Elie Wiesel

The Claims of Memory

VTR Date: November 17, 1998

Guest: Wiesel, Elie


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Elie Wiesel
Title: The Claims of Memory
Recorded: 11/17/98

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And I know I’ll never tire of introducing my guest today who has joined with me so many times on this program… and on “Dialogues,” our new series of home video conversations on capital punishment; on genetic engineering; on that perennial question, “am I my brother’s keeper?” On taking life as an act of mercy; and on various other crucial issues of our times that, as he says, must all be dealt with in moral terms.

Writer, teacher, scholar, human rights activist, survivor, Elie Wiesel has been awarded the French Legion of Honor, the President’s Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal and the Nobel Peace Prize, among many other honors.

Recently at Boston University, where he is University Professor and Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities, scholars gathered from far and wide for a two-day day Symposium in honor of my guest’s 70th birthday (an age, he should note, that I can barely recall).

Well, the Symposium’s title, so appropriate for my guest, was “The Claims of Memory,” the one word he has said that characterizes all of his work. For even the threat of not remembering, of forgetting/denying the Holocaust remains for him dreadful beyond belief.

Yet reports of the Symposium indicate that memory may be differently and perhaps unevenly served by history and by literature. And I would like to begin today by asking Mr. Wiesel’s judgment about Clio and her rival muse even as we read the stunningly evocative first volume of his memoirs, All Rivers Run To The Sea, recently published by Alfred A. Knopf. Elie, what about the muses, the rivalry between history and literature?

WIESEL: History and literature, of course, are part of our experiences. Are part of our intellectual endeavor. One cannot live outside history and one cannot live without literature. The problem is what is more important? Memory or fiction? Literature is a vast concert… poetry, philosophy, essays, music. I mean words for the music. So what is really predominant? What should be the predominant element in our endeavor, in our quest? Is it fiction or is it memory? Memory without fiction? I would accept. Fiction without memory, no. I would not.

HEFFNER: But you say “fiction without memory, and my understanding is the, the colleagues of yours who celebrate literature and who want to commemorate the Holocaust do not do so without memory, but feel rather that fiction is a way of preserving memory better than we can preserve it because you and I are simply mortal.

WIESEL: We are. My good friend, either I believe that memory must be truthful but not always is, or I believe that fiction because of its artistic truths is more truthful than memory. Can they go together? I don’t think and yet I know that certain attempts have been made by great writers and some have succeeded. It is possible, I cannot do it. Because I cannot… I couldn’t imagine Auschwitz before, nor could anyone else. I couldn’t imagine it during. And not even now. But we tried to share this bit of knowledge. Not much because nobody can understand what really Auschwitz was unless someone was there. Only those who were there know what it was. So therefore there’s a limit there already. Unfortunately, what the enemy has done, he has created a place of evil and cruelty and death of such magnitude that we cannot grasp it now. Can we remember it? I don’t think so. But we can remember fragments. If we take all the fragments that have been written, all the testimonies that have been given, and they were in the thousands and thousands. They of course, offer us an assurance that the Holocaust will not be forgotten. The danger is in trivialization. It can be trivialized, it can be cheapened, and it has been done. But there again, who are we to say… I am not a censor, I would never say that a person is not free to do whatever he or she wants in literature. But I simply cannot do it.

HEFFNER: Well, I understand that you are not setting your canon against those who would use imagination and literature. I understand that. But the judgment that it is impossible for the imagination to create or re-create is such a fascinating one to me, and it isn’t until you say, as you just said, “I could never have imagined the Holocaust. I could never have imagined, and I can’t now, its horror.” But I understand what you’re saying.

WIESEL: Dick, it is not because I cannot explain that people don’t understand. It is because people will never understand that I cannot explain.

HEFFNER: But what chance is there that without the aid of the imagination, that history really will survive. Where will it survive if it can’t survive in the mortal minds of the colleagues who experience it with you?

WIESEL: It can survive because it already survives in a way.


WIESEL: This is the more documented tragedy in recorded history. No other tragedy has been as documented. We have elements given to us by the victims themselves, by children and by the old. By agnostics and by faithful. We have been given testimonies even by the killers. In pictures. In words. In poetry. In music. Millions of pieces of evidence exist now. And they will be available, they all ready are, to anyone who wants to know. And therefore, I am not afraid, really of forgetting. Of the event being forgotten. It cannot be forgotten. But the problem is, of course, the embellishment. If an event is embellished to an extent that the truth… the inner truth, not only the artistic truth, is gone, what remains?

