In Elie Wiesel’s speech winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, he talks about hope, despair, and memory. The speech begins with a Hasidic legend about Rabbi Baal-Shem-Tov, or Besht, who took on the mission of hastening the coming of the Messiah. “The Jewish people, all humanity…had to be saved, and swiftly.” In trying to interfere with history, Besht was punished and banished to an island with his servant. The servant asked Besht to use his powers to take both of them home, and when asked to recite a prayer, Besht had forgotten everything. Both Besht and his servant wept.
Then Besht asked his servant what if he remembered anything, and the servant said that he’d forgotten everything, except the alphabet. Besht cried out: “Then what are you waiting for? Begin reciting the alphabet and I shall repeat after you.” The two of them recited their alphabet, first quietly and then louder and louder. They did this until, somehow, Besht regained his powers, after regaining his memory.
Friendship is one of life’s most valuable things because in friendship is “man’s ability to transcend his condition.” Friendship, to Wiesel, demonstrated the “mystical power of memory,” and our existences wouldn’t matter without memory. For Besht, memory saved him, and that notion expands to all of humanity. “For me, hope without memory is like memory without hope.” And we cannot live without hope just as we. cannot live without dreams of the future, we cannot live without hope. “If dreams reflect the pass, hope summons the future.” Wiesel then argues that the opposite is past isn’t future — it’s the absence of future. To lose the past or the future is to sacrifice the other.
He then gives the anecdote of a young man, lost, journeying in. Paris with no family, not knowing the language. He is lonely and “on the verge of despair,” but he doesn’t give up. He learns the French language, and makes some companions who, like him, “believe that the memory of evil will serve as a shield against evil; that the memory of death will serve as a shield against death.”
Whether the memory of evil actually serves as a shield is not of importance, because the young man must believe this to go on, because he “has just returned from a universe where God…covered His face in order not to see.” His fellow men had created a sort of inverted Tower of Babel that reached hell rather than heaven, that created its set of rules about executioners and prisoners, “a world where the past no longer counted — no longer meant anything.” These people, in the midst of unspeakable tragedy, we're told to forget, were told to live in the present and fear, and life is so distorted that some of these people evolved into a new species that barely seemed alive.
And then Wiesel transitions more directly into his experience in Auschwitz, where the real despair comes in. “Where was God in all this? It seemed as impossible to conceive of Auschwitz with God as to conceive of Auschwitz without God.” In this world, everything changed, and “mankind’s achievements seemed to have been erased.” Civilization didn’t seem to exist anymore, and almost all the evils in the world “found their ultimate expression in Auschwitz.”
“The next question had to be, why go on?” And moving forward from that question stemmed deeper ones — why build a home? Why bring children into this cruel and seemingly Godless world? In these situations, it was so natural to forget, for a “human being to repress what causes him pain, what causes him shame.” These memories were wounds, but for Wiesel and his fellow survivors of the Holocaust, “forgetting was never an option,” because remembering is an essential act. The call to memory is ever so present in the Bible, as the Jewish Holy Day of Rosh Hashanah is also called Yom Hazikaron, the day of memory. “On that day…man appeals to God to remember: our salvation depends on it.” For us Christians, we plead to God to always remember what his son gave his life for our sins. “If God wishes to remember our suffering, all will be well; if He refuses, all will be lost.” To repress memory would then become a “divine curse,” one that led us to repeat humanity’s heinous mistakes and errors.
Wiesel then explores the oxymoron and contradiction of the “holy war,” and figures in the Old Testament that came short because of their involvement with war. “War dehumanizes, war diminishes, war debases all those who wage in it.” The wise men are the ones who remember, who brings peace. And if we’re speaking in contradictions, there is also the dichotomy between remembering and forgetting. “Memory helps us to survive, forgetting allows us to go on living.” We need to forget to go about our daily lives so we don’t focus on our “permanent, paralyzing fear of death.” That is why we believe in God, because “only God and God alone can and must remembering everything.”
So how do we reckon with this paradox? “How are we to reconcile our supreme duty towards memory with the need to forget that is essential to life?” And it is the generation of the Holocaust’s survivors that saw the need to communicate memory the most vividly, the stories of children hiding with their mothers, sick beggars who sang as offerings to their companions, and the seven-year-old girl who “went to her death without fear, without regret.”
Like Jesus, all survivors felt “compelled to bear witness,” as were what the dying may have wished. “Since the so-called civilized world had no use for their lives, then let it be inhabited by their deaths.” Historian Shimon Dubnov said in the Riga ghetto “Yidden shreibt un fershreibt” (Jews, write it all down), and over the years “countless victims bec[a]me chroniclers and historians in the ghettos, even in the death camps.” For these victims, testifying “became an obsession.” And Wiesel laments that after the war, he had thought that relating one night in Treblinka would be enough to shake humanity’s indifference, that a poem from a child in a ghetto would stop anyone from having to endure hunger or fear — naive undertakings, but” not without a certain logic.”
At first, Wiesel and his fellow survivors struggled because their language failed them. “We would have to invent a new vocabulary, for our own words were inadequate, anemic.” And the next struggle would be the refusal of the people around them to listen, and the inability of even the well-meaning to understand, because “the experience of the camps defies comprehension.”
Sometimes Wiesel thinks they failed. Religious wars rage on, children still die of starvation, and racism and fanaticism still thrived. Governments of both the Right and Left go on repressing, persecuting. “How to explain this defeat of memory?” Wiesel asks. The examples of the defeat of memory range-wide, from Apartheid in South Africa to the Iranian Hostage Crisis to the Neve Shalom bombings in Istanbul. All over the world, innocent and helpless people die and suffer.
With regards to memory, he lastly urges us to remember Job, the man who defeated Satan, and lost everything while doing so, “his children, his friends, his possessions, even his argument with God,” who still found the strength to start a new life. “Job was determined not to repudiate the creation, however imperfect, that God had entrusted him.” Job may have lost faith when he questioned God and shared with God his anger in pain, but “if so, he rediscovered it within rebellion. He demonstrated that faith is essential to rebellion, and that hope is possible beyond despair.”
Hope comes from memory, as does despair. But therein comes a contradiction: “because I remember, I have the duty to reject despair.” Time and time again will come when we fail to prevent injustice, even when we try, “but there must never be a time when we fail to protest…by declaring our solidarity with one prisoner, we indict all jailors.” As human beings give us war, human beings also give us hope and peace, and Wiesel is writing this speech at a time when we “need peace more than ever, for our entire planet, threatened by nuclear war, is in danger of total destruction.” Peace is not God’s gift to mankind, but it’s rather our gift to each other.
So how do we give peace to each other? We have to help each other remember, our friends and family when they are going through tough times, the times they have been resilient and strong. I have had friends remind me this in my times of despair and turmoil, and that has given me peace even when peace seems unreachable. Hope is the memory of the future, I’ve heard a lot recently. I haven’t known what it’s meant, but through Wiesel’s speech, perhaps it means that we are all creatures like Besht, who regain our power, strength, and peace through memory.
The memory of the future is knowing that something is coming, something that is better than anything we’ve ever seen, something that will make everything right. I trust God that one day, we will see it.
Originally published September 26, 2019 on Publishous