Most of the discussions surrounding Elie Wiesel’s life and legacy seem to be focusing on him as a person, his dubious politics, what his life and survival has meant to Jews and the memory of theShoah, and, to put it simply, what his death means to adults – those old enough to remember his Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 or his efforts to dissuade President Reagan from visiting the Bitburg cemetery a year earlier.
But Wiesel’s legacy in the United States, and in many parts of the world, is not about adults. It’s about children, about teenagers, and, for the most part, his impact on non-Jewish youth everywhere. His legacy will beNight and the legions of American youth who read it.
Nightis how most non-Jewish youth in the U.S. learn about the real horrors of the Holocaust (along with perhaps Number the Stars andThe Diary of a Young Girl) and is one of the most important books in U.S. history not just for its role introducing Americans to the concentration camps, but in many ways also introducing them to Jews.
Night is required or suggested reading in many colleges, high schools, and some middle schools. I’m certain many of those I grew up with in Tennessee – where the first question everyone asked me after I moved there in middle school was “What church do you go to?” – would not have known much of anything about the Holocaust if it hadn’t been forNight.
While Wiesel’s politics have, at times, surely been suspect for progressives, we are forever changed as a society not merely for what he said, but what we’ve read. Wiesel the witness is amplified through Night into something bigger – we are all witnesses.
There have been efforts to banNightfrom schools in the past, and if we want to honor the best aspect of Wiesel’s legacy, we’ll make sure that never happens.
Like most young Jews, Night was not my introduction to the Holocaust and when my father took me to see a public conversation between Wiesel and Maya Angelou when I was young, I had no idea who he was. But I’m spiritually indebted to Wiesel because it was that conversation at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst that helped shape my own thoughts about miracles, the existence (or lack there of) of a God, and a transformative power of the universe.
I don’t remember exactly how the conversation went, but at one point Angelou the poet asked Wiesel the survivor if, after the horrors of the Holocaust, he still believed in miracles.
I love someone and they love me back, Wiesel said. Isn’t that a miracle?
I talk to someone and they understand me, Wiesel said. Isn’t that a miracle?
The idea of ordinary miracles, of a transformative power that’s not God or God-like but rooted in us as a people, has never been far from my mind after that day. And if we want to honor his legacy, we definitely should keep teaching Night in schools – and we should also understand what a miracle it is to read it.
Ari Bloomekatz is the managing editor of Tikkun magazine.