Dawn, published in 1961, is Elie Wiesel’s second book. The work explores an ethical question he imagines that he might have faced under different circumstances. For this purpose, he creates a protagonist named Elisha, a young Holocaust survivor who goes to the British Mandate of Palestine in order to fight for “the Movement,” which is meant to represent the Irgun, a Zionist paramilitary organization seeking to oust the British in Palestine.
At the opening of the story, the British have captured a Jewish combatant who is sentenced to be hung for his resistance activities. In retaliation, the Movement captures a British soldier. They issue a warning: Unless the British allow the Jewish man to live, their soldier will die at the exact moment he does. When the British do not give in, Elisha is told he will be the executioner.
The story follows Elisha’s night of mental preparations for his role as executioner. He is deeply troubled by the thought of enacting such personal and direct violence, but equally determined to do what he views as necessary. As he struggles with himself, he examines his choice, conviction, and doubts through the ghosts of influential people from his life—his father, his mother, a beggar, and even his past self.
We begin our retrospective with Night, Elie Wiesel’s first and most widely read work. This harrowing account of his experience as a fifteen-year-old in the Nazi death camps became a foundational work of Holocaust literature. It was first written in Yiddish (in a longer form as Un di Velt Hot Geshvign, or and the world was silent) while Wiesel, a young journalist, was on assignment in Brazil. Night in its current form first appeared in French as La Nuit(1958), after having been rejected by many major publishing houses. In America, the book slowly attracted critical attention in the 1960s and ‘70s, when Elie Wiesel became a public figure and university professor. Night is required reading in countless high schools and colleges. It has been translated into 30 languages and sold over 10 million copies.
In the new edition of 2006 translated by Marion Wiesel, the original dedication, “In memory of my parents and of my little sister, Tzipora,” is followed by a translator’s dedication: “This new translation is in memory of my grandparents, Abba, Sarah and Nachman, who also vanished into that night.”
In a new preface, moreover, the author writes that none of his subsequent books can be understood without this very first book. What do you think he meant by that? Here are his words:
IF IN MY LIFETIME I WAS TO WRITE only one book, this would be the one. Just as the past lingers in the present, all my writings after Night, including those that deal with biblical, Talmudic, or Hasidic themes, profoundly bear its stamp, and cannot be understood if one has not read this very first of my works. Why did I write it? Did I write it so as not to go mad or, on the contrary, to go mad in order to understand the nature of madness, the immense, terrifying madness that had erupted in history and in the conscience of mankind? Was it to leave behind a legacy of words, of memories, to help prevent history from repeating itself? Or was it simply to preserve a record of the ordeal I endured as an adolescent, at an age when one’s knowledge of death and evil should be limited to what one discovers in literature? There are those who tell me that I survived in order to write this text. I am not convinced. I don’t know how I survived; I was weak, rather shy; I did nothing to save myself. A miracle? Certainly not. If heaven could or would perform a miracle for me, why not for others more deserving than myself? It was nothing more than chance. However, having survived, I needed to give some meaning to my survival. Was it to protect that meaning that I set to paper an experience in which nothing made any sense? In retrospect I must confess that I do not know, or no longer know, what I wanted to achieve with my words. I only know that without this testimony, my life as a writer—or my life, period—would not have become what it is: that of a witness who believes he has a moral obligation to try to prevent the enemy from enjoying one last victory by allowing his crimes to be erased from human memory. (vii-viii)
In launching a new minor in Holocaust and genocide studies at the College of Arts & Sciences, faculty hope that BU students won’t just learn history, but learn from history. Students will study how the 20th century’s most horrific state-sponsored mass murders, from the Nazi Holocaust to Pol Pot’s wholesale slaughter in Cambodia to Rwanda’s deadly rampage against its Tutsis, evolved. As well, the new minor will offer historical context and teach humane vigilance, says Nancy Harrowitz, a CAS associate professor of Italian, who is teaching the minor’s required course, History of the Holocaust. The minor is being offered through the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies.
Instead of viewing these atrocities as distant in time and place, an emphasis is being placed on studying them as a mirror to present-day conflicts and simmering hatreds. The multimedia coursework also answers the more urgent question, could it happen again? The answer is yes—in fact, as the coursework illuminates, attempts at genocide could likely rise from many simmering ethnic, religious, and political conflicts in the world today.
Through study of world genocide in the 20th and current centuries, “we are protecting memory,” says Harrowitz. “How do you sustain these memories in the face of deniers?” she asks. “My argument has been: if we are not able to prevent future genocides per se, in the long term we can begin to illuminate the emotional aspects of hate through education.”
Hate is a learned emotion, says Simon Payaslian, the Charles K. and Elizabeth M. Kenosian Professor of Armenian History and Literature. “We’re not born with it. It can be unlearned. Genocide can happen anywhere.”
Payaslian, who teaches courses in genocide prevention, notes in his course descriptions that the subject of genocide warrants rigorous study because genocidal acts and atrocities persist despite the 1948 United Nations adoption of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The convention, criminalizing genocide in the realm of international law, was institutionalized in 1951, and yet it has failed to prevent the string of genocides that has occurred since then.
