Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1711
Beginning with spring and ending with winter, The Gates of the Forest is divided into four parts, each standing for a season in its natural order. The first and last parts concentrate on the inner self and the middle two on action. The novel first introduces Gregor, a Hungarian Jew in his late teens who, without his family, has escaped the Holocaust. While Gregor hides from the Nazis in a village forest, another Jew, a mysterious man of about thirty, happens onto his hiding place. As this stranger has no name, Gregor gives him his own name, Gavriel, which Gregor had abandoned because it was too conspicuously Jewish. The two Jews hide in a cave whose entrance is concealed by a large boulder. There, they pass many days together, sharing their beliefs and stories with each other. From Gavriel, Gregor learns of the hideous facts of the war, especially information about the cruelties of the Nazis against the Jews. Gavriel comes to be seen as a lunatic philosopher-saint who sometimes reacts to the Holocaust with insane laughter.
The search by the Nazis intensifies outside the hideout; getting away from them seems impossible to the two men. Just as the Nazis are upon the site, Gavriel gives himself up. The Nazis have no reason to believe that there is more than one Jew in the forest area, and so they are satisfied. The sacrifice of Gavriel leaves Gregor with a moral obligation to which he totally commits himself.
In a nearby village, he finds refuge in the home of Maria, a Christian and an old servant of his family. She has him pretend to be a deaf-mute and the son of her sister Ileana, who has departed the village, leaving behind a reputation for looseness. Unaware of Gregor’s pretense, the village folk take him into their confidences, many of the men confessing to illicit relations with Ileana. The parish priest, “against sin, but not against crime,” confesses to having betrayed a Jew because the Jew refused to accept Christianity as a condition of refuge. What is for Elie Wiesel a thematic analogy between the Crucifixion of Jesus and the annihilation of the Jews is brought out dramatically. Against Maria’s protests, Gregor is cast as Judas in a school play about the Passion of Christ. Becoming caught up in the drama as it is performed, members of the cast and the audience, also, verbally and then physically attack Gregor. He stuns them to temporary inaction by declaring, first, that he is not Judas and second, that he is not the son of Ileana. When at last he tells them that he is not Gregor, that he is a Jew whose name is Gavriel, the villagers are prepared to cut out his tongue. They despise him because he is a Jew and fear him because he knows their secrets. The mayor of the town, Petruskanu, who suspects that he may have fathered Gregor, rescues him and helps him make contact with Jewish partisans in the forest.
As Gavriel had informed Gregor about the concentration camps and the crematoria, Gregor now tells the partisans. They are led by Leib the Lion, who was a boyhood friend of Gregor; at ten years of age, the two stood up against Christian bullies. Hearing from Gregor of Gavriel’s imprisonment, Leib says that the prisoner must be set free in order for him to communicate what he has seen as a victim of the Holocaust. The plan to get Gavriel out of prison backfires, however, and Leib is captured by the Nazis. Once more, Gregor, who was the central figure in the escape plan, believes that he has betrayed another. The partisans, suspicious of him, put him through an intense grilling that ends only when Clara, Leib’s lover, intervenes.
Yehuda, a young partisan, now befriends Gregor. Putting aside his feeling that his own death is imminent, Yehuda tells Gregor that he should make known to Clara the obvious truth that he loves her. In an inhumane world, Yehuda declares, love is a protection against solitude. It is the great reward, the greatest victory. Gregor admits to Yehuda that indeed he does love Clara. A few days later, Yehuda is stabbed to death, the partisans shoot his killer, and Gregor tells Clara that he loves her.
After a chance meeting in Paris following the war, Gregor and Clara are married. The marriage is a failure, however, because Clara, haunted by a past of death and destruction, acts as if Gregor is Leib, her dead lover. Just when Gregor is about to give up on his marriage and leave Clara, he is drawn into a relationship with a rebbe who helps him rediscover his Jewish past. A man who may or may not be Gavriel appears at the rebbe’s synagogue. After a long conversation with this mysterious man, Gregor comes to realize that he cannot, after all, leave Clara. To do so would be to return to solitude and thus betray her as he has, at least by omission, betrayed others. Once more, Gregor assumes the name of Gavriel. Asked by a young boy to serve as the tenth man necessary to say morning prayers, Gregor consents. While reciting the prayer for the dead, he turns the moment into an occasion to pray for the soul of Leib and to ask God to arrange an end to the suffering of those who loved, and still love, the dead hero.
