A Beggar in Jerusalem

by Elie Wiesel
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Themes

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 378

The themes of Elie Wiesel's novel, A Beggar in Jerusalem, are bound up in a story of survival. The book is a retelling of the Six Day War from the points of view of two soldiers, David and his compatriot. It's also a retelling of Jewish history, which is nothing if not a story of survival. The novel is excellent, and you should read it. You should also check out the study guide available on this website. I highly recommend both.

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The mendicants and madmen of the story are emblematic of the themes, and of the purpose, of the novel. They're not only truth-tellers but also survivors. They're Israel's outcasts, people ignored or marginalized, sometimes violently so, who have made it far enough through their personal troubles to pitch up at the Western Wall of the Second Temple, the holiest piece of ground in Judaism. Do you see the parallels to Jewish history itself? The fact that they're present in the story for the purpose of truth-telling, and that they're present at the site of the ruined Temple, where every pious Jew wishes to be "next year," is Wiesel's way of making his meditation on love and loss and deliverance real. The story of the Israelites is a story of devotion to God and of the tribulations of that relationship. Loss is a central theme of that story, as is the hope of reclaiming their promised land.

Smaller themes support this grand narrative, lifted out of the story and reinterpreted for the present like Midrashim. Where is home? What good is time without a place in which to spend it? Can a people who don't know themselves ever be settled? These questions don't appear in the text, but readers will ask them of themselves.

In general, the themes of Wiesel's novel point to victory for the Jews. The Israelites were victorious, in the sense that they achieved statehood, which fulfilled their Covenant with God. Israel was victorious in the Six Day War, in the sense that they achieved deliverance from their enemies. David was victorious, in the sense that he survived the Holocaust and arrived at the Western Wall to hear the truth about himself and his people, and to retell it to us through Elie Wiesel's novel.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 430

Wiesel has written many novels, many stories, but they all concern one story, the dominant story of the twentieth century: the Holocaust. A survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, Wiesel has dedicated himself to being a witness, saying, “I knew that anyone who remained alive had to become a storyteller, a messenger, had to speak up.” Some of the most powerful scenes in the book deal directly with the Nazis’ extermination of the Jews of Europe: the machine-gunning of a small Jewish community; David’s narrow escape from a French mob that then turns its fury on the gentile woman who has saved his life.

Even the saga of David and Katriel, set in 1967, is in fact about the Holocaust. The pact that David and Katriel make is the same Wiesel made with his mother and sister, who were gassed at Auschwitz, with his father, whom he watched die at Buchenwald, and with six million of his coreligionists who perished. It is the promise to remember and remind the world of the existence of those who no longer can speak for themselves. “The way to fight death is to create life,” Katriel’s father says. One does so by overcoming silence, by speaking out. If Katriel were dead, David believes that he could revive him by telling his story.

Just before he disappears, Katriel stands with David in front of the Wailing Wall on the Temple Mount. Katriel tells David to follow the ancient custom of writing a wish on a piece of paper and then inserting it among the stones. In this way the writer actually becomes a partner in the construction and reconstruction of the Temple, a builder of the Jewish dream.

All the beggars are ancient mariners, telling their stories so that they, their ancestors, and their descendants can live. The madman in David’s hometown is right when he says that he knows that the Jewish community destroyed by the Nazis still exists. Though no longer physically present, it endures in the minds and stories of people such as David.

David’s teacher had told him that “the Romans and the enemies of the Romans, the Christians and the enemies of the Christians, the Moslems and the mortal enemies of Islam” shared the desire to silence the Jew because “the Jews are God’s memory and the heart of mankind.” Those who persecute the Jew would erase that memory and impose silence and sterility. To oppose them, David and the other beggars rely on the all-creating word that made the world and which alone guarantees its survival.

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