HEFFNER: You’re saying there’s no way than once the embellishment begins…

WIESEL: To go back to the soul. Then what can we do then?

HEFFNER: Elie, you say you’re not worried that memory will not be retained.

WIESEL: MmmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: Do I misunderstand… when we first met more than a decade ago, perhaps two decades ago, that that concern was very real in your mind.

WIESEL: It was… still is in a way, of course. But don’t forget what the world now… for the last twenty years certain things have been done. Many, many books have been written, in the hundreds. By survivors, and by victims whose manuscripts were found. And then the museum in Washington, in New York… allover the world now there is such a tremendous effort being made to help memory. So I’m less pessimistic than I was twenty years ago.

HEFFNER: And yet the memory is not pure, it needs to be interpreted and I’m aware when Daniel Goldhagen sat at this table that he was expressing ideas that have been challenged by others who are as concerned as he is.

WIESEL: That’s all right. If the historian quarrel, it’s all right. But when historian quarrels with the novelist, then it’s a problem. Who… that even more so than an historian or a novelist quarreling with someone who was there, with a witness. And then I would always favor the witness. Even if the witness itself… that means the testimony given by the witness is faulty, I would say the witness is right.

HEFFNER: How do you account then for, given the fact that the witnesses have come forward, they have testified, we have them with us… how do you account for the fact that increasingly there seems to be a niavatism in this country that is connected with a denial of the Holocaust.



WIESEL: No. I think… here is a group, of course, there is a group, really in California, but they have people everywhere… it’s not a huge group… it’s a very small marginal group, very well-financed. We spoke about it years and years ago, I don’t know who gives them the money, there has been lots of money. And they are everywhere, it’s true. But it’s a small group, one must be evil, or must be insane really to propose something like that. That all of us weren’t… who were there… are imagining things. That our parents haven’t been killed. It’s ugly. It’s so ugly that to argue with them, or to refute them, I would never do that. And I don’t think that the American people or anyone else really lend credence to their silly, ugly, stupid arguments.

HEFFNER: So you are not terribly concerned about that?

WIESEL: Not about them. Time… because of time people forget. After all it’s normal. People… let’s say the fourth generation, the fifth generation will know less than we do. Of course. Do I remember the Inquisition? To the Jewish people it was… to the victims of the Inquisition in general, it was a tremendous event. And for many generations we remembered it. I remember it because I studied Jewish history. And I am fascinated with all the elements that play a role in Jewish history. Why are we hated? Why were we hated so persistently, consistently by so many people?


WIESEL: I don’t…do you think I know? [Laughter].

HEFFNER: You must have some sense…

WIESEL: I would tell it to you… I tell you the truth, Dick. I don’t want to give them an answer. Let them answer. Let those who hate answer you. Why should I give them…

HEFFNER: Fair enough.

WIESEL: … I don’t want to help them. Let them invent a good answer. If they have a good answer… good… I don’t think they have a good answer. But the fact is that for two thousand years we Jews have suffered. Look, Communists and anti-Communists. We were treated like that, either we were too poor or too rich. Either too religious or not enough. Either too patriotic or too cosmopolitan. And when all the contradictions merged in the hatred of the Jew. It was possible to say something and believe in the opposite and hate a Jew. Why? That fascinated me. So I tried to understand the Inquisition in the name of love. In the name of love, of God, of mercy. Priests after all who served their savior, thinking that they would please the savior and God, they brought Jews to the stake and watched. Do you know that they had a handbook in the Inquisition? The Inquisitors Handbook, how to torture? And it had the imprimatur of the Vatican. I don’t understand that. So I, because I’m interested, and somehow we all remember the Inquisition. But, to live with it now? Five hundred years from now I hope there still will be a planet and society and human beings will be human and they remember. I think that we, really, because we Jews remember what happened four thousand years ago… we left Egypt. We sit down every Passover and we celebrate the Passover because we say, “as if we had left Egypt.” I remember twice, at least once a year we fast. Twice… twice… Yom Kippur… Day of Atonement and the day when… to commemorate the destruction of the temple… we fast the whole day. Come on, that happened… the first temple was destroyed in 586 before…Why are we doing it today?

