The Torah commands us regarding Amalek, “Remember what Amalek did to you when you were on your way leaving Egypt…you shall not forget.” (Deut. 25:17) So grave is the obligation to remember the sufferings inflicted on the Jews during their desert sojourn, the Torah emphasizes this mitzvah as both a positive — “remember” and a negative — “do not forget” — requirement. If Amalek is the paradigmatic tormentor and destroyer of the Jews, the successive generations of “Amalek” must be remembered and not forgotten as well. In our time, Amalek was reincarnated in the person of Hitler and his Nazi murderers.
Elie Wiesel, Nobel Laureate and acknowledged representative of the Holocaust generation, has set “Memory” as the centerpiece of his opus and of his theological/philosophical world view. In Wiesel’s own words: “Memory should become an irresistible power, one that gives the dead their due, that tells their story — rather brings them back to tell their story, even if it was buried with them in an unknown place.” It is, therefore, appropriate that Wiesel’s 70th birthday should be commemorated with a Festschrift concerned with the role of memory in literature, religion and ethics.
The essays included in this volume, which is based on a three day symposium entitled “The Claims of Memory” held at Boston University, can be assigned to three main categories. The first, “Memory and the Word” examines the interface of historical truth and narrative recollection. In her convincingly argued submission, Cynthia Ozick uses Benjamin Wilkomirski’s memoir, Fragments, as the paradigmatic example of fiction presenting itself as authentic memory. Other aspects of literature and memory are addressed in essays by Susan Rubin Suleiman and Shlomo Breznitz.
The second group of essays may be placed under the general rubric of “Divine Memory.” In two papers by Paula Fredriksen, a professor of scripture at Boston University, and Nehemia Polen, professor of Jewish thought at Boston’s Hebrew College, the fascinating question “Does God Have a Memory?” is explored by reference to the Confessions of Augustine and the biblical book of Nehemiah. A third category of entries deals with the ethical dimension of memory under the title, “History, Memory and Ethics.” John Silber, professor of philosophy and president emeritus of Boston University, cautions the reader about the potential for “memory run amok” whether as a result of acts of omission (the failure to include all the relevant historical data, as was the case at the commemorative site at Babi Yar) or acts of commission, by importing acts into the historical account, both of which create ethical dilemmas with farreaching consequences.
Additional aspects of the concept of memory, specifically in the context of the Holocaust, are explored in essays by Jeffrey Mehlman, Nancy Harrowitz, Geoffrey Hartman and Alan L. Berger. In an Afterward, Elie Wiesel expresses his gratitude to the contributors of Obliged by Memory, and his own determination to transmit the unimaginable horror of the Holocaust universe and perpetuate the memory of the voiceless victims, despite his doubts concerning the efficacy of words to capture this indescribable and sui generis reality.
Stephen H. Garrin is a past managing editor of Jewish Book World and a past assistant to the director of the Jewish Book Council.