Three Winter Terms With Elie Wiesel
I remember well how nervous I was during my first day of class with Professor Elie Wiesel. I was also nervous during the days leading up to it. The class was The Witness: Literature of Memory, in Winter Term of 2011. During the winter break, the upcoming Winter Term was not what I had been thinking about. I had been spending time with my family, relaxing and enjoying my free time—until I got an email from Professor Johnston halfway through the break. The email was a “welcome” message to students in the course, along with what must have become a traditional warning: “We will have a lot to read.” Her advice: “It would be a good idea to start now.” She listed nine or so books we would study together over the next month. I started reading the first volume of Wiesel’s memoirs All Rivers Run to the Sea. I worked my way through about half of the book before returning to campus for the term. Reading the memoir, I became increasingly intimidated. Professor Wiesel seemed larger than life.
The day before class, Professor Johnston emailed the students to let us know we would begin the class by responding to a prompt. The prompt for this class, on the witness, was to come up with a personal story about the importance of the witness. Naturally, the email gave me just enough time to become even more nervous about the course. It also guaranteed me just enough time to worry about an answer, while ensuring my answer wouldn’t be very good.
So by the first day of class I was triply worried: worried about the workload, worried about meeting Dr. Wiesel and worried about making a fool of myself with my first “contribution” to discussion. After all this buildup, the opening discussion went smoothly. I don’t remember what I said. What I do remember is Professor Wiesel listening patiently. He nodded and smiled as the students spoke. After all the students spoke on memories of the role of the witness, he gave his own answer and responded to points we had made. And he responded to us each by name. When he did so, he sounded genuinely appreciative. His appreciation was something difficult. On the one hand, it seemed genuine, not at all feigned. On the other hand, it always seemed undeserved; it had to be feigned. Could he really be appreciating us? Why is he even taking the time to learn our names? Doesn’t he have better things to do?
I had heard Professor Wiesel speak before our first day of class, but it was in a large auditorium during my freshman year. He spoke on Ethics and International Politics with John Prendergast (a human rights activist) at the Mahaffey Theater. Professor Felice moderated a discussion between the two. The theater was packed, probably at its full 2,000-person capacity. Professor Wiesel handled himself gracefully. He always looked Mr. Prendergast and Professor Felice directly in the eyes and spoke softly. He told endearing stories from his childhood and Talmudic studies: One man, lost in the woods, finds another lost man. The first man asks the second which way to go to safety, and the second one points to where he just came from and says, “Not that way!” Professor Wiesel’s stories were simple and humane.
Professor Wiesel carried himself in much the same way in the seminar room. He looked each student in the eyes and spoke to us directly and earnestly. When we were halfway through our first day, my worry about the class had turned into a grateful joy. My one main impression of Professor Wiesel was how incredibly quiet and humble he was. When the students spoke, he earnestly listened. I could tell that his ability to listen was something he had cultivated for years, and it was testament to his care for his students. He always waited for the students to speak before he contributed, and usually he spoke only at Professor Johnston’s request. He wanted us to speak. He was always encouraging to us; Professor Johnston handled most of the grading, but sometimes Professor Wiesel would chime in with his favorite grade: “A++.”
I was fortunate enough to take a total of three Winter Term classes with Professor Wiesel and Professor Johnston (Metamorphoses in 2012 and Madness, Tears and Laughter in 2013 were the other two). Much was the same year after year, and I began to think of the class as one continuous, though cycling, course. We began each year with the first volume of Professor Wiesel’s memoirs (All Rivers Run to the Sea) and a section of the Bible (Joshua, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel). We always studied some Kafka (short stories; always “Before the Law”; once, Metamorphosis) and Camus (The Fall, Myth of Sisyphus, The Plague). Every year, we read several works of fiction by Professor Wiesel himself (A Beggar in Jerusalem, The Town Beyond the Wall, The Gates of the Forest). My favorite was The Trial of God, a play in which several actors (within the play) put God on trial. This work came from Professor Wiesel’s own experiences. It was always made known to us that the only reason we read Professor Wiesel’s works was that Professor Johnston begged him to teach them. He didn’t want to teach his own work. But we were lucky enough to have him do it. Others we read included Toni Morrison (Sula), Carlo Levi (Christ Stopped at Eboli), Friedrich Dürrenmatt (The Visit) and Tennessee Williams (A Streetcar Named Desire). Sometimes Professor Wiesel would tell us of his correspondence with authors: “I always ask Toni Morrison, ‘Why don’t you have more anger in your novels?’”
Professor Wiesel had many endearing stories about his interactions not only with authors but also with heads of state and Nobel Prize recipients. He would smile when he talked about improvising his speech at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum following President Clinton. Before and after his Winter Term class, and sometimes during, Professor Wiesel would meet with the President at the White House or speak at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
The arc of the course was the same each year. We would read and write for homework, and discuss in class. Students always spoke first. Professor Wiesel listened and then answered our questions, often with more questions, sometimes with a story. He loved questions and stories. He would often return to his favorite talking points: Henri Bergson’s book on laughter (“How great that a philosopher could write a whole book on laughter!”), Schopenhauer’s pessimism (“How could one be so pessimistic after experiencing the smile and laughter of a child?”), Sartre and Camus’s strife (“How could a friendship turn so bitter?”). Professor Johnston’s warning that the reading load would be heavy, first conveyed in her email that just made me nervous for the first day, became something of a tradition.
Professor Wiesel came to campus an hour before class started each day, in order to make himself available to us for office hours to discuss, well, whatever we wanted to. These meetings were the highlight of my time with him. I missed my meeting with him during the first Winter Term when he fell ill with pneumonia. This absence made me cherish our meetings in the following years even more. During our meetings, he would first make himself available to me: Was there anything I wanted to know? Did I have any questions? Naturally, I would ask questions, mainly about his novels and stories. I hardly got answers. He loved to respond with questions. Then Professor Wiesel would turn the conversation to me: Was there anything I needed from him or from the course? How was I finding my time? What were my plans for the future? Why? When I told him I wanted to study philosophy at the graduate level, he was nothing but supportive. He had a humble “let’s-make-it-happen” attitude.
In addition to his supportive words, Professor Wiesel offered a little directive advice: Consider how you can best benefit others. He told me how important he thought it was to study ethics and moral philosophy. He also emphasized the importance of becoming a good, authentic teacher, which is an ideal I could see he embodied.
—Blaze Marpet ’13