A Man Who Will Be Remembered
I had the utmost privilege of taking two Winter Term courses with Dr. Elie Wiesel and Professor Carolyn Johnston. It’s hard to describe how moving and special it was to be a student in his class. He was so caring and so present to all of us. He was there because he wanted to be. Not only did he want to share his experiences and teach, but he wanted to learn from us too. We were his equals. And that was amazing to me. He was extremely humble and didn’t pretend to have all of the answers. As he said in class, he had many questions, and all of those questions led to more questions. I learned so much from him and from reading his books, as well as the books chosen for the class. He had such a passion and love for literature, and it was contagious. He spoke of all the characters in the novels we read (including his novels) like they were his close friends, and they were. To me, he did have very powerful answers to our questions and answers for humanity. I found a few of my favorite quotes from Dr. Wiesel’s books that I will now share.
In his memoir All Rivers Run to the Sea, he states, “Precisely because death awaits us in the end, we must live fully. Precisely because an event seems devoid of meaning, we must give it one. Precisely because the future eludes us, we must create it” (Wiesel 17). Nothing we go through is “devoid of meaning.” I truly believe that. I believe there are no accidents. Even the hardships we go through we are meant to go through in order to become who we are destined to become. In our class, Dr. Wiesel spoke of this and of how important it is to have initiative. That we must go after what we want. We must “create” our future. And live our lives fully. This was extremely important to hear as a junior and senior in college. And it is important for me to this day. To keep going after what I love and to not forget what that is.
In the book Dr. Wiesel signed for me, which happens to be All Rivers Run to the Sea, he wrote “Sarah—for your singing.” That has been something that has always stayed with me. The fact that he wrote that specifically is very meaningful. He wrote it from a place of understanding and even urging for me to continue singing. For that to come from him was very powerful for me. I frequently look at it to remind myself that yes, I am a singer, even though sometimes I forget it or don’t believe it. It is what I love and am passionate about. It’s what I want to be doing. And when I doubt myself or think I’m not good enough, I remember that Dr. Wiesel believed in me and believed in what I envisioned for myself. He was extremely supportive of my dreams and goals of becoming a successful singer and performer. Currently, I perform with St. Petersburg Opera while continuing to work on my craft. And I know there is so much more I am meant to do with my singing as long as I stay with it and believe in myself.
Dr. Wiesel was a musician himself; he was even a choir director. He knew the power of music and singing on a very deep level. Music is immensely important to the Jewish tradition. Having Jewish roots myself, I feel it runs in my blood to be connected to music and song. Dr. Wiesel was unquestionably an artist and a creator. I really connected with him in that regard too. Artists understand one another, they know how difficult it can be to be one and how hard it is to feel satisfied with themselves and with what they do. And if they’re doing enough. I don’t think artists ever feel like they are doing enough. Dr. Wiesel was constantly creating and giving to humanity in extraordinary amounts. And yet he still questioned if he was doing enough, and if he made a difference. And he did. He certainly did. He did more in his lifetime than most people could accomplish in 20 or 30 lifetimes.
In Dr. Wiesel’s commentary on the book of Jeremiah he writes, “If he survives, it must be for a reason; he must do something with every minute—for every minute is a minute of grace” (Wiesel 124). I think this is how Dr. Wiesel felt about his life. It is certainly how he lived his life. He chose to write about his experiences where many people tried to forget theirs. He stood up for humanity every day and fought for peace and justice. And he kept writing and writing and writing. Not only that, he continued to speak all over the world and teach at universities and colleges. We were lucky enough to be one of those colleges. All of his actions and writings in turn gave the world his strength and his memories including the memories of the people who were not given the chance to speak. It was his mission to honor the dead, the millions who could not speak. I think this was a major and constant motivation and impulse to do what he did.
In Elie Wiesel’s most recent book, Open Heart, he states, “I speak from experience that even in darkness it is possible to create light and encourage compassion.” This is such a message of hope. It inspires me to keep creating light and love even when it feels like there is so much darkness in the world. Elie Wiesel was a bright light for all of us. When I think of his story, I think of the phoenix rising up from the ashes. He rose like the phoenix out on top even after having lived through the most unthinkable circumstances. And he continued to go through amazing transformations for the rest of his life. He didn’t let the darkness paralyze him. It transformed him. Every human being must go through a transformation in his or her own way. They must go through a death, where they lose part of themselves. And yet, they come out stronger and more alive than they were before. Dr. Wiesel taught me that this is a necessary transformation if we are to realize our full potential as human beings and as spiritual beings. Beings who can feel fully and live fully.
In my last journal for our class titled The Witness, I wrote:
We witness that one person can fight indifference and create change in many people’s lives by writing and using his voice. We witness that even a person who is as shy and self-conscious as Dr. Wiesel says he is can create ripples that will reverberate until the end of time. We witness the hope and faith that he instills in others and in us every day. Purely by seeing him sit in the front of the classroom gives us the courage to fight for what is right, to follow our dreams and to never give up. No matter how hard things get, to never give up on hope or on ourselves.
—Sarah Silverberg ’11