For the past 18 years, I’ve taught at secular schools with their own rich sets of values. But Ariel Burger’s Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom brought back memories from my early teaching and, in the process, helped me with two teaching conundrums I hadn’t realized I’d been wrestling with.
In my first three years of teaching, I taught English, history, and journalism at a Jewish middle school. It was an ideal place to start, an island of temporary trailers a mile and a world apart from the high school campus down the street. The seventh graders were earnest and goofy — some even “floppy,” as I told my then-fiancé with delight. My principal and fellow teachers mentored generously so that, by 18 months in, I no longer feared disaster each period.
My students and I also shared a common language. Their Hebrew was far better than mine, but I could remember my bat mitzvah as they were studying for theirs; I could mention a Jewish value such as tzedakah (charity or righteousness) that related to a character in Of Mice and Men. We shared a liturgical shorthand that made it easy to go deeper into works of literature and history.
Taking Notes from a Master
Through Burger’s accounts of his years as Elie Wiesel’s teaching assistant at Boston University, we get a front-row seat to text after text, story after story in Wiesel’s classes, with themes as various as Literary Responses to Oppression and Jewish Women’s Voices.
Witness gives us a mesmerizing and personal glimpse of the older Wiesel, a man no longer threatened by genocide but one for whom memory drives existence. Each of the book’s seven chapters — Memory, Otherness, Faith and Doubt, Madness and Rebellion, Activism, Beyond Words and Witness — begins with an epigraph by Wiesel. For the first chapter, the quotation reads simply: “Listening to a witness makes you a witness.” And he is our witness throughout this book.
Lesson 1: Awareness Can Be Enough
Often in my eighth-grade civics and U.S. history classes, as well as with literature when I taught English, I struggle with the idea of translating knowledge into action. How much action is enough? Is it enough for students to read the newspaper more than they did before, to talk with a parent or sibling about a historical or current issue? Or do they need to protest in public, fly to Bosnia, work to end genocide, and win the Nobel Peace Prize?
Of course, the answer is any or all of the above, but Wiesel’s advice, from a man of true action, made me feel better about the discussions my students and I have each day about current events and history.
Burger once said to Wiesel, “I feel like a phony…. I study and teach about humanism, yet I myself am not doing anything concrete to help. I don’t travel to conflict zones. I don’t write op-eds in newspapers. I don’t open my home to refugees. And I am trying to understand why and what I can do to change this.”
Wiesel replied: “First, you are being hard on yourself. You are more engaged in these issues than many people, and teaching is a form of activism. Do you think it doesn’t make a difference? Each student you touch may work in more concrete ways than you, yet his or her work will be motivated by your encounters. Do not underestimate that.”
As teachers, I think we often underestimate our impact day to day, and yet we should have faith that the ripples extend beyond our sight.
Lesson 2: We Teach Beyond Facts
You might be thinking: Of course we teach more than the facts. But sometimes, even in the middle of a lesson replete with critical thinking and analysis, I wonder: Why does this matter? Wiesel reminds us, by using the negative case, that what we teach can matter profoundly.
Burger recounts that, after the Holocaust, Wiesel “had many painful questions to ask, but perhaps the one that drove him to be a teacher was this: Why didn’t learning and knowledge inoculate the German people against hatred? It was, after all, this most ‘advanced’ nation on earth, cultured and urbane, professing humanistic values, that led the efforts to eradicate Wiesel’s people.”
Wiesel’s question chilled me in its reminders that we teach with our hearts, not just our heads; that we are lost without a moral compass; that we can encourage excellent minds but that such grooming is useless if we do not also nurture excellent souls.
In response to this realization that education was not the “shield” Wiesel believed it to be, Burger continues, “Professor Wiesel’s life as a teacher became a quest for this element that would ensure that knowledge became a blessing not a curse, that its accumulation would lead to compassionate behavior and not its opposite. Like a scientist, he experimented — in his writing, in his meditations, and especially in the classroom — eventually finding and naming this new element; he called it memory.”
And, Finally: We Are Enough
Ultimately, Witness gives us room to consider, over and over again, our stance as teachers.
We are enough if we can treat history, literature, science, math, language, the arts, athletics, not simply as an end in themselves but as a pathway to something even more — to a sense of self and responsibility through which young adults can become richer with wisdom, not just fuller with knowledge.
And, as Wiesel said to Burger when the teaching assistant asked, at 32, when he would know he was ready to teach: “You teach when you cannot not teach…. When you feel that you are overflowing, that if you give, it will not take anything away from you, that is when you must teach.” This book carries its own sense of abundance, one that will make you want to race back into the classroom, overflowing with all you have learned.