contains all men, this word contains all words.”

Most of all, David is Katriel. When people ask, “Still no trace of Katriel?” he replies, “His trace? I am his trace.” Having agreed with Katriel to bear witness for him, to remember and record his experiences, he guarantees Katriel’s immortality by becoming Katriel as well as David. Although in one sense Katriel’s blind father in Safed could never have met David, certainly never fathered him, as Katriel speaks of his childhood David wonders whether they have met; he even considers that Katriel’s parents may be his also. Later, Malka recognizes her husband in David and would take him home as her spouse. Finally, David cannot distinguish between the other man and himself: “What if I am dead and he is the survivor?” he wonders.

Reflecting this concept of...

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(Great Characters in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Abrahamson, Irving, ed. Against Silence: The Voice and Vision of Elie Wiesel, 1985 (three volumes).

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.

Cargas, Harry James. Harry James Cargas in Conversation with Elie Wiesel, 1976.

Estess, Ted L. Elie Wiesel. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980.

Ezrahi, Sidra DeKoven. By Words Alone: The Holocaust in Literature, 1980.

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

Green, Mary Jean. “Witness to the Absurd: Elie Wiesel and the French Existentialists,” in Renascence. XXIX (1977), pp. 170-184.

Patterson, David. In Dialogue with Elie Wiesel. Wakefield, N.H.: Longwood Academic, 1991.

Rosenfeld, Alvin H., and Irving Greenberg, eds. Confronting the Holocaust: The Impact of Elie Wiesel, 1979.

Roth, John K. A Consuming Fire: Encounters with Elie Wiesel and the Holocaust, 1979.

Sibelman, Simon P. “The Mystical Union: A Re-Examination of Elie Wiesel’s Le Mendiant de Jérusalem.” Literature and Theology 7, no. 2 (June, 1993): 186-197.