I was a student at Boston University in 2003, working on a master’s degree in the School of Theology where Elie Wiesel had an office, across the hall from the Registrar’s office where my friend Karen Jackson worked. I began casually stalking his office, walking up and down the hallway in the dim, dusty light, pausing in front of the door with the gold plate with his name on it to check the time or look at my phone. One afternoon I was loitering in the hallway when Karen came out of her office and asked why I didn’t just sign up for his course. It had never occurred to me that I could.
He taught one class per year, and admitted students by interview only. Wiesel’s assistant, Martha, was responsible for filling the class. Following my meeting with Martha I was accepted for the fall term, the year his Literature of Memory course’s theme was Faith and Heresy. There were thirty of us, and we read a book a week. Martha arrived a few minutes before class began to bring Professor Wiesel’s chair—a simple, wooden, slat back chair that she sat at the end of a long conference table. She placed a single notecard on the table and just as the clock struck the appointed hour, Professor Wiesel entered the room and quietly took his seat.
What is our goal, he challenged us that first day, to find Truth or to find what is Good? What is faith? What is heresy? Is faith merely an answer to death, or is it something born out of a need to balance, to understand, our suffering? His quiet voice was often difficult to hear over the noise of streetcars passing beneath the open windows onto Commonwealth Avenue. Does faith exist to counter our fear of the unknown, he continued. Is faith better than a lack of faith? Is heresy merely thinking differently from those who outnumber you? And who gets to decide? Some people furiously scribbled notes. I was star-struck. I couldn’t stop staring at him.
Faith is about action, Professor Wiesel said that day. Faith is about what you do with that faith. Belief in God is to do, not to accept. So always the question: what can we do?
On the first day of class we learned that we would each have the opportunity for an individual meeting with Professor Wiesel at some point during the semester, and I immediately panicked. What does one possibly say to a Nobel Peace Prize winner, I wondered. To someone who knew death in the camps, and who survived?
“Why are you so worried?” Karen asked me as I sat with her one afternoon, heavy-breathing into a beer in a bar across the street from the School of Theology. It was a fine question and the answer was simple: it was my one chance to speak to him individually, and I did not want to fuck it up. Every time he opened his mouth it seemed like a prophecy fell out, and I couldn’t imagine anything more humiliating or absurd than stumbling unprepared into his office and morphing into a hyperventilating fanboy in front of someone who survived Auschwitz.
“What if he asks me why I came to seminary?” I said, and Karen smiled. It was the most obvious question for anyone who hasn’t been to seminary to ask. And maybe the truth would do: that I’d come in search of a place to be serious and quiet. That as a gay person I yearned for a space to explore and examine the traditions in which I had been raised, that I’d taken for granted, and since coming out that I’d begun to recognize as oppressive, violent, and unjust—and in spite of everything, that still informed my choices, my language and, perhaps most of all, my fear. I’d begun to discover liberationists and radical thinkers like Robert Goss, whose expansive visions of love and justice made my head swirl. It had been both exhilarating and a complete disappointment. I’d been searching for somewhere to get lost in the questions, to explore history and scripture and tradition with fellow seekers, which is who I thought I would find in seminary, and what I found instead were people who didn’t seem to be there because they were seeking anything in particular, but because they had already found it.
As the day of my meeting with Professor Wiesel drew nearer, and my anxiety continued to mount about what interesting thing I might possibly say or what question I might ask, I became more and more preoccupied with something I’d said to Karen: he survived. And so had I. Could I share that with him? Could he—he, who had seen so much, who had lost half of his family in the camps, who had imposed a decade-long silence on the story of those camps and who emerged from that silence with a new language in which to tell it, with a new dedication to being a witness to what he’d seen there—possibly care about what had happened to me?
The more time I spent in his class, talking about truth and studying memory, the more I’d begun to excavate the more complicated plot points of my own story. Having read accounts of his sister Tzipora, who perished in the camps, and of his eventual and unlikely reunion with his two other siblings, I had begun thinking that I could talk to Professor Wiesel about my own brother who died. But to what end? Did I want him to tell me that I’m all right? Maybe I wanted him to look at me and say: I hear your pain and I know you have suffered, too. It was a young person’s preoccupation, I knew. Being in class with him, however, discussing history and literature and memory with someone who had written so much about each—fiction, nonfiction, and otherwise—had begun to shake loose the edges of my own story, so that I no longer knew what was real and what was imagined. When my brother Clay and I flew over the edge of that overpass it left a gash in time and memory that he slipped through and from which I never fully reemerged. Our crash belonged to some larger realm of mystery and forgiveness that went beyond what I remembered or what I did not remember. It was bigger than that somehow, and yet smaller at the same time, because it belonged to Clay and me alone. The two of us, that was it. Our mother and father had their own stories they could tell, and our younger brother, but they weren’t in the car. Whatever Clay’s side of it was died along with him, and I was left out of time altogether, the one who lived, but without memory.
