photo by David Shankbone

Prof. Elie Wiesel: An Act of Witness

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What a devastating couple of days. Yesterday I wrote about studying with Geoffrey Hill. A few hours later, I heard that Elie Wiesel had also died. I took a course called “Literary Responses to Oppression” with Elie Wiesel the same semester that I took “Hopkins” with Prof. Hill. Two, magnificent former professors in as many days. It’s too much to comprehend.

I don’t have the same sort of personal reminiscences of Prof. Wiesel as I did of Prof. Hill, although I very clearly remember being in a classroom with him. My most vivid memory is of when he recounted a story that he had written about, when years after WWII he recognized a man in the street as a former SS officer. We had all read the story, but hearing it, hearing his voice as he asked, “What do you do when you realize you now hold the power of life and death over your former tormentor?” — that question asked by Elie Wiesel to a room full of students — that was unforgettable.

There were 35 of us in that course, many of whom were auditors, and he had a wonderful TA, Ariel Burger. Packed into a classroom that was too small for us, we had intense discussions about literature, history, testimony, and ethics. The class was held seminar style, and students sat around a U-shaped configuration of desks with a second row of students lining the walls around them.

The course material was brutal. Every week we read a book or play or collection of poetry and wrote 1-page response papers that served as the basis for our discussions. We began the term with Euripides’ Trojan Women then jumped into We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families by Philip Gourevitch on the genocide in Rwanda. Students signed up to give short presentations on the authors we read. I introduced Russian poet Anna Akhmatova.

Prof. Wiesel obviously enjoyed teaching. He met individually with each of his students and asked us questions about ourselves and answered our questions in return. I was the only poetry student in his class that semester, and he loved that I was in the creative writing program. “A fellow writer!” he said enthusiastically and extremely generously. He told me he admired poets because he couldn’t write poetry himself. I asked if he ever tried, and he said he preferred to stick to things he was good at. He knew he could write prose, so that’s what he did. At the end of our conversation, I shyly asked him to sign a book for me. He wrote, “For Anindita – Who makes words sing. Elie Wiesel.”

I’ve been reading journals and some of my writing from that semester because of Professor Hill and found this description of my final paper for Prof. Wiesel:

“I’m writing about the basic issue of literary responses to oppression — what is the responsibility of the writer? The writers I’m looking at wrote about genocide, torture, imprisonment, etc. while writing about love, music and everything else. In some ways, writing about these very human subjects fights oppression. It focuses on the individual, the immediate, life. But these writers can and should also give voice to the voiceless because they have that power. There’s also the issue of creating art out of another’s pain. They write the experience, then revise it, make it more artful, more effective. It’s necessary to make the work more powerful to reach people, but also disturbing, that genocide can be crafted, revised. What’s appropriate? Where’s the balance? What’s right?”

What a privilege to get to think about these questions with the guidance of Prof. Wiesel.

As I’ve been thinking about that semester, I keep returning to the word “witness” and how that more than “remembrance” fits Prof. Wiesel and all he stood for. A witness is present and active, someone who sees and speaks. Memory is a step removed. We look back on it, but we do not necessarily act on it.

Writing and speaking were Prof. Wiesel’s acts of witness, and the world saw and heard him. What a profound loss for us all.

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