During the balmy Florida winter of 1998, Elie Wiesel was my teacher at a small private college in St. Petersburg. I was 19 years old. Dr. Wiesel taught for a month every year at this lovely school along with my mentor, wonderful, transformative professor Carolyn Johnston. The class focused on meticulously selected 20th-century literature that explored the narrative and philosophy of memory—specifically, the power of memory, experience and reflection to combat the silent but deadly sin of social and political indifference.
What an impact that class had on my young, activist, ambitious brain! It’s been nearly 20 years, and I can still remember sprinting to get to class 45 minutes early to get the best seat, my hair soaking wet because I’d run straight from the shower to the classroom. One of my favorite activities was watching the faces around the classroom as they reacted to Dr. Wiesel’s words. I had never witnessed such expressions of active, hungry learning, nor had I ever been around a human being so powerful that he could hypnotize a room full of 20-year-olds into rapt silence in a half-second.
I spent a lot of months after that class reconstructing and deconstructing everything that Dr. Wiesel said that precious month. I kept trying to keep it all straight. If remembering brings awareness, and awareness brings action, and action brings change, then shared memory can be used as a starting point for change, right? So: I need to share. And never forget the past. Anything terrible can happen again if no one is paying attention. And remember: Don’t ever give up on humans. Even when you want to. Is that right? Am I getting this all right?
Dr. Wiesel signed my copy of his book with “To Janie, whose promise is our hope.” I believed at that time with all my might that I was going to change the world. I moved to Washington, D.C., soon after graduation, armed with Dr. Wiesel’s hope and promise, ready to take action, to move, to shake the world, and, most importantly, to ask questions. “What questions do you have today?” was the wonderful query Dr. Wiesel told us his mother had asked him every day after school. I had so many questions.
And then, year after year, slowly, and sometimes quickly, I got angry. The environmental agency I worked for wasted too much paper. The guy in charge of the public interest group got drunk and hit on me. My heroes starting revealing themselves as fallible hypocrites. Disillusionment crept in. Slowly, year by year, I dropped out. I grew cynical. I changed careers. I stopped going to battle, professionally or personally, for all the social causes about which I was once so fiercely passionate. I became corporate. I became glossy. I went to parties. I lived in cities. I tried to be cool. On a far different scale and in far different circumstances than Dr. Wiesel, I lost faith in God and even in humankind to govern effectively and humanely. I even, for a time, stopped asking questions, convinced there were no answers.
Life threw me some curve balls in the last 20 years, as it does to us all. I realize now, writing this tribute to a dynamic, wise and persevering teacher, that I’ve too often reacted to perceived negative events in my life by building walls and barriers between me and “others.” Elie Wiesel’s concentration camp Kapo (a guard he described in Night) observed that “Here, every man has to fight for himself and not think of anyone else. … Here, there are no fathers, no brothers, no friends. Everyone lives and dies for himself alone.” What makes this passage even more poignant to me is that a Kapo is but a prisoner himself, one who controls other prisoners. Was this what I too became—a jaded, apolitical, work-obsessed, phone-obsessed, buzz-fed prisoner?
So I sit here writing, mourning the loss of a man who once inspired every cell in my body to rise up against indifference; against the status quo; against injustice; against inequity, iniquity, inequality and abuses of power. And I remember vividly a thought I had during that class: “What if Dr. Wiesel had just given up speaking about his experiences? Imagine the loss to literature, to philosophy, to humanity—to me!”
Why did I ever stop asking questions? And was it Dr. Wiesel’s teaching that pushed me to start asking them again? I have quite a lot of them right now. Dr. Wiesel warned us in that class in 1998 that extremism and fanaticism would be the biggest problem of the coming century. He was right. I can remember what the room looked like, where he was sitting, his exact facial expression when he said those words, pre-9/11, pre-war on terror. … And a clear picture of the scene pops into my mind every time there is another tragic terror attack.
I have questions about Donald Trump and his messages of hate. I have questions about women and equal pay for equal work. I have questions about gun control. I have questions about the accessibility of higher education in America. And I’ve realized now that I haven’t been raising them as powerfully or as often as I could be.
Elie Wiesel wrote about all the reasons he lost his faith in God and in humanity, about his anger and protests and doubts and fears. He wrote about it all because he didn’t want to forget his pain; he wanted to channel it and transform it to something good. He lived through unimaginable trauma; and out of all the choices he could have made in his lifetime, he chose a values-driven path of teaching, dedication, openness, sharing, metamorphosis and, ultimately, hope. His choices were the opposite of indifference.
I will always be grateful for Dr. Wiesel’s dedication to education, and for his choice to visit our wonderful little school each winter. Dr. Wiesel’s choices—to educate, to write, to share, to speak out—reflected his deepest values. He inspired so many people the world over to remember basic human goodness and our need to share and connect. He wasn’t afraid of asking questions, and we shouldn’t be either.
Dr. Wiesel changed me back then, and now, in my reflection on his passing, he has changed me yet again, almost 20 years later. I have new work I need to do. Thank you, Dr. Wiesel, for choosing peace, activism and education. Thank you for sharing your life in such a bold and eloquent way. I will remember you always with the deepest tenderness and appreciation.
“We know that every moment is a moment of grace, every hour an offering; not to share them would mean to betray them. Our lives no longer belong to us alone; they belong to all those who need us desperately.” —Dr. Elie Wiesel
—Janie Marshall ’00