Elie Wiesel

The Use and Misuse of Memory

VTR Date: March 9, 1993

Guest: Wiesel, Elie


Host: Richard D. Heffner Guest: Elie Wiesel
Title: “The Use and Misuse of Memory”
VTR: 3/9/93

HEFFNER: Whatever paths nations follow or overarching choices mankind makes about issues that universally claim our attention, surely it is instead whatever individual l men and women, you and we, decide and then do about these issues much closer to home and hearth that truly loom largest. So that whatever we do must be measured in personal moral terms.

I’m Richard Heffner. My friend and colleague is Elie Wiesel, distinguished writer, novelist, teacher, much-honored Nobel Peace Prize winner. Together our dialogues will examine what may be considered the moral responsibility of the private person in dealing with each of many issues facing us today. Those ranging from capital punishment to the proper boundaries between religion and politics, church and state. From the proper limits on extending life, at its beginning and at its ending, to education for what, for whom? Well, today our dialogue will focus on the use and misuse of memory.

And Elie, you had suggested this, and I had the feeling that this topic has a wonderfully important meaning for you. What is that meaning?

WIESEL: The beginning, the word “memory”, that word almost combines all my obsessions, all my priorities. We are committed to memory. I am because of what I remember. If I do what I do, what I’m trying to do, it’s again because I remember. And therefore “memory” is probably the key word in my vocabulary.

HEFFNER: What are we not memorizing? And I use that word purposefully. It’s more than memory. What are we not committing to memory again and again and again that distresses you?

WIESEL: I am distressed because memory itself today which should be a sanctuary has become almost an abomination in the name of memory.

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

WIESEL: I’ll give you a very concrete example. I was recently in what used to be Yugoslavia. I want to Bosnia, Sarajevo, Belgrade. I visited a prison camp, a prison in Sarajevo. And then I understood why I am so troubled and depressed. Not only because I have seen suffering, imprisonment, victimization. And that is enough to make you feel depressed. But also because I realize that in those places in that land, in that tormented land, it is memory that is a problem. And it’s because they remember what happened to their parents or their sisters or their grandparents, that they hate each other. I believe in the redemptive quality of memory. I always tried to say it’s because we remember that we can be saved from further punishment. But there is the opposite. So I am asking myself, maybe memory is not the answer. Not the only answer or entirely the answer. That is what I mean.

HEFFNER: I’m sure that your answer to the question of what it is is, as usual, both. It is redemption…

WIESEL: It is. But I thought of only redemption. And I have to change my attitude, I think. There is also a part of destruction or destructiveness in memory.

HEFFNER: Elie, doesn’t it seem that throughout history if one had to identify which aspect of memory was overweening, overriding, loomed largest, wouldn’t it be that negative use of memory? The hates that are ancient, the grievances that are ancient?

WIESEL: Yes, but then I could turn it around, you see, because I remember the consequence of hate that I should teach against hate. Take religion. Religion used to be, it’s meant to be, after all, I hope so, it’s meant to be a link between human beings, has become a destroyed bridge. It has become a weapon against human beings. Religions that preached love actually practiced hate. The religion that celebrated life served death. How many religious wars – what a word, “religious wars” – are still being waged in this world? So therefore, I think if I then take the lessons to my students or my readers, I can say, “Therefore, remember that religion must be a human experience as well. Therefore, remember that religion must bring sanctity into the profane.” And so forth. But it is true, we remember the negative, we remember the pain, and we stop there.

HEFFNER: Would you, as a consequence, embrace instead then those who say, “Each day let us begin anew?”

WIESEL: No. No. nevertheless, you know, my favorite words are “and yet.” And yet I think that memory is still the main component in human experience and any human endeavor. Whatever we do we must remember there is a context. There are certain words that preceded my own, there are certain gestures that preceded my own. There are certain adventures that preceded my own. I am a result of who knows how many generations of fathers and mothers.

HEFFNER: but focusing on the past, focusing on memory, there are those who say, “That focus blinds us to the need to look anew at the world around us, to deal anew with the world around us.” Why do you…You say you think of history, memory as redemptive. Tell me more about what you mean about that.

