The Gates of the Forest (Les Portes De La Foret)

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THE GATES OF THE FOREST (Les Portes de la foret)

Novel by Elie Wiesel, 1964

The first section of The Gates of the Forest (1966; Les Portes de la foret, 1964), "Spring," introduces us to Gregor, who is in many ways a latter-day Robinson Crusoe. A 17-year-old Jewish youth, he hides from the Nazis by living in a cave in the depths of the Transylvanian forest. In his sylvan hideaway, he feels himself in harmony with nature: "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." This pantheistic concept of man in harmony with nature is borrowed from eighteenth-century writers like Daniel Defoe and Friedrich Hölderlin.

Gregor lives in complete seclusion until another Jewish refugee stumbles on his hiding place. Then the days of living in harmony with nature are over. Gregor's new companion is a madman who refuses to admit he has a name, so Gregor gives him his own Jewish name, Gavriel. Gavriel compromises the safety of the hideaway by begging for food in a nearby village, and the lives of both men are threatened by a manhunt. Gavriel gives himself up to the villagers to save Gregor from further manhunts. But once the forest has become an object of Nazi suspicion, there can be no more living in harmony with nature.

The second part of the book, "Summer," finds Gregor living in a Hungarian village with an elderly woman, Maria. He pretends to be deaf, mute, and feeble-minded in order to pass as a Gentile and prevent the villagers from suspecting him. The section is in the tradition of Shakespeare's Hamlet, where Hamlet feigns madness in order to be free of intrigues from his father's court: "Though this be madness, there be method in it."

This silent period is an important period in Gregor's life: "Even today Gregor thinks nostalgically of the peaceful, dream-like weeks under Maria's protection when liberty was not law but the absence of law. They allowed him to glimpse a universe which had nothing in common with words. He has kept scraps of this universe and ever since he lost it he has lived for the purpose of putting it together again. Sometimes he fancies he is succeeding; then the sounds of the faraway night become voices and he shuts his eyes in order to hear them."

Gregor lives in a bizarre sort of inner emigration in which he observes other people but does not directly communicate with them. His survival depends upon his being unable to communicate the truths of his being to his new neighbors.

Gregor's inner emigration and the safety it allows come to an end when the villagers impress him into playing Judas in an Easter passion play. The village peasants are so convinced by Gregor in that role that they pelt him with rocks in a scene resembling Shirley Jackson's 1949 story The Lottery. Gregor shocks them by giving a speech in which he admits to being a Jew. A sympathetic spectator helps him escape once more to the forest where he joins a group of Jewish partisans. Leaving his world of silence behind cancels his right to live within civilization so he must once again retreat into the forest.

His relationship with the partisans becomes tenuous when he involves them in an ill-conceived scheme to rescue Gavriel that backfires when their leader, Loeb the Lion, is captured. Nonetheless, the book ends with an inexplicable feeling of safety: World War II comes to an end and Gregor celebrates with other Jews in a Hasidic village. He agrees to marry a female partisan, and he reconnects with Gavriel, who has also survived the war.

—Peter R. Erspamer