HEFFNER: Yes, but your concern is not if we remember. Your concern is that the Holocaust be remembered …

WIESEL: It will be remembered.

HEFFNER: But you know, Elie, I’m so interested… I understand totally your concern about trivialization. If one moves outside of the realm of history, inside to the realm of the imagination… I was telling my students the other day, I don’t remember the context… about the apocryphal, perhaps apocryphal story of Abraham Lincoln being introduced to Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and saying to her, “so you’re the little lady who wrote the book that made this great war.” And when you talk as you do, I can’t help but think about the power of literature and the capacity of literature to rouse our emotions, to rouse our determination, and yet you fear novelization. You fear it as trivialization ultimately because it is not limiting itself to history, to fact.

WIESEL: Dick, I’m a novelist so, of course…

HEFFNER: So you know.

WIESEL: I believe in literature. I believe in novels. I believe or else write them. However, what I’m afraid of is when the novels will be taken as documents. And that is my fear. If the novel says… it’s like the Museum in Washington… which I invested so many years of my life there… if a person goes to the museum and says… and as that person leaves says, “now I know.” I failed. If a person leaves the Museum after these hours and hours of visiting and learning and goes out and says, “now I don’t know,” then I know. Same as writing a novel. If the novel says “and now go and read the documents, read the testimonies,” then it’s perfect. But if the novel comes instead of the document, then it’s not.

HEFFNER: At the Symposium at Boston University. What was the division… I know there was a division. But how did it, how did it work itself out?

WIESEL: Only one session… one, one session it was. It worked itself out because the both sides were very, very eloquent and articulate. And even… except for one person who says, “no, the novel… the novelist has all the rights.” All the rights in the world. It’s true, it’s true. The novelist has all the rights in the world except… except not all the rights, for instance.

HEFFNER: Wait a minute. You’re not talking about rights, are you? You’re talking about wrongs, really. That a novel becomes by definition wrong… because it cannot convey…



WIESEL: If it does not purport… if the goal of that novel is not to convey history then it’s all right. But if the novelist said, “the goal of this novel is to give history,” then it’s wrong. It’s not only that. Suppose a novelist, who is a brilliant novelist, who has college and fantasy and decides to write a novel describing how the Holocaust didn’t occur. What then?

HEFFNER: That of course, is in a sense what is happening with those you say… very few… who were denying the Holocaust happened.

WIESEL: That’s right. If they say it in historical terms, who cares? Really, I don’t care. But if it’s a great novelist who says it, who says, “I want to break” you know, “the mold.” And I would say what nobody dares to say, in novel form. I don’t believe in it, but I want to prove that it’s possible.

HEFFNER: So you’re afraid that turnabout might be fair play. No fair play, but turnabout the power of fiction.

WIESEL: Because I believe in the power of fiction, of course. On the other hand, believe me, I see students and they read a page of testimony. They are moved, deeply moved than by the best novel that they could read.

HEFFNER: Well, certainly in visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington, that is history and it is, I guess for me, the most moving experience I’ve ever had.

WIESEL: But still the best… the best… I think the most human experience that one should feel if one visits Buchenwald in Poland… it’s not the museum, just barracks. Go there. Something, something remains in the air, in the clouds. That a million, almost two million people were killed, a million and a half Jewish. To be there, it’s more than all the museums in the world. But be warned, to visit Buchenwald is really, is heart-breaking, more than reading any novel in the world. And the same is true for testimonies. If you read the young boy… if you read his books… no novelist has the power, the pathos and the dark beauty of a boy’s desire to survive in his words.

HEFFNER: So you really hope… you will not try to make it so… but you really hope that the Holocaust stays “off limits.”

WIESEL: I don’t even dare to say that again because it would sound as if I want to censor or limit the novelist’s right. No. I would like the novelist to be sensitive to our concerns even when he or she writes the novel.

HEFFNER: Elie, you know you’re, you’re… what you say reminds me of this clipping that I brought with me. It’s from the New York Times back in October 1998, “Giving Memory Its Due In An Age of License.” And it’s, of course, about the Symposium “Giving Memory Its Due.” And memory to you then is the historical record. Then I turn to another New York Times piece from August 1998, a debate about teaching the Holocaust. And I wonder where do you come down on this question of teaching?

