Elie Wiesel, still teaching us

Elie Wiesel, still teaching us

New memoir by the Nobel laureate’s teaching assistant offers life lessons from the classroom

Elie Wiesel
Elie Wiesel

Elie Wiesel always defined himself, above all, as a teacher.

He was best known as a Nobel Peace Laureate, human rights activist, and author of more than 50 books, including “Night,” the haunting account of his teenage years in Nazi concentration camps. He often met with, advised, and sometimes chided world leaders. But he felt that teaching had the power to change the world.

Ariel Burger wants to show us how.

Burger, who was a student in Wiesel’s class at Boston University as an undergraduate and, in his 30s, served as his mentor’s teaching assistant for five years, has written “Witness: Lessons From Elie Wiesel’s Classroom” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt); the 288-page book is part memoir, part description of the courses — and the impact they had on a wide range of students for almost four decades — and entirely compelling.

While describing his own spiritual odyssey and philosophical struggles, juxtaposed with his long relationship with Wiesel, who guided him along the way, Burger brings us into the professor’s unique classroom and provides a master class in the art of grappling with life’s mysteries, contradictions, and ultimate hope.

We learn as well, from Burger’s incisive observations and gentle prose, how Wiesel lived his life, standing up to injustice but keeping an open heart, treasuring relationships and valuing, in the spirit of the Baal Shem Tov, every mother’s child.

Response to hate

Seated across from Burger in a noisy café on a recent Friday morning, I asked him how Wiesel, who died in 2016, would respond to the chaos of the moment — the murder of 11 Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue, and a politically and socially divided America that has become an open wound.

“I’m not speaking for him, of course,” Burger began in a soft and measured voice, “but I can offer an educated guess. And what helps and inspires me is that his response to such events is first, silence, like Aaron [the brother of Moses, on learning of the sudden death of two sons]. It’s important first to feel what we’re feeling. Professor Wiesel said hatred is like a cancer and it spreads if not stopped. We have to act on early signs or it will grow. That’s where my thoughts are.”

As an example of Wiesel’s actions in response to hate, Burger noted that his teacher spent years fighting to change the wording of the memorial at Babi Yar, the ravine near Kiev said to be the site of the largest mass shooting of Jews by the Nazis. The original Soviet text mentioned only that Soviet citizens were killed; only after the Soviet Union collapsed did the Ukrainian government allow a separate memorial to be dedicated to the Jewish victims.

“Professor Wiesel taught to respond to tragedy by seeking friendships with people who are different from us,” Burger said, adding that his mentor believed hate from both the left and the right must be fought. “He said you don’t have to choose between them.”

Wiesel’s classes at Boston University, where he taught for almost 40 years, brought together about 120 undergraduates (in two classes) a semester, graduate, and post-graduate students from all walks of life. Rather than Wiesel standing at the front of the class and lecturing, the classes were conducted in conversation with students via common and persistent themes including memory, otherness, faith, and doubt, madness and rebellion and activism — each topic a chapter in “Witness.”

Ariel Burger, kept notes for his book over many years. Courtesy

The students read a book or play a week for a written assignment and class discussion. The course work was “challenging,” Burger said, and the texts ranged from Socrates to Shakespeare to Russian novelists to chasidic tales. Each class began with a 10-minute presentation by a different student. Some were intimidated to speak in class. Burger recalled that when he first took Wiesel’s class as a sophomore in 1996, he was very shy and spoke only one word aloud the entire semester — and only because Wiesel, after asking the class a question, looked directly at him, awaiting an answer. “I said the word I’d been thinking, ‘authenticity,’ and he nodded at me and said, ‘Exactly.’”

A few weeks later, Wiesel, who met privately with each student for at least a few minutes during the course of the semester, asked Burger to be his teaching fellow the following year. (The two had met briefly, through a family connection, when Burger was 15.) Burger declined reluctantly because he was planning to go to Israel to study in a yeshiva — he eventually spent seven years of intensive yeshiva learning in a small West Bank settlement.

Wiesel said, “I will wait,” and he did.

Elie Wiesel

Seven years later, now ordained as a rabbi, back in the U.S. and seeking advice for what to do next, Burger sought out Wiesel, who again offered him a job as his teaching assistant.

“It changed my life,” recalled Burger, who notes in the book that over the course of 25 years Wiesel was “my mentor, my guide, and eventually my friend.”

Memory can save us

At his book launch on Nov. 15 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, amidst the chaotic snowstorm that paralyzed the city, Burger told those gathered that being in Wiesel’s classroom taught him “education can change our conversations, our policies, it can heal communities and bring people together across difference.” He said he learned “we must dig deeper, turn to enduring works of literature and philosophy and religion,” as Wiesel did in the classroom, telling students that “stories can help us to humanize politics and fate.”

But how? Through memory, which Wiesel believed could save humanity if it becomes personal enough “to move us to become ethically sensitive and responsible people,” Burger said, and through individual acts of kindness, “which he really believed will redeem the world.”

In the book Burger describes Wiesel’s unique method in class of building on the comments of his students, making references to previous texts the class had read, as well as bringing in contemporary events and somehow drawing connections between and among them. The approach was “spontaneous but intellectually rigorous,” Burger told me. “He depended on the students’ discussions — he himself always wanted to learn” — so no two classes were ever the same and Wiesel never repeated a course offering. And he valued questions more than answers as the path to healing. “Questions aren’t dangerous,” he would say. “Answers are.”

Elie Wiesel leading a seminar at Boston University in the late-’70s. BU.edu

Wiesel’s was no ordinary classroom — “he made it a community,” Burger said — and it included students who often had deep personal questions of their own, like the granddaughter of a Nazi officer, the woman who experienced violence in her native country, and the feminist activist who fled arrest abroad.

Wiesel brought his outside life into the classroom, too, asking students what topics he should discuss in upcoming meetings with world leaders and then reporting back after the events. In 1986, as he worked on his speech before going to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, Wiesel asked each of his students to write one-line suggestions; Burger found the notes while researching the book.

He came to write it, he explained, at Wiesel’s suggestion, but put it off for several years, busy with his work in Boston as a writer, artist, teacher, and rabbi. Today, with Wiesel no longer present to teach, write, and speak out, Burger feels a more urgent need to preserve and put forward his teacher’s message. “I wrote it because, as he taught us, ‘Listening to a witness makes you a witness,’” he said. “The lecture is over. But his teaching is not.”

And the rest, he added, is up to us.

Gary Rosenblatt is editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.

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