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29843Elie Wiesel's 1986 Nobel Lecture

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  • Tarjei Straume
    Dec 1, 2006
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      I think it's appropriate at this point to post
      Elie Wiesel's 1986 Nobel Lecture:


      Nobel Lecture, December 11, 1986

      Hope, Despair and Memory

      A Hasidic legend tells us that the great Rabbi
      Baal-Shem-Tov, Master of the Good Name, also
      known as the Besht, undertook an urgent and
      perilous mission: to hasten the coming of the
      Messiah. The Jewish people, all humanity were
      suffering too much, beset by too many evils. They
      had to be saved, and swiftly. For having tried to
      meddle with history, the Besht was punished;
      banished along with his faithful servant to a
      distant island. In despair, the servant implored
      his master to exercise his mysterious powers in
      order to bring them both home. "Impossible", the
      Besht replied. "My powers have been taken from
      me". "Then, please, say a prayer, recite a
      litany, work a miracle". "Impossible", the Master
      replied, "I have forgotten everything". They both fell to weeping.

      Suddenly the Master turned to his servant and
      asked: "Remind me of a prayer - any prayer ." "If
      only I could", said the servant. "I too have
      forgotten everything". "Everything - absolutely
      everything?" "Yes, except - "Except what?"
      "Except the alphabet". At that the Besht cried
      out joyfully: "Then what are you waiting for?
      Begin reciting the alphabet and I shall repeat
      after you...". And together the two exiled men
      began to recite, at first in whispers, then more
      loudly: "Aleph, beth, gimel, daleth...". And over
      again, each time more vigorously, more fervently;
      until, ultimately, the Besht regained his powers, having regained his memory.

      I love this story, for it illustrates the
      messianic expectation -which remains my own. And
      the importance of friendship to man's ability to
      transcend his condition. I love it most of all
      because it emphasizes the mystical power of
      memory. Without memory, our existence would be
      barren and opaque, like a prison cell into which
      no light penetrates; like a tomb which rejects
      the living. Memory saved the Besht, and if
      anything can, it is memory that will save
      humanity. For me, hope without memory is like memory without hope.

      Just as man cannot live without dreams, he cannot
      live without hope. If dreams reflect the past,
      hope summons the future. Does this mean that our
      future can be built on a rejection of the past?
      Surely such a choice is not necessary. The two
      are not incompatible. 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. The loss of one is equivalent to the sacrifice of the other.

      A recollection. The time: After the war. The
      place: Paris. A young man struggles to readjust
      to life. His mother, his father, his small sister
      are gone. He is alone. On the verge of despair.
      And yet he does not give up. On the contrary, he
      strives to find a place among the living. He
      acquires a new language. He makes a few friends
      who, like himself, 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.

      This he must believe in order to go on. For he
      has just returned from a universe where God,
      betrayed by His creatures, covered His face in
      order not to see. Mankind, jewel of his creation,
      had succeeded in building an inverted Tower of
      Babel, reaching not toward heaven but toward an
      anti-heaven, there to create a parallel society,
      a new "creation" with its own princes and gods,
      laws and principles, jailers and prisoners. A
      world where the past no longer counted - no longer meant anything.

      Stripped of possessions, all human ties severed,
      the prisoners found themselves in a social and
      cultural void. "Forget", they were told, "Forget
      where you came from; forget who you were. Only
      the present matters". But the present was only a
      blink of the Lord's eye. The Almighty himself was
      a slaughterer: it was He who decided who would
      live and who would die; who would be tortured,
      and who would be rewarded. Night after night,
      seemingly endless processions vanished into the
      flames, lighting up the sky. Fear dominated the
      universe. Indeed this was another universe; the
      very laws of nature had been transformed.
      Children looked like old men, old men whimpered
      like children. Men and women from every corner of
      Europe were suddenly reduced to nameless and
      faceless creatures desperate for the same ration
      of bread or soup, dreading the same end. Even
      their silence was the same for it resounded with
      the memory of those who were gone. Life in this
      accursed universe was so distorted, so unnatural
      that a new species had evolved. Waking among the
      dead, one wondered if one was still alive.

      And yet real despair only seized us later.
      Afterwards. As we emerged from the nightmare and
      began to search for meaning. All those doctors of
      law or medicine or theology, all those lovers of
      art and poetry, of Bach and Goethe, who coldly,
      deliberately ordered the massacres and
      participated in them. What did their
      metamorphosis signify? Could anything explain
      their loss of ethical, cultural and religious
      memory? How could we ever understand the
      passivity of the onlookers and - yes - the
      silence of the Allies? And question of questions:
      Where was God in all this? It seemed as
      impossible to conceive of Auschwitz with God as
      to conceive of Auschwitz without God. Therefore,
      everything had to be reassessed because
      everything had changed. With one stroke,
      mankind's achievements seemed to have been
      erased. Was Auschwitz a consequence or an
      aberration of "civilization" ? All we know is
      that Auschwitz called that civilization into
      question as it called into question everything
      that had preceded Auschwitz. Scientific
      abstraction, social and economic contention,
      nationalism, xenophobia, religious fanaticism,
      racism, mass hysteria. All found their ultimate expression in Auschwitz.

