by Elie Wiesel
THE LITERARY WORK
A novel set in British Mandatory Palestine just after the end of the Second World War in 1945; published in 1960.
A survivor of the Jewish Holocaust of World War II joins the Irgun, a group of Jewish militants fighting British occupation of Palestine. Asked by other members of the resistance to execute a British hostage, he must confront his troubled conscience.
Elie Wiesel was born in Sighet, formerly Hungarian, then Romanian, Transylvania, in 1928. In 1944 he and his family were deported by the Nazis to extermination camps, where Wiesel’s father, mother, and younger sister died. After the war Wiesel was taken with other survivors to refugee camps in France. In 1948 he began studying literature, philosophy, and psychology in Paris. He worked as a media correspondent for ten years before publishing Night, an account of his experience as a Jew during the war. The sequel, Dawn, followed two years later. Unlike Night, Dawn is not autobiographical. It is the story of a World War II Holocaust survivor who chose to join the fight for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.
According to the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, Moses led the Jewish slaves out of Egypt to Canaan (later called Palestine), where Judaism had been born. The Jews reestablished themselves in the territory conquered from the Canaanites (they called it the land of Israel), building in Jerusalem a temple that was destroyed by the Babylonians 586 years before the birth of Jesus Christ. Nebuchadnezzar, the ruler of Babylon, deported some 10,000 of the leading Jews, ushering in a period of exile that would become the Jewish people’s first major dispersion, or Diaspora. Control of the land passed successively to Persia, Greece, Syria (the Seleucids), a short-lived independent Jewish state, and Rome. By the time Muslim armies drove out the Romans in the year A.D. 638, only about 250,000 Jews were left in what the Romans had called Palestine. The rest of the Jewish people lived as a Diaspora community, scattered all over Europe and the Middle East. Palestine proceeded, over coming centuries, to fall under the suzerainty of Arabs, Mongols, Turks, and the British.
In the nineteenth century the Jewish religious yearning to return to Zion (a biblical name for Jerusalem) combined with a new, primarily secular movement that was launched toward this goal. Anti-Semitic violence in Europe indicated that non-Jews, especially in Eastern Europe, where most Jews then lived, were affronted by the Jews’ ability to resist assimilation and preserve their distinctive traditions. The founders of modern Zionism concluded that the only solution was the creation of an independent Jewish state in Turkish-ruled Palestine.
In 1881 the Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion), the first group of secular European Jews seeking to build a Jewish homeland, settled in Palestine. Theodore Herzl, a prominent Viennese Zionist, strove to lend the movement political legitimacy by founding the World Zionist Organization (WZO), which met for the first time in 1897. During the First World War, Professor Chaim Weizmann, leader of the “Practical Zionists,” those Zionists who favored the early establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, exhorted Britain to endorse the Zionist goal.
Although the Zionist movement brought world attention to the sufferings of the Jewish Diaspora, it was not until Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party came to power in Germany that Zionist appeals were heeded. Significant Jewish immigration to Palestine developed in 1933, when Nazi hostility began driving Jews from Europe. The revelations of the survivors of World War II’s Holocaust, which had seen Nazis exterminate 6 million Jews in Europe, rallied international support to the Zionist cause. In 1948 Israel was declared an independent Jewish state in a portion of what had, after World War I, become British Mandatory Palestine.
British policy in Palestine before World War II
During the First World War British troops occupied much of the former Ottoman (Turkish) Empire, including Palestine. As a response to Zionist entreaties the British pledged, in the Balfour Declaration of 1917, to “view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”—stipulating, however, that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine” (Jones, p. 2). A mandate given Britain by the League of Nations after World War I reiterated the British commitment to “facilitate Jewish immigration” (Jones, p. 3).
The rate of Jewish immigration to Palestine soared in the 1930s, as anti-Semitism in Germany, fanned by Hitler’s inflammatory rhetoric and drastic laws, drove many Jews from Europe. The Arabs of Palestine (the “non-Jewish” communities referred to in the Balfour Declaration) agitated for a ceiling on the number of Jewish immigrants. Arab strikes as well as terrorist attacks shattered hopes for peaceful coexistence between Arabs and Jews.