WIESEL: Well, I believe, first of all, if we remember what human beings have done to other human beings, in this case, to my people, the Jewish people, I think we can prevent – not the same, because never will it be the same – we can prevent other tragedies from occurring tomorrow.

HEFFNER: What do you base that upon? More than hope or wishful thinking? What in man’s history leads you to believe that an understanding of the evils of the past will prove redemptive in that way?

WIESEL: Well, because understanding those evils and the consequence of those evils would also mean self-preservation. A million and a half Jewish children have been killed. How many Nobel laureates were among them? How many were killed at the age of one, two, or three? How many scientists, how many physicians, how many researchers? Maybe one or them or two of them or ten of them would have invented a remedy a cure against AIDS, cancer, heart conditions. Which means because the world – why not call it that, the world, whatever it means, the world – allowed it to happen, the world hurt itself. The world is suffering now. It’s being punished. But I don’t think it deserves it, by the way, because the children of today don’t deserve that punishment. They are not guilty. Surely not. Only those who committed the crimes are guilty. Only the killers are killers. And yet we suffer. So maybe, this is only one example, that if we learn the lessons of the past, we would know what not to do.

HEFFNER: If we learn the lessons of the past, Elie, if we had at any time in the past, doesn’t the thought occur to you that time would then stand still, would stop, that we have been driven to some extent not just by the better angels of our nature, but by evil too?

WIESEL: You know, to believe that people could disappear totally, that the evil instincts would be abolished, is a utopia, and you know very well that “utopia” is a word that Thomas Moore invented, and he wrote it in the Sixteenth Century. And what does it mean? It means “nowhere.” Utopia is the definition of a place that doesn’t exist, of things that cannot happen. We Jews believe in Messianism and the Messiah will come, things will change for the better, and totally. All right. But wait. We’re waiting. I still believe that the human being is everything. I have in me everything that everybody else has. And I am the totality of the human species. So are you. So is everybody else. That is the beauty about it. That means I have something of you, and you have something of me, and all of the millions of viewers who watch you, they may say the same thing. The beauty of all the human experience to me always is that, think about it, from the beginning of time, to the end of time, there can never be another Dick Heffner. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: (Laughter) That may be terribly good. There are a lot of people here who’d applaud.

WIESEL: Absolutely, but still, think about it. Seriously now. Really, every human being is unique. Now, if you remember now, remember the past. What the Nazis or the Germans then did, they used to say to themselves, “What do you mean? Come on. Doctors? Jewish doctors? They are replaceable. Everybody is replaceable. Jewish musicians, replaceable. Jewish scientists are replaceable.” Everybody, they thought, is replaceable. And I say no. A human being is not replaceable. Functions can be replaced. Human beings, irrespective of their color, creed, national origin, ethnic origin, religion, nothing. The human being is unique. That is the greatness of a human being. Once you say that, then you say everything. That means I owe something to that human being who is the center of the universe.

HEFFNER: Elie, I come back, despite the beauty of your words, despite your eloquence, to ask what indication there has been in man’s long history that history, memory has been redemptive, that memory, an understanding of what we have done to each other, has prevented us, has stopped us from doing the same thing again and again and again?

WIESEL: I can’t give you evidence really. It’s an instinctive hope perhaps, or a faith, a trust that I’ve placed in ourselves. Maybe it’s unfounded. But what is the alternative? What else will save the human condition? What else will save humanity? We have seen – I can now plead your case – we have seen that in spite of 2,000 years of Western civilization, of all the great musicians in Germany, the Bachs and the Beethovens and all the poets, the Schillers and the philosophers, the Fichte and Kants. Look what they have done. So you many say, “Look, we remember them. We study them in school. After all, who can study philosophy without studying Kant? And who can love music without adoring Bach and Beethoven?” And yet look, it ended up in Auschwitz. So this is, of course, a case in point. But I must say, and yet. And yet what I can do then is take that paradigmatic event and turn it around and say until now we have not succeeded. But because we have reached a paradigmatic or parodoxic state of affairs in evil and suffering and death, we must turn history around. And from that memory you must draw sustenance.

HEFFNER: So in a sense you are saying we have not remembered in the past.

WIESEL: Of course not. We remember certain things. And even if we, when we remember, it is abstract memory. We didn’t, as few people who speak, put a face on that memory.

