Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1765
Elie Wiesel’s Dawn is a novel set in British controlled Palestine after the Second World War. Elisha is an eighteen-year-old survivor of Buchenwald. Since traveling to Palestine, Elisha has joined a terrorist group to rid Palestine of the English. Now, Elisha has been commanded to murder John Dawson, an Englishman, as retribution for the death of David ben Moshe, another member in the Movement. He has until dawn to carry out his orders.
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The novel begins on a hot autumn evening in Palestine, and Elisha dwells on his orders to kill a man that he has never seen. Elisha looks out the window at the growing darkness, listening as a child cries nearby. Gad encourages him to put his doubts out of mind, assuring him that it is war, but Elisha cannot do it. He instead recalls a beggar he met before the Holocaust—when his parents were still alive and when God was still in their town—that taught him to distinguish night from day. At the time, he had remembered that the prophet Elijah was said to sometimes dress as a beggar and so Elisha took the beggar from the synagogue to his home. Along the way, the beggar told him to look into a window. If he saw a face, he could be sure that night had come since night does have a face. Night comes suddenly, and Elisha looks into the window and sees his own face in the darkness.
It was Gad that brought Elisha’s orders from the Old Man just an hour before. Elisha recalls that a month ago, David ben Moshe was wounded during a terrorist action and subsequently captured. The Movement spread word through posters and underground radio broadcasts that David ben Moshe was not to be harmed. The Movement had lost enough members to the British, and so the Old Man had decided that they would match every murder of one of their own with the murder of a British soldier. The military tribunal nevertheless sentenced David ben Moshe to death, and so the Movement began to watch the English soldiers. When it became clear that John Dawson took solitary walks every evening, the Movement abducted him.
The High Commission of Palestine responded quickly. They proclaimed a forty-eight-hour curfew, they searched houses, and they declared that the population would be held responsible for Dawson’s death. However, Dawson remained hidden, while the people wondered if the British were capable of carrying out a pogrom. World opinion, they told each other, would surely not allow it; then again, world opinion did not stop Hitler. Still, Elisha knows that Zionist leaders contacted the Old Man, who explained that they could not give in to the English. Only violence would be understood. World opinion did put pressure on the English, but the Secretary of State for Colonial Affairs was confident that the Jews would not follow through on their threat. Besides, the Crown’s reputation was at stake: they could not allow a group of terrorists to order them about. So, the Old Man sent his orders to Elisha through Gad, who once again assures Elisha that it is war and that he should not torture himself with what he is about to do.
Elisha recalls when he met Gad. The French offered him asylum, and so he left Bechenwald for Paris. He did not want to return home, but he did want to study philosophy to answer the questions he had about what happened to him in the camps. At the time, Elisha had thought Gad a Meshulah, fate’s mysterious messenger. He asked for Elisha’s future and explained that he wanted to turn it into an outcry, into hope, and, finally, into triumph. He explained that they would create a free Israel in Palestine. Though Elisha had long cherished such an idea, his family had not been Zionists. Still, thinking of a country in which the Jews would not be persecuted, Elisha agreed to join the Movement in order to strike fear in the hearts of the English.
Elisha listens to the Voice of Freedom, a radio broadcast, with Gad. The speaker, a member of the Movement, discusses David ben Moshe's hanging. Only a few people know the identity of the woman, but Elisha is one of them. Her name is Ilana and she is in love with Gad. Ilana next begins to discuss John Dawson, who is to die in the morning. She explains, speaking as if to John Dawson’s mother, that the Movement is not responsible for her son’s death. Instead, she blames the English government, which has forced the Movement’s hand. Elisha puts his head in his hands as he listens to her.
Elisha tells himself that he has likely killed before in previous terrorist actions. He reflects on his training, which Gad ran. Gad would explain how to use a revolver or a hand grenade before explaining the Movement’s ideology. For centuries, the Jews had tried to be pure compared to others, but it only brought them the extermination camps. Now, they must become like other men so that they can be men again. With those thoughts in mind, Elisha had attacked a military convoy with his fellow terrorists. He recalls how he saw the English fleeing like rabbits and remembers what it was like when the Nazis targeted their prisoners with guns. Gad had been pleased when the action succeeded.