The central character, Gavriel, changes his name to Gregor and then, at the end of the novel, back to Gavriel. Furthermore, he uses the name Judas temporarily, if only for the purpose of a play. For Wiesel, the name choices and name exchanges in his novel clearly serve as devices that underscore the themes of sacrifice and suffering. An angel, Gabriel, comes to earth in the person of the mysterious Gavriel, who risks his life for Gregor. Gregor, in turn, takes on the suffering of all the Jews of history by becoming Judas. Other biblical names—notably, Maria and Petruskanu (Peter)—are given to characters who, although Christian, take great risks for the Jews.
Elie Wiesel himself is very much a part of his story. Like his protagonist, he lost his family in the Holocaust, and, like Gregor, he survived it and experienced the suffering and guilt that many Holocaust survivors have felt. Wiesel’s story allows him, a witness to Nazi crimes, to be a messenger to the world; The Gates of the Forest thus seems more than a mere work of fiction, and its characters seem more than figures from the author’s imagination.
The Gates of the Forest begins with a Jewish tale, essentially an epigraph, illustrating the vitality of storytelling. The facts of the Holocaust, all the horrors, must be told as many times and in as many ways as are necessary to make the story known; Wiesel’s novel is another attempt to convey that story so that readers will be as haunted by it, as unable to forget it as he himself has been. Leib the Lion, as the last line of the novel indicates, is a messenger to heaven just as, in Wiesel’s Le Jour (1961; The Accident, 1962), Eliezer is a living messenger from the dead. A central theme of The Gates of the Forest is that the Jews, although deserted by God during the Holocaust, have no alternative but to tell their tragic story and to recover their faith. “After what has happened, how believe in God?” is answered by “After what has happened, how not believe in God?”
Along with the theme of faith is that of friendship, oneness, and community. If the Messiah has not come to the Jews, the novel says, then let every Jew, every individual, be the Messiah to everyone else. Christians must do their part to bring humanity together; one way is to end their persecution of Jews as descendants of Judas, to cease making Jews take the place of Christ on the Cross.
Like Eliezer in The Accident, Clara in The Gates of the Forest is immobilized by the dead, by the past. She gives her love to Gregor only when she pretends that he is Leib the Lion, the lover she has lost to the Holocaust. Symbolically, Leib not only defends Gregor but also sacrifices himself for him, as Gavriel does at the beginning of the novel. Sacrifice, or courageous and unselfish risk taking such as that of Maria or Petruskanu, is a recurring theme of great substance in this novel. Guilt—both in the survivor and in the recipient of another’s sacrifice—is still another controlling and pervasive theme. Instead of living with guilt, Gregor learns to love, to affirm the present and put the past behind. He even learns to change places with another, which is something like returning one’s life to both the giver and the receiver. To love the living is not to forget the dead; to pay homage to the dead is not to lay aside an obligation to the living.
The Gates of the Forest, Wiesel’s fourth novel, should be read after his L’Aube (1960; Dawn, 1961), The Accident, and La Ville de la chance (1962; The Town Beyond the Wall, 1964) and before Le Mendiant de Jerusalem (1968; A Beggar in Jerusalem, 1970). This order is important because of the thematic development in Wiesel’s first five novels—from annihilation to affirmation, from solitude to community. Having lost his entire family and many other loved ones in the monstrous Holocaust, Wiesel came to know that there are countless ways to record or interpret such an event. Each of Wiesel’s novels may be seen, then, as a circle that shares a center with the other novels; that center is the Holocaust. Along with other writers—notably, Primo Levi, Nelly Sachs, Robert Donat, Paul Celan, Ernst Weichert, Vladka Meed, Pierre Gascar, André Schwarz-Bart, and Tadeusz Borowski—Wiesel is a sensitive and bold interpreter of the Jewish experience. With his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, Wiesel enhanced an already considerable reputation worldwide. He has given his life to creating a literature assuring his readers that victims of inhumanity, both living and dead, will never be forgotten.
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