In 1937 the Peel Commission, appointed by the British to investigate the disruptions, proposed a complete halt to Jewish immigration as well as the partition of Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state, both bound by treaty to the British Empire. This suggestion, it was hoped, would appease both the Arabs and the Jews while also guaranteeing the safety of British economic and military interests in Palestine.
In 1938, however, the failure of the Wood-head Commission to propose possible borders for the two new states provided the British with an excuse to suspend plans for partition and to severely limit Jewish immigration. Certain by then that war with Germany was unavoidable, the British government wanted to secure its strategic position in Palestine. Convinced that tranquillity in the Middle East depended on the mood of the Arabs, the British abandoned their earlier commitment to the Zionist goal of a Jewish commonwealth. Such a commonwealth, they feared, would provoke Arab rebellion.
On May 10, 1939, the British government declared, in a White Paper proclamation, its intention to establish within ten years an independent state of Palestine for Arabs and Jews (inevitably it would, if proclaimed, have an Arab majority). Jewish immigration was limited to 10,000 per year for five years, plus immediate admission of 25,000. No further Jewish immigration was to be allowed without the permission of the Palestinian Arabs. Limiting Jewish immigration, it was hoped, would buy years of relative peace among the Arabs of the Middle East, years during which Britain could concentrate on eliminating the threat of fascism in Europe.
This capitulation to Arab demands might have been enough to provoke rebellion among the Jews of Palestine had it not been for the rise of Nazi Germany. The two main Zionist militia groups, the left-of-center Haganah (Hebrew for “defense”) and the more militant right-of-center Irgun Zvai Leumi (“National Military Organization”), ordered their soldiers to support the British struggle against Nazi Germany but not to abandon resistance to the White Paper. Determined to help people immigrate illegally, they resolved to “fight Hitler as if there were no White Paper, and fight the White paper as if there were no Hitler” (Clarke, p. 19).
British policy during and after the war
In 1943, after Allied victories in Stalingrad (in the Soviet Union) and North Africa promised German defeat, the Jews of Palestine again voiced their frustration with the British mandate. The question of partition, pushed aside by the urgent needs of the war against Nazism, came once more to the forefront. The British, however, avoided the issue, insisting that no permanent decision could be reached until after a decisive Allied triumph. Palestine would remain under British control, and Jewish immigration would remain limited. British boats stationed off the coast of Palestine prevented ships full of immigrants from landing.
The Struma, a ship carrying Jewish refugees from fascist-dominated Romania, was turned away from the shores of Palestine by the British. Because of engine trouble, the ship docked in Istanbul. The boat was towed by the Turkish into the Black Sea, where the engine exploded, killing 759 of the 760 passengers. Chaim Weizmann, the president of the World Zionist Organization and a proponent of cooperation with the British, expressed the outrage of the Palestinian Jews:
One stands aghast at the attitude which the Palestinian Government is taking up repeatedly and systematically towards those unfortunate Jewish refugees who flee from the clutches of the German or Romanian Nazis, try at the risk of their lives to find refuge in Palestine and are very often, within sight of its shores, cruelly, inhumanely driven back into the sea and the jaws of death.
(Katz, p. 60)
The refusal to open Palestine’s borders to the refugees fleeing Hitler’s extermination camps infuriated Menachem Begin, the leader of the Irgun. In open revolt the Irgun attacked British government offices and police stations, although, to avoid delaying the Nazi defeat, they spared military installations. Fearful that this uprising would prompt British reprisal, the Haganah helped the British authorities capture Irgun members. Thus as the Jews of Europe were forced into Europe’s gas chambers, civil war between the Jews of Palestine seemed imminent.
After the Allied triumph in 1945 and the end of the war, the Jews of Palestine expected the British to repeal the White Paper. It seemed unthinkable that the few Jewish survivors of Hitler’s attempt to exterminate European Jewry would be denied immigration to Palestine. Reaction was therefore all the more intensive when the British failed to lift the immigration quota.
