Wit­ness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom

By – February 11, 2019

Ariel Burger’s new mem­oir, a thought­ful study of Elie Wiesel’s lessons and teach­ings, will be acces­si­ble both to read­ers famil­iar with and new to the famous writer’s work. Burg­er first met Wiesel as a teenag­er; one of the great plea­sures of the book is fol­low­ing Burg­er as he grows intel­lec­tu­al­ly, spir­i­tu­al­ly, and emo­tion­al­ly, and watch­ing his rela­tion­ship with Wiesel evolve from hero wor­ship to mutu­al respect. It’s a rela­tion­ship that demon­strates the pow­er of the teacher-stu­dent con­nec­tion over time.

Most of the book focus­es on Wiesel as a teacher, with Burg­er shar­ing anec­dotes from the class­es he attend­ed as a grad­u­ate stu­dent while work­ing as Wiesel’s teach­ing assis­tant. Burger’s writ­ing and sto­ry­telling abil­i­ties show­case his atten­tion to detail and sen­si­tiv­i­ty to the impact of the class mate­r­i­al on stu­dents’ thinking.

Burger’s book is a tes­ta­ment to Wiesel’s pow­er to shape the thoughts and prin­ci­ples of a gen­er­a­tion. It grants read­ers greater insight into the influ­ences that formed the basis of Wiesel’s own beliefs and writ­ing. It is an immense­ly hope­ful book, under­scor­ing how much more rich­ly we can expe­ri­ence our human­i­ty because of Wiesel’s work. Burg­er entreats read­ers to remem­ber his men­tor — that it is not enough to just be mind­ful of the exis­tence of good and evil. Wiesel, as both a writer and a teacher, sought to raise people’s con­scious­ness and spur them to act; Burger’s yearn­ing to fol­low in Wiesel’s foot­steps will res­onate with many readers.

A final high­light of the book is the rec­om­mend­ed read­ing list, which includes books that are cen­tral to the dis­cus­sions in spe­cif­ic chap­ters as well as those that were a con­sis­tent part of Wiesel’s teach­ing. The list gives read­ers the oppor­tu­ni­ty to engage fur­ther with Wiesel’s ideas.

Burg­er has cre­at­ed a vehi­cle by which the dia­logues and dis­cus­sions of Wiesel’s class­room can expand far beyond those walls for years to come. More than a list of books or a series of rem­i­nis­cences, Burg­er has pro­vid­ed his read­ers with an ulti­mate syllabus.

Deb­by Miller is a long-time board mem­ber of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil, serv­ing on its Fic­tion com­mit­tee, and lat­er found­ing the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award for Book Clubs. She is cur­rent­ly a Vice Pres­i­dent of the orga­ni­za­tion. Deb­by is based in Greens­boro, NC and has been involved in the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty through Nation­al Coun­cil of Jew­ish Women (NCJW), AIPAC, B’nai Shalom and the Fed­er­a­tion. She was pres­i­dent of the local Women’s Divi­sion and cam­paign chair, and also got involved in the Nation­al Women’s Divi­sion. One of her pri­ma­ry phil­an­thropic endeav­ors is her work with JDC, where she has been a mem­ber of the board since 1994

Discussion Questions

Elie Wiesel was a wit­ness, his­to­ri­an, human rights activist and writer, but when asked about his life’s mis­sion, he said I am a teacher first.” Elie Wiesel was men­tor, trust­ed friend and advi­sor to author Ariel Burg­er for near­ly twen­ty-five years. This remark­able book gives read­ers a front row seat in Elie Wiesel’s class­room at Boston Uni­ver­si­ty, and allows us to ben­e­fit from his dis­tinct teach­ing style. He cre­at­ed a class­room envi­ron­ment based on trust which encour­aged stu­dents to ques­tion and voice their inner­most thoughts in a safe space. In turn, Wiesel shared his faith, moral com­pass, insights and wis­dom dur­ing an aston­ish­ing jour­ney for both stu­dents and teacher for a peri­od of four decades.

Ariel Burg­er is an author, lec­tur­er, rab­bi and teacher. His close rela­tion­ship with Elie Wiesel had an enor­mous impact on his life. In his work, he hon­ors Wiesel by striv­ing to per­pet­u­ate and teach his mentor’s method­ol­o­gy of won­der” to stu­dents and teach­ers alike, because this approach has the poten­tial to awak­en stu­dents’ eth­i­cal and moral powers.”

Burger’s book hon­ors Elie Wiesel’s truth that lis­ten­ing to a wit­ness makes you a wit­ness,” and when read­ing these words, you, the read­er, will become a wit­ness, too.