Carolyn Ross Johnston, Ph.D.

Published June 14, 2017

Moments of Grace: Remembering Elie Wiesel

Elie Wiesel told me that he believed every moment is a moment of grace. Surely, every moment I spent with him was filled with grace, and every hour was an offering. We have been transformed by his life, writings and teaching. His stories are now our stories, and we are now witnesses. In 1993, I began a long and deeply meaningful friendship with Elie and Marion Wiesel. In that year, I taught a Winter Term course with Dr. Wiesel at Eckerd College. We would go on to teach 23 more courses together. We taught courses on madness, theodicy, mysticism, and the problem of evil and human suffering. And we taught courses on laughter, friendship and memory. He also lectured every year to our entire freshman class. “Think higher and feel more deeply,” he urged us. In all facets of Elie Wiesel’s life, he was a teacher. He taught through his classes, his books, his speeches and his boundless stories. His brilliance was notoriously soft-spoken, but it was equally penetrating. Forming a dazzling tapestry, his literary universe draws deeply from Hasidism, the Bible and the Talmud, as well as Kabbalah. He drew extraordinary characters from both imagination and memory, and more often from an alchemical mix of the two, and developed a style possessed of both elegance and extraordinary power. The landscape of his novels ranges from the pogroms of the 17th century to the Wall in Jerusalem, from New York City to Eastern Europe, from scenes of everyday life to mystical and allegorical zones where the world is stripped down to its most essential questions. He crosses languages, genres and centuries.

Wiesel speaks powerfully for justice in all of his works. He sees literature as profoundly moral, and he integrates art and political commitment. His works achieve grace and subtlety even as they are deeply philosophical and prophetic. They explore the ineffable mysteries of language, silence and madness. He taught us to struggle against hatred and indifference, and he gave us strength and hope. When he entered the classroom, his energy transformed the room into a sacred space. In our seminars, he was a model listener, and he brought us a sense of wonder and joy, and a loving, fierce devotion to truth.

Elie Wiesel cared deeply about his students. His life and work were devoted to the memory of those lost in the Holocaust. He gave all he had on behalf of justice, love, reconciliation and peace. His favorite expression was “And yet.” He wrote 60 books; lectured all over the world; counseled presidents and heads of state; and yet, he was not finished. He had more books to write, more classes to teach. We had already planned this year’s class on “The Messenger.” Every morning he asked himself, “What have I made of my life?” He said that our lives no longer belong to us alone: They belong to all those who need us desperately. He, and his still unfolding message, will remain in our hearts forever.

I will focus on Elie Wiesel as a teacher, and I will describe the nature of our collaboration in teaching. Then I will comment on his pedagogy and share some of the remembrances of our students [through this website’s student testimonials].

In the fall of 1992, in a faculty meeting, Dean Lloyd Chapin announced that Elie Wiesel would be coming to team-teach a Winter Term course in January of 1993. He invited proposals for courses to be offered and said they would choose a faculty member to teach with him. I went home and immediately wrote a proposal for a course titled “Remembering and Forgetting: Personal and Political Transformation.” Thus began our teaching together. I chose 20 to 25 students by interviewing them. Our classes met five days a week during January and the students read a book every other day. The course was very demanding and the students rose to the occasion. They all knew it was an opportunity of a lifetime.

I persuaded Professor Wiesel to allow us to read some of his books, and he relented, although he hadn’t done this before. Each year we had a true seminar; the students were brilliant, engaged and impeccably prepared. Professor Wiesel and I would lead the discussion of the texts. Sometimes he would lecture, and always you could have heard a pin drop in the class. All phones were off, no computers visible, and the students listened and participated with tremendous insight and imagination. They would come early to get a seat closest to him. They all became very close friends. They learned to listen, and their lives were transformed in so many ways. For Jewish students, the classes had another dimension that was very special since some were religious and others not, but all of them were moved by the experience of being with him. We all were. Whether students of any faith or no faith, they confronted their beliefs and doubts throughout the courses and attempted to find their own moral compasses.