Ilana returns with two guards, Joab and Gideon. She explains that the Old Man wrote her speech, though he had been crying when he had given it to her. Gad worries about David ben Moshe, and Elisha recalls that they had been friends who joined the Movement together. Gad himself had been in command of the action when David was wounded and captured. Ilana comforts him, explaining that it is war.
The conversation turns to their encounters with death. Joab took refuge in an asylum when a pacifist informed on him to the English. However, the psychologist, a friend, had claimed that Joab imagined he was dead. The English believed the act and left Joab, but when Joab left the asylum, he found that his hair was white. Gideon the Saint was captured and tortured, but God gave him strength to be quiet. Ilana was caught once, but since the English only knew her voice and since she had had a head cold at the time, they let her go. Gad explains that he owes his life to three Englishmen. They had kidnapped three English sergeants and the Old Man had ordered Gad to murder one of them. Gad allowed them to draw lots. However, if they had not cooperated, he thinks he would have killed himself. He was, Gad admits, very young at the time. Elisha explains that he owes his life to a laugh. He had been in Buchenwald at the time, too weak to leave his bed. He was discovered by the cleaning staff, who took him before the assistant barracks leader. The man decided to choke the life out of Elisha, but seeing the child’s face swell like a balloon, he had laughed and so Elisha had lived.
It is midnight when Gideon decides to ask John Dawson if he would like a final meal. When Elisha bursts out that a dying man does not need a last meal, Ilana calls him "poor boy." Suddenly, Elisha sees Catherine, a woman he met in Paris in 1945. She had been attracted to boys thinking about death. She took Elisha out on walks and talked to him about love. Each night they would kiss until finally she announced that they would make love. However, when Elisha proclaimed his love for her, Catherine called him "poor boy." Elisha ran away, having realized that she loved him because she thought he had turned into a prayer and gone to heaven, returning after to the world.
The room is suddenly stuffy and Elisha has a vision of his parents, who were murdered in Auschwitz. They point out to him another boy amongst the other dead. Gideon returns to the room, announcing that John Dawson knows that he is going to die and is hungry. Ilana turns to make him a cheese sandwich and coffee for his last meal. When Elisha asks the boy whether the dead are hungry, the boy replies that the dead return to the synagogue at night to eat. Gad takes the food to the John Dawson. Ilana asks Elisha whether he is afraid, and he explains that he is afraid that John Dawson will make him laugh. Elisha turns to his father and tells him to blame God for what is about to happen. His mother calls him “poor boy.”
Gad returns and gives Elisha a revolver. Elisha asks whether John Dawson made him laugh, and Gad replies that he did not. Elisha turns to the ghosts and sees the beggar. He notes that it looks like him, but he knows that he is not kind. It is an hour before dawn. He goes down the stairs to John Dawson. He tells Dawson his name and explains that Elisha was a disciple of Elijah that restored life to a little boy by breathing into his mouth. He tells John Dawson to make him laugh, but the Englishman only pities him. John Dawson asks permission to write a note to his son. While he does, Elisha recalls a boy, Stefan, who was caught by the Gestapo. The Gestapo chief had had the hands of a surgeon and each day he had asked Stefan to inform on his friends. Each day, Stefan refused, and the Gestapo-surgeon had caught off another finger. When Elisha asks John Dawson if he was ever a surgeon or an artist, the latter replies that he was not. Elisha tells him to prepare for his death and promises to mail the letter that day. He wonders why he is killing John Dawson. It is not out of hate. He tries to think of David ben Moshe.
The ghosts of the dead enter the room. John Dawson smiles and offers to tell Elisha a funny story. Elisha instead pulls the trigger. Dawson dies and his ghost leaves the room with the other dead. Elisha’s mother cries “poor boy.” Elisha thinks that he has killed and that he has killed Elisha. He returns up the stairs where Gad lights a cigarette and Gideon prays. The sun is rising but in the last remnant of the night, Elisha sees his own face.