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The Power of Memory

Even the most apparently simple memories can have tremendous power, Elie Wiesel states, and the assistance of one’s friends in prompting those memories is an equally important aspect of remembering. A story about the great Rabbi Baal-Shem-Tov illustrates this power, as his fuller memories are stimulated by his servant’s remembering only the alphabet. Memory has “mystical power” to keep human experience from being a “barren and opaque . . . prison cell.”

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Wiesel writes passionately about the strength of memory to help people recover from even the most difficult experiences. He reminds the reader that memory is not an objective recollection of neutral facts, but a personal image of their own past and the collective past of their community—and multiple communities.

Wiesel advises people of the importance of remembering the bad as well as the good so that evil cannot easily resurface. For him and other survivors of the Nazi camps, “the memory of evil will serve as a shield against evil.” The obligation to remember extends to all those who have suffered and who witness suffering.

The other side of memory is forgetting, and Wiesel speaks of the dual burden of forgetting. In the aftermath of the war, as people tried to comprehend Auschwitz and other atrocities, “forgetting was never an option.” Equally important, however, is the release that some aspects of forgetting provide; this is often an important step in recovery from painful experiences. This phase of recovery can be crucial for survivors who have lost many loved ones. Wiesel refers to the weight of “ghosts” who can impede people from being active participants in their own daily lives. To go on living, he states, it is sometimes necessary to forget.

The Interrelationship of Hope and Memory

Wiesel does not consider hope and memory to be distinct factors in survival; rather, he insists that they are inextricably intertwined. The two concepts depend on each other to help sustain human beings when they are in dire situations. His personal view is that “hope without memory is like memory without hope.”

The Biblical story of Job is presented as a case in which hope and memory work together to help a man maintain his faith as it threatens to slip away. Job rebels against his dismal situation and, thereby, against the loss of faith. “The source of his hope was memory,” Wiesel concludes, and it must also be the source for contemporary people.

Despair as an Outgrowth of Trauma

The massive trauma that Wiesel’s people suffered is larger than the sum of the singular traumas that individual people experienced, yet the experience of each person matters as much as the totality. The ongoing brutality of survival in Auschwitz and the other camps drove many people into despair. Many experienced profound doubt and came to believe that “the Almighty himself was a slaughterer.” With death, torture, and hunger all around them, people’s loss of faith made them into “nameless and faceless creatures desperate for the same ration of bread or soup.” With so much death around them, the traumatized survivors assumed their end would also come soon. People wondered about the meaning of being alive—not as an abstract question but as a practical one they dealt with every day.

These traumatic experiences, Wiesel explains, were only part of the despair that the Holocaust created. After the survivors left the camps, their memories often plunged them into greater misery. Part of this collective trauma was inquiring into the reasons that others had behaved so brutally or had passively observed rather than opposing those actions. The worst phases of desperation were prompted by memory and questioning:

Real despair only seized us later. Afterwards. As we emerged from the nightmare and began to search for meaning.

Despair was also the enemy of memory, as people felt that remembering and testifying were futile. This phase of despair was connected to the inability or refusal of others to listen to many of the survivor’s stories. Writing and transmitting the memories is the most potent weapon against despair for those caught up in and surviving the wars that continue to be waged.

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