About the Author
Hometown:New York, New York
Date of Birth:September 30, 1928
Place of Birth:Sighet, Romania
Read an Excerpt
He had no name, so he gave him his own. As a loan, as a gift, what did it matter? In time of war every word is as good as the next. A man possesses only what he gives away.
Gregor loved and hated his laugh, which was like no other, which did not even resemble itself.
Imagine a life-and-death struggle between two angels, the angel of love and the angel of wrath, the angel of promise and the angel of evil. Imagine that they both attain their ends, each one victorious. Imagine the laugh that would rise above their corpses as if to say, your death has given me birth; I am the soul of your conflict, its fulfillment as well.
The laugh of the man who had saved his life.
It was a moonless night. It had rained the day before and, because they felt at ease there, the clouds refused to leave the patch of sky above the houses huddled together in the town below. Later Gregor understood why: they were not clouds, properly speaking, but Jews driven from their homes and transformed into clouds. In this disguise they were able to return to their homes where strangers now lived.
He was about to fall asleep when he heard an unfamiliar sound in the forest. He jumped from his cot and went to the opening of the cave. Tense, he listened. Was it the clouds? They were making no sound, at least not yet. Then what was it? His eyes, wide open, saw into the darkness. Solitude had taught him to use his senses, to let them guide him, to become an animal, ready to jump, ready to run. He stopped thinking, stopped remembering. He no longer lived outside his body.
Where had the sound come from? Now it was gone. A mistake, a false alarm. Back to sleep. A damp wind was whistling among the trees. Nothing more? Nothing more.
Nevertheless he remained on the alert. He loved the night, his ally. He loved the clouds which weighed upon the night. In any case he could no longer fall asleep. He cursed the wind for blowing too loudly. War had taught him to curse.
And so he waited, listening for the slightest murmur of the woods, where behind every tree he could sense a presence in the night.
As a child he had been afraid of the forest, even in daytime. He had been told that it was inhabited by savage wolves that took your life; by bloody creatures that robbed you of your pride; by evil beings sent down to earth to turn men from their way, blinding their vision and draining their passion for life.
Now that he was no longer a child, the forest gave Gregor a sense of security. When he stroked the bark of the pine trees he felt close to the earth; when he listened to the rustling leaves he understood that man’s secret outlives man. He had learned that the true forest is the one that drives wolves mad and makes men thirst for blood and compassion. There was no use running away from this forest, it is everywhere, separating man from the image of his destiny and from the death of this destiny. Who opened your eyes, Gregor? He did. Did it hurt? Yes and no.
Gregor started. Footsteps! He heard them quite clearly. I wasn’t dreaming. Someone is there. Someone is looking for me. He glanced at the luminous dial of his watch: ten past two. He knew the time even though he didn’t know what day it was. It could have been Friday or Sunday; what did it matter? He was living in a time or war, outside time.
How long had he been in the cave? He did not remember. His father promised to come back in three days. Gregor had counted three days, and then three more days. After that he had stopped counting. His father had gone away and taken the numbers with him, forever.
The footsteps were drawing closer; the crackling sound was clearer. Gregor’s eyes searched the darkness and found nothing. Only anguish. He tried to chase it away, to beguile it, saying over and over to himself: You’re not afraid, no, you are not afraid; a boy, seventeen-years-old, isn’t afraid of the night or of the unknown. If you are shivering—just a little—it’s because of the cold; if you are stiff, it’s because you have no reason to move; if you are holding your breath, it’s not for fear of breathing too hard but rather to hear the mysterious sound of night penetrating the forest: two creatures embracing. Sometimes they hurt each other and the earth gives forth a very gentle moan; sometimes they caress, and their song shakes the trees. That is why you are holding your breath, to listen, and also to seize their song and surrender yourself to it. You’re not afraid, are you? Gregor isn’t afraid of anything, not yet. Gregor is old enough to recognize the exact moment when fear rises, whip in hand, and beats his heart as if to force him to live and to accept himself. Yes, Gregor is also old enough to bar the way, isn’t he? I’m not afraid; I hate fear; it’s degrading. Gregor talked to himself and trembled. Nights are cold in Transylvania, in the spring.
