Elie Wiesel was a teacher above all else, says book author

Ariel Burger's debut novel, "Witness" recounts his years as Elie Wiesel's teaching assistant.

Most of the world knows Wiesel as a Holocaust survivor, a human rights activist, a confidant of presidents and prime ministers, and a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Ariel Burger is the author of the book 'Witness.'
Ariel Burger, 43, a teacher, writer and rabbi, is the author of 'Witness.' Burger was Elie Wiesel's teaching assistant.
Maor Ziv-Kreger

But according to Burger, if you asked Wiesel who he was, he always said, "I'm a teacher, and that's what inspires everything else that I do, and it's the last thing I'll ever give up."

Burger, 43, is a teacher, writer and ordained rabbi. He experienced Wiesel's classroom in Boston, where Wiesel taught for almost 40 years, as a magical and transformative space.

"I wanted to share that experience with the world, because there was very little written about that," Burger said.

Wiesel taught hundreds of classes over four decades, at Boston University and City College in New York. No two classes ever had the same title. His classes had poetically interchangeable names including literary responses to oppression, exile in memory, writers of despair and hope, faith and despair, faith and heresy, faith and destruction — just to name a few.

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Over the years Burger got to learn first-hand from Wiesel and also learned about his extraordinary personal story.

Wiesel was born in 1928, in part of Europe that changed borders and names many times. In 1944, the community was deported to concentration camps. Wiesel lost family, his mother, his sister and he wrote about these events after the war, in what became his bestselling memoir, "Night."

Wiesel taught his students that when anyone is suffering, when any community is threatened, even with genocide, each one of us has a responsibility to speak up in protest or in solidarity with them.

He traveled the world speaking up against violence. He went to Cambodia, South America, Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Darfur. He was known for his compassionate, diplomatic peacekeeping work around the world. In 1986, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Obit Elie Wiesel
In this Dec. 10, 2009 file photo, Elie Wiesel smiles during a news conference in Budapest, Hungary. Wiesel, the Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor has died in July 2016.
Bela Szandelszky | AP

Patience is a virtue, education is a shield

One question students often asked Wiesel was what saved him?

His response: "Learning saved me, and learning can save us."

After liberation, Wiesel was taken to an orphanage where he and the other children were asked what they wanted. Some kids asked for chocolates or clothes.

Wiesel said he wanted the same volume of Talmud so he could pick up where he had left off before the war. The Talmud is the source of the code from which Jewish law is derived.

"It saved my sanity, and hope, and I believe it can save all of us,'' he said.

Wiesel believed education was a shield, and that patience was the ultimate virtue.

Burger said he thinks one of the unsung traits of all teachers is patience.

"Teachers are amazing people because they have not only patience, but compassion to stay with students through what are sometimes steep learning curves,'' Burger said. "I saw that in (Wiesel). I saw that in ways that were astonishing, not only in the classroom but in lectures and in public sessions.

"People would ask the same questions I know he's heard for 40 years, and he still answered with tremendous respect, and patience, and sensitivity,'' Burger said. "He really valued students who were committed to learning."

Becoming a witness

The student-teacher relationship is essential in Jewish tradition, said Marcia Zimmerman, senior rabbi at Temple Israel in Minneapolis.

"Especially with survivors of the Holocaust. In the next 10 years, there will no longer be first-hand survivors, it's up to family and students to continue telling these stories to remind ourselves to never let it happen again, not only to the Jewish community but to any community,'' she said. "It's important to hear a story over and over again until it gets into your own DNA."

Burger took on a critical role when worked as Wiesel's teaching assistant.

"What he said so often, was listening to a witness, makes you a witness and that moral memory, the kind of memory that can really change a person's moral compass, or even nervous system, in such a way they act differently in response to the suffering they see, is possible," Burger said.

How to confront darkness without despair

One of Elie Wiesel's most important lessons was how to confront darkness without despair.

"He said hatred is a kind of cancer, and when you see it on the rise, you have to fight it right away. Silence allows it to grow and spread. It's contagious, so we have to intervene right away, with ferocity and commitment, but to be careful not to become infected,'' Burger said. "The role of learning, and education, and joy, and friendship, and laughter are all connected, and critically important as we confront hatred."

One of the dangers of paying attention to the suffering in the world is to fall into despair.

"Professor Wiesel himself was concerned that the world hadn't learned the lesson of the Holocaust,'' Burger said. "He felt very strongly that hope is a moral act, too. Hope is a choice and where there is no hope, he quoted Albert Camus: 'Where there is no hope, we must create it.'"

Zimmerman agreed:

"We must look forward, not back. There are many parts of a beautiful world, the reality is the world is changing at an exponential speed and we need to open ourselves up to that change, rather than close down and want to go backward,'' he said. "We need to go forward with this sense, that we're not a breaker wall, we're not there to protect what once was all the time. We need to take the wisdom of what once was, and ride the wave of change, in order to move forward."

This story is brought to you with help from the Pohlad Family Foundation.