Elie Wiesel opens his Nobel lecture, “Hope, Despair, and Memory,” by recounting a Hasidic legend. The famed Rabbi Baal-Shem-Tov, known as the Besht, engages himself in a dangerous pursuit of hastening the Messiah’s coming to save the Jewish people and the world, but the rabbi’s audacity does not go unpunished. He has dared to interrupt the course of history. Together with his faithful servant, he is banished to an outlying island, and his punishment includes a loss of the power of memory. In response to his servant’s plea to bring them back home, the Besht admits that it is impossible. He cannot remember a single prayer. His servant is unable to recall any prayer either, but he does remember the Hebrew alphabet. Encouraged by his master, the servant begins reciting the sacred letters. The Besht repeats after him until he regains the power of his memory.
Thus, major themes of the lecture are introduced. Wiesel says that he shares in the messianic expectations of universal salvation and peace on earth. He talks about the importance of human solidarity as a factor that enables man to rise above his limitations. Further, he emphasizes the “mystical power of memory.”
Wiesel believes that memory will save humanity. And while memory looks into the past, it is hope that projects into the future. Past and future are not mutually exclusive. Paradoxically, Wiesel notes,
The opposite of the past is not the future but the absence of future; the opposite of the future is not the past but the absence of past.
Then the author invokes memories of the unspeakable horrors of World War II. The war was a severe ordeal not only for obvious reasons—of course, the destruction of millions of lives was horrendous—but also for more subtle ones. The victims of the war faced an evil of a different nature: losing the memory of who they were and where they came from. Those who wanted to survive were bound to live in the present, because it was the only reality that mattered.
However distorted and nightmarish this life was, the real despair overtook “us” later. Here, Wiesel speaks on behalf of Holocaust survivors like himself. After the war, they began to seek for explanations of what had happened. The supreme question, for Wiesel, is this one: Where was God in all this?
It seemed as impossible to conceive of Auschwitz with God as to conceive of Auschwitz without God.
A Jewish person who seriously considers the Holocaust through the lens of their religious belief cannot but acknowledge that God was involved in what befell their people.
Auschwitz was the major turning point in the history of the Jewish people, the world, and man’s relationship with the Creator. In Auschwitz, all human achievements seemed to have been wiped out at once. Nothing would ever remain the same, and everything needed to be reevaluated in light of this event.
The next central question is why one would go on living after all that has happened. Is there any reason left to continue investing in life in the world where God and man “betrayed their trust in one another”? One option would be to forget the past. It is natural to try to repress painful memories. However, for “us”—those who survived the Holocaust—forgetting is not an option. The duty of memory is deeply embedded in Jewish religious tradition. Another name for the New Year in the Jewish calendar is “the day of memory”:
On that day, the day of universal judgment, man appeals to God to remember: our salvation depends on it. If God wishes to remember our suffering, all will be well; if He refuses, all will be lost. Thus, the rejection of memory becomes a divine curse, one that would doom us to repeat past disasters, past wars.
The author refers to the place that war occupies in Jewish tradition by citing examples from the sacred books. Though, historically, there were warriors among the Jews, the tradition disfavors war and commends peace. A holy war for the Jewish people is a contradiction in terms.
(The entire section is 1,226 words.)