(November 14, 2018 / JNS) Ariel Burger tips his hand in the very beginning of his new book, Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom, when he serves up one of his mentor’s most revealing quotes: “Listening to a witness makes you a witness.”
In fact, Burger reveals that the sacred task of bearing witness to a new generation was one reason that Wiesel stuck with his professor job for nearly four decades, shuttling back and forth between his New York home and his Boston University classroom. His dogged devotion to teaching being the chief reason he turned down the offer to become the president of Israel.
“I’m a teacher and a writer, not a politician,” is how he put it.
But we get ahead of the story.
Witness was born of the 25-year bond between the Nobel Prize-winning author (Night, alongside The Diary of Anne Frank, has defined the Holocaust for generations of Americans) and Burger—rabbi, artist, teacher and Wiesel’s longtime teaching assistant.
“I was his student well before I served alongside him in the classroom,” Burger writes. “I was his student since the moment I met him, at age fifteen.”
It was 1990 when Burger’s stepfather-to-be introduced them. “Wiesel holds his hand out to me and says in a clear, light voice with a slight accent, ‘Elie Wiesel.’ I am tongue-tied. This is the man who survived horror to become a confidant of kings and prime ministers. This is the man who traveled to conflict zones so he could bear witness to suffering and who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for doing so. It was only years later that I thought about who and where I was at age fifteen, and who and where he was at the same age.”
So began a lifelong mentor-protégé bond—one that spanned Burger’s teens, his undergraduate years at Boston University, a school he chose precisely because Wiesel was there. The friendship grew during Burger’s years at an Israeli yeshivah and, upon his return, when Wiesel offered him the opportunity of a lifetime: working alongside him as teaching assistant.
Accolades galore, but really known as a teacher
Over the years, it was Wiesel whom Burger turned for guidance on navigating life with divorced parents, his sister’s blindness, the quandaries of career and family, and the highs and lows of his own spiritual journey. While in these pages we come to know the younger man, the spotlight here is full-on Elie Wiesel.
And where this portrait comes alive is the living, breathing classroom of this master teacher, a place of great intimacy and candor between Wiesel and his students, and an experience that transformed countless lives.
Burger recreates for us a classroom which, rather than a celebrity bully pulpit, revolves around the students whom their teacher expects to think independently and express their deepest beliefs fearlessly.
Many of them had read Night in high school and knew their professor had been a teen in 1944 when his family was sent to Auschwitz. They knew that his mother and sister were killed there, and he and his father were subjected to hard labor and driven on a forced “death march” to Buchenwald that his father could not survive.
Liberation came when he was 16, and he wrote his first book, Night, 12 years later when he was a journalist in Paris. Beginning his teaching career at City College of New York, by 1976 he was at BU—a position he would hold for nearly four decades, reaching thousands between his classroom and his packed public lectures.
Despite the accolades and even the Nobel Prize—and despite friendships with the likes of Oprah Winfrey (whom he took to Auschwitz in 2006), and U.S. presidents Clinton and Obama—it was simply as a teacher that Wiesel wished to be remembered.
In these pages, Wiesel the teacher’s powerful impact and legacy come alive. “Over the years, I saw hundreds of students transformed,” Burger writes. The forest ranger who gave it up to become a priest serving the homeless in Chicago. The finance major who switched to journalism to raise awareness of those at-risk. The Pakistani who decided to return home to advocate for downtrodden women and girls in his native land. The young Jesuit struggling to make sense of the discovery that his mother was both Jewish and a survivor.
Thankfully, Burger took copious classroom notes, and leaving their meetings, recorded the conversations on his phone. And while writing the book, he also connected with several former students who shared their experiences.
A knack for weaving in wisdom
Wiesel, we’re told, had a knack of weaving many of the world’s great wisdom traditions together for his students. From Euripides to Anne Frank, Shakespeare to Camus, Brecht to Freud, each voice from the past was called on to share some essence of truth and challenge old assumptions.