“Societies are always changing,” says Payaslian. “The question that’s absolutely essential is, what kind of leaders do you have? One of my classes covers the internment of Japanese Americans in the wake of Pearl Harbor. You can imagine how one more executive order could have put the Japanese against a wall and shot them.”
According to its description on the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies website, the minor in Holocaust and genocide studies offers students “an opportunity to acquire basic academic tools of description and analysis of the various factors that contribute to the emergence of ultranationalist regimes and their genocidal policies.” The minor is also designed to help students “develop an awareness of the value of pluralism and an acceptance of diversity, as well as to explore the dangers of remaining silent, apathetic, and indifferent to the vilification and oppression of others.”
Although genocides large and small have been perpetrated throughout human history, the courses will focus on historical events since 1900. These include the Armenian genocide of 1915, when the Turkish-led Ottoman Empire had rounded up and deported or executed 1.5 million Armenians living there, most of them Ottoman citizens, by 1922; the Nazi Holocaust, from 1933 until the Allied liberation of the death camps in 1945, which claimed the lives of six million Jews and five million Slavs, Roma, disabled people, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and political and religious dissidents from the European countries occupied by Germany; the Cambodian genocide, from 1975 to 1979, when the Maoist Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot slaughtered an estimated three million; the Serbs’ “ethnic cleansing” of Bosnians in the wake of the 1992 collapse of the former Yugoslavia, killing 100,000; the 1994 Hutu-led killing rampage in Rwanda, which targeted Tutsis and moderate Hutus and slaughtered more than 800,000 over 100 days; and most recently, this century’s Sudan state-sanctioned murder of at least 300,000 Darfurian civilians in what is now South Sudan.
Harrowitz’s class includes writings by Holocaust survivors Primo Levi and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel (Hon.’74), BU’s Andrew W. Mellon Professor Emeritus in the Humanities and a CAS professor emeritus of philosophy and religion, who died in July, and Hannah Arendt, author of the seminal book Eichmann in Jerusalem.
“I’ve been interested in the Holocaust since I was very young, when I read about Anne Frank in fourth grade,” says film and television major Nadia Cross (COM’17), one of the first two students who signed up for the minor. She says she “was really struck by the injustices of our world, so I’ve been interested for a long time, and the minor is a gateway to learning more.”
One of the eternally relevant aspects of the coursework is its focus on bystander complicity and the notion that to do nothing in the face of lethal injustice is nearly as bad as perpetrating it. “It’s definitely something I’ve learned a lot about, something I can apply to my life,” Cross says.“We have to defend people who don’t have a voice.” Her ideal job would be to work at the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.
Students minoring in Holocaust and genocide studies must complete six four-credit courses, two required and four open electives. Among the courses are The Armenian Genocide, European Fascism, Prevention of Genocide, History of International Human Rights, and Jewish Bioethics and Holocaust Studies.
The program, which launched in September, had a celebratory kickoff in October with a preview screening of the feature film Denial, based on Deborah E. Lipstadt’s book History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier, starring Rachel Weisz as the author. Lipstadt, an Emory University professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies, attended the screening at the Coolidge Corner Cinema and spoke at the reception that followed at the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies.
Story by BU Today’s Susan Seligson.
This spring marked the second year of The Leo Baeck Institute-NY Essay Prize in German-Jewish History and Culture.
EWCJS is pleased to announce Mr. Jesse Gamoran as the winner of our 2016 Leo Baeck Essay Award, with his essay entitled The Munich Visiting Program, 1960-1972. Mr. Gamoran graduated this past May from Oberlin College, where he studied Jewish history and German Studies. Starting this July he’ll be participating in the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange for Young Professionals, a yearlong study-intern program in Germany. In addition to Jewish history, Jesse has interests in education and library science.
The prize money was gifted by Bernard Bloom, former president of the Leo Baeck Institute, and awarded by the Elie Wiesel Center in conjunction with the Leo Baeck Institute in New York. To compete, students were asked to submit an essay of between 4,500 and 7,500 words on any topic related to the history and culture of German-speaking Jews, along with faculty letters of commendation.
Honorable Mention was awarded to Ms. Madelyn Stone, a student at Northeastern University, for her essay entitled “Reality is the Satire”: The Will to Hope in the Writings of Jura Soyfer.
Congratulations Jesse and Madelyn for your excellent work, and thank you to all of the students who participated in the contest!
To see other scholarship opportunities for undergraduate students, click here.
EWCJS minor, Erin Miller (CAS ’17, SPH ’18), was featured in the College of Arts and Science’s Magazine Spring 2016 for her dedicated research assistance with Dr. Grodin’s project on Rabbinic Responsa during the Holocaust. To read more about her contributions and the specifics of her research in halakhah and medical ethics, click HERE for the full article.
Best known for Arab Labor, his wildly popular Israeli TV sit-com, Israeli-Palestinian novelist and Haaretz columnist Sayed Kashua was greeted by a standing-room-only audience at the Elie Wiesel Center on February 18. The New Yorker has described him as “the most visible representative of Palestinian life in Israel.”
