Book Review: Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom by Ariel Burger

Elie Wiesel is best-known as a novelist, a political activist, and a Nobel Laureate. But according to Ariel Burger, if you asked Wiesel what he saw as the core of his life’s mission, he would say, “I am a teacher first, and teaching is the last thing I will give up” (p. xi). Burger was Wiesel’s student, teaching assistant, and then long-time friend. As their relationship became closer, Burger began to view Wiesel as his rebbe and consulted him not only on his academic projects but also on his spiritual life. When Burger had doubts that, as a teacher, he was not doing enough to make a difference in the world, Wiesel reassured him that “teaching is a form of activism” (p. 174).

Wiesel taught at Boston University, where he was Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities and University Professor for thirty years. In his seminars, he focused on many issues, including indifference, intolerance, and hate. But the issue which troubled him more than any other was indifference to humanity. Ariel Burger recalls that Wiesel said, “Each time I hear this song [‘It Burns’, a Yiddish song composed by Mordecai Gebertig, who was murdered by the Nazis], it breaks my heart, and I think of the world, today, in danger. And what are we doing about it? (223)” The following words from “Es Brent” explain Wiesel’s strong emotional reaction:

It burns, brothers, it burns,

Our poor shtetl pitifully burns.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Don’t just stand there looking on,

Hands folded, palms upturned.

Don’t just stand, put out the fire.

Our shtetl burns!

 

In his novel The Town Beyond the Wall, Wiesel states: “This, this was the thing I had wanted to understand ever since the war. Nothing else. How a human being Can remain indifferent” (149).

Also prominent among Wiesel’s struggles was his wrestling with God over what he witnessed at Auschwitz after arriving there at age fifteen. However, we may be surprised to learn that, although Wiesel placed his traumatic Holocaust experience at the center of his work, he used very few Holocaust books in his courses.  Instead, he concentrated on works by writers such as Dostoyevsky, Kierkegaard, Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka, and Albert Camus as well as his favorite biblical book, Job. Among Hasidic texts he was especially attracted to the writings of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav who stated: “No matter what, do not despair. . . .  [T]o renounce despair is an act of the will. And it is the only way to continue and be able to confront, to resist darkness” (125).

Wiesel’s method of teaching was not to lecture but to respond to questions raised by his students. His aim was always to deepen the students’ questions: “I always teach with an open heart. Not just for moral reasons, but for pragmatic ones—a teacher’s open heart makes it possible for students to open their hearts as well” (65).  He did not hesitate to tell his own personal story of survival in Auschwitz and Buchenwald. I was surprised to learn that he rarely used Night, which is perhaps the most widely read book on the Holocaust, in his courses. But when his students pointed out that Oprah Winfrey had chosen it as her book club selection, stating that “Night was required reading for humanity,” he began using it more frequently at his students’ request.

His major goal was to teach his students not to be silent.  He believed that “action is the only remedy to indifference: the most insidious danger of all” (Noble Peace Prize Speech, December 10, 1986). He organized many conferences on how best to confront hate. One such conference in Paris included more than seventy Nobel Laureates. Not many people may know that for Elie Wiesel, interreligious dialogue was a big issue and he organized a meeting between Nelson Mandela and a minister of the de Klerk government. Wiesel stated that “dialogue is not the answer, it is the only answer.”

A question that was often asked in Wiesel’s classes was whether one could still believe in God after the Holocaust and all the other recent genocides. Wiesel himself would at times ask his students, “And where is God in all that?” (101). His own response was that we must struggle with this question without expecting an answer. In the essay “The Death of my Father,” he wrote: “The survivors . . . are aware of the fact that God’s presence at Treblinka or Maidanek—or, for that matter, his absence—poses a problem which will remain forever insoluble . . . Perhaps someday someone will explain how, on the level of man, Auschwitz was possible; but on the level of God, it will forever remain the most disturbing of mysteries” (Legends of Our Time, 6).

What stands out for Ariel Burger is that Wiesel opened himself to his students and was especially good at listening to them. It may seem surprising that in spite of his Holocaust experience, he believed that “Love is possible. Hope is possible” (65). In this he reminds me of the well-known statement by Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of the Lithuanian Musar Movement, a self-perfection movement, who said: “The Maharal of Prague created a golem and this was a great wonder. But how much more miraculous it is to transform a man of flesh and blood into a mensch.” Both Wiesel and Salanter believed that education could be a path to transforming a human being into a mensch.

I had the privilege of meeting Elie Wiesel on a few occasions. I especially recall the one time in Denver in the early 1980s when I spoke to him at some length. He was one of the first people with whom I shared my personal experience as a Holocaust survivor. I had read a number of his books, and I knew that for him the key word was memory: “We must remember. And we must bear witness” (Against Silence, vol. 2, 162). I also lived with my memories every day of my life and felt that I had a responsibility to tell my story with the hope that such an event would never happen again, that the earth would never be so “soaked with blood.” But I also felt that it should be told by people who were older than I was and who remembered their experiences much better than I did. I imagined that no one would believe my story of having lived in a tunnel underneath a stall in a cattle barn for nineteen months and five days in total darkness and silence with very little room to move and very little to eat. It was not until twenty years later that I felt ready to attend a conference of Holocaust survivors in Vilnius, Lithuania, and realized my responsibility to begin telling my story. I can’t say with certainty what influence my meeting with Wiesel had on me, but shortly thereafter I began to teach a course on the Holocaust.

I was excited to learn of a book that focuses on Elie Wiesel as a teacher. Ariel Burger’s book is an excellent, accessible introduction to a brilliant teacher and an extraordinary human being. He was, in the words of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, “a messenger to mankind.”

About the Author
Harold Kasimow has written and published books on Pope John Paul II, Pope Francis, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Jewish-Christian-Muslim-Buddhist relations. His books and articles on interfaith dialogue have been published in the US, Poland, England, Belgium, India, China, and Japan.
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