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Elie Wiesel Teaches
About Life

By Alison Golub, Brown University
Rhode Island, USA

[ Elie Wiesel ]
Elie Wiesel

It was May of 1996 when I first heard Elie Wiesel speak. His lecture on "Building a Moral Society" encompassed two of the most moving and emotional hours of my life. When he walked into the auditorium, I was breathless, craning my neck to catch a glimpse over all the heads, desperately wanting to see that weathered face we all know well. I remember thinking that the level of spirituality in the room lifted palpably when he came into it. Everyone was quiet as we waited for his entrance, but it was as if, by entering our world, he achieved a silence that was unattainable without him there. I strained to hear every word he uttered (which is difficult with his thick accent), and I had tears in my eyes when he nodded his head in his characteristic goodbye gesture and quickly left the room. I knew, from that instant on, that I absolutely had to see this man again.

In September of the same year, as a freshman at Brown University, I began seeking out advisors who would help me to realize my dream. I knew Wiesel taught at Boston University, but I couldn't even conceive of how I would be able to attend one of his classes. With more than a little bitterness, I learned that he had been the commencement speaker for the entering class of 1999 at Brown (which would have been my class, had I not taken a year off after high school). I thought it was God's way of telling me I had made a bad decision -- the first of many, I was sure. But I trudged onward, with one advisor in tow and two left behind, determined to find again the power, intensity, and emotion I had discovered during that short evening in May.

After failing to find someone willing or able to pull some strings and get me into Wiesel's class, I decided to write him a letter. Looking back over it, I can honestly say that it was the "dorkiest" piece of work I have produced in my entire life (including kindergarten). I gushed, and I pleaded, and I whimpered for admission to anything that had Wiesel's name anywhere near it -- and, by some miracle, some mystery which I still cannot explain, I got in. It was at that point that I innocently asked what the class was about.

The class was "Scapegoats and Outcasts," a literature class intended for seniors and graduate students only, with written permission strictly required. I began to wonder anxiously how I was deemed worthy to attend. I also began to worry desperately how I could ever measure up. I had to plan my entire sophomore fall schedule around this class since it required over two hours of bus and subway rides from Providence to Boston. When I took my first trip into the city to buy the books for the course, I began to panic; I was now the proud new owner of twelve books, the majority of which were over 250 pages, and only one of which I had ever even considered reading. This translated roughly into 200 pages a week, in addition to work and reading for the other three classes I was enrolled in at Brown. Now that I think about it, panic doesn't even come close to describing what I was feeling.

When I arrived (forty-five minutes early) for the first class in September of this year, I was shaking in anticipation and, I'll be brutally honest now, intense fear. I introduced myself to the secretaries whom I had bothered for eight months with dumb questions and trivial concerns. I seated myself right in front of the chair, which I presumed would be Wiesel's, and waited with rhinoceroses thundering through my stomach. The room began to fill with people whom I assumed were students, many of whom appeared to be older than my mother. My anxiety mounted as I considered how young I've always looked, and I realized now that many of my fellow students probably thought I had gotten lost on the way to middle school.

Professor Wiesel strode into the room at 12:01, and I was spellbound from then on. I gazed at him with a sappy smile on my face and a pen at the ready to record every bit of wisdom which I was convinced would pour from his mouth at any moment. The first order of business was introductions. Nearly half of the other students seemed to come from the School of Theology, the other half being graduate students of literature or creative writing. There was only one junior. And then there was me. When I shakily announced that I was a visiting sophomore, I wasn't sure which piece of information would draw the most (unwanted) attention, the fact that I was only a sophomore, or that I was from Brown. As it turned out, Wiesel chose to focus on both. In the middle of my little speech, he exclaimed, "How did you get into this class?" As I had assumed he had hand-picked me, I was more than a little unnerved by the question and answered anxiously, "I thought you let me in!" Everyone laughed, whether at me or with me, I have no clue.

[ Alison Golub ]
Alison Golub

He then went on, in some detail, about how he would never travel over two hours to take a class from himself, and how dedicated I must be. I would have been flattered had I not been burning alive by the blood rushing in tidal waves to my face.

We began discussing a passage from the Bible in connection with a selection from one of Wiesel's books. The issue was, in keeping with the class title, scapegoating. Is it acceptable to scapegoat one person or one group in order to save a larger community? Who decides who is the scapegoat and who belongs? Are Jews truly the epitome of scapegoats? He professed that every human being is sacred, "a person represents eternity," he believes, such that "the grandchild of a street cleaner could be a genius."

