When the Six-Day War began, Elie Wiesel rushed to Israel. "I went to Jerusalem because I had to go somewhere, I had to leave the present and bring it back to the past. You see, the man who came to Jerusalem then came as a beggar, a madman, not believing his eyes and ears, and above all, his memory."
This haunting novel takes place in the days following the Six-Day War. A Holocaust survivor visits the newly reunited city of Jerusalem. At the Western Wall he encounters the beggars and madmen who congregate there every evening, and who force him to confront the ghosts of his past and his ties to the present. Weaving together myth and mystery, parable and paradox, Wiesel bids the reader to join him on a spiritual journey back and forth in time, always returning to Jerusalem.
About the Author
ELIE WIESEL was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. The author of more than fifty internationally acclaimed works of fiction and nonfiction, he was Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities and University Professor at Boston University for forty years. Wiesel died in 2016.
Hometown:New York, New York
Date of Birth:September 30, 1928
Place of Birth:Sighet, Romania
Read an Excerpt
The tale the beggar tells must be told from the beginning. But the beginning has its own tale, its own secret. That’s how it is, and that’s how it has always been. There is nothing man can do about it. Death itself has no power over the beginning. The beggar who tells you this knows what he is talking about.
Do you see him? There. Sitting on a tree stump, huddled in the shadows, as though in wait for someone, he scrutinized those who come his way, intending perhaps to provoke them or unmask them. Don’t ask him, he won’t answer: he hates answers.
Yet who is it he is looking for in the crowd? A hunted accomplice, an adversary long forgotten? Does he himself know? Could it be Katriel, after all? Katriel: a wound more recent, a ghost more persistent than the others. Oh no, the beggar is not through with Katriel! Not yet! His denials are worthless, he is the first to say so. But he cannot be pushed. Not now, not ever. You must be patient. Everything in its own time. Dead or alive, Katriel will claim his place in this tale. After the last intruder has left the last of his victims. You’ll see.
Meanwhile don’t be afraid to come closer. The beggar will do you no harm, he will cast no spell over you. Do come nearer.
Do his eyes disturb you? They are not his, and he doesn’t know it. His lips? They move—yes—as though repeating tales heard or lived a day before, a century before: he no longer remembers. For him, you see, time has no meaning.
Perhaps then this is the moment to warn you: if he seems strange, it is because he is possessed by a strange memory, which holds pictures and words, all kinds of pictures, all kinds of words, even those belonging to others. He remembers events but not when they happened, nor to whom. He thinks he was there when and where they occurred: he thinks all tales began with him. As for the war, he knows it’s all over, but he doesn’t know which war. This pains him, and he feels ashamed; now he needs help.
He is beckoning. Do you see him now? It is he.
It is I.
My name is David. Like my grandfather. Except that his pictures show him with a trim white beard, while mine is black and bushy. But was he my grandfather? Is my name David?
David: like the king remembered for his conquests. Except that he loved fighting and singing; dreaming is all I know. But like him I love the clouds, the mountains aflame at twilight or at dawn, when seized with restlessness man attempts to escape both darkness and light before becoming himself again. Dawn or dusk: the hour is the same, the call is the same; it is only man who changes. That is why man is afraid. The stranger frightens him. Not me. I am beyond his reach. Perhaps because I am his toy not his prey. You want proof? Ask Katriel. Later. Katriel is gone. That’s sufficient proof. You don’t understand? Wait. You will, I promise.
First tell me: Do I look younger or older than my age? Younger or older than Katriel? No, don’t tell me. Don’t trust appearances. I never do, though I feed on them. Look: I am watching you, I am speaking to you, yet I am sure of nothing. Not even of the moment which unites us, you and me. I cling to you to become one with you, only to rise to the surface again, alone, expelled from time, not from the take. Thrust into the future, I feel myself overcome with pity: despite what you may think, the end is not a new beginning. As for the present, I prefer to avoid it just as it avoids me.
Here, look. A picture: a thousand shrieking horsemen, their swords drawn, unleash their hatred against me and thirst for vengeance; don’t ask me why. To escape them, I feign death. Who are they? Crusaders of what faith? Cossacks in whose service? Frenzied peasants seeking what adventure, covered with whose blood? Alive I am their enemy; dead they proclaim me god. So, it is for my soul’s sake; for my everlasting glory, that they repeatedly wish to destroy me and destroy my memory. But they don’t succeed. My memory is stronger than they are, they should know that by now. Kill a Jew and you make him immortal; his memory, independently, survives him. And his enemies as well. The harder they strike, the more stubborn the Jewish resistance. So, naturally, they are troubled. Puzzled by its convulsions, awed by its fits of delirious fire. Poor men. They are the players, but my memory governs the rules of their game. The regard themselves as hunters, and so they are; but they are quarry as well—and that they can never comprehend. Well, that is their problem. Not mine.
