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Elie Wiesel: Teacher, Mentor and Friend

Edited by Alan L. Berger

Reviewed by Dr. Eugene Fisher Distinguished Professor of Theology, Saint Leo University.

When Elie Wiesel, who Alan Berger aptly describes as “Holocaust survivor, author, teacher, advisor to presidents of both parties, human rights activist” (p. xvii), won the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize, he and his wife Marion set up the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity. One of the foundation's first acts was the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics, an essay competition for college juniors and seniors, which has received more than 6,500 essays on the moral challenges facing the world. The authors of the articles in this deeply moving and enlightening book have served as the judges of the contest, winnowing down the essays and then coming together to choose the winners. Their articles reflect on what they have learned from the essays, each other, and especially from Wiesel, whom they consider to be their teacher, mentor and friend. This is a book for both scholars and the general reader, especially for those interested in ecumenical and Jewish-Christian relations, since the authors are Jews, and Protestant and Catholic scholars all deeply involved in Holocaust studies and the dialogue that began with the liberation of the death camps.

Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg, long a leader in the dialogue, describes Wiesel, famous for his works such as Night (a memoir of his time in the camps), as a tzaddik (righteous one), a rebbe (mentor/pastor/guide) to his students and fellow university teachers, and lamed-vovnik, one of the saintly 36 humans in every generation, according to rabbinic tradition, whose lives and deeds uplift all humanity and help to bring about tikkun olam, healing the world in preparation for the coming (for Jews) or return (for Christians) of the Messiah who will usher in the Messianic Age, the End Time, when all humanity will live in peace and harmony, justice and well-being.

Judith Ginsberg, executive director of the Nash Family Foundation which supports Jewish welfare organizations in New York and Israel, focuses on what she has learned from reading the students' essays. Barbara Helfgott Hyett, who has taught poetry and literature at Boston University, MIT, Harvard and Holy Cross, and Caroline Johnston, professor of History and American Studies at Eckerd College in Florida, consider what they have learned from Wiesel on how to think and act ethically and how to teach students to do so.

John K. Roth, Founding Director of the Center for the Study of Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights at Claremont McKenna College, and Henry Knight, professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Keene State College, have furthered Wiesel's probing questions about our religious traditions and Christian history of the teaching of contempt for Jews and Judaism over the centuries, which paved the way for the Shoah. They embody Wiesel's challenge to Christians to repent and renew Christian teaching about Jesus the Jew and his people, the Jewish people.

Alan Rosen and David Patterson delve into the writings and teachings of Wiesel as a profoundly Jewish visionary (some would say a prophet) who challenged and enlightened not just Jews but all humans who read his works or were influenced by him, helping them to focus on caring for those in need or those, anywhere in the world, who were or are persecuted for their beliefs, or race, or disabilities.

The editor, Alan L. Berger, Eminent Scholar Chair for Holocaust Studies at Florida Atlantic University, knew Wiesel well and worked closely with him over the years. Berger takes the reader through Wiesel's books, showing how in his novels and other writings he can take readers deeply into Jewish-Christian history and challenging Christians to reflect, repent, and work to redeem our broken world, while also honoring the small number of Christians (the Righteous Among the Nations) who helped European Jews to survive the Nazi attempt to exterminate all Jews and many other “sub-humans.” Berger centers on Wiesel as one who participated in and greatly furthered the Jewish-Christian dialogue, spurring the development of numerous ongoing centers connected with universities, including Catholic universities, around the country. He also details the profound dialogue with noted Catholic author, Francois Mauriac, and how their meeting and subsequent dialogues deeply influenced the work of both.

Carol Rittner, RSM, writes a stirring Afterword. A major leader in the field of Holocaust studies, she was the first director of the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, and organized with him international conferences on the Holocaust in Paris, Boston, Haifa and Boston, agrees with Yitz Greenberg that Wiesel was one of the Lamed Vov who support the world. Wiesel, a strong Zionist, supported the needs of Palestinians and urged Israel to work for peace in the Middle East. He brought to light the needs of Jews in Russia, and also the plight of Nelson Mandela of South Africa and his cause of racial justice for his people, and for all South Africans. Wiesel, Rittner concludes, was “a messenger to all humanity,” arguing that “if the voices of victims are stifled, we must lend them ours.” We must care. We must not be indifferent (which for Wiesel was the worst sin). We must speak out. We must act. Again, these are the words of the the Hebrew prophets, words affirmed by the first century Jew, Jesus.


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