Most of the discussion surrounding Elie Wiesel’s life and legacy seems to be focusing on him as a person, his politics, what his life and survival meant to Jews and the memory of the Holocaust and, to put it simply, what his death means to adults — those old enough to remember his Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 or his efforts to dissuade President Ronald Reagan from visiting the Bitburg cemetery a year earlier.
But Wiesel’s legacy in the United States, and in many parts of the world, is not about adults. It’s about children, about teenagers, and his impact on non-Jewish youths everywhere. His legacy will be his memoir, “Night,” and the legions of American youths who read it.
Wiesel’s memoir is how most non-Jewish youths in the United States learn about the real horrors of the Holocaust (along with perhaps Lois Lowry’s novel “Number the Stars” and Anne Frank’s diary). It is one of the most important books in U.S. history, not just for its role introducing Americans to the concentration camps, but, in many ways, also introducing them to Jews.
“Night” is required or suggested reading in many colleges, high schools and some middle schools. I’m certain many of those I grew up with in Tennessee — where the first question everyone asked me after I moved there in middle school was, “What church do you go to?” — would not have known much, if anything, about the Holocaust if it hadn’t been for “Night.”
We are forever changed as a society not merely for what he said, but what we’ve read. Wiesel the witness is amplified through his memoir into something bigger — we are all witnesses.
There have been efforts to ban “Night” from schools in the past, and if we want to honor the best aspect of Wiesel’s legacy, we’ll make sure that never happens.
Like most young Jews, “Night” was not my introduction to the Holocaust, and when my father took me to see a public conversation between Wiesel and Maya Angelou when I was young, I had no idea who he was. But I’m spiritually indebted to Wiesel, because he helped shape my own thoughts: about miracles, the existence (or lack thereof) of a God, and a transformative power of the universe.
Angelou the poet asked Wiesel the survivor whether, after the horrors of the Holocaust, he still believed in miracles.
I love someone and they love me back, Wiesel said. Isn’t that a miracle?
I talk to someone and they understand me, Wiesel said. Isn’t that a miracle?
The idea of ordinary miracles, of a transformative power that’s not God or God-like but rooted in us as a people, has never been far from my mind after that day. And if we want to honor his legacy, we definitely should keep teaching “Night” in schools — and we should also understand what a miracle it is to read it.
Ari Bloomekatz is managing editor of Tikkun magazine. This post was originally published by Tikkun.