The Haganah even contemplated uniting with the Irgun and the Lehi, another, smaller right-wing group of insurgents. The Irgun plotted the bombing of the King David Hotel, which housed British army headquarters. But the Haganah, leery of terrorism, opposed the attack. In spite of warnings from the Irgun, the British failed to fully evacuate the hotel. On July 26, 1946, ninety-one people died in the explosion.
The Haganah condemned the terrorism and restricted itself to facilitating illegal immigration. In 1947, at the twenty-second World Zionist Conference, Chaim Weizmann warned, “if you think of bringing the redemption nearer by un-Jewish methods [meaning terrorism] …, then you … endanger what we have built” (Weizmann in Clarke, p. 256). The terrorism had shattered his dream of a Jewish state untainted by violent nationalism.
Despite this opposition, the Irgun grew increasingly ruthless. In March 1947, the Irgun bombed an officers’ club, killing seventeen British soldiers and three civilians. Also, in response to the execution of Irgun militants by the British, the Irgun captured and executed British officers. Finally, the Irgun bombed the British Embassy in Rome and planned the assassination of various British officials.
The British requested the help of the League of Nations’ successor, the United Nations, in dealing with Palestine. On November 19, 1947, the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) adopted a proposal to divide Palestine into an Arab state and a Jewish state, with the city of Jerusalem part of a “Special International Regime.” Britain announced that it would withdraw its forces by the middle of May 1948.
While the Jews welcomed the United Nations resolution, the Palestinian Arabs were outraged. Even before British withdrawal angry Arab mobs attacked Jewish civilians. The British had made no promises to help enforce the United Nations decision. It was left to the Jews to establish effective control of their territory.
The Haganah repelled attacks on Jewish settlements but generally refused to retaliate against the Arab terrorism. The Irgun, however, responded to the Arab attacks by killing Arab civilians. In 1948 an Irgun attack on an Arab village near Jerusalem claimed the lives of 254 men, women, and children. The Haganah and the Jewish establishment condemned the attack.
The Jews proclaimed the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, but no Arab state was organized in Palestine. The new Jewish nation was soon attacked by Arab armies from the neighboring countries. In the end, the Haganah’s superior training, combined with the weapons it had smuggled from the British, ensured the survival of the Jewish state.
Apart from a unit in Jerusalem, the Irgun officially disbanded on June 1, 1948. There was a struggle between the remaining unit and the Haganah for arms delivered by the French. Sixteen Jews died in the conflict. Afterward the Irgun in
Jerusalem were forcibly disbanded. On June 15, 1948, Menachem Begin founded the Herut (“Freedom”) Movement, a radical right-wing political party that rivaled the mainstream Labor Party and other Labor-led groups in Israel (and that would develop, by the 1970s, into the Likud Party of today).
The Jewish resistance in Palestine has taken a British soldier, John Dawson, hostage, and the group has threatened to shoot him if the British authorities do not release David ben Moshe, a resistance member sentenced to death by a British military tribunal. On the eve of Moshe’s execution, Elisha, the resistance soldier who will execute Dawson in retaliation, confronts his troubled conscience.
A young survivor of the Nazi concentration camps of World War II, Elisha had been taken, along with many other liberated prisoners, to a youth camp in Normandy, France. He had left Normandy for Paris to enroll at the Sorbonne, hoping that the study of philosophy might help him understand the sorrow and anger he had suffered in the concentration camps. But a member of the Jewish resistance in Palestine had visited him in Paris and persuaded him to join the struggle for a Jewish state.
In Palestine Elisha had fought with other militants against the British. He had raided British installations and killed British troops. He is often troubled by his memories of the British soldiers fleeing the deadly blaze of his machine gun, and sometimes, when he pictures himself, he sees a German soldier in Nazi uniform. The decision to execute John Dawson is particularly troubling to him.
