Analysis of Elie Wiesel’s The Forgotten

“For the dead and the living, we must bear witness,” Elie Wiesel stated in his work And the Sea Is Never Full: Memoirs, 1969–, a motto now adopted by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. But how can the Shoah survivor who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease “bear witness”? Wiesel explores this problem in The Forgotten, the novel he has described as his most depressing because its kindly, scholarly protagonist, Elhanan Rosenbaum, is victimized yet again, this time not by the Nazis but by a disease that goes unnamed in Wiesel’s novel. Wiesel writes in his memoirs that he kept this manuscript in a drawer for several months until he figured out how he could communicate some kind of hope by its conclusion. The Forgotten, first published in French as L’Oublie in Paris by Editions du Seuil, was translated into English in 1992.

The hope revealed by Wiesel in what could be perceived as a totally tragic novel stems from the deep love between Elhanan and his son Malkiel. Devoted to each other self-sacrificially and constantly, they gradually learn how to “transfuse” memory from the survivor to his descendant. As a scholar and psychotherapist, Elhanan understands both the importance of telling stories from his rich life and the horrible inevitable mental deterioration that Alzheimer’s disease causes, ultimately reducing its victim to jumbled phrases, potential loss of identity, silence, and death. Elhanan’s prayer to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob opens this modernistic novel: “Do not abandon me, God of my fathers, for I have never repudiated You.” Elhanan spends many hours during the early stages of his disease narrating his memories to Malkiel and Tamar, Malkiel’s fiancée, plus writing personal journal entries and tape recording autobiographical anecdotes. His biggest assignment for his son is to send him to Feherfalu, Romania, his hometown, in order to visit the place where Elhanan grew up happily with his family and returned brokenhearted upon discovering that all of them had been murdered by the Nazis.

There is also a mystery to be solved in this town, complicated by Elhanan’s inability to recall the events and persons involved in this intrigue. Its gravity is so great that he believes God is punishing him via his disease for his failure to act appropriately. By the close of the novel Malkiel does indeed solve the mystery so that he can lift Elhanan’s guilt by reassuring him with the truth.

Wiesel’s novel is challenging because of its fragmented style and Elhanan’s increasingly confused speech as his disease progresses and his rationality decreases. Yet Wiesel displays his consummate literary artistry by joining his story’s serious content with this most appropriate approach. Displaying an uncanny ability to understand the mental disintegration of a victim of Alzheimer’s while remaining totally in control of his novel’s fragmented content, Wiesel provides a realistic glimpse of the horrors of this malady and of how a devoted family member can best love and preserve the Shoah survivor’s important memories.

Further, Malkiel’s self-sacrificial love for his father helps him to grow from a nomadic, somewhat irresponsible journalist into a mature man ready to take on marriage, children, and his father’s dark but beautiful memories:

Despite the pain and sorrow, we’ll [Malkiel and Tamar] put our trust in what exalts us—my father’s relentless sufferings—and in what thwarts us, too—the ambiguities of life, most of all Jewish life in the diaspora. We’ll forge new links from which new sparks will rise. Spoken words will become signs, words unspoken will serve as warnings. And we’ll invent the rest. And my father’s memory will sing and weep in mine. And yours will blossom in our children’s.

Kolbert, Jack. The World of Elie Wiesel: An Overview of his Career and Major Themes. Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna University Press, 2001.
Roth, John K. A Consuming Fire: Encounters with Elie Wiesel and the Holocaust. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1979.
Wiesel, Elie. And the Sea Is Never Full: Memoirs, 1969–. Translated by Marion Wiesel. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.
———. Memoirs: All Rivers Run to the Sea. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995.

Categories: Literature, Novel Analysis

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