Witnessing Elie Wiesel’s Genius

A rabbi recalls his years spent teaching alongside the Nobel laureate.

Witnessing Elie Wiesel’s Genius

“Listening to a witness makes you a witness.”
– Elie Wiesel

Rabbi Ariel Burger’s journal of 25 years as Elie Wiesel’s teaching assistant at Boston University, Witness - Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom, is a strong book, part personal life saga of the author, part biography and explanation of his mentor that is enlightening and thought-provoking.

As many readers know, when a young teenager, Wiesel was arrested with his family and sent to Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Only he survived.

He was 16 when American soldiers liberated him. After studying the Talmud and living in an orphanage in France, he arrived in the U.S., taught for 34 years, wrote 40 books, and became — this book makes clear — a philosopher saint whose austere life was devoted to the elevation of humankind.

Wiesel’s book Night was a classic of Holocaust literature, published in 1958 in France (after being rejected by 17 publishers), and, two years later, in the U.S. Eventually, it became a worldwide bestseller and earned him the French Legion of Honor and the Nobel Peace Prize. Wiesel was a symbol of the horrors of the Holocaust.

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For many years, since its creation, I represented the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on over a dozen books and a television documentary. I have seen and worked on other Holocaust-related books, and keep being surprised that the literature on this subject — uniquely powerful literature — is inexhaustible, as it ought to be. After all, Jews are the people of the book.

“Jews write things down,” Wiesel explained.

In Burger’s Witness, I learned much and found myself underlining many passages (“Hope is a choice…a false prophet comforts; a true prophet disturbs”) and reading slowly — unusual for me — to think about his words. “Writing is for me not like painting; It’s like sculpture…I carve away words until what is left is essential.”

Wiesel speaks like a scholar, spouting endless aphorisms of truth and insight. Wiesel’s life, Burger points out, was not making the Holocaust his subject, but “the lens through which he looked at all subjects,” in his search for moral reasoning. Wiesel makes his memories a bridge people might cross — and many have — to deal with their suffering. “Faith can coexist with tragedy, can survive it…[with] our wounds.”

Wiesel is a storyteller, as is Burger, his disciple and biographer. Students in his classes ask questions — Wiesel tells a story, like an ancient, learned rabbi, a holy man. One example — one view I have often expressed — is that “I don’t like the word tolerate…I prefer the word respect.”

Wiesel refers to Confucius, Lao Tzu, a Hindu mystic, Freud, Dante, Sophocles, Camus, and Kafka in his responses to students’ questions. An example: “God is an argument with humankind…if you have to choose between God and man, you must chose man — God can take care of himself.” He taught this reader that the Hebrew word “Israel” means “he who wrestles with God,” apt as today’s news plays out.

How Wiesel copes with his awful past is by using his memory, choosing “to build a future rather than to avenge the past.” If he can, why can’t I, I ask myself.

Wiesel reminded readers and listeners, “War leads to more death.” Auschwitz led to Leningrad, Hiroshima, Sudan, Cambodia, and other genocides of our times. Wiesel argues that it is peace for which people need to aspire. So he reminded attendees at the opening of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, turning to President Clinton at the dais, exhorting “Never again.” Soldiers, not politicians, become peacemakers because, knowing war, they do not romanticize or celebrate it.

With followers the world over, Wiesel is “an essential part of the American literary canon…a celebrity in the pantheon of secular saints — Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi.” A modern saint, Wiesel died, at 87, a modest man who said of himself: “I learn and learn and learn, and still I feel like I haven’t even begun. But I will soon.”

His special life — tragedies and accomplishments — demonstrates how man can turn fate to one’s end.

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