I had never thought along this line before; I had always held to a utilitarian view, that if it took only one life to save a village, that individual is relatively dispensable in the face of a greater good. Or is the real issue that a "lesser man's life" is considered, by many, less precious than that of a millionaire, a professor, or a philanthropist? I must confess that part of me once assumed that the less "valuable" a life is, the easier it is to discard it.

But Wiesel is absolutely right: Who are we to judge whose lives are valuable and whose aren't worthy of our attention? How can we know who we are killing when we push past a homeless person, or ignore a drug addict, or abandon a child? As it has often been said, the Jewish community didn't simply lose six million; we lost their children, and their children's children, and their children's children; we lost six million eternities. Throughout the semester, Professor Wiesel focused on victimization, the outcasting of those who are deemed unacceptable by the majority, and the tragedy of the internalization of those feelings of worthlessness engendered by the systematic scapegoating of another.

Cyrano de Bergerac brought up the issue of a scapegoat who ostracizes himself from others, and in doing so, outcasts everyone else. "We are all somebody's victim," retorted Wiesel. We also discussed the boy in The Painted Bird who spent his entire young life as a victim of the hatred of every person he encountered. When he came across a young Jewish boy who had been thrown from a transport train, he refused to help him, convinced that the boy would bring even more discrimination upon his benefactor. This is the classic instance of a scapegoat creating yet another scapegoat. Wiesel calls this the "full-bus syndrome." The bus is full, but one person begs and pleads and finally manages to squeeze aboard. He then turns around to bar the door from anyone else getting on and urges the driver to continue on. Professor Wiesel believes that "Death bequeaths death; suffering begets suffering; and, when death wins, we all lose."

As the class progressed, Wiesel became more and more revered among us for his captivating stories. One day he told us about a lunch with President Clinton, which he had been begged to attend for over six weeks. Every time Clinton's secretaries called to invite him, the proposed date was on a Monday or Tuesday, the two days on which Wiesel teaches. He adamantly refused each time, saying that he simply couldn't leave his students. Finally, the president's secretary called one last time, with an invitation for a brunch on a Friday. Under duress, Wiesel agreed to go, but had to leave forty-five minutes after the banquet had begun, because Clinton was late. "I'm terribly sorry, President Clinton," he apologized, "but I must be home in time for the Sabbath!"

He once proclaimed, "My religion is friendship," and told us about his troubled relationship with the late French President François Mitterand and his friendship with Primo Levi. He recounted a haunting phone conversation with Levi just days before his suicide. Wiesel urged him to hang up the phone, pack a bag, and go immediately to the airport, where a ticket to New York would be waiting for him. It seemed Wiesel had hoped that a week visiting a good friend would bring Levi out of his apparently deep depression. But, Levi only replied, "It's too late." These words, according to Professor Wiesel, perfectly and utterly characterize tragedy, and arose again and again in the literature we reviewed.

When we began examining The Painted Bird, Wiesel told us an interesting story about the author, Jerzy Kosinski. Apparently, when the book came out, it was denounced all over Europe as an exaggerated and melodramatic account of the outcasting of a young boy. While Kosinski was shunned from nearly all of Europe, and the book was barred from distribution there, it became quite successful in the United States. When Wiesel was asked to write a review of it in 1964, Kosinski called him and requested that they meet, even when Wiesel assured him it would be a favorable review. They got together and Wiesel asked him just two questions: Was Kosinski Jewish, and was the book autobiographical? Kosinski replied that no, he was not a Jew, but answered an unequivocal yes to the latter question, which prompted Wiesel hurriedly to rewrite the entire review. He praised the book even more intensely after learning that, not only were all the hero's horrific experiences actually true, but that the author had experienced all these things and wasn't even Jewish!

When the review came out, Wiesel was bombarded with calls and letters from all over the world, all claiming to know positively that Kosinski was indeed Jewish. Wiesel immediately called Kosinski, who calmly asked, "Who told you?" He continued to deny his Jewishness to Wiesel over the ensuing years, fervently convinced that his "enemies" were spreading lies about him and plotting against him. Kosinski finally admitted that he was a Jew, claiming that he deceived Wiesel because, had he known the truth, it would have lessened the book's impact. Wiesel was utterly confused by the entire exchange, telling us that while he "looks to find good things in people," Kosinski appeared to be obsessed with seeing evil everywhere.