In conversation, he shared some of the backstory behind his TV projects, about what it means to straddle Israel’s Jewish-Arab divide, and – as the father of three, who was raising his children in one of Jerusalem’s Jewish neighborhoods – how it feels to start life over in America’s MidWest.
Kashua’s new series, The Screenwriter, is in its first season. Unlike Arab Labor, a comedy that skewered Israeli stereotypes, the new show is a barely fictionalized drama about an Israeli-Palestinian writer who navigates Israel’s two worlds. Why the shift to drama? Kashua said he had no choice.
“My work has always been political, always about identity and nationality, and the personal and political pain of being trapped in stereotypes,” he said. “But as the situation – and the occupation – got worse in Israel, humor became impossible. I needed a new way to talk about these things.”
Kashua left the country in the summer of 2014. Three Jewish teenagers had been murdered, Jerusalem crowds were shouting “death to the Arabs,” and a Palestinian boy was found, burned to death. “I called my agent and said I had to leave, “he recalled.
Today he teaches at the state university in Illinois. His children are learning English and making friends, as he and his wife adapt. “I was tired of choosing camps, of people putting words in my mouth,” he explained. “But I still have an empty house in Tira, my village. Now we live in the cornfields in Illinois. I’m less scared. But I was raised in a place where you’re not supposed to leave.”
On March 15, from 6:30-7:30, Professor Rabbi David Ellenson will give the Elie Wiesel Center’s third annual Leo Trepp Lecture. Now Director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis, Rabbi Ellenson is a past president of Hebrew Union College and a scholar of German Jewish neo-Orthodoxy.
In his lecture, Professor Ellenson will review the emergence of Reform, Orthodox and Positive Historical (Conservative) varieties of Judaism in 19th century Germany and explain the ongoing relevance of their beliefs and structures for an understanding of Judaism today.
The lecture with be preceded by a festive reception, starting at 5:30, in honor of the Trepp Torah scroll, which Mrs. Gunda Trepp, who sponsors the Lecture series, has generously donated to be permanently housed at the Center.
Professor Ellenson, who has written on the importance of studying both text and context, is also Visiting Professor of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University, as well as Chancellor Emeritus at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIIR).
He is internationally recognized for his publications and research in the areas of Jewish religious thought, ethics and modern Jewish history. His twelve-year tenure as president of the seminary of the Reform Movement was distinguished by his devotion to sustaining HUC-JIIR’s academic excellence. He received an honorary doctorate from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2014.
This event is free and open to the public, but an RSVP is required, as there is limited seating.
We are pleased to announce a new course on the Kabbalah, offered this spring semester by Dr. Yair Lior. The course closes a major gap in our curriculum and rounds out other courses we teach on early Jewish and comparative mysticism.
Also new this spring: HI393 Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (formerly: “Topics in the History of Israel”). Taught by Dr. Jacobson, who plans to return to Israel next year, the course counts toward IR tracks Africa & the Middle East, Foreign Policy & Security Studies, and Regional Politics & Cultural Anthropology; also approved as a MENA Social Science or Elective course. Vicky Kelberer-McKee (Pardee School advisor) writes: “Our students are very excited to take the course!”
Dr. Alexandra Herzog, post-doctoral fellow in Jewish Studies and the CAS Core Curriculum, will offer a new course titled “Sex in the Shtetl.” The course is offered as WS 305 B1″ Topics in Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies” and examines major works of modern Yiddish literature through the lenses of gender and sexuality, exploring how authors cultivated an imagination populated by norm-defying beings: the prostitute, the androgyne, the cross-dresser, angels and demons.
Finally, offered by the Kilachand Honors College, a new freshmen seminar on Moses and Muhammad, co-taught by Elie Wiesel Center director Michael Zank and Prof. Kecia Ali (Religion), author of an acclaimed book on the biography of Prophet Muhammad.
For more information about these and our other courses, please go to Spring 2016 Courses.
On Sunday November 1, the Center hosted Quill of the Soul: A Musical Tribute to Elie Wiesel at the Tsai Performance Center at 7pm. The multicultural performance was also the closing event of the year-long artist’s residency of Russian-Israeli composer Matti Kovler at Boston University, hosted by the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies.
Inspired by Elie Wiesel’s “Melodies of My Childhood,” and the work of Israeli composer Andre Hajdu, Matti Kovler presented an evening that took the Hasidic Niggun (or “chant”) as its point of departure. Incorporating instrumental music, song, and media, this performance explored surprising parallels between Nigguns and other world incantations. The diversity of the program –and of the cast– mirrored the variety of faiths and ethnicities –from Hindu to Sufi to Buddhist– that share similar approaches to sacred song. Quill of the Soul featured a multi-national ensemble of 12 musicians, a student choir, video projections and narration.
Part of the Floating Tower series directed by Matti Kovler, Quill of the Soul was supported by the Boston University Jewish Cultural Endowment, the BU Arts Initiative and BU Center for the Humanities.