Tributes to Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel in the days since his death last week recognize a great humanitarian and a courageous spokesman but also an individual whose eyes never ceased to reveal the haunting nature of his personal experience of the Nazi crimes of 1933 to 1945. He reached beyond his own people, offering all of us ways to speak about those terrible events, and held a flame against the dark temptation to be silent. His going marks a rite of passage, forcing us to recognize that in coming decades fewer people will be alive who remember the Holocaust as a personal experience, and at some point those events will pass from living memory.
In the autumn of 1986, during my final year as an undergraduate in the Boston University history department, I enrolled in a class called The Literature of Memory, taught by Wiesel. He traveled once a week from his home in New York to Boston to teach the class. Several weeks into the semester, news came that our professor had won the Nobel Peace Prize, which brought TV cameras into our classroom and reminded us, if any of us needed reminding, that our professor was a person who spoke on a global stage.
Clearly, the purpose of the class was to engage with the Holocaust. As most of the students in the class were Jewish and I was a person of Christian background, The Literature of Memory supplied my first experience of being immersed in the collective Jewish worldview. I had had close Jewish friends over the years, but they had not been able to convey to me what this class conveyed. The experience of the class showed me how something you already think you know can mature into to new level of awareness. I was probably far more aware than the average gentile of the details of the events of the 1930s and the Second World War. I was far less aware of possible ways to reflect on the meaning of those events.
I encountered for the first time pushback from real people against the notion that Jews had killed Jesus. Intellectually I knew that this was a problem with John’s gospel. And I had appreciated that Jews of the twentieth century would object to being called Christ-killers, not only because the notion suggested that something that happened twenty centuries earlier had contemporary relevance, but because it was the Romans who killed Jesus, not the Jews. I assumed that the idea that Jews killed Jesus grew from the fact that the crowd that called for Jesus to die and Barabbas to live had been Jewish, even if it was the Romans who orchestrated the crucifixion. But to say such a thing in this particular group was not acceptable and exposed me as the shallow and naïve gentile I clearly was for failing to understand the full weight of 2,000 years of Jewish fury at being dubbed beyond the pale of acceptance because of their so-called role in killing Jesus.
But the principal message I absorbed from Wiesel’s class, viscerally if not directly, was that if there was ever to be an event in history that would defy Christian notions of forgiveness, the Holocaust was surely that event. An appeal to forgiveness in the face of such acts was surreal. This was not a situation where statements like “We are all human,” “We all commit errors” could possibly seem appropriate. By being in Wiesel’s class I was allowed to feel this truth in the marrow of my bones.
Wiesel’s class thus freed me from the inner requirement to defend my inherited Christian principles and forced me to examine them afresh. It allowed me to drill down to the place where I could say that something that had occurred was unacceptable and leave it at that. I no longer had to rationalize the unacceptable into being less than totally unacceptable because the doctrine of forgiveness required this of me. I began to recognize how this aspect of my Christian culture had the power to undermine my passion in the face of needed social change, and could devolve into denial, setting up and supporting elaborate superstructures to conceal the uneasiness that truth introduces. Forgiveness, certainly an option, could never again, after Wiesel’s class, be, for me, a moral requirement.
Wiesel suggests in the introduction to Night, that the Holocaust actually changed the world’s consciousness about God, for clearly God is not all-powerful if God allows such a thing to happen. “…I touched for the first time upon the mystery of iniquity,” he says, “whose revelation was to mark the end of one era and the beginning of another.” Wiesel perceived that the hegemony of widespread assumptions about God was undermined by the Holocaust. God, if God existed at all, would have to be discovered differently.
I recognized, by spending a few hours a week in close proximity to Wiesel, something of the struggle for meaning once a person has been pulled into the undertow of the world’s evil. For Wiesel, what redemption was possible came through testimony. As a student of history myself, I had often heard quoted Santana’s warning that if we forget history we are doomed to repeat it. But Santana had never seemed to capture the issues well for me. Too often, precisely, those who remember hang on to patterns of thought that predispose them to repeat history. Remembering in order to prevent similar actions in the future was, for me, a discredited idea.
Wiesel was saying something different from Santana. We witness, he said, because there are times when witnessing is all we have. “I decided,” he said, “to devote my life to telling the story because I felt that having survived I owe something to the dead. And anyone who does not remember betrays them again.” When facing a choice between “history,” the written record endorsed by the hierarchy – the official narrative – and “memory” – the personal narrative – Wiesel chose “memory,” and he regarded memory as the essence of morality. “Memory,” for Wiesel, was not unreliable. It was not poetry. “Memory,” for Wiesel, meant testifying to the facts of the case. Even though he will have a place in history as a man who contributed hugely to the collective memory of the Holocaust, his life and teaching point us away from the current fashion to reify manufactured collective memory, instead locating truth in the lived experience of the individual.
One thought on “Elie Wiesel, my teacher”
Dear Margaret, Thank you so much for this blog. It gives new insight to learn from you through your personal experience of Elie Wiesel and to look anew at words like forgiveness. Greetings, Lis