Anyway, do come closer. The beggar insists. Please. Don’t worry, he will take only what belongs to him. Besides, he is not really a beggar. He neither begs nor asks for anything, either from man or from God. What is given to him he gives in turn. How then does he manage to live and survive? An odd question. At night I dwell among madmen, visionaries, vagabonds of all types. My friends, my companions. I’ll tell you about them. During the day they are hardly to be seen. Too busy, too shy as well. People enjoy ridiculing or pitying them. They accept it with grace. It is their way of helping others just as they help themselves. Members of a secret brotherhood, bound by strict codes of loyalty and contained pride, they make common cause. Don’t try cheating them; they will outsmart you. And you won’t even know it. Only the initiated can decipher the code they use to transmit information: stay away from so-or-so, he is in a bad mood this morning; get at such-and-such, he had just come into a fortune. Their occult knowledge comes from reliable sources. Their eyes and ears are everywhere, nothing escapes them. They have access to society’s most obscure enclaves. But don’t worry: their intelligence network is not put to ill use. Blackmail or stock market? Not interested. Glory and power? Too easily acquired. To receive is a greater challenge. Hence the poor of Jerusalem shall stay poor forever.
You’ll meet them soon. Right now? It is still too early. Nightfall will bring them. Then you will find them crouching in a semicircle, on the bare ground, not far from the Wall whose shadow is the shadow of men seeking refuge in its night. With their masks on, they will reminisce about the hostilities just ended. As usual, if they are to be believed, the entire victory was their doing.
You will listen and decide for yourself. But you will not hear Katriel. You will not see him. Sorry. I shall tell you about him, but you will not meet him in person. He disappeared in battle, Katriel. The war swept him away: one wave among many. For weeks they looked for him in field hospitals and among the fallen. In vain. He was not taken prisoner, nor was he wandering around in towns deserted by man. Finally the search was abandoned, it had to be. Some day his case will be reopened. People will ask in astonishment: “Still no trace of Katriel?” I shall answer: “His trace: I am his trace.”
He was my friend. We went through the war together. He did not return. So it is up to us to will his presence here, amongst us. Thought the others did not know him, couldn’t have known him, they will bear witness for him and in his place.
He did not resemble them? So what! Each of them has experienced more than one life and suffered more than one torment, visited many a country, obeyed certain laws and transgressed many others. Each knows the secret is eternal and eternally hidden. The roads lead nowhere, they converge not at one but at a thousand points, He who says “I” has said everything. Just as every man contains all men, this word contains all words. It is the only word God uttered at Mount Sinai. Yet one must know not to pronounce it as He does. He says “I” and it means: I who am with you, within you. We say “I” and it means: I who am opposed to you, all of you. His “I” embraces all men, ours divides them. On His lips “I” means love, on ours too, but it is no longer the same love. For it is easy for us to love one another, it is even easy to love our enemies: much easier than to love ourselves.
Shlomo, an old Hasid you will soon meet, exclaimed one day in despair: “What have I gained by becoming blind, since I continue to see myself?” Poor man! He wouldn’t have gained anything had he stopped seeing himself. The game is rigged; there is nothing to gain. And nothing to lose, which makes it worse. To defeat death, to defeat it by accident, against one’s wish, is neither victory not blessing. Ask me, I know.
Once, in the Orient, I talked of suicide with a sage whose clear and gentle eyes seemed forever to be gazing at a never-ending sunset. “Dying is no solution,” he affirmed. “And living?” I asked. “Nor living either,” he conceded. “But who tells you there is a solution?”
You will not convince me he was not right. He was too wise not to realize that one can do without solutions. Only the questions matter. We may share them or turn away from them. Either way you will in the end admit they hold no answers. Only secrets. Rumor has it that Shlomo had his eyes torn out so as to safeguard his secret. But that is a lie, I swear it is. The secret became his long afterwards. One day he will reveal it and the earth will tremble, I tell you.
