Elie Wiesel — an internationally recognized human rights activist, the author of the seminal Holocaust memoir Night, and BU’s Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities — turns 80 today, Tuesday, September 30, on the first full day of the Jewish New Year. In an interview with the New York Times earlier this week, Wiesel (Hon.’74) said that the birthday itself is not of great significance to him; rather, each year since his release from a concentration camp has been cause for quiet celebration. “In truth," he said, "when I entered Auschwitz I never thought I would leave it alive.”
The Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies at Boston University is holding an international conference in honor of Wiesel from Sunday, October 26, to Tuesday, October 28. Participants will discuss the major areas of Wiesel’s life work, including his writings on subjects ranging from the Bible and Hasidism to the Holocaust and the State of Israel, as well as his human rights efforts on behalf of oppressed peoples throughout the world. Wiesel will give his annual lecture on Monday, October 27, at 8 p.m. in the George Sherman Union’s Metcalf Hall, 775 Commonwealth Ave., as he has for more than 30 years. The event will be Wiesel’s only lecture at Boston University this year.
All lectures are free and open to the public, but tickets are required; a schedule and ticket information can be found at the Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies Web site.
A look inside Wiesel’s classroom, originally published in Bostonia, appears below.
Teaching Against Indifference
Classes with Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, a professor at BU for over three decades, are lessons in literature — and in the power of compassion
On a sunny September afternoon, the members of Elie Wiesel’sLiterature of Memory course are struggling with a sticky ethicalquestion: is it OK to choose a sinner to lead a nation? After ahalf-hour or so of discussion about Robert Alter’s translation of thebiblical story of David, the class has reached an apparentcontradiction: David was a flawed individual, yet he was chosen by Godas king of Israel. "Is it possible that God chose a sinner — reallyconsciously, deliberately, a sinner to be his servant?" asks Wiesel.
Students in turn respond thoughtfully, oftendrawing connections between the text and their own experience. Onenotes that the text describes David as powerfully charismatic. "PerhapsGod was drawn to him as well," he suggests.
Another sees away to connect personally with the characters in the text: "All of ushave sinned at one time or another, so we can identify with David."
Wieselstands at the front of the seminar room, his hands clasped behind hisback. He listens with great concentration, his dark eyes focused on thestudent who is speaking, now and then encouraging her with a nod or ahalf-smile. From time to time, in a voice so quiet that the class leansforward to hear, he echoes a student’s response, helping to clarify theideas in the context of the discussion: "As you said, any one of us iscapable of committing a sin, and therefore it is up to us to change sininto virtue." His concise eloquence reflects his belief that every wordis precious.
Another student raises her hand.She notes that David’s great-grandmother Ruth was a Moabite — anon-Israelite and therefore an outsider — and that David was notfirst-born. "God was carrying out his purposes through people who wereotherwise excluded," she says.
Although the students areexploring a question raised directly by the text, their responses speakto the overarching lessons of Wiesel’s teaching, which goes beyond thetypical study of symbols, motifs, and themes. The intimate explorationsof characters’ histories and motivations, students say, help them learncompassion: as they imagine the lives of characters who lived indifferent times and faraway places, they learn to identify with theliving people who inhabit other countries or belong to unfamiliarcultures. The respect he shows those he teaches makes them feelempowered — and even responsible — to better the world in some way. Bylistening closely to his students, they say, he models sensitivity toothers’ needs and points of view. And in his stories about his ownpast, students find hope.
"I remember Elie Wiesel relayeda story: during the Holocaust, observant Jews decided to put God ontrial for allowing this to happen," recalls Paul Minor (CAS’85). "Inthis concentration camp they put God on trial, and they found Godguilty of abandoning them, allowing this unspeakable horror to happen.And after the trial was over, they said evening prayer."
Storiesand questions — these are Wiesel’s tools in a pedagogy his teachingassistant Ariel Burger (UNI’08) calls "an ethical teaching againstindifference."
"Once you hear these stories, you can’t see life the same again," says Deborah Katchko Gray (SED’79).
The power of the story
ElieWiesel has many roles. A Nobel laureate, he received the peace prize in1986 for his humanitarian work. He is a witness, a Holocaust survivorwho has devoted his life to preserving the memory of that event and tospeaking for those who are voiceless. He is a scholar and the author ofmore than 40 books, including the 1960 memoir Night,considered a seminal volume on the experience of the Holocaust andrecently republished in a best-selling edition. An activist, he worksin the service of disenfranchised and threatened peoples worldwide. Hehas traveled to Auschwitz with Oprah, testified with George Clooney insupport of the African victims of genocide in Darfur. But when Wieselappeared before the United Nations Security Council in September 2006, heintroduced himself by saying simply, "I’m a writer and I’m a teacher.That is my profession, my vocation."
Since 1976, Wieselhas taught at Boston University as Andrew W. Mellon Professor in theHumanities, University Professor, and professor of philosophy andreligion in the College of Arts and Sciences. He teaches two courses ayear under the general title The Literature of Memory, but the readinglist and subtopics change each year; this year’s courses are Faith andPower in Ancient and Modern Literature and The Book of Job. Wieselmakes clear to his students that they are a priority to him; forexample, he encourages every one to meet with him for a one-on-oneconversation. Yet as he approaches 80 years of age his agendaremains filled with international activism, "actually accomplishingsomething that helps people in quantifiable ways," as Burger says. Tothose who know his schedule, it’s no surprise that he has flown toBoston for his Monday morning class from meetings with world leaders inWashington, Israel, or Africa.