HEFFNER: When we spoke to the theme of “Am I my brother’s keeper?” we didn’t develop that sufficiently. I didn’t pick it up wisely.

WIESEL: It’s only a half-hour.

HEFFNER: (Laughter) But your emphasis upon a face, a face, a face. You think that we would, as my grandmother used to say, take a lesson, if we put a face upon the past. But yet, Elie, is there any question but that we have seen the faces of those who have suffered in the past or those who are suffering now and yet we are not moved sufficiently?

WIESEL: Once more, once more I plead your case. In 1945 all the newspapers in the world, in the United States, all the magazines showed the pictures of the concentration camps. And yet for another five years the DPs remained in those camps. How many were allowed to come in America? Instead of inviting them over here and saying, “Come. Those who want to go to Palestine, good. All the others, come, we shall give you what you really need most, that warm, human warmth.” Furthermore, look. We saw what happened in South Africa. Apartheid is, I think, a blasphemy. And we saw these white racists killing. I remember images that move me to anger, because I remember the images of processions, funeral processions. They had killed Blacks because they were Black. And then they disrupted the funerals by killing more people. That is the limit of endurance, the limit of any tolerance. And we should have protested louder. And yet we didn’t.

HEFFNER: Let me just ask you the question though in terms of the uses of history. Do you think in the future Black South Africans, native South Africans will remember, as you remember, these pictures and find, and we, the rest of the world, will find that history does not provide redemption, it provides anger and a reminder of evil done to us?

WIESEL: I think the first phase will e a phase of anger. But afterwards I think the voices of reason and compassion will be heard in that community. I have faith in that community because it suffered so much. And I have faith in some people that I know there because they will say what we are trying to say to our own friends here, that suffering confers no privileges. It all depends what you do with it.

HEFFNER: On the other hand, you have reminded us of your own recent travels to parts of the world where ancient hatreds have been stirred up again. History as redemption. Memory as redemption. Is that what you have really meant?

WIESEL: Oh, yes. I meant it. I meant it. It’s my homeland. Memory is my homeland. It can protect me. It did. In fact, it did.

HEFFNER: What do you mean by that?

WIESEL: I would have gone insane. Not during, but after the war. I would have lost my mind, or my life. And it is because I remember that I could remain human.

HEFFNER: Remembered what?

WIESEL: The good and the bad. That I remembered. In memory you are not alone. You are surrounded by people. Those who are not here anymore, naturally, but they are there in your memory. They live. And you hear them and you speak to them. And when you need a presence it’s their presence. Of course, it’s a dead presence, but still it’s a presence. The presence of the dead is also a presence. And without memory, then what is worse than to live without a future? It’s to live without a past. And I think memory is that past.

HEFFNER: It’s interesting that you put it that way because it seems to me as a teacher for so many decades now that I increasingly feel on the basis of my observations that we are becoming a people in a sense without a future and without a past. That they go together. There it is. We live for this moment. We seize this day. But there is very little knowledge of or concern about the past and seemingly what our path will lead us to is not of consequence either.

WIESEL: Because, because there is too much happening in the present, and we are therefore glued again to the present. We want to know what is happening now while I watch television, while I hear radio, while I read the newspaper. However, there I have faith there will be a change. There will be a change. There must be a change where people will shake up and say, “Where did we come from?” The first question that in my tradition, the Talmudic tradition, the person should ask himself or herself is, “Where do I come from?” You know, in my, you honored me and visited me a few times. And you saw behind my desk there is always a picture of the house where I was born. In the beginning it had no electricity and nothing, and no running water. Even to the end it didn’t have running water. And I want to remember that is the place where I come from. And therefore whenever I go over I go sometimes I see important people who think they are important. Sometimes I go to leaders. I must remember where I come from. If not I wouldn’t be able to write what I am writing.

HEFFNER: Elie, but a question that I’ve always wanted to find the answer to…

WIESEL: Well, ask now.

HEFFNER: I must ask now. If I ask it, “Where is it written?” the trouble is, you will tell me.

WIESEL: I will tell you, sure.

HEFFNER: What is the source of your ability to transform, “I want this to happen”, into “It will happen?”