It has trembled already. My friends were affected by it. That’s how they became beggars and madmen who build upon ruins. I sometimes plead with them: “Enough of the war, I refuse to hear any more! Let the dead lie in peace!” They usually heed me and change the subject. Some describe their childhood passions and thus allow me to fall in love with women they have never touched or even approached; others evoke their youth and its unfathomable compulsion to redeem man and mankind. And what about Shlomo? Like me, the blind Hasid prefers to listen.
At our first meeting, he shook my hand.
“I am Shlomo the Seer, and when the time comes, no matter how long it takes, that too is how I shall name the one I await. I have never met him, so I don’t know whether he deserves it or wants it. But let him come and we shall see. You look at me with disbelief, I feel it. Right? You don’t think he’ll come? I do. He promised. That’s my power over him, without me his fate would be incomplete. Whether he likes it or not, I am the keeper of his promise. Should I die before him, without first returning to him his bond and his freedom, his secret would lose its meaning. You don’t keep blind men waiting and waiting with impunity. Listen: years ago I was told he had died. I knew it wasn’t true. And yet I couldn’t hold back my tears. Another time a jester touched my shoulder and claimed to be the one I was waiting for. Again, I didn’t believe him, and yet I trembled and wept. Does that make you laugh?”
“I am not laughing.”
“I am not laughing.”
He fell silent before going on with renewed strength and sadness:
“Still he will come, you’ll see. He must come. When? I don’t know. Who am I to know? He knows, that’s enough for me. I think he’ll come after the war. You tell me the war is over? Maybe. That’s for him to say. Let’s put it this way: the war is over and I am still waiting for victory.”
“Not for peace?”
“That’s just a word. I don’t know what it means, do you?”
“No, but perhaps he does, and that is enough for me.”
Shlomo smiled and asked me to recount his own tale from the beginning. He listened attentively and commented briefly: “It’s not you I am waiting for. Sorry, friend. It isn’t you.”
That is how he takes leave of all who approach him for a bit on conversation. Hence the hostility he arouses among his companions for whom waiting for victory when it has already been won means sacrilege and ingratitude. For them victory cannot be questioned, since they take personal credit for it. Which explains why a casual chat about how the enemy was defeated can turn into a violent argument—but who needs explanations anyway? My friends need none to argue, and argue passionately, about anything at all.
Let me describe to you what took place here last night. Or was it last week? They overheard a tourist expressing his admiration for the military: how did they do it? The beggars tried to tell him how.
“I did it,” said Ezra ben Abraham, an old man who had come from Morocco many years ago. “It’s thanks to my tears that victory was possible. From the first day to the last I did nothing but weep. And it worked.”
“You are wasting your breath,” objected Velvel, who has one eye and a glib tongue. “You think the enemy’s troops are afraid of tears? Since when is the world afraid of Jewish tears? It was my rejoicing that pushed them back. I never stopped dancing, even while eating, even while sleeping. Don’t you understand? Had I stopped, had I shed a single tear, we’d have lost the war, everybody knows that.”
“And my prayers?” complained Zadok, an emaciated Yemenite. “You have forgotten my prayers. Night and day I did nothing but pray. Are you going to tell me now that my prayers weren’t needed?”
“Yes, that’s exactly what I am telling you,” answered a madman named Moshe. “To hell with you and your prayers. Beware of anyone praying in times of war, that’s what my father taught his children. What I did? I sang. You hear? I sang. That’s all I did, although I could do much more. The people in the street didn’t understand: how could I sing with cannons thundering all around? But I wanted them to hear me and not the guns.”
“I . . . I played with children,” said Yakov the Timid, blushing as always. “In one school after another, wherever I went I played war games with children. I took the part of the enemy so they could beat me, so they would not be afraid.”
And then, right in the middle of the dispute, the blind man’s stubborn comment was heard: “Sorry, friends, sorry. None of you is the one I am waiting for.”
As always, they turned their wrath against him for a while, calmed down and went on boasting. Imaginary or real, their heroic exploits never fail to move me. Though they are liars? Even so. But they are not liars. Heroes then? Perhaps. What if their concept of courage is not the same as ours? Does that grant us the right to judge them? For my part, I gladly acknowledge their place in the haunted history of this city, a thousand times lost and a thousand times recaptured by madmen, always the same madmen.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A Beggar in Jerusalem is a very well-written novel. It has a very interesting story line, but it seems a little choppy going from one place in time to the next. If I recall correctly, it doesn't mention the name of the war that David fought in, so I was a little confused. I would have liked that to be more clearly stated.