Being in the presence of Elie Wiesel was impossible to describe. He was modest, gentle and soft-spoken. A lot of my role was to be able to enable the students to interact with him since we all were so much in awe. I was the bridge for them and for him. We all leaned forward to hear every word; he told us marvelous stories, sang to us, analyzed sacred texts (we always started with a book of the Bible) and was the best listener I have even known. He loved the students and insisted on seeing each of them one-on-one in my office during the month. For those minutes, the student was the only person in the universe for him. When someone like Bill Clinton, François Mitterrand, Oprah Winfrey or Nelson Mandela called during our class break, he would politely say, “I must go back to my students; I will call back right after class.”

Ariel Burger, who was Elie Wiesel’s teaching assistant at Boston University, wrote eloquently about Professor Wiesel’s teaching in his chapter “Toward a Methodology of Wonder” in the book Elie Wiesel: Jewish, Literary, and Moral Perspectives. Burger wrote: Wiesel’s curiosity, his almost childlike capacity for wonder at the turns of a text, constitute an invitation to do the one thing students don’t always expect in the classroom: to have deep, sound fun. The moral of this tale is that it is possible to sensitize with wonder, imagination, and delight in text, subtext, and context. It is in the midst of this startling dance of urgency and wonder, sadness, and joy that Wiesel’s students are transformed” (edited by Steven T. Katz and Alan Rosen {who also was Wiesel’s teaching assistant at BU}, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2013).

Our courses focused on 20th– and 21st-century literature, history and philosophy. The titles reflect thematic approaches that allowed us to study ancient texts, Professor Wiesel’s works and other contemporary authors. After a while, we also used the subtitle of Literature of Memory to describe the courses. Often the titles were taken from his recent books or conferences he held against fanaticism and indifference. We focused on human rights; the importance of memory as a shield; knowledge as a moral compass; and stories, stories, stories. In fact, his pedagogy was based on stories—stories of his masters, sacred texts, sages, novelists, poets and philosophers.

Two quotations are profoundly revealing about his teaching.

  1. From The Gates of the Forest, by Elie Wiesel (Schocken, 1995):

When the great Rabbi Israel Baal Shem-Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews it was his custom to go to a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted.

Later when his disciple, the celebrated Magid of Mezeritch, had occasion, for the same reason, to intercede with heaven, he would go to the same place in the forest and say: “Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer.” And again the miracle would be accomplished.

Still later, Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sassov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say: “I do not know how to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient.” It was sufficient and the miracle was accomplished.

Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhin to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: “I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is tell the story, and this must be sufficient.” And it was sufficient.

God made humankind because God loves stories.

On Questions: “There is beauty asking questions together. … The Opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. … Whoever listens to a witness becomes a witness.”

On Friendship: Elie Wiesel saw every student as a friend and encountered each one with loving devotion, respect and immediacy. If he held a conference with a student, the only person in the world was that student for him for those moments. He lived existentialism in the sense that every moment was precious and he did not waste a single one.

2. He wrote on Friendship in The Gates of the Forest:

And what is a friend? More than a father, more than a brother: a traveling companion, with him, you can conquer the impossible, even if you must lose it later. Friendship marks a life even more deeply than love. Love risks degenerating into obsession, friendship is never anything but sharing. It is a friend that you communicate the awakening of a desire, the birth of a vision or a terror, the anguish of seeing the sun disappear or of finding that order and justice are no more. That’s what you can talk about with a friend. Is the soul immortal, and if so why are we afraid to die? If God exists, how can we lay claim to freedom, since He is its beginning and its end? What is death, when you come down to it? The closing of a parenthesis, and nothing more? And what about life? In the mouth of a philosopher, these questions may have a false ring, but asked during adolescence or friendship, they have the power to change being: a look burns and ordinary gestures tend to transcend themselves. What is a friend? Someone who for the first time makes you aware of your loneliness and his, and helps you to escape so you in turn can help him. Thanks to him who you can hold your tongue without shame and talk freely without risk. That’s it.