WIESEL: I’m for teaching. You know, I, in truth, I began my academic career… I taught at least one of the two courses I gave was on the Holocaust for two years or so here at City College when I was still here. Because very few people thought at that point, almost thirty years ago, taught the Holocaust, And I felt, I was convinced by my children to do it. The most difficult thing to do, and therefore…

HEFFNER: For you personally.

WIESEL: …personally. I have such a gratitude and admiration for those who do teach the Holocaust because I cannot. It was so difficult to be with students in class and read to them about Warsaw, or about Treblinka, and then at say one point, say, “101 biology.” The students couldn’t leave and I couldn’t leave. We stayed. We stayed in the classroom. Then I found out that most of students then were actually children of survivors. It was even more difficult. Because their parents didn’t talk to them. So they came to me, I became a surrogate father. Then the parents came to me to talk to me about their children. So I became the bridge between two generations there. And for two years it was very, very, very harrowing. But I think the most important lessons could be taught in that reality.

HEFFNER: And being taught elsewhere and eventually by people who did not experience the Holocaust.

WIESEL: Certainly, most of the people who teach now haven’t experienced it, naturally. But they are good professors and they’re committed… if one can teach the Holocaust without trembling, he shouldn’t teach it. And most of the people who teach that subject today tremble… before and during and after. And that trembling they have inherited from us.

HEFFNER: You say “have inherited.” Would you prefer to say that trembling which I felt when we visited the Museum in Washington comes from the testimony of the victims?

WIESEL: Well, that’s what I mean “heritage” of course. They had to ask us who went through the experience.

HEFFNER: Elie, what, what is your take on the efforts to record the memories?

WIESEL: I’m for it. I even think I was probably the first who suggested it to the American Jewish Committee. Once, more than thirty years ago I spoke for them and I say, “you are the most important” (at that time they were, maybe they still are)… people.” I said “why don’t you do that?” Go simply record, record the victims because this is a testimony that is unique, which cannot, cannot be imitated. Nor can it be duplicated. Do it. Then they established the creative… I think it was called the Wiener Library… or something like that. They wanted to give my name to it, I don’t want it. I didn’t like… my name is on my books, not other projects. But that’s how it began and then Yale University began an archives with the Jeffrey Hartman, a professor at Yale. And I helped them. I am for it. I am very very much for it. For all the recordings of all the victims.

HEFFNER: What’s happening now… we just have a few minutes left… what’s happening to the next generation… not the children of Holocaust survivors, but the children of the children of survivors?

WIESEL: The children of children… they come back to their grandparents …strange as it is, you know, children rebel occasionally against their parents, but not against their grandparents. And therefore you see it in every movement. The Communist Movement failed and abdicated because of the grandchildren. And you have here the grandchildren whose grandparents used to be Lenin’s companions. And they realized that it was wrong and they rebelled against. So, I believe that there is no subject in the world today, in the twentieth century, which is as important as this one. And it all has to do with memory. Will the memory of this century have an impact on the next? We are on the threshold. What are we bringing to the next century, to the next millennium? Only the memory of cruelty? That would be wrong. Then we would become a morbid generation. They must also show that it was possible to fight evil. It was possible to vanquish death. It was possible to remain human in inhuman conditions. And then, of course, I would show all the things that have been created, even inside. In the Warsaw Ghetto, for instance, they made medical experiments to save people from tuberculosis. And they made discoveries there. Where did they take the courage, the audacity, the vision to write art there? There’s something to learn from this century.

HEFFNER: And where did they… where did they develop whatever it might be called that would enable them to hold on to their worship of their God? How do you explain yourself a God?

WIESEL: Look, if I were to speak only of despair, my despair… I wouldn’t, I don’t speak of myself. I usually speak about others. But what would I give young people today? Only despair. If that were my lesson, I think I would keep it in my drawers, I wouldn’t publish it. Do you know when I write a novel, and if it’s filled with despair, I don’t give it to my publisher until I find a way out. There must be something else. I don’t want young people to read only about despair. There must be something else.

HEFFNER: Elie, as we end our program, I can’t help but think, though we haven’t discussed it now, we will at another time, that the Memoirs are an indication that despair is not in your vocabulary. And again I appreciate your joining me here on The Open Mind.

WIESEL: It’s always good to be with you.

HEFFNER: Thanks, Elie. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.