[EDITOR’S NOTE: Some distinguishing descriptions throughout have been deliberately scrambled to protect people’s identities.]
My sophomore class’s reading scores are below the state average, in a state that ranks near the bottom of the nation. So the idea of teaching Night to them scared me. To be honest, everything about my first year of teaching scared me, but Night even more so. This book meant more to me because my grandparents were survivors. I never met my grandparents. I never met Eli Wiesel, either, but his story is their story, which is, in turn, my story. I feared my students would react to Night the same way they reacted to “The Most Dangerous Game” and selections from Angela’s Ashes — staring at me, incredulous at my insistence they keep off Snapchat and read without headphones in their ears. Night means too much to me and is emotionally draining enough already, without having to convince anyone else that it should matter. So if they didn’t like the book, it felt like an insult to my own pain and struggles, like a slap in the face of my family and people.
Eli Wiesel died on Saturday, and this too feels personal. The news should not come as a surprise. He was 87. But Wiesel’s death brings a quiet among the nation because he was the clearest and most influential spokesperson for those who survived. And if the world has learned from the lessons he taught, there will never be another like him. His writings and interviews remain, of course. But despite the documentation of his story, the world has lost the voice that carries the moral and experiential authority to speak against modern atrocities. I feared my students would miss what I learned from Wiesel and instead find him out of date, useless, and boring.
There are few lessons in the shadow of the Six Million, but one that Wiesel showed is that words have power. Words can sway nations to murder. Wiesel said that when someone says they want to kill you, you should believe them. If the Jews of Europe took Hitler at his word, they would have fled. If the nations believed him, they would have come sooner. In light of the nation’s quiet, Wiesel shows the devastation of silence. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he said, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.” We do not have the privilege to remain neutral. I wanted my students to see this within his work and speeches and to recognize when they remain silent. That the bullying they see in the hallways and online are a part of this. That harmful intent does not have to be industrialized for it to matter.
Wiesel encouraged the world to care for one another, to have concern for humanity. He lobbied Congress and the United Nations to take action in humanitarian crises. He called out for action in Rwanda, Syria, Darfur and Bosnia. He recognized and condemned the genocide of the Armenians. He supported the Jewish people being persecuted in Russia and Ethiopia. He showed that the sentiment of “not my problem” is exactly the problem. If we used our voices as he did, racism and Antisemitism could not thrive.
Many of these perspectives seem obvious today. Everyone would naturally condemn such atrocities. However, Wiesel also took positions when they were not popular. His staunch support of Israel earned him criticism, both before and after his death. But he understood that Israel exists as a sanctuary for the Jewish people against the Antisemitism that lives on in Europe, the Middle East, and even in the Americas. Glance at the rhetoric at the extreme ends of the political spectrum. There you will see accusations that Israel murders children, poisons the Palestinian water supply, that Israel controls the world through AIPAC and the United Nations. That given the opportunity, this small nation will practice deception and harm, and that do all this for money. The support of Israel brought accusations and slander from those who disagreed with Wiesel, but it did not silence his voice. It is, of course, silence that Wiesel argued against.
Wiesel testified against atrocities in the world, but he also showed the possibilities of personal growth. Night concludes with the death of faith. Goodness was gone from humanity and God hanged from the gallows. But Wiesel continued to write and grow. He found Dawn and, eventually, Day. He rekindled his faith in God and in people, even if his faith was a complicated one. He showed that we can be changed by our experiences, but we do not have to stagnate in them. Wiesel could have turned hateful because of his time at Auschwitz. Who would have blamed him? Yet he called for compassion, not revenge. He called for kindness, gentleness, and understanding.
The world needs more of these virtues. It needed them at Auschwitz, in the Killing Fields in Cambodia, and on the Trail of Tears. It needs them on the streets of Chicago, on the fruit pickers circuit, and in the hallways of American schools. I wanted my students to see the effects of bullying on their classmates. A student from our school committed suicide this year. It is an event that is too common across the nation. But if we listened to the message of Eli Wiesel and those like him, each of us could help hold back the flood.
My students did well. I wish I could say it was a moment like Freedom Writers. It wasn’t. There was no Stand and Deliver story or “Oh Captain, My Captain!” moments. But they paid attention, as well as I had ever seen them do at 7:30 AM. They waded through yiddish phrases and unfamiliar allusions. They asked questions about humanity and history that were impossible to answer. It opened conversations about police brutality, income inequality, and institutionalized racism.
One student didn’t care for the book. Before we opened it, he questioned its historicity and the historicity of the Holocaust. He said we should be careful about which stories we listen to, that it’s only those in power who get their stories out. I’m not sure what power she thought Wiesel had when the Gestapo came to his door. He dropped the class before we read the first chapter and he needed the story the most. It is up to those that stayed to hear it, to struggle through its meaning, to carry on the message.