David ben Moshe had been captured by the British after an abortive raid on a British arms depot. Hoping to bargain for his release, the resistance had kidnapped John Dawson. They then warned the British that if Moshe was hanged, Dawson would be shot. In spite of appeals from some officials and the entreaty of Dawson’s mother, the mandatory government refused to release Moshe.
The threats of the resistance worry the Jewish community in Palestine. People fear British reprisal and make public appeals for the release of Dawson. The leaders of the resistance, however, are as stubborn as the British authorities. If Moshe is hanged, they insist, Dawson will die.
The burden of executing Dawson falls on Elisha. Although he has killed before, Elisha feels a sense of guilt and dread. He suffers vivid hallucinations. Members of his family, people who had been killed at the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz, appear to crowd around him and await his decision. If he kills Moshe, they seem to warn, he will be forever branded a murderer.
On the morning of Moshe’s execution, Elisha confronts Dawson. Dawson asks him to deliver a letter to his son. Elisha tries to hate Dawson in order “to give [his] action a meaning which may somehow transcend it” (Wiesel, Dawn, p. 200). He confuses Dawson’s voice with the voices of the dead from his past. Trying to keep a clear picture in his mind of David ben Moshe with his head in a noose, Elisha raises his pistol and fires. Dawson’s lifeless body sinks to the floor.
Elisha’s troubled deliberations echo the objections of many Jews to the Irgun’s tactics. As a child in the persecuted Jewish communities of Eastern Europe, Elisha had learned that the Jewish people “have never known how to hate. Their tragedy has stemmed from their inability to hate those who have humiliated them and from time to time exterminated them” (Dawn, p. 200). Tales of confrontations between the resistance and the panicked British authorities surprise him. He realizes, “this was the first story I had ever heard in which the Jews were not the ones to be afraid. Until this moment I had believed that the mission of the Jews was to represent the trembling of history rather than the wind which made it tremble” (Dawn, p. 135).
He is swayed by the exhortations of other members of the resistance:
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 the 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, than we shall do so.
(Dawn, pp. 143-44)
Facing John Dawson, Elisha hopes to grasp “the necessity and art of hate” (Dawn, p. 200). He tries to convince himself that unless the Jews are ruthless, “our future will only be an extension of our past” (Dawn, p. 200). He is unable, however, to hate Dawson. The execution still
seems to him a betrayal of his religious and ethical principles. After firing the pistol he realizes “It’s done. I’ve killed. I’ve killed Elisha [myself]” (Dawn, p. 203).
Because the Irgun lacked the supplies necessary to equip its members, daring raids were planned to secure arms. Wiesel could have known about the capture of Michael Ashbel and Yosef Simhon by British authorities after one such raid in 1946. Disguised as British soldiers, an Irgun unit attacked a British army camp, making off with rifles and machine guns. Ashbel and Simhon were wounded and apprehended during the flight. A British military court sentenced them to death.
Because the British ignored the Irgun’s demand that Ashbel and Simhon be treated as prisoners of war according to the Geneva Convention (i.e., spared execution), the Irgun kidnapped six British officers and threatened to kill them. In the wake of impassioned appeals from the Jewish community to both the Irgun and the British authorities on behalf of all eight prisoners, the British reduced Ashbel and Simhon’s sentences to life imprisonment and the Irgun released the hostages.
On other occasions, however, the outcome was tragic. In July 1947, the Irgun kidnapped and hanged two British sergeants in retaliation for the execution of three members of the Irgun by the British. This policy of retaliation quickly convinced the British to take Irgun threats seriously.
The Arab-Israeli conflict
After Israel’s victory over the invading Arab armies in the War of Independence (1948-49), Jewish immigrants flooded the young nation. But the armistice agreements signed by Israel and the neighboring Arab states after this war never evolved into satisfactory peace treaties. The Arab states regarded the very existence of Israel as aggression. They not only imposed a boycott against companies doing business with Israel but also encouraged terrorism. Israel responded to the terrorist attacks by destroying Arab military and civilian targets.
