‘Witness: Lesson from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom’
Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom By Ariel Burger (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 264 pp. $26)
After 25 years of learning from him, working for him and confiding in him, Ariel Burger still didn’t know how Elie Wiesel would respond to a student’s chutzpadik request: “Can you show us your number?”
When you finish Burger’s book, you’ll be left with no doubt that the Boston University classroom where Wiesel taught for nearly four decades was no ordinary place.
As Wiesel’s longtime assistant, Burger—who was 15 when he first met the award-winning author—puts readers in the front row.
By the time he was 20, Wiesel had lost his mother and sister to the Auschwitz killing machine and was transferred with his father to Buchenwald, where the elder Wiesel was murdered. At B.U., he challenged his students to think deeply about their lives, to bring forward their hopes and fears. Wiesel’s classroom was, as Burger recreates it, a place of great transformation: A forest ranger becomes a priest serving the homeless; a finance major switches to social justice journalism; a Pakistani returns home to advocate for the rights of his country’s women and girls.
Though Wiesel, who died at 87 in 2016, would weave into his lectures the wisdom of everyone from Euripides to Albert Camus, Bertolt Brecht to Sigmund Freud, he always saw the world through the wooden slats of his Auschwitz bunker. With his teen years in Auschwitz as leitmotif, Wiesel was unable to rest until he’d gone to bat for everyone else who suffered, whether in Cambodia, Bosnia, Moscow, Rwanda, Darfur or South Africa.
“When victims have no voice,” he said, “I try to lend them mine. When they feel alone, I try to show them they are not by going to them, and by writing and speaking about their suffering. This is not enough, but it is something. Had we, in 1944 in my little town, felt that we were not alone, it would have made a difference. But precisely because we felt alone, no one else ever should.”
Burger describes a man humbled by his own survival and his mandate to make a difference. The reader is left wondering: Did his suffering render his best-selling books, Nobel Peace Prize and fame meaningless to him? As he said, “I would have given all the prizes, all the honors, for one life, even one life that would not have been taken away.”
Can you guess how Wiesel responded to the request to show the class the tattoo on his arm?
Burger writes: “Without a word, Professor Wiesel removes his jacket, unbuttons his cuff and rolls his shirtsleeve up. He holds his arm before him defiantly and turns so the entire class can see the number tattooed on his forearm. A collective gasp seizes the room, followed by a long, extended moment of silence.
“Because of him,” Burger continues, “I became something greater than any role I’d imagined for myself. I became a teacher.”
After reading this highly personal book, offered up with deep affection, you know Wiesel could ask for no higher compliment.
Deborah Fineblum is a journalist, author, memoir coach—and bubbe—living in Pardes Hanna, Israel.