      The next question had to be, why go on? If memory
      continually brought us back to this, why build a
      home? Why bring children into a world in which
      God and man betrayed their trust in one another?

      Of course we could try to forget the past. Why
      not? Is it not natural for a human being to
      repress what causes him pain, what causes him
      shame? Like the body, memory protects its wounds.
      When day breaks after a sleepless night, one's
      ghosts must withdraw; the dead are ordered back
      to their graves. But for the first time in
      history, we could not bury our dead. We bear their graves within ourselves.

      For us, forgetting was never an option.

      Remembering is a noble and necessary act. The
      call of memory, the call to memory, reaches us
      from the very dawn of history. No commandment
      figures so frequently, so insistently, in the
      Bible. It is incumbent upon us to remember the
      good we have received, and the evil we have
      suffered. New Year's Day, Rosh Hashana, is also
      called Yom Hazikaron, 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.

      Nothing provokes so much horror and opposition
      within the Jewish tradition as war. Our
      abhorrence of war is reflected in the paucity of
      our literature of warfare. After all, God created
      the Torah to do away with iniquity, to do away
      with war1.Warriors fare poorly in the Talmud:
      Judas Maccabeus is not even mentioned; Bar-Kochba
      is cited, but negatively2. David, a great warrior
      and conqueror, is not permitted to build the
      Temple; it is his son Solomon, a man of peace,
      who constructs God's dwelling place. Of course
      some wars may have been necessary or inevitable,
      but none was ever regarded as holy. For us, a
      holy war is a contradiction in terms. War
      dehumanizes, war diminishes, war debases all
      those who wage it. The Talmud says, "Talmidei
      hukhamim shemarbin shalom baolam" (It is the wise
      men who will bring about peace). Perhaps, because wise men remember best.

      And yet it is surely human to forget, even to
      want to forget. The Ancients saw it as a divine
      gift. Indeed if memory helps us to survive,
      forgetting allows us to go on living. How could
      we go on with our daily lives, if we remained
      constantly aware of the dangers and ghosts
      surrounding us? The Talmud tells us that without
      the ability to forget, man would soon cease to
      learn. Without the ability to forget, man would
      live in a permanent, paralyzing fear of death.
      Only God and God alone can and must remember everything.

      How are we to reconcile our supreme duty towards
      memory with the need to forget that is essential
      to life? No generation has had to confront this
      paradox with such urgency. The survivors wanted
      to communicate everything to the living: the
      victim's solitude and sorrow, the tears of
      mothers driven to madness, the prayers of the doomed beneath a fiery sky.

      They needed to tell the child who, in hiding with
      his mother, asked softly, very softly: "Can I cry
      now?" They needed to tell of the sick beggar who,
      in a sealed cattle-car, began to sing as an
      offering to his companions. And of the little
      girl who, hugging her grandmother, whispered:
      "Don't be afraid, don't be sorry to die... I'm
      not". She was seven, that little girl who went to
      her death without fear, without regret.

      Each one of us felt compelled to record every
      story, every encounter. Each one of us felt
      compelled to bear witness, Such were the wishes
      of the dying, the testament of the dead. Since
      the so-called civilized world had no use for
      their lives, then let it be inhabited by their deaths.

      The great historian Shimon Dubnov served as our
      guide and inspiration. Until the moment of his
      death he said over and over again to his
      companions in the Riga ghetto: "Yidden, shreibt
      un fershreibt" (Jews, write it all down). His
      words were heeded. Overnight, countless victims
      become chroniclers and historians in the ghettos,
      even in the death camps. Even members of the
      Sonderkommandos, those inmates forced to burn
      their fellow inmates' corpses before being burned
      in turn, left behind extraordinary documents. To
      testify became an obsession. They left us poems
      and letters, diaries and fragments of novels,
      some known throughout the world, others still unpublished.

      After the war we reassured ourselves that it
      would be enough to relate a single night in
      Treblinka, to tell of the cruelty, the
      senselessness of murder, and the outrage born of
      indifference: it would be enough to find the
      right word and the propitious moment to say it,
      to shake humanity out of its indifference and
      keep the torturer from torturing ever again. We
      thought it would be enough to read the world a
      poem written by a child in the Theresienstadt
      ghetto to ensure that no child anywhere would
      ever again have to endure hunger or fear. It
      would be enough to describe a death-camp
      "Selection", to prevent the human right to
      dignity from ever being violated again.

