I feel the need to write something about Elie Wiesel’s death. It struck me pretty hard, and I’ve been sitting on the feelings because they seemed untamable into words until I had a little distance from them. But I think I can do it now.
I met Elie Wiesel a few times. He had a standing relationship with Chapman where he would come and give talks at their Holocaust center, before doing a big campus shindig in front of anyone who could fit in the auditorium. I saw him at the big event a few times. But the meeting that I think of most is this one: My professor was asked to interview him for the campus shindig, so he asked if we could get a few moments with Dr. Wiesel privately as a class. There were fifteen of us in the group.
It changed my life.
It’s hard to say how, except that it unleashed a bravery in me that I didn’t know I possessed. And he did it so quietly, too.
We went to a fancy room in the library that was small, with wide windows in one wall and desks set like a U. In the corner was a stand of cookies and coffee, and we all clutched our cups nervously, sitting up straighter than we usually did, adjusting our collars or skirts since we all dressed up for the occasion.
He wasn’t at all formal, just incredibly kind. We sat in the sunlit room while he told us of the night he went back to his family home, the one where they lived before the camp. His father had planted a gold watch by a tree so the family could come back after the war and claim it again. Dr. Wiesel had not been back for 50 years, but he dug into the earth and the watch was there. He held it up to the moonlight, thought of his father for a moment, and then buried it back in the ground. It seemed to belong there, he said.
He talked of walking the corridors of Buchenwald alone, asking for a moment to himself at an anniversary event, and of how he didn’t feel the terror there anymore. In every breath he spoke a brilliant truth, it was all things I perhaps knew but didn’t have the words for, or knew but hadn’t looked at from that side. I think the whole room fell in love that day. We would have done anything for this grinning, gentle man with the wild hair.
At the end of it all, he charged us with a task. As humans and scholars, as the next generation, we were to bear witness.
I knew that he meant the atrocities that are committed in the name of progress, but I also know that he meant everything. The joys, the sorrows, the living. Bear witness to life, because there is sorrow and heartbreak and wonder there that is important too, among the injustice and savagery. All of it is worthy of proclamation, perhaps even needful of it. All of it is holy.
He was so full of life himself, and so easy with bearing his own witness by the time I met him. I knew his charge would be something I would take up and try to fulfill. And through the writing, I have tried to do it as best I can. That meeting changed me, changed my writing, made me feel brave about relating my experiences, mundane though they are in comparison.
He wouldn’t have remembered me. I’m certain of it. I was one face in a sea of fifteen that class period, and he probably met many more classes that day alone. I didn’t raise my hand to speak or ask questions because I was so enraptured by the answers that I wanted to savor them.
Perhaps it even matters more that way, that I was one of a crowd to him. That he had enough trust in us to share, and enough love for us to give us a task without knowing our individual stories. It makes me wonder how many others are like me, who were changed in an instant without him even knowing. It was a gift he offered with ease.
I am in mourning. The world has lost a brilliant man. If you want to honor his memory with me, consider bearing witness to some truth in your life. I know he would be pleased if you did.