I’m a rising junior majoring in molecular biology and intending to become a doctor. I was among the last group of students to take the Winter Term class with Elie Wiesel and Carolyn Johnston, during which time I got to know him about as well as any of the students at Eckerd. I first encountered Elie Wiesel’s works my freshman year when we read Night for Human Experience. I was enthralled by his thoughtful storytelling and the depth of emotion his writing conveyed. I felt connected to him because of some similarities in our early experiences and how we responded to them. We both came from very religious families and were very personally engaged at a young age with our faith and with the traditions of learning and thought of Judaism and Christianity that have so much in common. It’s not possible to overstate how much more traumatic the mass murder of your family and entire community is than any of the ordinary troubling experiences—in my case primarily, facing coming out in a non-affirming, conservative, evangelical family—that young people commonly face, but we both did encounter challenges as teenagers that shook our faith in God, our sense of our place in the world and even our sense of the value of our own lives to the very core. And we both responded to those challenges by turning back to God, seeking not answers but to live into worthwhile questions.
Dr. Wiesel’s approach to religion seemed to confuse many of our peers at Eckerd who tried to put him into a simple box, asking, “Does he still believe in God or not?” They often failed to see what I saw, the way in which some people approach religion with all the complicated emotion with which we approach a broken family. The presence of God and role of religion in your life are not always something you can simply deny, for better or for worse. Dr. Wiesel’s faith reminded me of the biblical story of Jacob wrestling with God, not turning from Him, nor merely letting Him be, but authentically engaging and struggling with Him. Dr. Wiesel was a man who, feeling abandoned by God and unwanted by the world, made peace with the world by wrestling with God. I think, though, that is part of the essence of the Jewish faith. The name Israel even means “he who strives with God.”
Then Dr. Wiesel spoke to our Human Experience class. Hearing him in person was a life-changing experience. I connected deeply with what he said, especially his affirmation that “God alone is alone; we are not alone.” So in the fall of my sophomore year, I lost no time in reaching out to Carolyn Johnston about the possibility of being in her class. Now I’m very grateful I didn’t put it off another year.
My Winter Term class with Professor Wiesel was an incredible experience, and I was so blessed to spend three weeks with such a remarkable person. One of the first things I noticed once I was in a classroom with him was how small he was. He was a lean, little man with brown skin and disheveled gray hair, dressed in a suit and a scarf that seemed too big for him. But when he opened his mouth, I forgot what he looked like. He spoke softly in perfect English with a Romanian accent, but his words deftly combined eloquence with authenticity and depth of feeling. Equally as striking was his silence. His presence was much greater than his physical size suggested. He had a piercing gaze and an empathetic way of listening when we spoke that made me feel like I was the only person in the world.
Together we read the Book of Genesis, as well as the first volume of Dr. Wiesel’s autobiography, and his other works including The Gates of the Forest, A Beggar in Jerusalem and Open Heart along with works by Franz Kafka, T.S. Eliot and Albert Camus. Through everything, he embodied his admonition to “think higher and feel deeper,” always encouraging us to ask difficult questions and build bridges rather than walls.
Professor Wiesel conveyed a sense of timelessness, writing and speaking of life and death from such experience that they seemed to have no power over him. That was the thing I liked and connected with most about him. He seemed immortal. That sense was most clear in his writing, particularly a scene in A Beggar in Jerusalem in which a group of students sing defiantly in the face of their death at the hands of a Nazi officer, and in one song that he once said embodied everything he tried to put into his writing. That song is called “Ani Ma’amin.” The lyrics are taken from the medieval Rabbi Moses Ben Maimonides’s statement of the 13 principles of the Jewish faith, and the song dates to the early 20th century. It was said to have been sung by the Jewish people in the trains on the way to the camps. I sang for our class on several different occasions, and the last time, on our last day together, I sang that song. When I was finished, he picked it up and sang it back to us. At the age of 87 he still had a clear voice.
For 24 years, Elie Wiesel has been a voice for peace in our community, a presence inspiring Eckerd students to go out and make a difference in the world. He taught us that when other people are suffering or being oppressed “indifference is never an option.” He told us that if our neighbor doesn’t have food to eat, they should be our main concern.
I think Dr. Wiesel changed our community for the better not because he was an extraordinary person but because he was an ordinary person who chose to respond to his suffering in an extraordinary way. He didn’t become bitter. He allowed his loss to drive him to do more to help others. He poured himself into learning and teaching, teaching us how to be better, more full of hope and compassion, to tell a better story with our lives. As Dr. Wiesel once wrote, “God created man because he loved stories.”
Now that he is gone, we all will have to work harder to remember the example he set. We will have to try to do more with the opportunities we have, because indifference is not an option, and we are not alone.
—Timothy Lee ’18
P.S. See YouTube for the song “Ani Ma’amin.”