The Forgotten (L'oublie)

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Novel by Elie Wiesel, 1989

The theme of Elie Wiesel's novel The Forgotten (1992; L'Oublie, 1989) is the sanctity of human life among the infirm and the handicapped. In the person of Elhanen Rosenbaum, Wiesel describes a dignified man with a heroic past struggling with the onset of Alzheimer's disease. The Jewish psychiatrist had spent World War II as a partisan in the Transylvanian forest fighting against the Nazis. His son Malkiel makes a trip to Hungary to try to understand more of his father's past before it slips away from Elhanen's memory altogether.

While in Hungary, Malkiel meets Herschel the Gravedigger who was also a partisan. Herschel tells the story of a great reunion. Having survived a roundup of Jews in the ghetto, Herschel went to a Jewish cemetery to contemplate the next phase of his survival strategy. The throes of crisis drive him into a psychotic breakdown. He believes himself to be communing with the deceased rabbis of the Jewish community, who urge him to escape to the forests and join the partisans. The contents of his hallucinations during the breakdown show him to be a man of great intelligence, well versed in Hasidic Judaism. Wiesel experiments with the notion that the mentally ill may have unusual prophetic powers. In the case of Herschel, mental illness does indeed seem to have some life-saving properties. His psychotic voices give him a suggestion that is a reasonable alternative to waiting for the Nazis to round him up.

The mentally ill gravedigger establishes a reputation for himself by telling people stories of the war era. Nonetheless, he appears to be a man who is shunned and disregarded by most of the locals, due to prejudice against him.

As Malkiel makes preparations to return to the United States and contemplate further care for his father, he is as perplexed as ever:

I know: even the most eminent doctors are sometimes wrong. I sometimes wonder if the diagnosis is correct. I wonder if my father is suffering from amnesia or some other disease. He may know everything that's happening to him, everything said in his presence, everything going on around him and within him, and he may want to react, to respond, but he may be incapable of it. Or he may not want to. He may be disappointed in mankind. And in its language. He may reject our worn and devalued words. He may need others, he may be choosing to feign forgetfulness so that he can remain speechless.

Malkiel speculates that Elhanen's case of Alzheimer's disease may be a feigned madness like that of Hamlet, brought about so that Elhanen can deal with survivor's guilt.

—Peter R. Erspamer

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The Forgotten (L'oublie)

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