In October 1956, the Egyptian blockade of the Gulf of Aqaba (Israel’s southern port), along with continued terrorism fomented by Arab political leaders, drove Israel to retaliate. Israel’s hopes of securing the Sinai Peninsula, which bridges Asia and Africa, harmonized with the Anglo-French campaign to prevent Egyptian nationalization of the Suez Canal, a valuable trade route that joins the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea. British, French, and Israeli forces secured Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula only to have the United Nations General Assembly order their withdrawal. In spite of the protests of the international community of Jews, Israel agreed, provided that free navigation from the Gulf of Aqaba into the Red Sea would be guaranteed.
Tension between Israel and the surrounding Arab states ebbed only to surge again in the late 1960s, as the Soviet Union delivered arms and munitions to Egypt and Syria. In 1967 Egypt would again blockade the Gulf of Aqaba and challenge Israel to war, while Jordan and Syria attacked Israeli villages. Feeling abandoned by the United Nations, Israel would mount the fierce defense measure of a pre-emptive attack against Egyptian forces. During the first sixteen hours of battle, Israeli fighters would destroy over four hundred Arab planes, losing only nineteen and proving the ability of the Jewish state to defend itself without the help of its Western allies.
The Herut Movement
Founded in 1948 by Menachem Begin, the Herut Party was the political descendant of the Irgun. In 1952 the Herut organized riots against the Restitution Agreement, which had been negotiated by Israel’s Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, a leader of the Labor Party. Under this agreement Germany was to pay 3,000 million marks in compensation for Nazi war crimes. The Herut rioted in reaction to what they considered an inappropriate agreement, given the enormity of the suffering and loss of life. In Ben Gurion’s view, the rioting revealed the violent and dangerous nationalist tendencies of the Herut. This characterization of the organization helped him maintain a prohibition excluding the Herut from all political coalitions.
The Herut advocated the expansion of Israel in the east, a goal to be achieved through military means. Members of the Herut party belittled the dominant politicians of Israel after the Israeli retreat from the Sinai Peninsula in 1956. Later, when decisive military force proved successful in the Six-Day War in 1967, the Herut would be admitted to all political coalitions.
Anti-Zionism originated among Jews who believed that only the coming of the Messiah, the deliverer mentioned in the Hebrew Bible and in postbiblical Rabbinic sources, would herald the creation of a Jewish homeland. Other less orthodox Jews dismissed Zionism simply as vulgar nationalism. But the extermination camps of World War II seemed to confirm the existence of the Jews as not merely a religious community, but a people. After the Second World War anti-Zionism was scarce in the Jewish community. It had become a force, though, among non-Jews.
Anti-Zionism spread throughout the Islamic Middle East as the Jewish state evolved from an idea into a reality. After the fighting in 1949, Arabs rationalized their continuous military defeats. Israel triumphed, they claimed, only because of the support of Western powers. Zionism, the Arabs insinuated, was a thin guise for continued European imperialism in the Middle East. Established a few years after the publication of Wiesels novel, the Palestine National Covenant of 1964, which essentially pledged the Palestinian Arabs to the destruction of Israel, expressed the anti-Zionist position. It described Zionism as “racist and separationist in its structure and fascist in its objectives and means” (Rolef, p. 21).
EXACTING JUSTICE THROUGH LEGAL CHANNELS
The capture of Adolf Eichmann by Israeli Secret Service volunteers in 1960, the year Dawn was published, was a significant milestone in Israel’s development. Eichmann had organized the deportation and extermination of European Jews under the Nazis. in 1961 he was convicted by an Israeli court of crimes against humanity and sentenced to death. Eichmann’s confessions helped the Middle Eastern and North African Jews—most of whom had not been confronted with Nazi killers—understand the extent and the significance of the European Holocaust. His execution, the first and to date only death sentence carried out under Israeli law, proved the power of the Jewish state to deliver justice for crimes against the Jewish people.
Anti-Zionism flourished also in the Soviet Union as a convenient euphemism for centuries-old anti-Semitism. Soviet politicians incorporated anti-Zionism into their conspiracy theories in satellite territories, blaming Zionists for uprisings in Poland in 1956. They contended that Zionism was “the twin brother of Nazism and fascism” (Rolef, p. 22).
