For Elie Wiesel
He wanted us to know and he wanted us to never know. He told us, his students, that by hearing a witness’s account of injustice, we would become witnesses ourselves. We would then have a responsibility to speak out, to halt crimes against humanity. At the same time, he declared that there was no name for the event he experienced: the “event with a capital E,” as he called it. We would never understand; we could not imagine it. We would never know it.
I was a junior in college when I signed up for Elie Wiesel’s course titled The Witness. I couldn’t believe he was coming to my small college in St. Petersburg, Florida, to teach a January term. I was full of nervous energy. I was going to meet a Holocaust survivor, hear his story. I expected night terrors, persistent pessimism, panicked memories. It’s always the anticipation that gets me. But there was also an excitement to it. I would get to study with a well-known author, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and a friend of both Toni Morrison and Oprah. I was going to study literature with a well-established writer. I just hoped it wouldn’t be too upsetting, too easy to visualize. At the same time, I wanted him to tell me all of it: the memories, the horrors.
On the first day, I found that he looked and sounded different than I had imagined. His gray hair always looked frazzled and uncombed, as if he’d been caught in a windstorm that morning. His quiet voice made every memory feel like a whisper. Whenever someone was talking in the hallway, unzipping a backpack and discussing evening plans, all of us glared through the floor-length windows, willing them to shut up. We wanted to hear everything. I hadn’t expected him to be that soft-spoken. When I had read his work, I’d always imagined a thundering, assertive voice, the type you hear at public events. His books read like a powerful speech, both moving and motivating. His spoken voice was cautious. He never stumbled—every word was careful and deliberate.
He started the course by asking each of us to tell him our story. My chest stiffened as I tried to come up with something. One girl said she helped Katrina survivors rebuild their homes; another described how important friendship was to her. The guy across from me talked about coming out as a gay to his parents. When it was my turn, I told the class about the first day I called myself a writer. I was six, reading aloud a short story I wrote at an author’s tea held by my first-grade class. It was a similar predicament: We had to give a biography statement before we started reading our work aloud. Those kids talked of liking cats, enjoying spaghetti dinners, watching cartoons. The little boy directly in front of me said he was going to be a writer. I remember thinking, Wow, that was a cool one. I stole it.
I hoped my story was okay. I didn’t know what he wanted me to say. When he looked right at me, my jaw stiffened, I’d rub my hands together under the table, I’d squeeze my wrists in my palms. I had to raise my hand more often. I had to participate.
He smiled the entire time we spoke, telling us how much he loved stories. After we all finished, he started his own story by saying he attributed his survival to pure luck, because everything in the camps was based on chance. He told us that now he was very absent-minded, often getting lost on the way to his own home. When he would call his wife for directions, she would laugh and tell him she couldn’t imagine how he survived. But he knew that in the camps, being sharp or strong or weak couldn’t save you, nor would it damn you. Love, anger, hate, hope—then, they all meant nothing. Hunger was all that mattered.
“Don’t ask me what I hoped for in the camps,” he told us. “I hoped for a potato peel in my soup.”
As part of the course, each student got two one-on-one meetings with Dr. Wiesel. On the walk over, I realized I had no idea what we were going to talk about. I didn’t want to talk about me. Hopefully, he would just tell me more stories. I loved his stories. I waited for them every class and wrote down every word. When he called me into his office, I fully expected to hear more.
Instead, he began: “Tell me, what is behind that smile?”
It was the last thing I thought he would ask me. I gave some flustered, awkward answer, explaining that I was somewhat of an upbeat person who had somewhat of a happy life. I explained nothing else, though I could feel how red my face was getting. He must know, I thought. I rattled off a verbal resume and I told him where I was from. I left feeling like I’d made it all up.
For our second one-on-one meeting, I came fully prepared. I would discuss my literature thesis; I would share my post-graduation plans. This time I would know what to say. I wouldn’t get awkward and ruin the whole thing again. My hands wouldn’t stop shaking—would he notice if I sat on them? I hoped he had forgotten our last meeting.
He started differently this time. “You perform very well in class, Liz.” It made me smile, bigger than usual. I felt my shoulders lowering. “So what about your books. Tell me, what do you write?”
I told him I wanted to write memoir. I told him a few of my ideas, knowing I may or may not ever actually write them. I told him what I was currently working on: a piece on anxiety, on how it had immobilized me. He said he saw an opportunity for a how-to guide to help others. It was an idea I had never considered.
“Will you write bestsellers?”
I could feel my face heat up. “I don’t know. … Hopefully, I guess.” I was hesitant to want such a thing.
“Why not? We need them.” He smiled. “You inspire me, you know.”
“What?” I had no idea where he was going with this. I wanted to ask why.
“Because you listen. The way you look at me, it makes me feel lucky.”
I couldn’t think of any response. I couldn’t believe it. “Well, you are the kind of writer who makes me want to stop reading and write, myself.” I hoped it wasn’t too weird to admit such a thing.
“Then from my books, there will be your books.” Our eyes met. “Books, like people, have their own destinies.”
On the last day of class, as we all stood up to leave, he motioned for us to sit back down. He had one last lesson: “I must admit I am pessimistic. The world hasn’t changed. The world has not learned.” His voice grew soft. “And yet, we are still here.”
We all leaned in, pens furiously transcribing every word.
“It is so simple. I know that one of you—at least one—is going to have the same crazy idea that I have. One of you will try to bring humanity back. One of you will do great things, make time for the noblest of projects. …”
I couldn’t help but assume I would be the one. I wanted to be the one.
“For this person, I teach.”
—Liz Argento ’12