When I found out that Elie Wiesel was to speak at Kent, and that as a student, I could get a free ticket, I did not hesitate to claim my ticket and spring for one more at just $20. A very reasonable price for the opportunity to see such an incredible figure. Holocaust survivor, writer, humanitarian, teacher, all around amazing man. I had grand plans to reread Night, which I haven’t read since high school, and look up more of his work. I wanted to be prepared to see him. To remind myself of his talents in storytelling and presenting a spiritual message in a physical story. Yeah, big plans that never happened. And for once, I’m glad I didn’t get around to my big plans.
I am certain that Professor Wiesel has given pretty much the exact same talk many times. He was introduced by the president of the university and we could all hear him clearly and watch as his words scrolled under his picture on the two giant screens, closed caption style. Then when the professor started to speak, my heart sunk. I could barely hear him, and I couldn’t understand him at all. I read the scroll of his words, but clearly the person imputing his words was having trouble, too, so it was delayed and not even close to verbatim. But the place was silent. Everyone in the place, more than 5000 people, strained to hear him. We sat up straight, tilted our heads, and struggled to drink in the message he was delivering. There was a collective response to the difficulty in hearing him that surprised me. We, as a group, all seemed to lean in, to wish the microphone or sound engineer to adjust it so we could hear better. We physically wished to hear him. It was moving before we even found ourselves understanding him.
But we managed to follow his talk. Between lip reading and the slightly delayed scroll of paraphrase, we managed to follow the first several minutes of what he came to tell us. He talked about April 11, 1945. He talked about the liberation of Buchenwald and how they didn’t know what to do. The Americans showed up and said, “Hey, you’re free!” And the Jews in the camp just looked at each other in confusion. What is this “free?” They’d very nearly lost the ability to even comprehend that concept. Can you IMAGINE? So, they prayed the prayer of the dead. Together, at the same time, just began just praying for the dead. We took this in.
He talked about education. His, his oppressors, in general. He asked how could this happen. How COULD this happen? It wasn’t a lack of education. These people had fancy degrees from the best schools. They WERE educated. And, yet, this happened. These things happened. And if we as a civilization get some sort of collective Alzheimer’s disease, it can happen again. It will happen again.
So, he tells us these things, and by now the moderator and the sound engineers have offered him a handheld microphone, which he accepted to great applause from the audience. He tells us all this and we listen, rapt in our attempts to hear every word. Then he starts to talk about hope. How can there be hope after an experience like the one he had at the hands of the Nazis? How can hope and faith survive after such things have happened, perpetrated by the some of the best educated in the world at the time? How can there be hope for the future. His answer was so simple, so basic, so wonderful. It amounts to this: nobody can take the hope from anyone else, ever. If we see no hope, we must invent it. We must invent reasons to hope, or just hope itself. It is not for him, or anyone else to TAKE another’s hope.
He talked more about faith, and tradition. He has, obviously, a very Jewish perspective on these things, but that perspective was not lost on this Christian. He talked about how his faith has been tested and he has arrived at a conclusion. That is that sometimes it does not matter that you question your faith. Faith is more than “I believe.” He is unable to turn his back on the faith of his parents and grandparents because of what they believed and because of how they lived it. It would not be right for him to deny THEIR faith, their traditions. I was reminded of a conversation I had with my daughter a few months ago. She was in tears because she had worked herself into a tizzy because she found herself questioning her own belief in God. I held her and assured her that it is absolutely okay to question. God does not expect an eight-year-old girl to understand and accept the answers that generation after generation of grown ups have devoted their lives to figuring out. To not doubt is to not really value the faith you have, I think. I assured her that it is enough, at eight years old to simply accept my faith and that I tell her it is true, and that God will never, ever turn His back on her for her doubts. (I know that many of you will disagree with me on this theologically and philosophically, and I will be happy to discuss it in more depth later if there is interest, both from a religious and a parenting view)
There was so much more that he said about hope, over an over that word, “hope.” I can’t even take it all in. I will dig out my paperback copy of Night. I have reserved several other of his works at my local library already. I left last night wanting to soak him up and immerse myself in his message of hope and wisdom, and by extension, of love and forgiveness. He strengthened my faith, and I wanted more of that. I am glad I didn’t read more before last night. I might have been more familiar with the things he said, as I’m sure he has said them all before many times. But it wouldn’t have filled me in the same way. It wouldn’t have been the same breathtaking experience. I don’t think I could have heard him, really heard him, with the same full meaning.