Senior Book Discussion: Hostage
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“Wiesel takes us on a journey through dream, memory, and especially storytelling in Hostage . . . He continues to remind us of the brilliant possibilities of the philosophical and political novel.”
-Starred review, Kirkus
“[Wiesel’s] terse first-person, present-tense narrative will hold readers . . . With the intense contemporary action, the prisoner’s memories also bring close the sweep of Jewish history, including persecution and survival . . . Sure to spark discussion about Middle Eastern history and politics.”
“Wiesel takes us into the heart of the [hostage’s] experience: How do we survive in a universe where all logic, all reason, has been stripped away and we are at the mercy of chaotic forces? What is the effect on our humanity?”
-David L. Ulin, Chicago Tribune
“The strength of Hostage is Wiesel’s exploration of the psychology of being a hostage, as well as the complex nature of memory and its role in our lives . . . Fans of Wiesel’s strong prose who are looking forward to a return to familiar themes will be gratified.”
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Hostage by Elie Wiesel
Wiesel talks about the Holocaust
About the Author
• Birth—September 30, 1928
• Where—Sighet, Romania
• Education—La Sorbonne
• Awards—Congressional Gold Medal of Achievement, 1985;
Nobel Peace Prize, 1986; Ellis Island Medal of Honor, 1992
• Currently—lives in New York, New York
Elie Wiesel, the author of some forty books, is Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University. Mr. Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986"Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky." Since the publication of this passage in Night, Elie Wiesel has devoted his life to ensuring that the world never forgets the horrors of the Holocaust, and to fostering the hope that they never happen again.
Wiesel was 15 years old when the Nazis invaded his hometown of Sighet, Romania. He and his family were taken to Auschwitz, where his mother and the youngest of his three sisters died. He and his father were later transported to Buchenwald, where his father died shortly before Allied forces liberated the camp in 1945. After the war, Wiesel attended the Sorbonne in Paris and worked for a while as a journalist. He met the Nobel Prize-winning writer Francois Mauriac, who helped persuade Wiesel to break his private vow never to speak of his experiences in the death camps.
During a long recuperation from a car accident in New York City in 1956, Wiesel decided to make his home in the United States. His memoir Night, which appeared two years later (compressed from an earlier, longer work, And the World Remained Silent), was initially met with skepticism. "The Holocaust was not something people wanted to know about in those days," Wiesel later said in a Time magazine interview.
But eventually the book drew recognition and readers. "A slim volume of terrifying power" (New York Times), Night remains one of the most widely read works on the Holocaust. It was followed by over 40 more books, including novels, essay collections and plays. Wiesel's writings often explore the paradoxes raised by his memories: he finds it impossible to speak about the Holocaust, yet impossible to remain silent; impossible to believe in God, yet impossible not to believe.
Wiesel has also worked to bring attention to the plight of oppressed people around the world. "When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant," he said in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. "Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must —at that moment—become the center of the universe."
Though lauded by many as a crusader for justice, Wiesel has also been criticized for his part in what some see as the commercialization of the Holocaust. In his 2000 memoir And the Sea Is Never Full, Wiesel shares some of his own qualms about fame and politics, but reiterates what he sees as his duty as a survivor and witness.
''The one among us who would survive would testify for all of us. He would speak and demand justice on our behalf; as our spokesman he would make certain that our memory would penetrate that of humanity. He would do nothing else.''
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1. What contemporary insights does Elie Wiesel's preface yield? How was your reading affected by this nonfiction commentary preceding a novel?
2. In a lecture delivered as he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, Wiesel reiterated his belief that while it is crucial to remember the past, a "holy war" is a contradiction in terms. What does Dawn reveal about the makings of a "holy warrior"? Could Elisha's dream for Israel have been realized without war? Discuss your reactions to Elisha's recruitment, in which Gad promises to turn his future into "an outcry first of despair and then of hope. And finally a shout of triumph."
3. Early in the novel, Elisha recalls his childhood encounter with a beggar, whom he meets in a synagogue. What does the beggar's advice about distinguishing night from day indicate about the nature of dawn? How does this advice influence Elisha as he looks into the faces of his fellow human beings throughout Dawn?
4. Do you agree with Ilana's assertion in her Voice of Freedom broadcast that she and her fellow fighters are not murderers, but that the Cabinet ministers are? How does Elisha view God's commandment not to kill?
5. How were you affected by the narrator's recollections of Catherine from his days in Paris? What does this scene tell us about his experience with love, and its inability to restore his former life with his family?
6. Does the memory of Elisha's parents weigh on his conscience? Does it spur his admiration for the freedom fighters, or does it make him feel shame? Had they survived the Holocaust, would his parents have shared his passion for Zionism?
7. Characterize the Old Man's influence over the other characters in the novel. What is the source of his power? Is he wise?
8. Discuss the scene in which Elisha's fellow soldiers recall the various ways in which they escaped a brush with death. How do they view death and fate? How do they view their ability to save a life?
9. Like Elisha, the reader does not meet John Dawson until the end of the novel. Were you surprised by his personality? Did he meet Elisha's expectations? What is the nature of their conversation? Why might Dawson think he could persuade Elisha to spare his life?
10. What motivates Elisha to go through with killing Dawson? Were you surprised to see him do it at precisely the moment Dawson uttered his name? Does Elisha seem to achieve his intended result?
11. Inhabited by ghosts, with a timeline in which memories are always present, is Dawn a surrealistic novel? Or is it a quite realistic portrait of a Holocaust survivor?
12. As in Night, Wiesel concludes Dawn with an image of the narrator seeing his own face. How does Elisha's image of himself compare to Eliezer's image of himself after being freed from the Nazis?