Students say they areinspired, too, by the faith in humanity he maintains despite thehorrors he witnessed and endured. Wiesel and his family were deportedto Auschwitz from their home in Sighet, Transylvania, which is now partof Romania, when he was 15. His parents, Shlomo and Sarah, and hisyoungest sister, Tzipora, died in the camps. But Elie Wiesel survived,and after Buchenwald was liberated, he became a writer — a journalistin France and in the United States — and then a teacher. He views thestudy of literature as essential. "Literature may be the poetic memoryof humanity," he explains. "It is the power of the story: we see thetale and we don’t even realize the tale has entered us and has had animpact on our decisions, on our dreams, on our ambitions, our hopes."
Manyof his students have found that impact to be transformative. "He’smade me reconsider my sociopolitical stance just in the short time I’veknown him — I’ve begun to question my intellectual detachment, my proudacademic neutrality when it comes to politics," notes Terence Renaud(CAS’07), a senior history major in Wiesel’s Faith and Power course.
"I’ve always been a humanist, but he’s made me consider becoming a humanitarian as well."
"Everythingwas shaped by him," says Janet McCord (UNI’95), who directs the EdwinS. Shneidman Program in Thanatology at Marian College — work inspired,in part, by the dissertation she wrote as Wiesel’s Ph.D. student aboutHolocaust survivors who committed suicide. "Once you study with someonelike Wiesel, you try to look at the world the way he does; you try tomake sure you make an impact on that world, that you better it."
Butwhat does a literature course have to teach future doctors, lawyers,religious leaders, and artists about how to make their way in theworld? His students seem to learn from Wiesel’s courses the lessonsthey as individuals most need to hear. Geoffrey Rubin (CAS’07), apremed senior in the Faith and Power course, says Wiesel has taught himthat "literature is really a reflection of our society; it reflects allthe feelings and ideas and aspects of a person, so you can put yourselfin his shoes. It’s important for a doctor to be able to imagine theworld of his patients, and that’s one thing that Elie Wiesel has taughtme: to feel compassion for others and to care for those you don’t see,those who are disadvantaged but whom you may not know. He sensitizeshis students to feel like they have a real responsibility in the world."
Wieselhas great faith in the potential of those he teaches. "I really want mystudents, 20 years later, when they become important persons —socially, economically, humanly — whenever they will have to make adecision, the decision will be influenced by what they have learned inclass," he says.
Painter Shelley Adler (CFA’87) says shefound in Wiesel’s courses a new way to look at her art: "that everymark, every gesture, makes a difference." And Deborah Katchko Gray,whose office walls are covered with framed photographs and articlesfeaturing Wiesel, was one of the first women cantors to serve full-timein a conservative synagogue in this country. "I think I got the courageto be a pioneer because of my studies with Elie Wiesel," she says,"because I saw the risks people took just to be Jewish, just to live."
"ProfessorWiesel bridges the big ideas and questions and profound literatures oflife in various traditions, religious and secular, traditional andmodern. And he bridges all of that with very real questions aboutmaking the world a better place," Burger says. "Tachlis, we say in Hebrew and Yiddish. Tachlisis like, okay, so you’re in the university, you’re thinking a lot aboutthings, what are you going to do about it? What are you going to do tohelp people in Darfur? And on the other hand, if you’re only involvedin activism, but you don’t have any kind of life of the mind or thespirit or the heart, if you don’t have any internal life, you can dryout and become a robot."
In his classroom on Bay StateRoad, Wiesel continues to push his students, encouraging them to godeeper into the character of David. Why was this man chosen by Goddespite his sins? "There’s one thing indisputable about him that worksin his favor," he says. "What is it?"
"The poem he wrote?" one student asks.
"Ah,if poetry were such a virtue," Wiesel says with a wry smile, then givesanother hint. "It’s something that accompanied him his entire life."
"Loyalty," another student suggests, providing a few supporting examples from the text.
Wiesel listens, nods. Perhaps that is part of it. But there is another answer: "It was his passion for learning."
Thatlearning can be redemptive is one of Wiesel’s most deeply held beliefs."What I try to give to my students is my passion, that they shouldshare that passion, the passion for learning," he says later. "Learninghas never hurt people. People who believe in learning don’t hate oneanother. It’s a remedy against hatred, any learning — poetry of the 17th century, philosophy of the 19th century — butlearning together. I come from a Jewish tradition, which is learningtogether. When I was in my teens, together with a friend. Always two, apair. Through the most complicated texts, together."
"ForProfessor Wiesel the learning process involves very profound respectand very deep listening and asking questions," Burger says. "He’sreally focused on questions rather than answers, and that opens peopleup. People are willing to stay in that space of not-knowing: I don’tknow what the answer is; this is the edge of my thinking. And I’m goingto put the edge of my thinking together with the edge of your thinkingand see what happens. So it feels like an adventure."
The original version of this story appeared in the Winter 2006–2007 issue of Bostonia.