Book Review: Dawn by Elie Wiesel

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

The most shocking thing I discovered upon reading “Dawn” is how little I know about the history of the creation of the state of Israel. In my mind the narrative went kind of as follows: The world, feeling absolutely horrible about the mass extermination of Jews and their complicity of silence in not doing anything about it decided to partition Palestine into two countries so the Jews would have their own homeland. It didn’t happen like that. Like at all. Boy did our world history classes suck back then. And now. But we’re Americans, we like our history sanitized.

“Dawn” is not autobiographical like “Night” was, but it is still a very obviously personal novel as Elie Wiesel tries to put to paper his struggles both with his post-Buchenwald life and all the psychological horrors that go with it and with what the Jewish people had to become in order to make their state of Israel a reality. It follows a boy named Elisha whose background is much like Wiesel’s. Elisha is lost both physically and spiritually in Paris after being freed from the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. While in this lost state, he is visited by a man named Gad who works for what can only be described as a terrorist movement in Palestine that is trying to wrest the land away from British control and establish a Jewish state. Gad manipulates Elisha’s religiosity by behaving like the rabbinical messenger of fate, Meshulah. Elisha accepts and joins the Movement. I am not sure if Wiesel meant Elisha’s acceptance to be one of manipulation, but that is how I took it. Elisha is eventually tasked with the murder of a British officer named John Dawson whom they have captured in retaliation for the British capture of a fellow Movement member named David B Moshe. Moshe is scheduled to be hanged at dawn for his crimes. If the hanging goes on, John Dawson’s death will soon follow at the hands of Elisha. The book explores Elisha’s coming to terms with this very personal killing.

This is another very powerful novel by Wiesel. His use of the dead coming to visit Elisha is very effective, especially Elisha’s childhood self who “died” prior to being sent to the concentration camps. His dead mother’s (as well as other’s) use of the phrase “Poor boy!” to describe Elisha and the predicament he finds himself is haunting. “This is war”, is the refrain of his compatriots who do not envy Elisha’s task. Yes, it is war. But does it have to be? Is there another way? The novel asks those questions, but has no answers for us. How could it? Jews had a different answer for a very long time and look where it got them. It’s time to try something different. But at what cost? This fight for independence was the beginning of something or possibly the end of something. But what? I’m not sure Wiesel knows the answer, but he is very effective in asking the question.

I would not say that “Dawn” is quite as effective of a story as “Night” is, which again should be read by everyone, but it is a wonderful “coming to grasps with horror” novel. If such could ever be described as wonderful. It is certainly a novel that makes you think. About war. About life. About death.  And novels like that don’t come around very often.

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