Like many others, I met Elie Wiesel through his words. His memoir Night was the first book I assigned my students when I began teaching at Barnard College in 1976. I still have my copy, corners curled, words underlined, and margins filled with notes.
I never thought I would be lucky enough to meet him, but I was, first in 2005 when he came to Chapman University for the dedication of the Sala and Aron Samueli Holocaust Memorial Library, and then again in 2010, when he returned to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education. On that occasion, President Doti invited him to accept a five-year appointment as Distinguished Presidential Fellow, spending one week each spring here. Over the next four years, he met with hundreds of students in dozens of classes, from English and Law, to Religious Studies and French. He spoke to large audiences and engaged in public “conversations” with Chancellor Daniele Struppa and others.
His schedule was daunting, especially for a man in his 80s. Yet, never once did he complain. Instead, he approached each day with delight, and, as I discovered, he liked surprises. Although he would listen patiently when I shared with him months in advance a minute-by-minute itinerary, when he was here, each morning, he would ask me with a smile, “What are we doing today?” I still am amazed that someone who had been subjected to so much horror and suffering in his youth, could approach each day with such trust and hope. I learned that when he said a class or an event or a conversation had been “good,” let alone “very good,” it truly meant something. His eyes lit up when I would hesitantly propose a new idea for his next visit. One year, as we met to plan the week, I told him I had been struck by one particular passage: “My inner geography is not an American geography. It is a very strange, faraway geography. These are places that are no longer here or anywhere. Sometimes I say to myself that they exist only in me, that when I go, they will go.” I suggested we have a readers’ theatre performance on that theme. He immediately agreed. We presented “The Worlds Within the Words of Elie Wiesel” on April 18, 2013. The script interwove passages from sixteen of his works encompassing five decades of his writing. For once, I think, he was truly surprised. At the conclusion of what had been an unforgettable student performance, Professor Wiesel came on stage. He was visibly moved, telling the students that their performance was far more than he could have imagined, repeatedly turning to them and saying, “it was good, really good.” I think perhaps that evening he realized that those faraway places would not disappear with his passing, but would instead live on within us, and, like Elie Wiesel himself, be a gift of both memory and hope.
Marilyn Harran, Ph.D., is Stern Chair in Holocaust Education and Director of the Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education at Chapman University. She holds appointments in the Department of History and the Department of Religious Studies.