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Elie Wiesel and the Unbearable Heaviness of History

How the Holocaust survivor and beloved author of Night challenged the way students think about history.
The World Trade Center is lit up in the blue and white colors of the Israeli flag to honor the life of Elie Wiesel.

The World Trade Center is lit up in the blue and white colors of the Israeli flag to honor the life of Elie Wiesel.

I remember the exact moment Elie Wiesel tore my heart out. I don’t recall the date or time, but the moment is burned into my personal history. I was 15, about Wiesel’s age when he was deported from Sighet, Transylvania, to Auschwitz, pouring over a used copy of Night, desperate to work my way through the assigned chapters before my next class. Racing through the pages, I came to a queasy halt as Wiesel described witnessing an execution at the concentration camp:

Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive. Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish. But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing…. And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes. And we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished.

Behind me, I heard the same man asking: “For God’s sake, where is God?” And from within me, I heard a voice answer: “Where He is? This is where — hanging here from this gallows….”

That night, the soup tasted of corpses.

Sitting under the harsh fluorescent lights of my high school library, I started to weep. I certainly wasn’t the only one: School systems across my home state of Massachusetts offer Wiesel as part of a mandate to teach an “understanding of human responses to genocide and human rights issues” to high school students, and Night was named Massachusetts high school seniors’ favorite book in 2015. Night, along with The Diary of Anne Frank, remains a cornerstone of required Holocaust reading in schools across the country, a quintessential testimony to one of the most appalling atrocities in the history of humankind.

Wiesel, who passed away on Saturday at the age of 87, didn’t just tell the story of life at Auschwitz, nor did he simply shape how we think about the past—he presented a call to action for how we might build our collective future.

There’s a strange distance to how the horrors of the Holocaust are often described in American classrooms. In The End of History and the Last Man, political scientist Francis Fukuyama made the distinction between history as events that occur (the historical) and history as an unfolding human story (the historic). The significance of the Holocaust is too often articulated in terms of the former. The enormity of mass genocide is described through numbers, a tale of body counts, property stolen, territory annexed, and institutions destroyed that circumscribe human suffering in the cold, clinical language of magnitude and scope. This way of thinking about history is unnervingly reductive;human beings are not sacks of potatoes reducible to economies of scale.

Wiesel dedicated his life to ensuring the Holocaust was never forgotten.

But Wiesel transcended all that. He transformed the Holocaust from something almost clinical to an ethico-moral issue. If the Nazis exterminated some 11 million “undesirable” denizens of occupied Europe, it’s narratives like Wiesel’s and Frank’s that expand the story of genocide to 11 million worlds, hauntingly personal but simultaneously universal. Wiesel knew that stories like his cut deeper than any cache of secret documents or macabre new detail about the mechanics of mass murder. “Literature may be the poetic memory of humanity,” Wiesel once told students at Boston University, where he spent most of his academic career. “It is the power of the story: We see the tale and we don’t even realize the tale has entered us and has had an impact on our decisions, on our dreams, on our ambitions, our hopes.”

Wiesel dedicated his life to ensuring the Holocaust was never forgotten, first as a journalist in France and the United States and then as a humanities professor. He did this in part by focusing on testimonies that transmute fact-based “events” into a more consequential collective history.

Part of Wiesel’s approach had a pedagogical function: Testimony embodies the powerful relationship between “private troubles and public issues,” as the legendary sociologist C. Wright Mills put it, essential in instilling the sociological imagination in citizens; it’s the key to encouraging students to think outside their own epoch and understand their relationship to the abstraction of “history” — and how they can change it. Even the Massachusetts legislature knew this, creating a pedagogy focused on “works of art that express feelings and ideas about the human condition and the human spirit.”

Night wasn’t just an argument for personal testimony as a way of grappling with the moral weight of history; it was a call to action for students to consider how they, too, can alter the course of human events. “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference,” Wiesel told U.S. News and World Report in 1986. “The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, but indifference between life and death.”

While most students are frequently encouraged to meditate on the lessons of history (George Santayana’s famous “those who forget the past” missive comes to mind), Wiesel’s message was a bit clearer: Every student should be a historian, and history should inspire action.

Consider his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 1986:

“Tell me,” [ a young boy] asks. “What have you done with my future? What have you done with your life?”

And I tell him that I have tried. That I have tried to keep memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.

And then I explained to him how naive we were, that the world did know and remain silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must — at that moment — become the center of the universe.

Wiesel’s biggest fear, perhaps, was that the practice of Holocaust testimonial would fade away after his death, leaving his mission of bearing witness to drown amid the rushing current of our modern tumult. “To forget the dead,” he once wrote, “would be akin to killing them a second time.”

“I do believe [that] to listen to a witness is to become a witness in turn,” he told the Daily Beast in 2012. “So, look, my generation has become a witness, has been a witness, and now the question of course is — very often I think about [this] — one day the last survivor will be gone. I don’t want to be that one. Because the idea to be the last, with all the memories, and all the spoken and unspoken ideas, and words, I don’t want to be that one.”

In this sense, perhaps the best way to remember Wiesel is to ensure that the testimonials of those who bore witness remain as clear as ever. No need for the immediacy of holographic testimonials or Facebook memories or think pieces. To honor Wiesel, read Night.