Study Guide

Hope, Despair and Memory Themes

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  • Suffering

    You probably saw this one coming from a mile away.

    After all, what's being either remembered or forgotten in "Hope, Despair and Memory" is 100% grief and suffering. While the kind of suffering caused by the Holocaust is unfathomable, and the forty years between then and this speech have brought all kinds of new suffering, that's all the more reason to keep the memory of those who have suffered—and all their suffering—alive.

    Questions About Suffering

    1. Why did Wiesel struggle to convey the suffering they endured during the Holocaust?
    2. Why should the remembrance of suffering protect against future suffering?
    3. Does Wiesel think one people's suffering should be remembered over another's?
    4. Why did the survivors of the Holocaust truly despair only after they left the concentration camps?

    Chew on This

    Elie Wiesel's theory about memory being able to stop future tragedy is really banking on empathy in order to work. Simply knowing about injustice in the world isn't going to cut it—people have to actually care about other people's suffering to do something about it.

    One of the problems Elie Wiesel ran into while speaking up about his experiences during the Holocaust was other people simply not being able to comprehend the scale of suffering that he went through. If you haven't been through something of that scale (and indeed, few people have, fortunately enough), it can be hard to really feel the weight of it.

  • Memory and the Past

    Memory's really at the heart of this one—shocker in a text called "Hope, Despair and Memory," we know.

    This is ultimately a speech about how memory is the key to solving mankind's problems, simply by providing a list of things not to repeat. But memory also, more deeply, makes up who we are as people. We are the collection of memories we pick up along the way.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. Why is the loss of memory a "divine curse"?
    2. How does memory, even of traumatic events, bring hope?
    3. How should memory be able to protect against future trauma?
    4. How does Elie Wiesel think memory has failed?

    Chew on This

    Misremembering the past is incredibly influential on how we shape policy as a nation today, because historical memory helps us shape what we flag as actual problems.

    Many people misremember history because they find the actual record uncomfortable, or distasteful. By twisting the record, they can go on unchallenged by the world around them.

  • Passivity

    It's important if you remember…but it's only going to help if you actually do something about it.

    Elie Wiesel thinks that memory should stir people to act against injustice, instead of just tuning it out and going on with their lives. In "Hope, Despair and Memory" he urges people not only to remember for themselves, but pass along the memories that they have heard and to make sure they act against the repetition of the past.

    Questions About Passivity

    1. Why does Wiesel think speaking up is action enough?
    2. What does Wiesel think is the "fault of memory"?
    3. How does Wiesel explain those who weren't moved to action by the stories of Holocaust survivors?

    Chew on This

    For Elie Wiesel, forgetting and passivity are tied inherently with each other—to be passive is to ignore a problem, or to willfully choose to push it out of your mind.

    Passivity can stand in as a tolerance for injustice, a tolerance that feels particularly bad in a time of global turmoil. The problems facing 1986 were dire enough that Elie Wiesel needed to rouse the average listener to put pressure on the institutions keeping the injustices of the time alive.

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