Published in French in 1992, The Forgotten
is a novel by author, political activist, professor, and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel. The story follows Elhanan Rosenbaum, a Holocaust survivor who is slowly but inexorably losing his memory to an Alzheimer’s-like disease. Elhanan desperately tries to communicate his life story to his son, Malkiel, before he can no longer remember it. He also tasks Malkiel with a pilgrimage to the Eastern European village of Elhanan’s birth to resolve a guilty memory that has tormented him since the final days of World War II.
Born in Romania of Hungarian and Jewish descent, Wiesel was fifteen when he and his family were sent to the Jewish ghetto of Sighet and later to the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Wiesel survived, though his mother, father, and sister were murdered. Wiesel became a tireless advocate for Holocaust awareness and education, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. The Nobel Committee called Wiesel a “messenger to mankind.” His humanitarian efforts and determination to preserve Jewish history, tradition, and culture earned him many international awards including an honorary knighthood. In The Forgotten,
Wiesel explores the importance of memory and the powerful connections it forges between generations.
The narrative switches perspectives between Elhanan and Malkiel, moving backward and forward in time. Elhanan, a respected psychotherapist in New York City, is devastated to learn that his “memory is dying.” He opens the novel with a prayer to the God of Abraham asking to preserve his memory so that he may continue to remember and bear witness. Elhanan reveals his past in flashbacks. Throughout his story, Elhanan entreats Malkiel to remember his Jewish heritage and to never abandon the memory of his forefathers.
Raised in a traditional Jewish family, Elhanan’s childhood in the village of Feherfalu is sweet. At thirteen, however, things begin to change with the onset of WWII. At the age of fifteen, Elhanan travels to his uncle’s village to find out if the rumors of Nazi violence toward Jews are true. Elhanan discovers that all the Jews there have been confined to a ghetto. He locates his uncle with the help of Itzik the Long, and Elhanan’s uncle confirms that Nazis are massacring the Jews. Elhanan is trapped in the ghetto when it is sealed by the Nazis but escapes the transports with Itzik. The two become partisans, part of the Jewish resistance.
Elhanan eventually returns to Feherfalu only to find the town has been emptied of Jews and his parents are gone. He is one of the only Jewish survivors. There, Elhanan witnesses the event that will come to haunt him: he finds Itzik raping the Romanian widow of Zoltan, an anti-Semite. Elhanan tries to help but cannot get Itzik to stop violating the woman. Elhanan feels helpless, complicit, and guilty. He comments that his loss of memory and history is a punishment for seeing this sin committed and forgetting the precepts of Jewish law. Elhanan says he forgot to struggle against evil and forgot that one can never simply remain a spectator to evil. Elhanan declares, he “forgot so many things that day…That is why I am forgetting other things now.”
Living in a camp for displaced people after the war, Elhanan meets Talia, a Zionist activist. Together they travel to Palestine, getting married onboard their refugee ship. Elhanan joins the underground movement in Jerusalem and is taken prisoner defending the city. While in a Jordanian prisoner-of-war camp, Elhanan learns that Talia has given birth to their son. Upon his release, Elhanan returns to Jerusalem only to find that Talia’s parents did not tell him that Talia died in childbirth. Elhanan believes that Talia’s death is also a punishment for his failure to stop the rape.
Depressed, Elhanan moves to live with a cousin in New York. There he attends school, works, raises Malkiel, and eventually becomes a psychotherapist.
Elhanan’s story is complemented by Malkiel’s narrative. Malkiel is forty, born in 1948, the year the State of Israel is formed. A journalist for The New York Times
, he is in a long-term, serious relationship with fellow journalist Tamar, a passionate, outgoing, Jewish girl from a big family who cares deeply about him and Elhanan. Although Malkiel loves Tamar, he has resisted marrying her and has had several relationships with other women.
At Elhanan’s request, Malkiel travels to Feherfalu. There, he visits the Jewish cemetery, studying the headstones and learning about his grandfather. Hershel, the cemetery’s caretaker and gravedigger, calls himself the “last Jew” of the town. He tells Malkiel a story of the “Great Reunion” of dead, ghostly rabbis who could not save the Jews from the Nazis. Hershel also introduces Malkiel to Ephraim, a self-named “caretaker of memory,” who advises Malkiel that Elhanan sent him to the village not to enter death, but to emerge from it.
Before returning home to his father, Malkiel searches out Elena Calinescu, the now elderly woman whom Itzik raped long ago. Malkiel is harsh with her, reopening wounds and memories that she has tried to forget. He apologizes for his cruelty, revealing that his father was the man who had tried to help her. Malkiel understands her need to forget but explains that he needs to resist forgetting. Elena thanks Malkiel and tells him to thank his father.
Malkiel visits his grandfather’s grave one last time. He pledges to bear witness in his father’s place, and to speak for him, because it is the son’s duty not to let his father die. Malkiel urges his father not to resign himself to the disease, but rage against it. He also vows to reconcile with Tamar and love her with his whole heart.The Forgotten
closes with Elhanan expressing his belief that “God cannot be so cruel as to erase everything forever.” He then loses his narrative voice mid-sentence.
The Chicago Tribune Book World
called The Forgotten
“a book of shattering force that offers a message of urgency to a world under the spell of trivia and the tyranny of amnesia.”