“To live is to try, to make an attempt at something. To live freely is to ensure that all others do as well.” —Elie Wiesel
His lectures were prose, and his words were magic. Elie Wiesel was my first mentor, the first person I ever met that I felt could, in some way, answer some of the arcane questions I had about life. These answers weren’t always conclusive, but they provoked thought, and enlivened me, and somehow always gave me a sense of hope for the world, despite countless reasons not to. Dr. Wiesel always seemed righteous, to me; higher than us, somehow, and my reverence for the man was only confirmed upon meeting him for the first time. He exhibited a calm yet challenging demeanor, as if he measured every person he met by the humanity he saw in their eyes. As if he challenged every hand he shook to offer help to those who struggle, every eye he stared into to look upon human suffering and feel something: whether that be anger, despair or desperation. Anything to combat the plague of indifference, of apathy, that Dr. Wiesel proclaimed to be worse than hate, worse even than the genocide inflicted on his own people.
It was only about a week into my time with Dr. Wiesel when I realized how wrong I had been to perceive him as superior; it was, in fact, one of his life goals to be seen as commonplace. Headlines glorify Dr. Wiesel’s successes, calling him the “messenger for mankind” and the “spokesman for world peace.” But those who ever had a conversation with him know the depth of his humanity; he was human, like any of us, and he urgently wanted us to be aware of it. He was not uniquely capable of the benevolence he promoted, the philanthropy he supported, the injustice he so avidly opposed. His actions on this earth were actions rooted in the mundane. They were simple. They are realizable by each one of us. Dr. Wiesel’s loftiest goal was that humanity would see him not as its hero but as a model for what could be; as an ordinary man spreading an extraordinary message of peace.
“Remembering means to shine a merciless light on faces and events, to say ‘No’ to the sands that bury words and to forgetfulness and death.” —Elie Wiesel
I am a Jew, of German descent, whose grandfather escaped from Nazi Germany in the early 1940s. His father, as a matter of fact, escaped from Buchenwald, the same concentration camp that Dr. Wiesel endured from 1944–1945 and described extensively in the book Night. My grandfather passed away two weeks before I began my Winter Term class with Dr. Wiesel. The class was titled Remembering and Forgetting: The Literature of Memory, which seemed to me to be an ironic and fitting way to memorialize my grandfather’s death. His passing was expected, the slow progression of cancer giving us plenty of warning, but what was unexpected was how much the month-long class in the following weeks would impact my process of grief, my acceptance and my resolution. Reading books by Dr. Wiesel, hearing him speak every day, sitting daily directly to his right gave me a window into the world of my grandfather; it forced me to feel the same sorrow that was felt by my ancestors, one that could not be instilled by the simple retelling of history. It brought me closer to my grandfather for that reason. I stopped Dr. Wiesel one day after class, explained the news and gave him a copy of my grandfather’s memoir, Memoirs of a Grateful Refugee Kid. He was quiet for a while, standing there as he opened the cover and read the introduction. He then looked up at me, clapped me on the back of my neck and with a sad smile said, “He was a good man. You must never forget.” Dr. Wiesel asked that I sit by his right side the next day.
“I cannot cure everybody. I cannot help everybody. But to tell the lonely person that I am not far or different from that lonely person, that I am with him or her, that’s all I think we can do. And should do.” —Elie Wiesel
In Dr. Wiesel’s novel The Town Beyond the Wall, a favorite of mine, we see a manifestation of all the lessons Dr. Wiesel tried to teach so poignantly in his long life. Although the protagonist’s suffering in this novel is heart-wrenching, his torment beautifully and tragically described, it imparts with us not only moistened eyes and a furrowed brow but a sense of fulfillment, as we can see that amid his struggles we find a means of overcoming them: compassion. His friend Pedro preaches compassion in this novel: “You see a musician in the street, you give him 1,000 francs instead of 10; he’ll believe in God. You see a woman weeping; smile at her tenderly, even if you don’t know her; she’ll believe in you. You see a forsaken old man; open your heart to him, and he’ll believe in himself.” These small acts of kindness, Pedro affirms (and I do too), can heal the most wounded of souls, can mend the most broken of hearts and can bring faith to even the most persistent of nonbelievers.
If there is anything we should take from the teachings of Dr. Wiesel, it is that man is never alone. We have a duty to each other; to those of all races, distinctions and belief systems. This does not necessarily have to be fighting a war, or protesting for a cause or throwing money at a problem. But it does have to be an action, however small, that strives for the benefit of others. We all are responsible for this. And it’s not that hard to do. Suffering is not something to be tolerated, not when our lives are so ephemeral.
“In the final analysis, I believe in man in spite of men.” —Elie Wiesel
In his Winter Term class, Dr. Wiesel’s favorite message to leave with us was the quote “and yet.” These two words meant the world to him, and he concluded every class with them. They symbolize the overarching power of humanity, that despite our rampant injustices, the potential for good will forever be present. Great suffering happens all over the world, and yet we move forward. Things will never be perfect, or truly just, and yet there will always be those who try. I suffer, and yet I persevere. A profoundly extraordinary man is no longer with us, and yet his teachings will live on forever. Wiesel himself is living proof of the incredible resilience of the human spirit: Despite the great traumas that seek to torment man, we always have and always will have the power to overcome ourselves.
The news of Elie Wiesel’s passing has haunted me since the day it happened. I remember feeling distraught during the last days of class with him, wondering if this was my first true mentor where I would find another that would be satisfyingly inspiring, Socratic, distinguished. I asked him, on the last day, where to turn if I had questions, how I could continue to learn the lessons that had stirred me so profoundly in the past weeks, despite not being immersed in them every day. “We have many weeks together,” he said to me, smiling; “you are part of my life now.” I still have so many more questions. But I put them to rest, for now, to honor the man who taught me how important it is to ask. May the message of compassion that Elie Wiesel dedicated his life to be long remembered in our hearts and in the forefront of our minds. Rest in peace, Dr. Wiesel, and keep the stars company.
—Jason Baer ’17