The following are titles of the Winter Term courses my friend Elie Wiesel and I taught together each January from 1993 through 2016:

Remembering and Forgetting: Personal and Political Transformation
Gates to a New Century: Dreams, Visions and Madness
Imagining Sisyphus Happy: On Trial in the 20th Century
The Challenge of Commitment
Telling the Tale: War, Peace and Memory
Facing Hate: Making Peace in the 20th Century
The End of Innocence
Telling the Tale: Laughter, Memory and Silence
The Future of Hope: A Search for Common Ground
The Secret Chambers of Memory
Heart’s Desire: The Choice of Freedom
Telling the Tale: The Power of Stories
The Time of the Uprooted
Against Despair: Finding Hope in the 20th Century
Imagining Change: From Indifference to Action
Memory, Madness and Desire
The Power of Stories
A Mad Desire to Dance
The Witness: Literature of Memory
Metamorphoses: From the Kingdom of Memory
Madness, Tears and Laughter: Literature of Memory
Love, Friendship and Imagination: Literature of Memory
Remembering and Forgetting: Literature of Memory
Beginning and Endings: Literature of Memory

Elie Wiesel often told the story about the just man who went to a city known for its wickedness and stood in the town square and admonished the people to turn from their sins. He was reviled and assaulted, but still he spoke. He stayed there for many years and realized he had little impact on the people of the vile place. After so long, one citizen came up to him and asked, “Why don’t you leave, or be silent at least?” The prophet replied, “When I first came here, I spoke to convert those who were cruel to one another and engaged in immorality. Now I continue to speak so they do not change me.”

He also told us: “God alone is alone. We are not. We have one another. I am because you are. … He told about the man in the forest who encountered another wanderer and when asked which way to go, he said, ‘Don’t go that way.’”

Elie Wiesel’s teaching embodied the transformative power of love. He believed in love: love of sacred texts, or other human beings, of stories, of language and of silence. His smile could light a room. Because of his passage through the dark period of the Holocaust, many expected him to be sad all the time, but he had a marvelous sense of humor, and when he laughed, the universe smiled too. He said he didn’t think suffering conferred privileges but rather obligations, and he was able to transform his into lighting the way for others who had been abandoned.

At exactly 10:05 Monday through Friday morning during every January for 24 years, Elie Wiesel and I walked into the small seminar room with light streaming in the wall of windows. The students arrived very early to get seats near Professor Wiesel, and to talk with one another. Often I would pose a question and we would have each student comment on it. It might be, What is this book about? Tell us a story about your experience as a witness or about a theme of the novel. This allowed all the students to have “air time” undisturbed by anyone. This built a climate of respect for each person’s ideas and also taught us to listen carefully. The classes had a reverential, lively, engaged and deeply focused atmosphere. “Think higher, feel deeper,” Elie Wiesel urged us. He told stories; he analyzed texts brilliantly, asked probing questions. He sang for us when we studied Song of Solomon, and after Timothy Lee, from the Class of 2018, sang a verse of “Ani Ma’amin” for him, he sang the rest of the song for us. His beautiful voice filled the “sacred space” of the classroom. It was as if no one else existed in the universe when a student spoke. He often said, “Do you know what had to happen for all of us to be together at this moment?” I chose the most brilliant students I knew; Rabbi Ed Rosenthal and my other colleagues recommended their finest students also.

For Elie Wiesel, literature had a moral dimension, and by his example we were better people, having been in his humble, joyful, compassionate presence. He inspired us to examine our relationship to other people, to history and to God. In my years of teaching I saw his sense of wonder, his deep love of ancient texts and the power of silence as well as the power of words. Above it all he incarnated love. From the moment we began to teach together, I was keenly aware of the gift of every moment with him. Sometimes his stories or comments would bring us to tears, or laughter, or silence. Under the weight of his words, sometimes we could hardly breathe, because the air was so heavy when he spoke of his journey into darkness during the war. Once after teaching his magnificent book Night, I thanked him, and he said, “We owe it to the dead.”

—Carolyn Ross Johnston, Ph.D.
Elie Wiesel Professor of Humane Letters,
History and American Studies Professor, Eckerd College