Still, Burger reports that Wiesel saw all of life through the prism of what he had witnessed, and, of course, through Jewish tradition. His Talmudic and Baal Shem Tov stories delighted his mostly Christian students (with some Jews and a few Muslims in the mix). But among the most powerful of these stories were those from his own life.
“On a cloudy November day, Professor Wiesel tells his students, “I remember one day someone managed to smuggle tefillin into the camp by bribing a kapo [Jewish guard] with bread and margarine. My father and I woke up early, and stood in line with many others to put them on … these Jews risked their lives to perform this commandment. And I prayed. If I could pray there, it is possible to pray under any circumstance. Does it mean my prayers were answered? They were not; of course not. My father died. So many died. But the prayers were prayers nonetheless … I said that prayer, because my father said it, his father, his grandfather. How could I be the last?”
Education as a cure for humanity’s ills
As Burger shows, Wiesel’s intense involvement as an activist—in Cambodia, Bosnia, Moscow, South Africa, Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Darfur and more, is woven into the leitmotif of his teen years in Auschwitz and his enduring faith. “My humanity is expressed through my story, my roots, my tradition. It is the same thing for others,” he said. … To claim that one path is better than another, to denigrate others, has an almost inevitable outcome: dehumanization.”
“If Jesus lived in my time and place, he most likely would have died in a concentration camp, he liked to say. “How can we forget that he was a Jew who lived in a Jewish milieu? That his stories were Jewish stories, and his family was a Jewish family? The distance between us is not as great as we think it is.”
When it comes to activism, “Rather than hate, rather than despair, I chose the path of protest, of rebellion, of refusal to accept human suffering. I have tried to live my life against silence. When victims have no voice, 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.”
And in the no-holds-barred atmosphere that was his classroom, he was asked: “ ‘Professor, what kept you going after the Holocaust? How did you not give up?’ Professor Wiesel answers immediately: ‘Learning. Before the war, I was studying a page of Talmud, and my studies were interrupted. After the war, when I arrived at the orphanage in France, my first request was for that same volume so that I could continue my studies from the same page, the same line, the same spot where I had left off. Learning saved me.’ He goes on. ‘Maybe that is why I believe so deeply in education. If there is a solution to the problems humanity faces, education must play the central role in it. I know that learning saved me. And I believe it can save us.’ ”
And the reader is left wondering: Is it because of everything he lived through that fame had so little appeal? 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.”
But, as well as he knew his mentor, even Burger did not know how the professor would respond when a student asked, “Can you show us your number?”
“I am amazed at this student’s chutzpah, and I see the young man turn bright red, possibly regretting his brazen request. Without a word, Professor Wiesel removes his jacket, un-buttons 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.”
During Wiesel’s final illness, he told Burger, “Ariel, there are very few things I wouldn’t do for you, and if you ask me what those things are, I’m not even sure.” He thinks for a few seconds and then says, “I wouldn’t eat pork with you.” I start laughing, then he does, too. I say, “I wouldn’t eat pork with you either!” We laugh for a few moments, then he apologizes; he is suffering from terrible back pain and cannot escort me out as he usually does.”
Learning of his mentor’s passing, “this shouldn’t have been a shock, and yet it was. Professor Wiesel was 87, after all, and had been struggling with serious health problems for years. Still, my first thought was he was so young! I realized that for all his gravitas, his formidable presence, he was also childlike—innocent, curious, open. That night I tore kria, the traditional Jewish response to loss. I cut the breast pocket of my favorite shirt, right over the heart, and cried.”
And yet, even in death, Wiesel continues to teach. “Because of him,” Burger writes, “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 love of a great man, in both his public and private facets, you know the professor could ask for no higher compliment.
Meet the Author:
Book Launch, discussion and signing with “Witness” author Ariel Burger, introduced by Elie Wiesel’s son, Elisha Wiesel, on Nov. 15, beginning at 7 p.m., at the Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, 36 Battery Place, New York. The event is free; reservations are recommended. Call (646) 437-4202. For a full schedule of “Witness” book discussions and signings, visit www.arielburger.com.