Book Review – Dawn by Elie Wiesel

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Book: Dawn
Author: Elie Wiesel
Genre: Historical fiction, Nobel Prize Winner

I hate to give this novella anything but a five-star rating. Elie Wiesel’s memoir, Night, is an amazing read; he is an incredible person. I admire him tremendously for having the courage to write a raw account of his experiences during the Holocaust; for spearheading the building of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, and for his advocacy in speaking out against intolerance, racism, and hatred. His writing has become a voice for the millions who have been silenced, and those who are still suffering.

I have long admired Elie Wiesel for reaching out beyond his religious and cultural community to work towards equality for all. No, he is not without some controversy: I don’t agree with his admiration and support for Netanyahu, and some of his remarks in regards to Palestinians are definitely questionable. He’s not perfect. No one is (nope, not even President Obama). But I wholeheartedly admire the man and what he has accomplished as a whole.

I did not, however, love Dawn. Dawn is the fictional story of a young Holocaust survivor, Elisha, who is recruited by the Movement – what I believe to be based upon the real-life Irgun, a Zionist paramilitary organization that operated between 1931 and 1948 – to become a freedom fighter in British-controlled Palestine. The entire novella takes place over the span of one night. Elisha is tasked with assassinating a British officer who has been kidnapped, as retribution for the capture and hanging of a fellow freedom fighter. Over the course of the night, Elisha wrestles with his conscience, God, and the ghosts of his family, over what he is tasked to do.

“You are the sum total of all that we have been,” said the youngster who looked like my former self. “In a way we are the ones to execute John Dawson. Because you can’t do it without us. Now, do you see?”

I was beginning to understand. An act so absolute as that of killing involves not only the killer, but, as well, those who have formed him. In murdering a man I was making them murderers.

The writing in Dawn is just as beautiful as in Night. And the story brings up some important ethical and philosophical questions that Wiesel brings up in the preface: “How are we ever to disarm evil and abolish death as a means to an end? How are we ever to break the cycle of violence and rage? Can terror coexist with justice? Does murder call for murder, despair for revenge? Can hate engender anything but hate?”

My problem is that these questions are not appropriately addressed in such a small book. What is left is the feeling of justifying a person’s acts of terror by blaming the enemy. An idea in which I vehemently disagree. Wiesel may very well be making this very point in this novel: that treating an innocent person (John Dawson) the same way you (Elisha) were treated when you were powerless, is just as hideous an act as the acts of terror committed against you. But the impression the story gives leans towards the opposite.

“On the day when the English understand that their occupation will cost them blood they won’t want to stay,” Gad told us. It’s cruel – inhuman if you like. But we have no other choice. For generations we’ve wanted to be better, more pure in heart than those who persecuted us. You’ve all seen the result: Hitler and the extermination camps in Germany. We’ve had enough of trying to be more just than those who claim to speak in the name of justice. When the Nazis killed a third of our people just men found nothing to say. If ever it’s a question of killing off Jews, everyone is silent; there are twenty centuries of history to prove it. We can rely only on ourselves. If we must become more unjust and inhuman than those who have been unjust and inhuman to us, then we shall do so. We don’t like to be bearers of death; heretofore we’ve chosen to be victims rather than executioners. The commandment Thou shalt not kill was given from the summit of one of the mountains here in Palestine, and we were the only ones to obey it. But that’s all over; we must be like everybody else. Murder will not be our profession but our duty. In the days and weeks and months to come you will have only one purpose; to kill those who have made us killers. We shall kill in order that once more we may be men…”

The philosophical underpinnings of Dawn deserve a longer book, but somehow, plotwise, Dawn has too much padding. Yes, I know that sounds like I am completely contradicting myself! I feel that this is a small little book that doesn’t know quite what it wants to be, and is one of the weaker works out of all that Elie Wiesel has written.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

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5 thoughts on “Book Review – Dawn by Elie Wiesel

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