      We thought it would be enough to tell of the
      tidal wave of hatred which broke over the Jewish
      people 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. A naive undertaking? Of course. But not without a certain logic.

      We tried. It was not easy. At first, because of
      the language; language failed us. We would have
      to invent a new vocabulary, for our own words were inadequate, anemic.

      And then too, the people around us refused to
      listen; and even those who listened refused to
      believe; and even those who believed could not
      comprehend. Of course they could not. Nobody
      could. The experience of the camps defies comprehension.

      Have we failed? I often think we have.

      If someone had told us in 1945 that in our
      lifetime religious wars would rage on virtually
      every continent, that thousands of children would
      once again be dying of starvation, we would not
      have believed it. Or that racism and fanaticism
      would flourish once again, we would not have
      believed it. Nor would we have believed that
      there would be governments that would deprive a
      man like Lech Walesa of his freedom to travel
      merely because he dares to dissent. And he is not
      alone. Governments of the Right and of the Left
      go much further, subjecting those who dissent,
      writers, scientists, intellectuals, to torture
      and persecution. How to explain this defeat of memory?

      How to explain any of it: the outrage of
      Apartheid which continues unabated. Racism itself
      is dreadful, but when it pretends to be legal,
      and therefore just, when a man like Nelson
      Mandela is imprisoned, it becomes even more
      repugnant. Without comparing Apartheid to Nazism
      and to its "final solution" - for that defies all
      comparison - one cannot help but assign the two
      systems, in their supposed legality, to the same
      camp. And the outrage of terrorism: of the
      hostages in Iran, the coldblooded massacre in the
      synagogue in Istanbul, the senseless deaths in
      the streets of Paris. Terrorism must be outlawed
      by all civilized nations - not explained or
      rationalized, but fought and eradicated. Nothing
      can, nothing will justify the murder of innocent
      people and helpless children. And the outrage of
      preventing men and women like Andrei Sakharov,
      Vladimir and Masha Slepak, Ida Nudel, Josef
      Biegun, Victor Brailowski, Zakhar Zonshein, and
      all the others known and unknown from leaving
      their country. And then there is Israel, which
      after two thousand years of exile and
      thirty-eight years of sovereignty still does not
      have peace. I would like to see this people,
      which is my own, able to establish the foundation
      for a constructive relationship with all its Arab
      neighbors, as it has done with Egypt. We must
      exert pressure on all those in power to come to terms.

      And here we come back to memory. We must remember
      the suffering of my people, as we must remember
      that of the Ethiopians, the Cambodians, the boat
      people, Palestinians, the Mesquite Indians, the
      Argentinian "desaparecidos" - the list seems endless.

      Let us remember Job who, having lost everything -
      his children, his friends, his possessions, and
      even his argument with God - still found the
      strength to begin again, to rebuild his life. Job
      was determined not to repudiate the creation,
      however imperfect, that God had entrusted to him.

      Job, our ancestor. Job, our contemporary. His
      ordeal concerns all humanity. Did he ever lose
      his faith? If so, he rediscovered it within his
      rebellion. 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. I remember the killers, I
      remember the victims, even as I struggle to
      invent a thousand and one reasons to hope.

      There may be times when we are powerless to
      prevent injustice, but there must never be a time
      when we fail to protest. The Talmud tells us that
      by saving a single human being, man can save the
      world. We may be powerless to open all the jails
      and free all the prisoners, but by declaring our
      solidarity with one prisoner, we indict all
      jailers. None of us is in a position to eliminate
      war, but it is our obligation to denounce it and
      expose it in all its hideousness. War leaves no
      victors, only victims. I began with the story of
      the Besht. And, like the Besht, mankind needs to
      remember more than ever. Mankind needs peace more
      than ever, for our entire planet, threatened by
      nuclear war, is in danger of total destruction. A
      destruction only man can provoke, only man can
      prevent. Mankind must remember that peace is not
      God's gift to his creatures, it is our gift to each other.

      1. The Torah is the Hebrew name for the first
      five books of the Scriptures, in which God hands
      down the tablets of the Law to Moses on Mt.
      Sinai. In contradistinction to the Law of Moses,
      the Written Law, the Talmud is the vast
      compilation of the Oral Law, including rabbinical
      commentaries and elaborations.

      2. Judas Maccabeus led the struggle against
      Antiochus IV of Syria. He defeated a Syrian
      expedition and reconsecrated the Temple in
      Jerusalem (c. 165 B.C.). Simon Bar-Kochba (or
      Kokba) was the leader of the Hebrew revolt against the Romans, 132-135 A.D.

      From Nobel Lectures, Peace 1981-1990,
      Editor-in-Charge Tore Frängsmyr, Editor Irwin
      Abrams, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1997
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