WIESEL: Oh, I never know it will happen. Oh, no. I want it to happen.

HEFFNER: But you seem to be saying we will develop this capacity, because we must.

WIESEL: I say it because I, precisely I think that because I say it, it will happen. Or while I say it, it is happening. But I know very well my limitations and our limitations. I know that what do we really have? We have words. That’s all we have. We have no money in the bank. We are not rich. We don’t have important things that other people have like new luxury cars and so forth. We have words. Words are our luxury. But words to us mean something. They carry a certain weight. And I think that if you say so somebody will hear. Who knows? Somebody will hear and say, “Ah, that’s a good idea. Why not work on it?”

HEFFNER: Why is it that you will say, “If we say it someone will hear and say, ‘That’s a good idea, we’ll work on it.” And I say more times than I like, “Someone will hear and say, ‘Oh, go fly a kite.’” What separates us or brings us together?

WIESEL: It doesn’t. It doesn’t’. You know very well that when I am terribly pessimistic I invent reasons to be hopeful. But then when I am hopeful I have enough reasons to be pessimistic. You know that. It’s not a matter of new dialectic; it’s true. Because I have seen so many things in my life that compel me to be pessimistic. But then I try to invent other reasons and say, “Well, despair is the question, not the answer.”

HEFFNER: You said before that if you hadn’t had memory during the times in the camp and afterwards, you would not have survived. That’s a very hard concept.

WIESEL: And I think, first of all, the Jewish people wouldn’t have survived. The Jewish people would have gone under long ago. Logically we shouldn’t have continued. There wasn’t a century during which the Jewish people have not been persecuted by somebody for some reason. And I think if we remain, it’s because we have memory, we remember somebody, we remember the Exodus, we remember moral values, a moral mission perhaps. That doesn’t make us, by the way, superior, you know. I reject any notion of religious superiority or nationalistic or ethnic or racial superiority. It is stupid. Stupid to think so. But there is something that brought drama in history. In our history. That’s memory. And today, the moment you invoke memory there is drama.

HEFFNER: It’s interesting certainly that in the – I used to teach American history, as you know – and I remember so well the old slave codes in the pre-Civil War south where there was an understanding that memory was a key to efforts to achieve freedom, and so it was forbidden in so many ways for the slaves to join together and remember for religious purposes, for whatever. But that of course provides me with an opportunity once again to be pessimistic because I look around me and find that memory is not there. We are less and less aware of our heritage. I’m not speaking about Jews, I’m not speaking about Catholics, I’m not speaking about any one group. I’m talking about Americans generally as being memoryless. Now, how do we deal with that?

WIESEL: There is a marvelous anecdote in Hasidic literature. A young student came to a famous master and said, “Master, I am terribly disappointed in God.” “Why?” “I’ll tell you why,” said this student. “It took him six days to create the world, and look at it. It’s terrible.” So the master said, “Tell me, could you do better?” And the student, not knowing why, said, “Yes.” And the master said, “In that case then what are you waiting for? Start doing it.” Same here. Let’s start.

HEFFNER: Start. Where does one…And we’re talking about, in the minute and a half that we have left to this dialogue, we’re talking about personal decisions. Where does one start?

WIESEL: I would organize here, for instance, in this city, programs that children in elementary school should go and spend one afternoon with their grandparents or with the old people in old age homes. To interview them. To say, “Speak. Tell us about your childhood.” Can you imagine young children, seven, eight-year-olds, of all colors from everywhere with little tape recorders to go to the old age home and say, “Tell me, Grandpa or Grandmother or Mr. and Mrs., tell me about your childhood. Where do you come from? What do you remember? What was your family like? What were you like?” Come on. That is memory. You acquire memory. And nothing would please more those old men and women and nothing would enrich more those young children.

HEFFNER: It’s that enrichment that you are aiming at essentially as a key to their futures and understanding of the past.

WIESEL: No doubt. Because I think already about the next century, and I think we are responsible for our children’s future.

HEFFNER: Elie, we’ve come to the end of today’s dialogue. There will be many more. I’m so pleased that both of us as historians in our way, in our way, could address ourselves to the uses and misuses of memory. Thanks.

WIESEL: Thank you.