Authors: Elie Wiesel
The Town Beyond the Wall
The Gates of the Forest
The Jews of Silence
Legends of Our Time
A Beggar in Jerusalem
One Generation After
Souls on Fire
Ani Maamin (cantata)
Zalmen, or the Madness of God (play)
Messengers of God
A Jew Today
Four Hasidic Masters
The Trial of God (play)
Five Biblical Portraits
Somewhere a Master
The Golem (Illustrated by Mark Podwal)
The Fifth Son
Against Silence (Edited by Irving Abrahamson)
The Six Days of Destruction (With Albert Friedlander)
From the Kingdom of Memory
Sages and Dreamers
Copyright © 1990 by Elirion Associates, Inc.
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Schocken Books Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Distributed by Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
Originally published in the United States by Summit Books, a division of
Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York, 1990.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Wiesel, Elie, 1928-
From the kingdom of memory : reminiscences / Elie Wiesel.
1. Wiesel, Elie, 1928- —Biography. 2. Authors, French—20th century—Biography. 3. Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945)—Influence. 4. Civilization, Modern—20th century. 5. Jewish meditations.
F THERE IS
a single theme that dominates all my writings, all my obsessions, it is that of memory—because I fear forgetfulness as much as hatred and death. To forget is, for a Jew, to deny his people—and all that it symbolizes—and also to deny himself. Hence my desire to forget neither where I come from, nor what influenced my choices: the haunted sites of my childhood; the land of malediction where in an instant youngsters grew old; the people I met along the way.
Remember … Remember that you were a slave in Egypt. Remember to sanctify the Sabbath … Remember Amalek, who wanted to annihilate you … No other Biblical Commandment is as persistent. Jews live and grow under the sign of memory. “Do not forget that you are Jewish,” are the words—perhaps the last—Jewish parents used to say to their sons and daughters when they
left home. To be Jewish is to remember—to claim our right to memory as well as our duty to keep it alive.
Through the recent past I find my distant origins, going back to Moses and Abraham. It is in their name too that I communicate my quest. When a Jew prays, he links his prayer to those of David and the Besht. When a Jew despairs, it is Jeremiah’s sadness that makes him weep. The Jew’s memory draws its strength from that of his people, and beyond it, from humankind.
For memory is a blessing: it creates bonds rather than destroys them. Bonds between present and past, between individuals and groups. It is because I remember our common beginning that I move closer to my fellow human beings. It is because I refuse to forget that their future is as important as my own. What would the future of man be if it were devoid of memory?
? Perhaps in order not to go mad. Or, on the contrary, to touch the bottom of madness.
Like Samuel Beckett, the survivor expresses himself
en désespoir de cause
, because there is no other way.
Speaking of the solitude of the survivor, the great Yiddish and Hebrew poet and thinker Aaron Zeitlin addresses those who have left him: his dead father, his dead brother, his dead friends. “You have abandoned me,” he says to them. “You are together, without me. I am here. Alone. And I make words.”
So do I, just like him. I too speak words, write words, reluctantly.
There are easier occupations, far more pleasant ones. For the survivor, however, writing is not a profession,
but a calling; “an honor,” according to Camus. As he put it: “I entered literature through worship.” Other writers have said, “Through anger; through love.” As for myself, I would say, “Through silence.”
It was by seeking, by probing silence that I began to discover the perils and power of the word.
I never intended to be a novelist. The only role I sought was that of witness. I believed that, having survived by chance, I was duty-bound to give meaning to my survival, to justify each moment of my life. I knew the story had to be told. Not to transmit an experience is to betray it; this is what Jewish tradition teaches us. But how to do this?
“When Israel is in exile, so is the word,” says the
Book of Splendor
. The word has deserted the meaning it was intended to convey—one can no longer make them coincide. The displacement, the shift, is irrevocable. This was never more true than right after the upheaval. We all knew that we could never say what had to be said, that we could never express in words—coherent, intelligible words—our experience of madness on an absolute scale. The walk through fiery nights, the silence before and after the selection, the toneless praying of the condemned, the Kaddish of the dying, the fear and hunger of the sick, the shame and suffering, the haunted eyes, the wild stares—I thought that I would never be able to speak of them. All words seemed inadequate, worn, foolish, lifeless, whereas I wanted them to sear.
Where was I to discover a fresh vocabulary, a primeval language? The language of night was not human; it was primitive, almost animal—hoarse shouting, screaming, muffled moaning, savage howling, the sounds of beating.… A brute strikes wildly, a body falls; an officer raises his arm and a whole community walks toward a common grave; a soldier shrugs his shoulders and a thousand families are torn apart, to be reunited only by death. Such was the language of the concentration camp. It negated all other language and took its place. Rather than link people, it became a wall between them. Could the wall be scaled? Could the reader be brought to the other side? I knew the answer to be No, and yet I also knew that No had to become Yes. This was the wish, the last will of the dead. One had to shatter the wall encasing the darkest truth, and give it a name. One had to force man to look.
The fear of forgetting: the main obsession of all those who have passed through the universe of the damned. The enemy relied on people’s disbelief and forgetfulness.
Remember, said the father to his son, and the son to his friend: gather the names, the faces, the tears. If, by a miracle, you come out of it alive, try to reveal everything, omitting nothing, forgetting nothing. Such was the oath we had all taken: “If, by some miracle, I survive, I will devote my life to testifying on behalf of all those whose shadows will be bound to mine forever.”
This is why I write certain things rather than others: to remain faithful.
Of course, there are times of doubt for the survivor, times when one gives in to weakness, or longs for comfort. I hear a voice within me telling me to stop mourning the past. I too want to sing of love and its magic. I too want to celebrate the sun, and the dawn that heralds the sun. I would like to shout, and shout loudly: “Listen, listen well! I too am capable of victory, do you hear? I too am open to laughter and joy. I want to walk head high, my face unguarded.” One feels like shouting, but the shout becomes a murmur. One must make a choice; one must remain faithful. This is what the survivor feels; he owes nothing to the living, but everything to the dead.
I owe the dead my memory. I am duty-bound to serve as their emissary, transmitting the history of their disappearance, even if it disturbs, even if it brings pain. Not to do so would be to betray them, and thus myself. I simply look at them. I see them and I write.
While writing, I question them as I question myself. I write to understand as much as to be understood. Will I succeed one day? Wherever one starts from, one reaches darkness. God? He remains the God of darkness. Man? The source of darkness. The killers’ sneers, their victims’ tears, the onlookers’ indifference, their complicity and complacency: I do not understand the divine role in all that. A million children massacred: I will never understand.
Jewish children: they haunt my writings. I see them again and again. I shall always see them. Hounded, humiliated, bent like the old men who surround them trying to protect them, in vain. They are thirsty, the children, and there is no one to give them water. They are hungry, the children, but there is no one to give them a crust of bread. They are afraid, and there is no one to reassure them.