Hope, Despair, and Memory

by Elie Wiesel

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Last Updated on December 13, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1226

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.

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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.

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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.

Wiesel grants that it is human to want to forget. Memory helps man to survive, but forgetting can help him to continue living. Forgetting is even considered a gift; otherwise, it can be impossible to go on living in such an unpredictable and perilous world.

So how are people to reconcile the two seemingly contradictory duties—to remember and to forget? It is natural for Holocaust survivors to want to share their memories and help new generations remember their family and national past. Moreover, as they relate these stories, they are moved by a desire

for men everywhere to decide once and for all to put an end to hatred of anyone who is “different”—whether black or white, Jew or Arab, Christian or Moslem—anyone whose orientation differs politically, philosophically, sexually.

The Holocaust should have become a memorial to the past and a safeguard against any future attempts at unleashing hatred on those who are different. In Wiesel’s opinion, however, this did not work the way it was supposed to. He cites numerous examples of injustice, atrocity, oppression, and discrimination that have become part of the postwar history of countries who were once overtaken by extremism on either side of the political spectrum (for example, apartheid in South Africa, terrorism throughout Europe and the Middle East, and the Jewish refuseniks and prisoners of conscience in the Soviet Union).

As he returns to the theme of memory, Wiesel recalls the figure of the biblical Job—a person who lost everything, “even his argument with God.” The righteous sufferer, he found strength to turn a new page and rebuild his life. And though the creation that God entrusted to him was imperfect, he was determined not to renounce it.

Though it refers to the events of a distant past, Job’s story has universal significance and application. Here, Wiesel challenges a popular opinion that associates faith with passivity and resignation. It is possible that Job lost his faith in his contention with God, who was the ultimate source of his sufferings. If so, he “rediscovered it within his rebellion.” And again:

He demonstrated that faith is essential to rebellion, and that hope is possible beyond despair. The source of his hope was memory, as it must be ours. Because I remember, I despair. Because I remember, I have the duty to reject despair.

In the conclusion of his lecture, Wiesel refers again to a sacred book of Jewish tradition. According to the Talmud, he who saves one human life saves the world. Though sometimes we cannot prevent injustice and release all those imprisoned, we “indict all jailers” by showing solidarity with even one of their victims. We cannot stop all wars, but it is our duty to denounce war and show its ugliness. Recalling the legend of the Besht, Wiesel points out that humanity needs to remember again and again. Wiesel notes that the threat of nuclear war (a distinct threat when his lecture was given, in 1986) means that only humanity can destroy the world so totally—and because of this, only humanity can prevent that level of destruction. Peace, according to Wiesel, is not a gift of God given to us but rather our gift to each other.

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