Study Guide

Hope, Despair and Memory Quotes

By Elie Wiesel

  • Suffering

    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. (27, 1)

    Suffering doesn't need to be the end, and trauma is something that, while stubborn and remarkably long-lived, can be overcome.

    And yet real despair only seized us later. Afterwards. As we emerged from the nightmare and began to search for meaning. (8, 1-3)

    Sometimes the true depth of trauma is really only understood after the fact, because during the experience so much of your mental resources are dedicated to surviving. Once the crisis blows over, so to speak, you can actually reflect on what happened.

    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? (9, 2-3)

    Elie Wiesel's talking about how fundamentally trauma can warp someone's perspective of the world. Knowing that there are perfectly fine and friendly people in the world might not nearly be able to comfort you as much.

    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? (14, 3-4)

    Being able to forget a traumatic experience, even if only in the present, is a powerful coping mechanism. It can be so powerful that it can cause people to repress memories entirely.

    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. (22, 1-4)

    One of these groups of people, of course, is Holocaust deniers. People who deny the Holocaust ever happened either a) are horribly Anti-Semitic or b) unable to comprehend that humanity is capable of doing something so terrible, or even that Western civilization can do something so terrible, despite ample evidence to the contrary.

  • Memory and the Past

    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. (5, 11)

    One of the main things memory is (at least, in theory) good for is a reminder not to do terrible things. But, memory's not such a perfect record.

    "Forget", they were told, "Forget where you came from; forget who you were. Only the present matters." (7, 2)

    The Nazis had a vested interest in having their victims forget their lives outside of the camp. If you take away thoughts of a person's family, job, and life before the concentration camps, then you might have an easier job getting them to accept their terrible conditions as the way things are.

    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? (10, 1-3)

    Forgetting's a powerful coping mechanism. But when you forget things that cause you shame completely, you won't learn that powerful lesson that shame is trying to bash into your skull right when you're trying to go to sleep.

    Remembering is a noble and necessary act. The call of memory, the call to memory, reaches us from the very dawn of history. (12, 2-3)

    After all, what is history even about but the formal remembering of the past? Learning from past mistakes is the heart of the whole heart of the study

    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? (24, 4-6)

    This is the central paradox, the central moral failing that Elie Wiesel is using this speech to speak against. Memories of the '30s and '40s were needed in order to avoid the atrocities that occurred during those decades from repeating…but instead, those memories were avoided.

  • Passivity

    How could we ever understand the passivity of the onlookers and—yes—the silence of the Allies? (8, 17)

    One would think that, after witnessing the Holocaust, the victors of World War II would be first in line to condemn it, especially considering the Nazi's status as Public Enemy #1. But it took a shockingly long time for the Allies to come out and condemn the Holocaust.

    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. (22, 1)

    Terrible facts can motivate, but they can also stun. Passivity can be an unintended side effect.

    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. (24, 1)

    The pace of change can be so brutally, frustratingly slow that it may seem as if the entire world is mired in passivity and unwillingness to alter behavior.

    There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest. (29, 1)

    Action doesn't need to be transformative. Speaking out against oppression and injustice is something that, at the very least, we all can do.

    Mankind needs peace more than ever, for our entire planet, threatened by nuclear war, is in danger of total destruction. (29, 8)

    With this speech, Elie Wiesel wants to ultimately shake his listeners out of their passivity…because the stakes are way, way too high for inaction.