Memory is a cautionary thing. We say to ourselves, “I remember that” and speak of what we experienced as if there has been no space between what was done and the remnants we hold close in our minds. Yet I have memories of things that I do not trust, and trust that I have had experiences that I do not have in memory.
If we are fortunate we retain tatters, flashes, moments. The very nature of our tenuous grasp on what we remember is best understood as a lesson on impermanence, on fallibility. We cannot remember all. We can barely remember some. And most drifts away like dandelion fluff on the wind, ephemeral and gone.
We try to remember the good things, yet those slip from us. We try to forget the bad things, yet often they become sticky. But to make the choice to stand as a living memory is a bold, courageous decision – and few can be said to have shouldered that burden better than Elie Wiesel. Released from Auschwitz at age 16, he was a survivor of the Holocaust who swore never to let it slip from his grasp, and spent the rest of his life exploring its themes in his writing, his teaching, his lectures and his life.
I began attending Boston University in 1987, and at that time there were two star professors on staff: Saul Bellow and Elie Wiesel. With a journalism focus I had no direct entry to either of the great teachers, but after learning I could minor in religion and thereby take Wiesel’s classes, I declared and was admitted.
You’d think a man of Wiesel’s stature would have an enormous lecture hall of hundreds; instead, the Nobel Peace Prize winner (he was awarded it in 1986) held court in the equivalent of a boardroom filled with approximately fifteen students (of which I was one) and a few teachers’ assistants for the first of two classes I ultimately took with him, an entire semester focused on the Book of Job.
We sat around a large rectangular table with Professor Wiesel at its head; I was eager to be there and did my best to always be seated just to his right hand. When he spoke, it was with an Eastern European accent tinged with a bit of French flair; hearing him I recall vividly thinking every word that came out of his mouth was wisdom. He probably could have ordered a salami sandwich with mustard and I would have thought, “that is brilliant!”
I’m writing this from the distance of my notes. Somewhere I still have the syllabus, and the words I wrote down that I heard directly from his mouth. Sadly, I can’t put them in here now, though I’ll try later – so for now, I’ll have to rely on (of all things) memory.
One of the earliest things I recall him telling us was how as a child he wanted to study the secret Hebrew teachings of Kabbalah, and was prohibited from doing it (possibly he wasn’t old enough). But he and a friend found someone who would teach them, and like the young curious rebels they were, they heard the tales – tales which were supposed to be so potentially dangerous that they could kill the unready, the uninitiated. Some time after that, his friend died and this terrified young Wiesel. Was he next?
But largely we focused on a different kind of writing. The Book of Job is an incredible story: Taken at face value, you’re meant to believe that a higher deity finds a righteous man who lives well and whose life is turned upside down because God and Satan take an interest in whether he’d be so holy if all of his good fortune was taken away. When it is taken away and Job asks why, God gets pretty huffy over the topic but ultimately restores all of Job’s good fortune.
What was interesting to me about the study of the book was that it was as much a theological exploration as it was a chance for Wiesel to go into depth about how the experience of the Holocaust changed his beliefs. Again, I wish for my notes right now but every memory I have indicates that he became an unbeliever in the face of the Holocaust: He saw himself and other Jews as Job; righteous and well-meaning, stricken down for what seemed like no reason. And in most cases, there was no real restoration. There was just survival. Witnessing.
It seems likely that Wiesel’s faith ultimately was restored; I have no reason to think he became an atheist. But clearly, his faith matured. Shifted. Became a different kind of thing, just like a memory.
I did well in the class – it wasn’t a difficult class, and I ended up making a 20 minute video in which I interviewed members of multiple religions about their take on the Book of Job for a final project. There was a second class, about storytelling around the world, which opened me up to folktales and stories I’d never read before, from Anansi to Nachman of Breslov. In the course of taking that class, I went looking for Jewish folktales to read to my dying grandfather, and stumbled on a book by W.B. Yeats about Irish fairytales.
I still have that Irish fairytale book, and used it to write the novel I’m currently shopping around. It all comes around, ties together, becomes one great braid of memory.
At some point while taking one of my classes with Wiesel, we were urged to arrange a one-on-one meeting with him, in his office. It was meant to be short, but you were expected to do it once – he wanted to meet everyone. I was terrified. There was something so enormous, so weighty, so substantial about his mere existence that I had no idea what to say to him. I showed up and sat across from him while he sat in his desk chair and I have absolutely zero idea what we spoke about. I was completely tangled up and utterly incompetent as a conversationalist, and when it was done I left feeling inadequate and small. That was not his fault – that was mine, entirely.
And now, he’s gone. We learned of the death of Elie Wiesel – who honestly, seemed like he might go on forever – at age 87 on Saturday. His words are on pages and in audio lectures and there are dozens, if not hundreds, of recordings of him speaking. But for those of us lucky enough to spend any time around him, all we’re left with are memories.
Those wispy dandelion seeds, sent off in the breeze. Away they go.
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