From The Kingdom Of Memory, Reminisces by Elie Wiesel
As is the case with the author’s writings in general, there are some very good parts and some more problematic parts to the author’s writings. Yet even where the book is less immediately enjoyable, as in the author’s efforts to politically influence President Reagan regarding the honoring of German war dead at Bitburg, the book is at least instructive. In this book, and in Wiesel’s body of work as a whole, one sees the massive influence of trauma and its aftermath in the writing of the survivor. The horrors suffered by the author and by other Jews serve as a black whole at the center of the author’s writings. Some of those writings are about the black hole, a few of them seek to delicately probe into it without being overwhelmed, and many of them concern the orbit around that black hole and the destructive wreckage left behind by that black hole, and so is the case here. To be sure, the author writes about other aspects of faith and history and memory here, but all of them are informed by his experiences, and by his desire that memory, including the memory of so many Jewish dead, triumph over oblivion and destruction.
This book is a short one of about 250 pages and it is filled with smaller essays and other writings (including some chilling dialogues) that are centered around the author’s own fragments of memory. In these pages, the author comments on why he writes, whether it is better to believe or not, what it feels like to be inside a library, the portrayal and language used of the stranger in the Bible, a celebration of friendship, and gives a biographical essay on Peretz Markish. After the first set of dialogues the author talks about his own travels to the concentration camps, his returns to his hometown, gives a moving portrayal of saying kaddish for the victims of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, tries to make the ghosts of memory speak, talks about Passover and gives the text for a speech on meeting again regarding the liberation of the concentration camps. A few of the essays that follow are more political in nature, like one on trivializing memory and an appeal for President Reagan to not go to Bitburg where some SS are buried, as well as the author’s testimony at the Barbie trial. The author talks about memory bringing people together, gives some more dialogues, talks about freedom and our fear of peace, and then closes the book with his Nobel address and lecture.
In reading this book one gets a sense of the burden that the author feels as a Jew. For example, the author feels a strong solidarity with other victims as a result of his own personal experience, which was strongly connected to his own identity. He struggles to provide the dead with a fitting memory that serves to dignify them and counteract both the hatred and violence and the sheer indifference and apathy their lives and deaths have made in the world. Wiesel feels as if the horrors of the Holocaust should have been sufficient to permanently ennoble human behavior and put it on a more peaceful and less destructive bent, but this has clearly not happened, and the author finds himself affected by this futility, wondering about the purpose of all of this suffering either at the command or with the permission of a God that he simply cannot understand. Over and over again Wiesel finds himself obsessed with the question of memory and with the fact that life for the survivor is haunted with the ghosts of the past, and with the fact that so many of the places where that past was experienced have become museums or tourist attractions or are inhabited by people who have little interest in what has come before.