Elie Wiesel and the Importance of Literature and History
I just saw the news that Elie Wiesel, at age 87, has passed away.
I don’t know why the news surprised me. I’ve been painfully aware for a while now that while, in the grander scheme of history, we’re still well within a stone’s throw of the horrific events of the Holocaust, we are a part of the last generation that will get to hear these stories out loud first hand.
Elie Wiesel’s Night was my introduction to literature about the Holocaust, when I was 16 years old, and it changed me. It took this horrific historical event that to me at the time felt distant and cold–a statistic from someplace far away, a long time ago–and made it feel personal and present.
Years later, I took a Holocaust Literature course in college that changed me a great deal. It changed how I think of people, how I think of evil, how I feel about history, and the meaning of culture. I formed close friendships–how could you not, when sharing an existential crisis over human capacity for evil?–and I read a lot of books that horrified me.
Amidst all that, I had the pleasure of seeing Eva Kor speak on campus about forgiveness. It was a strange light of optimism amidst everything. Here I was, buried in ponderings of cruelty, of a seemingly endless ability to take and hurt, and then there was this woman promoting the power of love and forgiveness in the face of atrocity.
Hearing her speak firsthand changed me again. It gave me another new, and even more complex, filter through which to understand cruelty and pain. It was an experience I know I will never fully leave behind.
And now with the death of Elie Wiesel, I am reminded not for the first time of the fact that these inspiring stories are limited. My children will likely never get to hear a Holocaust survivor tell their story, will never get the opportunity to ask questions–as my Holocaust Literature class and other students and faculty did with Eva Kor–and have such a personal and intimate opportunity to learn about this part of history.
But they will always have the literature. Voices like Wiesel’s, and all of the other authors whose works I read years ago, have such an important place in our world. History is important. These stories are important. And even though we will not always have an opportunity to hear these stories face to face, the literature left behind will provide insight that we all need. Painful as it is, we need to understand ourselves as a part of an ongoing history. We need to understand tragedy. We need to understand history itself.
I think it’s worth taking some extra time to learn about history today. Give yourself a thorough reading (or re-reading) of Night. One in which you don’t skim the most painful passages. Understand the importance of history and the place of literature in helping us to understand it, and take a moment to be grateful to have existed at a time when those who could tell us these stories were still present to tell them.