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Wiesel is speaking from the heart here.
By baring his soul in this speech, he's trying to appeal to his audience's hearts with his call for peace. Weary of global suffering, he's calling out for it to stop and he's hoping you're just as sick of it as he is. Lines like this are really meant to tug at the heart-strings:
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. (16, 3)
That sentence alone is enough to make us run out and grab a thousand packs of tissues (and a thousand pints of ice cream).
We're meant to be stunned by the sheer weight of what he and others have seen, because that's ultimately his message: these memories are supposed to stir something in us, they're supposed to make us feel.
If they don't, they're robbed of their meaning.
Elie Wiesel, in this speech, follows a pretty simple format that you all should try at home. It works great in both speeches and essays, and it goes a little something like this:
He opens with an anecdote, an interesting story to break the ice. In the story, he's already priming you to understand the basic core messages of his speech.
Next, he delves into the meat of the speech. He sets up his thesis statement, so to speak (the part about how memory's important to ending injustice; you know the part), and then goes back into narrating—only this time, his personal stories are helping to directly shape the flow of his reasoning.
Finally, he ends the speech with a call to action. After considering everything he's said, you might be curious what he wants us to do with that information. So, like any good speaker, he wraps it up by telling you what the ultimate point was, and what you should take away from his speech.
Wiesel opens with a story from Hasidic tradition, doing some great work at setting up his core talking points (i.e., hope, despair, and memory) within a Jewish cultural context.
Pro tip: starting off any speech with a good story is always a great move.
Wiesel takes us on a tour of his and others' experience with the Nazi death camps to set up both his peoples' desperate need to remember and their desperate need to forget what happened to them. He does a great job weaving between his anecdotes and his concepts.
This is Wiesel's big call to action, the grand finale of the piece, where he moves from the past to the present day. In a post-Holocaust world, one would think the kinds of global crises that ran rampant during the '80s would be impossible. By really remembering the kinds of horrors and suffering that are out there, he hopes that those memories will move people to ensure those sorts of things will never happen again.
Like many (read: pretty much all) speeches, it was only named after the fact. Beforehand it was just called Elie Wiesel's Nobel Lecture.
Yeah. That doesn't have much of a ring to it.
And we think it's aptly named. Hope, despair, and memory are what Wiesel's all about: they make up the three central pillars of the speech. But "memory" is the true star of the show, and Wiesel outlines just how vital the act of remembering, and the sharing of memories, is to preventing unnecessary and unconscionable repetitions of the past.
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. (1, 1)
This sentence is almost a crash course in great first lines: the "legend" of the Besht, all of his important titles, and his "urgent and perilous mission" all contribute to the intrigue here. We want to know who this Besht dude is, in much the same way we want to know what a hobbit is when we read the first line of The Hobbit, want to know who this Ishmael dude is when we read Moby Dick, or want to know why Gregor Samsa turned into a bug when we read The Metamorphosis.
But Wiesel doesn't just bring up Besht because it makes for good storytelling. He also uses Besht as a potent symbol…but we'll let you mosey on over to "Symbols, Motifs, and Rhetorical Devices" for more on that.
Mankind must remember that peace is not God's gift to his creatures, it is our gift to each other. (29, 9)
This, folks, is a classic call to action. And what better action could you be called to do than the action of…being fundamentally decent and peaceful? (Sounds good to us, tbh.)
Many speeches trying to move an audience to do something usually wrap up with actually asking them directly to do said thing. Elie Wiesel is no different here. Also, we think it's a nice touch that he didn't just ask people to go out and pursue peace, but asks them to remember the gift of peace. That underlines once again the main theme of the speech: memory.
Tough as in difficult to understand? You're all good. Some intense vocabulary aside, Elie Wiesel does a great job at keeping this lecture accessible for a general audience. This man had a message and he wanted it understood.
But tough as in difficult to hear? This speech is hard. Hearing about the atrocities that people can commit is heartbreaking, nerve-shattering stuff.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (8, 4)
Rabbi Baal-Shem-Tov (1, 1), (29, 6)
Shimon Dubnov (18, 1)
Nelson Mandela (25, 2)
Andrei Sakharov (25, 7)
Vladimir and Masha Slepak (25, 7)
Ida Nudel (25, 7)
Josef Biegun (25, 7)
Victor Brailowski (25, 7)
Zakhar Zonshein (25, 7)
Ethiopians (26, 2)
Cambodians (26, 2)
Boat people (26, 2)
Palestinians (26, 2)
Mesquite Indians (26, 2)
Argentinian "desaparecidos" (26, 2)
Johannes Sebastian Bach (8, 4)
Genesis 1:1-9 (6, 3)
Judas Maccabeus (13, 3)
Bar-Kochba (13, 3)
David (13, 4)
Solomon (13, 4)
Reverend Peg Boyle Morgan, "Elie Wiesel: View Through the Valley," February 8, 2004 (29, 1)
James Earl Jones, John Jay College Medal of Justice Ceremony in New York City, May 6t 2014 (1, 1-9) (2, 1-10)
Serban Nichifor, "Ha'Shoah," 2015
Night wasn't the original name for Wiesel's most famous book. The original 800-page manuscript was titled Un di Velt Hot Geshvign—Yiddish for And the World Remained Silent. We think this original title ties in pretty exactly with the message of his speech. (Source)
Elie Wiesel was actually a victim of Bernie Madoff's infamous Ponzi scheme, costing him and his wife their life's savings and fifteen million dollars from their foundation. Stealing from a Holocaust survivor and from a Holocaust memorial foundation is a very, very special kind of low. (Source)
In 2011, Elie Wiesel underwent open-heart surgery. A year later, he published his memoirs: "Open Heart." (Punny and true.) (Source)
Elie Wiesel was also assaulted by a Holocaust denier, who tried to strong-arm him into admitting the Holocaust never happened. Even over thirty years after he gave his "Hope, Despair and Memory" speech, Holocaust deniers still are floating around. (Source)
You might have seen the famous picture of a young Elie Wiesel inside the concentration camp, but that picture was also responsible for reuniting him with his sister. She recognized him from the shot, and they were able to find each other after the war. (Source)