Co-written with: Jennifer Lincoln
He walked into the room, a coat draped over his shoulders and a navy scarf around his neck. The room grew quiet as the presence of Elie Wiesel settled over the group of students and professors. They waited earnestly to ask their questions in hopes of glimpsing some of the wisdom that he had accumulated during his 86 years. Soft-spoken and humble, Wiesel took the stage to address the crowd in Fox Hall on Feb. 13.
Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner, has come from the cold of Boston University to visit sunny Eckerd during Winter Term, for the past 23 years, but it is the teachers and students he teaches and learns from that keep him coming back.
“I learn from the student more than the student realizes,” he said.
Every WT, he teaches a course alongside Professor of History and American Studies Carolyn Johnston. Then, each February, after freshmen have read the first of his 6o books, “Night,” as part of The Human Experience course, Wiesel takes the time to speak to the freshmen class.
“Elie Wiesel taught me to question everything,” Sophomore Jennifer Hollander said. “Now that I know to do this, I gain a much better understanding on whatever it is I’m questioning, and realize the answer is not the most important part, and sometimes doesn’t even exist. When I spoke with Elie Wiesel and he informed me that Eckerd was the only school he taught at other than BU, I realized how truly special Eckerd is. He agreed with me on this.”
This was a special opportunity for students to gain a deeper sense of the atrocities that Wiesel witnessed in 1944 and 1945 when he and his family were taken by the Nazis to Auschwitz. This was one of the largest death camps in the Third Reich. Since then, he has become a witness to crimes all over the world and has used his influence to help those who are affected by these injustices.
Students were shy about asking questions at the beginning of his talk. Slowly, hands were raised one by one, asking how Wiesel survived what he did and what drove him to fight.
“What was the alternative?” Wiesel asked. “In truth, I didn’t fight. In those years, I couldn’t fight.”
As the speech continued, students felt more open and the crowd filled with raised hands. Wiesel patiently worked through the crowd’s questions, even inviting one student to sit up front when she was unable to hear his response.
His main message was evident in his public speaking as well as in all of his books: never stop learning. He contended that we are all teachers and students in different aspects of our lives, and that there is a certain beauty in that.
“There is nothing more beautiful in life than to teach because there is nothing more fulfilling in life than to learn,” Wiesel said.
When all else fails, learning is a constant. Wiesel told the freshmen class to never give up on studying and striving for new knowledge.
Wiesel also spoke about the importance of documenting events in life, even if they are tragic. Writing books is a serious undertaking, but a necessary one. Where there are no words, sometimes we must create them. Even if the event seems impossible to write about, the documentation will help people in the future, whether through understanding the event or aiding them in coping with their own struggles.
The lessons Wiesel taught in those minutes reverberated through Fox Hall after the students left. We learned how Wiesel faced some of the worst crimes against humanity during the Nazi regime, and yet he still lived to tell his story, to teach philosophy and literature. In the end, Wiesel’s favorite words still hung in the air. He said, “And yet..” These are the two words he mentioned to every student in his WT class each year, and can be found in many of his books. In his first memoir, “All Rivers Run to the Sea,” he writes, “And yet. Those are my two favorite words, applicable to every situation, be it happy or bleak. The sun is rising? And yet it will set. A night of anguish? And yet it too, shall pass.”
Our time this year with Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel has ended, and yet we will see him again.