On November 10, 1975, the United Nations General Assembly, in response to Soviet and pro-Arab third world pressure, would pass Resolution 3379, declaring that Zionism was a form of racism and discrimination. Perhaps eager to expiate their own crimes as colonial powers, nations of the West would tend to accept the Soviet equation of Zionism with imperialism. Resolution 3379 would legitimize anti-Semitism and isolate Israel from the world community. Wiesel himself would denounce the anti-Israel resolution as “shocking and revolting” (Wiesel, A Jew Today, p. 33).
Initial reviews of Dawn suggest that it was overshadowed by the success of Wiesel’s first book, Night, perhaps because Dawn dealt with more ambiguous events. The early reviewers who did mention it, however, praised the novel’s coarse style. “[It] adds,” one claimed, “to the anguish of this tragic situation created by war, which inevitably drives men of good will to acts as stupid as they are irreparable” (Bulletin Critique du Livre Français, p. 192). Another review called attention to Dawn’s allusions to the author’s own experience in the Holocaust of World War II, identifying them as the element that gives this novel about the struggle for Israel “its continuous shudder of anger, shame and pity” (Figaro Littèraire, p. 15).
Beilin, Yossi. Israel, a Concise Political History. New York: St. Martin’s, 1992.
Bulletin Critique du Livre Français 16 (March 1961): 192.
Clarke, Thurston. By Blood and Fire. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1981.
Figaro Littèraire 739 (June 18, 1960): 15.
Jones, Martin. Failure in Palestine. New York: Mansell, 1986.
Katz, Samuel. Days of Fire. New York: Doubleday, 1968.
Rolef, Susan Hattis. Political Dictionary of the State of Israel. New York: Macmillan, 1987.
Sachar, Howard M. A History of Israel. Vol. 1, New York: Knopf, 1976; Vol. 2, New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Wiesel, Elie. A Jew Today. Translated by Marion Wiesel. New York: Random House, 1978.
Wiesel, Elie. Dawn. In The Night Trilogy. Translated by Frances Frenaye. New York: Hill & Wang, 1987.
dawn / dôn; dän/ • n. the first appearance of light in the sky before sunrise. ∎ fig. the beginning of a phenomenon or period of time, esp. one considered favorable: the dawn of civilization. • v. [intr.] 1. (of a day) begin: Thursday dawned bright and sunny. ∎ fig. come into existence. 2. become evident to the mind; be perceived or understood: the truth was beginning to dawn on him | [as adj.] (dawning) he smiled with dawning recognition. PHRASES: from dawn to dusk all day; ceaselessly.
- Aarvak one of the horses of the sun. [Norse Myth.: Leach, 1]
- Aurora goddess of dawn whose tears provide dew. [Rom. Myth.: Kravitz, 42]
- Daphne Apollo’s attempted rape represents dawn fleeing daylight. [Gk. Myth.: Parrinder, 72; Jobes, 414]
- Eos goddess of dawn; announces Helios each morning. [Gk. Myth.: Kravitz, 89]
- Heimdall god of dawn and protector of rainbow bridge, Bifrost. [Norse Myth.: Leach, 488]
- laughing jackass bird whose cry brings in daylight. [Euahlayi Legend: How the People Sang The Mountains Up, 19]
- Octa mountain from which sun rises. [Rom. Folklore: Wheeler, 7]
- rays, garland of emblem of Aurora, dawn goddess. [Gk. Myth.: Jobes, 374]
- rooster its crowing at dawn heralds each new day. [Western Folklore: Leach, 329]
dawn raid in Stock Exchange usage, an attempt to acquire a substantial portion of a company's shares at the start of a day's trading, typically as a preliminary to a takeover bid.
dawn redwood a coniferous tree with deciduous needles, known only as a fossil until it was found growing in SW China in 1941.
See also crack of dawn, the darkest hour is just before dawn.