Hope, Despair and Memory1
by Elie Wiesel
Nobel Lecture delivered December 11, 1986.2
As a survivor of the Holocaust3 of World War II, Wiesel relates the past to the future through memory, the source, he asserts, of hope as well as despair.
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.
1 Reprinted by permission of the Nobel Foundation. Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1986.
2 A lecture delivered after his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech of December 10, 1986.3 The genocide of close to 6 million European Jews by Nazi Germany in Nazi-occupied territory.
PORTRAIT: April 13, 2006, address to U.S. Congress (see Nobel Prize Foundation website for © 1986 photograph).
CITATION INFORMATION (in MLA format): Wiesel, Elie "Hope, Despair and Memory." Gleeditions, 17 Apr. 2011, www.gleeditions.com/hopedespairandmemory/students/pages.asp?lid=408&pg=4. Originally published on Nobel Prize.org, Nobel Media AB, www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1986/wiesel-lecture.html.