Weighty Memories

`TO remember is to create links between past and present, between past and future. To remember is to affirm man's faith in humanity and to convey meaning to our fleeting endeavors.'' So states Elie Wiesel, surviving witness to the Holocaust, 1986 Nobel Peace Prize winner, and prolific writer and speaker. He wants desperately to be understood in part so that the horrors he recalls will never be repeated.

``Why I Write'' is the first piece in ``From the Kingdom of Memory,'' a collection of essays and speeches. This is a compelling, spiritual essay, imploring the reader to empathize with those who have suffered. ``I hear a voice within me telling me to stop mourning the past. I too want to sing of love and 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 am open to laughter and joy!''' Yet, it is impossible to ignore the experiences that have imprinted his being since childhood. ``I write to understand as much as to be understood. Will I succeed one day?'' There are certainly those who will suggest he already has.

In the essay ``To Believe or Not to Believe,'' he begs us to listen and heed the true voice of God and our own true inner voices. ``Today's generation is loquacious. There has never been so much talk. Television, radio, satellite telecommunications, speeches, interviews, commentary, news analysis: modern man is bombarded with so many voices that he no longer hears any. Certainly not his own.''

Midway through the book is ``Pilgrimage to the Kingdom of Night,'' where some of the volume's most stunning writing can be found. Just a small example: ``A few meager candles down which wax drips like tears of agony.''

The ``Kingdom of Night'' in this case is Birkenau, Poland, and other sites where the atrocities against the Jews and their sympathizers were committed. He carries weighty memories from these dread places and shares them unstintingly. No, it is not easy to plow through the heartbreaking and hideous events as though they happened yesterday. But his thought and emotions at times attain the ring of greatness.

Among the book's most poignant passages are the memories of Wiesel's innocence as a boy, and his faithless years in Paris after what he calls ``the nightmare.'' ``Why not admit it? I was angry at God, too, at the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. How could he have abandoned his people at the moment they needed him?''

Not that these personal probings and confessions come easily to him. ``I force myself to share the secret that consumes me. I try to make the ghosts within me speak. Does that mean that the wound is healed over? It still burns. I still cannot speak of it. But I can speak - that's the change.''

Wiesel can speak indeed. Also in the book are several public speeches that are extraordinarily moving. One is the address he gave when presented with the Congressional Medal of Achievement by President Ronald Reagan in 1985. The author of some 30 books used the occasion to adjure the president, in exquisitely forceful reason and language, not to visit Bitburg, Germany, because members of the German S.S. were buried there. (The president did go to Bitburg, hoping it would lead to some healing.)

Also here are his trenchant testimony at the Klaus Barbie trial in 1987 and a speech at the Reichstag three years ago.

The final chapter of the book is the essay, ``Hope, Despair, Memory.'' One is tempted to add, ``Not necessarily in that order.'' For despair is treated openly in the book. Next comes memory as as purging presence - a vital prerequisite for hope.

Here, as he has done before, Elie Wiesel sheds light on the dark side of humanity.

We are all the brighter for it.

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