I had always assumed that Wiesel would be deathly solemn and always serious. After all, I thought, he was a survivor; how could he ever let go of that pain? Indeed, during the last class, when a student asked him about forgiveness, he replied, "I cannot and I don't want to forgive the killers of children; I ask God not to forgive."

When another student asked him how he was able to live so fully while still harboring such resentment, he said simply, "I want to keep that pain; that zone of pain must stay inside me." Even while he spoke of death and terror and terrible anguish, even as his face seemed weathered and weary, every time I looked into his eyes, I saw incredible life. Wiesel has a vitality, a commitment to humanity, and a trust in truth and justice that I had never seen before, much less understood. It is almost hard to believe that such a pained man can possess such a beautiful sense of humor and such an immense passion for learning, witnessing, and speaking out. Indeed, as I burst into laughter so often during each class at the constant flow of funny stories and witty remarks, I became even more amazed that Wiesel is even able to have such energy and vibrancy. He is a truly resilient individual. Professor Wiesel once told us that "suffering is what we do with it; we can transform it into generosity or mutate it into more suffering." He has chosen to devote his life to being "a witness, not a judge"; indeed, being silent is simply not an option. He told us, "there comes a moment when you cannot be silent, no matter what the consequences," and he has shown the world what the immense benefits are for speaking out against the suffering of others and the destruction of humanity.

In a recent interview, I asked him what he sees in us as a society today and what he expects in the coming century. He answered, "For the moment I don't see any improvement. There are too many people who hate, too many in misery and poverty, and [too many] diseases in the Third World. Racism from the right and bigotry, fanaticism. So, for the moment, it's not so good, but I hope the next century, which is the next millennium, will be a better one.... There is always the cruelty, always the people who [create] inhuman conditions, naturally. But, nevertheless, there will be enough positive forces, creative forces, to be stronger."

Among the many positive forces he alone has created, Wiesel's human rights foundation is perhaps the most powerful and lasting mark he has made in the arena of peace activism. In his own words, "I established it after I won the Nobel prize, together with my wife and a few friends, and it is called the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, whose purpose is to address [issues of] humanity, international relations, and I try to help as many people as I can. The first thing we did was to organize international conferences. In the beginning the topic was, and it is topical still today, "The Anatomy of Hate." What is hate; why do we hate one another; and, how long are we going to hate one another? There must be a stop; how do we stop it; how do we cure hate? Prevent it, perhaps. The first conference that we had, which President Mitterand and I chaired, was a conference of Nobel laureates. This was followed by conferences in Moscow, Oslo, Venice, Haifa, and Hiroshima -- all over the world. For the last few years, we have organized some centers for Ethiopian children in Israel because they come from such backgrounds that they need help after school. So we give them after-school education and lunches, and so forth."

The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity has given a voice to the many injustices in our world through education and empowerment. For that, I believe Elie Wiesel is one of the most valuable and powerful individuals equipped to fight for our world. On the last day of class, we discussed the strategies of resistance. To accept responsibility as a community, to give strength to the individual conscience to fight collective evil, to, when necessary, choose poverty over immorality, to exercise choice and freedom -- these are all ways with which we will be able to survive the future and avoid the destructive pattern we, as a society, have set for ourselves. Wiesel appears to have great faith in the future of the world, which, in essence, depends on the students of today and the lessons that we learn. When I asked him why he has chosen to teach, he replied emotionally, "I was a teacher first, an activist later, because I am a student first! I teach because I like to study, and I think I'm a good teacher because I'm a good student. I believe in learning because my passion for learning is strong, very strong."

I have written this piece to try to explain, both to him and to everyone who reads this, what his passion has created in me. Professor Wiesel told us, in his final comments, that at some point in all our lives, we will be in a position to make an important decision (or many). And when we hesitate, for that one second during which we consider all our options and call upon all our experiences, he hopes that we will think for just that split second about what we have learned from him. Perhaps I have written too much here, gushed too long, told too many anecdotes. Honestly, I just can't seem to articulate what I think and how I feel about this incredible man. Maybe I will never be able truly to put any of this experience into the perfect words, but I have tried to convey what a semester with Elie Wiesel has meant to me. And I know, with everything that I am, that he and the lessons he has taught me will be a part of every one of those seconds.

[ AETI 1998 Table of Contents ]

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