Jewish American Heritage Month: Remembering Elie Wiesel’s Contributions to American Jewish Culture

By Fortunoff Video Archive - May 9, 2023

By Joanne W. Rudof, Archivist Emeritus, Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies

It is forty years since the appointment of Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel as a Henry Luce Scholar at Yale in the academic year 1982-83. Wiesel was personally acquainted with Yale earlier through Professor Geoffrey Hartman, due to Hartman’s focus on literature and Judaic Studies, and the Holocaust Survivor’s Film Project (HSFP), a New Haven grassroots endeavor with which Hartman became involved in 1979. Wiesel actively promoted the HSFP. He urged survivors to share their stories so they and their loved ones would not only be remembered in perpetuity, but would also provide present and future generations with the opportunity to learn about the Holocaust not only from Nazi documents, but from the victims’ perspectives as well.

The following are excerpts from Professor Wiesel’s remarks at the inauguration of the Video Archive at the Yale Library in November 1982.

“Future generations will be in your debt. No person in the world is as capable of gratitude as a survivor is, for we know that is by sheer luck that any of us is here. We could have been elsewhere. Nobody did anything to survive. We could have been among those who went just ten minutes before us. We didn’t do anything then. But then we tried to do whatever we can to justify our being here. We believe that every moment is a moment of grace and therefore every word must be an offering, and therefore every story must contain a secret which we try to share with as many of you, with all of you, as possible… a story of anguish, humiliation, and death. We still ask ourselves whenever we meet, whether in words or in silence, why? Why Majdanek, and why Belsen, and why Treblinka? Why? ... our duty has not been to understand, simply to remember. …Whenever survivors were asked for so many years to tell the story, every one of them would say only one sentence: “You won’t understand. You won’t understand.” …We want so much to try and give you what we feel is the essential part of our being, a fragment of a fire that will prevent the world from knowing another fire."

A New York Times article (October 13, 1982, Section B, page 1) notes:

This fall, the 54-year-old Mr. Wiesel is Yale's first Henry Luce Visiting Scholar in the Humanities and Social Thought. As such, he teaches a course for undergraduates, entitled ''Literature and Memory,'' and leads a seminar for the faculty, entitled ''Attitudes Toward Suffering.''

350 students enrolled in the class, and reluctantly, Wiesel accepted them all based on cards they wrote about why they wanted to study with him.

At first reticent, his pupils have begun to offer questions; they are not easy questions. One young man asked, ''Is God unjust for punishing children for the sins of the father?''

''This is a basic question of religious philosophy,'' Mr. Wiesel responded. ''And there are so many questions, I wish even one of them could be answered.''

One more question remained on this day, and this Mr. Wiesel tried to answer by reaching into the words of the ages. He had been talking of a phrase in Jeremiah he never had understood, about the ground quaking. Only when a survivor of the Babi Yar massacre of 100,000 Jews told him how the land shook for two months after the mass burials did the words make sense, he said.

Elie Wiesel spoke at several subsequent Fortunoff Archive conferences and events and was the Chubb Fellow lecturer at Yale in December 2006. It is especially appropriate to remember Professor Elie Wiesel in May, Jewish American Heritage Month. He contributed to the education of so many through his writing, his speaking, and his teaching, at Boston University, Yale, and many other places. Many survivors had their testimonies recorded due to his support of the Fortunoff Video Archive. May his memory be for a blessing.

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