In Memoriam: Elie Wiesel

Prem Krishna Gongaju
Former student of Elie Wisel
Student Life Advisor/Humanities
Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts

Elie Wiesel was my teacher, my mentor during my 3-year study at Boston University School of Theology. I sat at his feet in his Literature of Memory classes, learning to take baby steps upon the embers and ashes of Auschwitz stoked by the searing memory of this man, the Lazarus of human history; I sat at his soot-stained feet overwhelmed by the stench of human depravity, and I was overjoyed by the bouquet of extraordinary hope exuding from his Hasidic soul.

 

He was gentle, he was kind, he was caring. And a sage. His sublime words nudged the slumbering students to a slow awakening to the past, what's happening at present, and what is to come in this world of human/inhuman affairs.

 

His voice was soothing and reassuring. His delivery of message was achieved effortlessly, without a strain in his voice and constraint of his conscience. His was a small, still voice, a suspiration from among the reeds stirred by the flaming flurry of recollection by the riverbed of memory. He taught us to keep the river of memory from turning into the Lethe by man's apathy and indifference. He taught us:

 

"The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it's indifference."

 

His face. The whole world is familiar with his face: a face furrowed by the claws of man's cruelty to man, a face smeared with sadness and sorrow, and yet a face capable of beaming hopes against hope upon the upturned faces of his students. And to the world.

 

But I never saw him laugh in the classroom.

 

Professor Wiesel occasionally called on me in our Literature of Memory class, which was conducted in a somewhat seminar-like fashion, especially when his deep-set eyes noticed me in a quandary due to some conflicting nature of the topic in question, putting me in an enviable position among my fellow classmates, for to be called upon by Professor Wiesel was considered a mark of honor.

 

On one such occasion, I had to make a statement counter to the accepted political norm of the State of Israel, on the delicate issue of Palestinian homeland. Thus I coached my question in the form of an answer to the lesson of the day, as logically and succinctly as I could at the time: How couldn't there be a Palestine for the Palestinians? I am a Nepali because there is Nepal, my homeland.

 

Suddenly, a hush fell over the entire class, and I experienced what perhaps might have been one of the disquieting moments of my life during those milliseconds of silence.

 

Then Professor Wiesel put me and the entire class at ease by not taking me to task for what might have sounded to my younger classmates as an impudent remark. He was sagacious and kind enough to address the issue in question by delineating the principle of separating the Jewish and Palestinian humanity from the school of prevailing political thoughts as well as the Israeli Government's stance. To my mind, he thus bore witness to the suffering of the Palestinians sans Palestine.

 

One occasion in particular stands out from the rest of my teacher-student relatedness with Professor Wiesel.

 

I had given a satchel full of his books, fourteen to be exact, to be made holy by his autograph to his then devoted assistant, Ms. Martha. After a few days she had me make an appointment with Professor Wiesel for retrieving the said books from his office, and also for a brief tete-a-tete, which he occasioned in order to get to know his students, individually.

 

Our visit went swimmingly well at first. Handing me back my satchel, he offered to gift me any and all of his books in the future, with a gentle wave of his hand toward the two towering bookcases bulging with his tomes. My joy knew no bounds at his generous offer, for I loved books more than bread.

 

Then I remembered something.

 

During the course of his sharing an anecdote, both poignant and humorous, with the students, he touched on his lean days as a roving reporter. This event occurred in one of the airports in India. He and this Indian gentleman happened to strike up a conversation while waiting for their respective flights. At the end of a long confabulation, the Indian gentleman handed him a card with a personal note. As luck would have it, the gentleman turned out to be none other than a big executive officer of a certain airline corporation. Because of the telling instruction on the note, Professor Wiesel, with his characteristic head tilt to the right, noted with a rare but muted chuckle, he could fly in and out of India on that airline anytime--free of charge. However, in his very next breath he added, “But I flew only when I was hungry.”

 

And I was happy to find out later that he got to visit Kathmandu, the cradle of my birth, on one of his famished flights.

 

Then he went on to touch on something in the class, a salient point of which had stuck in my craw ever since, but which would remain unsaid in public for the rest of my life..

 

After I revealed what was on my mind, Professor Wiesel got up and so did I. We both slowly fell into each other's embrace. And we sobbed.

 

Elie Wiesel's name is etched upon the linings of my lungs. I will remember my teacher as long as I live. And I will never forget his teaching:

 

 "To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time."