The footsteps now seemed very close. Since sounds in the forest are deceiving, Gregor did not know where to place them. Could it be his father? No, impossible. Father would not come back. Never. He was punctuality itself, incapable of making a mistake or of telling a lie. If he had not come, it was because he had changed; he must be in a world where numbers kill, where promises enclose emptiness.
In the past Gregor had thought his father was all-powerful and unshakeable, clear-headed in a way that both comforted and terrified those who loved him, those who feared him. They all clung to him, to his words, to his vision. In his presence they felt pure, strong, and invincible. He spoke little, but what he said had the ring and conviction of truth. He used to say, “Tomorrow will be a fine day,” and the sun obeyed him. He used to say, “Whoever walks toward the spring becomes the spring,” and so they walked. But then he had also said, “I’ll be back in three days,” and he is somewhere else.
Gregor remembered his father’s last words: under no circumstances open your mouth or otherwise betray your whereabouts. But the waiting and uncertainty were more than he could bear, and he was tempted to disobey: I am going to scream. You didn’t keep your promise: why should I keep mine? Time once more existed.
“Who’s there?” he said in Hungarian.
His voice echoes first in the cave and then in the forest, leaping from tree to tree, from cloud to cloud. And yet he had only whispered.
“Who’s there?” he repeated.
Silence. Nothing. Night, clouds, the forest. And his pounding heart. Crouching behind the big tree which concealed the opening of the cave, Gregor held his breath. He did not move, nor did the other. They couldn’t see each other. Is he also afraid? Is it his fear that makes me tremble and doubt?
The other started walking.
“Stop!” called out Gregor in panic. “Stop there! Don’t come closer! I forbid you to take another step.”
The other continued to come closer, but Gregor still could not figure out where he was. At times it seemed to him as if the forest were filled with nocturnal hunters, each one of them like the Angel of Death, with a thousand eyes to strangle man’s voice and to deform his body. This is my punishment, Gregor thought. I disobeyed my father; I am going to be punished. Words now surged up from his throat, and he could not control them
“Who are you? What do you want? Who sent you here? Whom are you looking for? Where are you going? Who’s calling you and who’s with you?”
Carelessly, he stuck his head out of the cave. A thousand thoughts crossed his mind. Was it a policeman making his rounds? A peasant, who would blackmail him? A wanderer? A shepherd out at night? The unknown terrified him. As soon as danger will be there before him, indentified, with a face on it, he would lose his fear and recover his freedom. That’s why he cried out again angrily, in German this time: “Enough! If it’s me you’re looking for, come! I’m here, I am waiting for you.”
Then for the first time he heard the laughter. Gregor shuddered and his legs became weak. Behind every tree and within every shred of cloud someone was laughing. It was not the laughter of one man but of a hundred, of seven times seven hundreds.
He wanted to stop up his ears: the man wanted to drive him to insanity.
“Stop! Stop laughing!” he shouted, still in German. “I’m alone and the war is still raging. It will go on and on, and I shall be more and more alone. Be quiet, will you? Listen to the war and you won’t laugh any longer!”
There was a lengthy silence. Suddenly the clouds seemed thicker—undoubtedly a transport of Jews coming back from far away to light the fires in their homes.
“I’m listening to the war and I’m laughing.”
Gregor couldn’t believe his ears. The voice, which was now very close, had spoken Yiddish. Not Hungarian or German, but Yiddish.
“I’ve decided once and for all not to weep,” the voice added. “To weep is to play their game. I won’t.”
Now it was Gregor’s turn to feel like laughing. Why hadn’t he thought of it? It was all so simple. A Jew! A Jew like himself, fleeing from fate; in search of underground shelter, a place in which to hide himself from the piercing stare of death. A Jew who refused to disguise himself as a cloud!
What People are Saying About This
The novels of Elie Wiesel are a singularly impressive instance of how the creative imagination can surprise our expectations of what its limits should be.
Delightful Hasidic tale, The Gates of the Forest becomes one of those stories which man was fated to read.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I found this book at my college bookstore several years ago. I bought it and carried it with me every day for 5 years afterwards. My original copy is worn, dog-eared, marked-up, and dirty. I have yet to find another book that moves me more deeply than this one, and I recommend it to everyone I know that has an ounce of empathy, a pinch of imagination, and the ability to read. Whenever I visit a used bookstore I buy what copies are available, and give them away. Most people cannot find words to descibe the wealth of thoughts and emotions his book provokes. I still cannot.