Elie Wiesel: ‘We all were students in his classroom.’
Yom HaShoah April 23, 2017
Elie Wiesel never taught me in a classroom but his knowledge and experience, expressed through the pages of his writings, made him one of the most powerful teachers I ever had in my life. It is for the life he led and the way he taught us all to engage the tradition and wellspring of Judaism that we decided to honor him for this year’s Yom HaShoah observance. His passing last gives us the opportunity to commemorate this Nobel Peace Prize winning scholar, activist, conscience and witness for humanity. In a way he used the planet and wherever he spoke to teach us whether by reading his books, or watching a documentary that he made or inside the incredible Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C. which he inspired. All these venues were his various classrooms and so we may have all become students.
Elie Wiesel was unique not only because he suffered but also because he did not give up on Judaism. He did not shield us from the hard questions he asked of humanity and of God. At the same time he dived into the sources of Judaism when he could have, like others did after the War, given up on Jewish life. In the case of Wiesel, it was the opposite. He continued his learning from childhood and used it to redefine his understanding of the horrors he faced and lived through while at the same time not allowing those years to destroy his memory.
He taught us to rediscover the meaning of memory in Judaism. He showed us how remembrance and the meaning of the past was absolutely critical towards how we as a people and as the world would live our lives in the future.
He also taught us that being a witness to all that we see and preserve of the past was essential to Jewish belief. Our teens today are observing this value while they March into the Gates of Auschwitz concentration Camp. Their trip to Poland and then to Israel is part of the international Program called the March of the Living. They are all witnesses now to what the Nazis did and to how the Jews faced the genocidal campaign of the Nazis to destroy us. What I find so inspiring is that Wiesel used the tradition to help him frame the unfathomable and he found so much in the tradition whether it was from the Bible, the Talmud, the Hasidic Teachings of his own background or the Kabbalah. These were his sources and he mined them for insight, salvation and pathways to return back to humanity with a message that would one day spread throughout the world.
Wiesel did something else that I found to be helpful when struggling with the meaning of not just the Holocaust but with humanity’s inhumanity to itself. He taught us that mystery of evil and that there may not be one answer as to why people feel the compulsion to destroy entire peoples. His point was to ask the question and that was more important than the answers. Maybe it was that we all have different responses as to why evil of this nature exists and continues but questions can be shared by us all and from that perspective we would have a better chance to prevail in a better world by sharing the hardest questions.
Moreover he taught us:
“The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it's indifference.”
He knew oh so well how indifference infected an entire world. Indifference led to the silence of the world when Hitler and the Nazis saw that no one would challenge their effort to take over Europe and destroy the Jewish people. He saw then and later on in the years that followed how people are indifferent, even at times Jews, when it comes to human suffering. Wiesel came to teach us that we must care not just about our own lives but those of the world. Just think about how we react when we watch television and listen to the stories of death and destruction in Syria, Somalia and terrorist attacks against folks around the world. If it does not move us to feel anything, if we are emotionless, if we simply change the channel because we choose not see it then we know the feeling of indifference because ultimately it does not matter to us. That is exactly what Elie Wiesel was trying to teach. Life, Art, Faith and Love must matter to us.
Finally Elie Wiesel taught us about the importance of speaking truth to power. In that speech when he received the President’s medal of honor he spoke to President Reagan in a very respectful way of his forthcoming trip to Bitburg Cemetery in Germany where many SS officers were buried. The President was trying to show respect for Germans and improve relations with the German chancellor Helmut Kohl. In that famous speech he said.
“I belong to a traumatized generation. Symbols are important. And furthermore,
following our ancient tradition, and we are speaking about Jewish heritage
our tradition commands us "to speak truth to power."
So may I speak to you, Mr. President, with respect and admiration, of the events that happened?
We have met four of five times. And each time I came away enriched, for I know of your commitment to humanity.
And therefore I am convinced, as you have told us earlier when we spoke, that
you were not aware of the presence of SS graves in the Bitburg cemetery. Of course you didn't know. But now we all are aware.
May I, Mr. President, if it's possible at all, to implore you to do something else, to find a way, to find another way, another site? That place, Mr. President, is not your place. You place is with the victims of the SS.
Oh, we know there are political and strategic reasons, but this issue, as all issues related to that awesome event, transcends politics and diplomacy.
The issue here is not politics, but good and evil. And we must never confuse them.
For I have seen the SS at work. And I have seen their victims. They were my friends. They were my parents.
Mr. President, there was a degree of suffering and loneliness in the concentration camps that defies imagination. Cut off from the world with no refuge anywhere; sons watched helplessly their fathers being beaten to death. Mothers watched their children die of hunger.And then there was Mengele and his selections.
Terror, fear, isolation, torture, gas chambers and flames rising to the heavens.
But, Mr. President, I know and I understand, we all do, that you seek reconciliation. And so do I, so do we. And I too wish to attain true reconciliation with the German people.
I do not believe in collective guilt, more in collective responsibility. Only the killers were guilty. Their sons and daughters are not.
And I believe, Mr. President, that we can and we must work together with them and with all people.
And we must work to bring peace and understanding
to a tormented world that, as you know, is still awaiting redemption.
I thank you, Mr. President.”
I pray that the voice, teachings and lessons that Elie Wiesel taught us in the classroom of his life will resonate for our youth and for generations to come. May his memory be for a blessing to all humanity and may we continue to be witnesses from the past to the future.