“Without memory,” Wiesel said in his 1986 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, “our existence would be barren and opaque, like a prison cell into which no light penetrates; like a tomb which rejects the living.” Elsewhere he has said, “Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future.” He is talking about something more, something greater, than personal memories—about the capacity of a collective, public memory to create, to indeed save, humanity—but for someone who lacks any memory of the central event of his life, the pivot around which everything else, before and since, revolves, the point remains.
“Memory is fragile,” Professor Wiesel said to us in class one day. But what is memory, I wanted to ask him, what is time, and how do I ever get off the side of that road? Sometimes I feel like I am still there, unable to go back and unwilling to go forward.
When I walked into his office Elie Wiesel shook my hand. “I see we suffer the same,” he said, and pushed a box of tissue toward the center of the table. “Where are you from?” he asked me. And next: were my parents still living? I don’t know why I was surprised by his questions, by the familiar, friendly tone they set. I thought I wanted to tell him about my brother, to talk about what it means to be outside memory, to confess that I blamed Clay for almost killing me and, by extension, for his own death, and in some ways this seemed the worst of all, that I had no recollection of what his voice sounded like. Professor Wiesel opened the door, welcomed me through it. His first questions were about my family. And yet, rather than saying any of this, I apologized to him instead.
All semester I sat in the same seat, to his right around a long conference table. Each week I came prepared. I read every word of every text he assigned. Other students spoke out, raised questions or objections, offered comments or interpretations or feedback. Professor Wiesel sat at the table in his simple wooden chair, hands folded in front of him, periodically glancing at his notecard. He wanted to hear from us, of course he did. But there I sat, week after week, unable to speak. Not entirely without a voice, but still, no words came. None seemed adequate, like they would suffice.
I savored his every word, I wanted him to know. I apologized for my silence.
“You listen,” he said to me that day, sitting quietly in his office, his voice the same low, steady invocation in private as it was in class. “Each week, I see you listening. Sometimes listening is the most active form of participation we have.”
Three weeks later we were invited to bring with us to the final class meeting any questions we had not had the opportunity to ask. Once again I struggled to come up with something to say. But it didn’t matter, because I never got the chance. Not because I couldn’t come up with anything, or was too afraid to ask, or felt so close to the verge of tears that I didn’t trust my voice, but because he answered it without my prompting.
Where do you find joy? I wanted to know. We’d spent three and a half months talking about faith and heresy, hope and despair, love and hate, so I was curious. After all the lessons he had learned and words he had written and people he had met, after all that he had witnessed, everything he had endured, where is joy?
On the last day of class we discussed Wiesel’s play, The Trial of God, toward the end of which Sam asks if there is a difference between sadness and joy and Mendel replies, “Oh, there is, Stranger, there is.”
Wiesel’s own answer was as simple and profound as the slat back chair in which he sat. Here, he said, looking around. In the classroom, with all of you. There is joy in books. In talking to students and knowing that the learning will continue, that the burden of history is being passed on, that the stories will be told, that the past will not be forgotten. “There is a Jewish tradition that it is not okay to take money for teaching. It is a privilege and a responsibility,” he said.
“What has kept you sane?” someone asked, and he looked up at us with a quiet smile and replied, “Study.”
As the final class drew to a close Professor Wiesel pushed aside the notecard he’d been holding. He folded his hands once more on the table and said, “Suffering has a voice. You must listen to suffering, to those who suffer, wherever they exist.” The howl and honk of a fire truck rose up outside the window and threatened to drown out what he was saying. I leaned forward in my chair and strained to hear him over the noise. “Whatever you do, when people suffer, don’t laugh. Don’t ever belittle another’s suffering, even if they chose it.” As he rose from his seat the class rose with him. The last words he spoke to us were these. “In the future if you see me, come up to me. I promise I will remember you. Farewell.”
Not goodbye. Not adieu. But farewell. It sounded like a blessing.
I was mindful of being in France in early July when I learned that Elie Wiesel had died—of being in the country that took him in following the war and gave him a new language, the language in which he wrote Night. Hearing of his death I paused, and thought back to that meeting in his office thirteen years ago, on a day in November when we’d both had colds and sat together around a small table talking about what it means to pay attention. When our time together ended I stood up and began to gather my things, thanking him and wishing him well. As I rose to leave he reached into his pocket, raised his hand to me in a simple, humble gesture, and offered me a cough drop.
Rumpus original art by Elizabeth Schmuhl.