I grew up in a very Jewishly musical family- I knew my great grandfather Pinchas , lived in Kalisz, Poland ,was a hazzan/shochet, a cantor and a butcher because in those days you needed a real day job- so many were knowledgeable rabbis and cantors- I knew my grandfather was a famous cantor who wrote music all cantors learn in cantorial school as the basis of their curriculum, and I knew he was brought to this country in l921 after pogroms and the realization that life was not good for Jews in Europe even before the Holocaust. The roots of anti-Semitism were brewing- no one could imagine where it would lead, yet my grandfather was rescued and brought to America by relatives of his wife, my grandmother Jesse. That was all I knew-
I knew he wrote a heartbreaking rendition of a prayer,
“ Acheinu Kol Beys Yisroel” that pleads for the safety of brothers in danger- years later I understood it as a personal plea as it was written in l944 and he indeed had two brothers and three sisters in Europe left behind.
My fascination and interest in the Holocaust always included a personal motive. When I watched the documentary “ Night and Fog” I could imagine some of the victims as family members- indeed we should always view human beings as part of the greater family, but I had an intense feeling that my own family of origin was caught up in the tragedy and genocide of the Holocaust. If my grandfather was born in Kalisz, Poland I was sure that cousins and other relatives must have perished. I wanted to know more and started reading everything I could find on the Holocaust.
I was of course moved by Elie Wiesel’s book, Night and was inspired to read more of his works in my teens.
When it came time to choose a college, I found out that Elie Wiesel was going to teach at Boston University! I didn’t care what I was going to study I knew that I wanted to study with him. I was a folk singing, independent minded, rebellious feminist and honestly wasn’t sure of a career- music therapist? Music teacher? Pottery craft artist? Weaver? There were no women cantors to emulate or talk to in l975 in my life- one or two reform women cantors made the news, but I was entrenched in a more traditional world of conservative Judaism and I had little to be inspired by, other than my wonderful father, a part time cantor who sang like a prophet in my eyes and ears. My mother was also incredibly musical I should add, a gifted pianist and organist who played by ear- entire musicals after hearing them once- it was amazing- she loved making music and shared that love with me as my accompanist for many years.
I chose Boston University in order to study with Prof. Elie Wiesel. What an honor! I was so excited!
On the first day of his first class, it was a packed room of eager students. Universities have rules and there was a limit to the number of students allowed in the room for safety reasons I’m sure.
Prof. Wiesel had to select which students could remain in the class. He hated the very idea of a selection, bringing back Nazi era selections, constant choosing who will live and who will die.
This of course, was just choosing who will be in his class, but I’m sure it was uncomfortable for him. He is a kind, caring, and compassionate man who loves teaching, and loves his students. What should he do?
He decided to have us write on an index card the reasons we wanted to take his class.
I wrote something like this, “ I’m from three generations of cantors and grew up loving Jewish music and history. I want to know more about my family from Kalisz, Poland and hope to work with Jewish children one day and share my love of music and history. “
He took me aside after class and said words that changed my life.
“ my door will always be open to you”
A bit of a rebel himself, he allowed me to take or sit in any class I wanted to. I worked my schedule (School of Education) around his classes, sat in on doctoral dissertations, master’s thesis, graduate classes; anything he taught was truly open to me.
I took serious notes on all his classes, and just donated many of them to the Elie Wiesel Archives at Boston University. It seems that they had no record of his very first class and I saved my class notes and syllabus!
That open door opened my heart and mind even more to the lessons and horrors of the Holocaust. It inspired me to continue my family tradition of being a cantor, and to share the lessons I learned in that incredible classroom.
The very first class of his was about the Holocaust-
It was the first and last class of it’s kind that he taught. It was so intense and painful for him to recall in detail, that he never taught it again. He taught many classes that included Holocaust study- but not one ever again that was just about the Holocaust. I will never forget his words as the class began, “ The stories you will hear in this class will change your life- you will never see life the same way again after you hear these stories. “
It was true.
Being in his classroom inspired me to research my family history and I found relatives who had survived the Holocaust! I found relatives in Israel who survived, a sister of my grandfather’s did survive and others from his family. I received a family tree that showed me three sisters and three brothers, when I only know about one brother, my grandfather. Incredibly all three brothers were cantors, and I found 22 singers/cantors in the family tree- most perished in the Holocaust. It was this knowledge that urged me to continue in my family tradition. I had the interest and loved singing my grandfather’s prayerful compositions- now it was my way of continuing the family after so much destruction and murder. I was lucky to be alive and it was a way to honor their memory and continue doing what I loved.
Years later, in 2006, an elderly couple was listening to a cd from the Cantors Assembly Spirit of Israel, and they liked a song, “Et Dodim” that I sang with Yemenite and cantorial flavor. They looked at the name and wondered if I was related to his cousin Aaron Kaczka from Kalisz, Poland? This man, Cantor Leopold Szneer, a revered retired orthodox cantor in Los Angeles had no idea if any of the 70 members of his father’s family survived the Holocaust. He assumed they all perished, until we connected. It has been a joy in my life to visit with him and speak often. We even made a cd, A Musical Reunion from Kalisz to California and were interviewed on NPR for Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2009. Finding Family Through Song. What’s incredible is that Prof Wiesel has heard my cousin sing several times and said he had the best voice and expression of prayer. Another amazing connection is at Chapman University, where the Holocaust Library features a sculpture of Elie Wiesel and many of his artifacts. There are glass cases around the room with important Holocaust donated items- My cousins Leopold and Isabelle Szneer donated several priceless memorabilia and the case with my cousin’s father’s tallit, my grandfathers first cousin Moshe , is next to the case with Elie Wiesel’s concentration camp photo from Buchenwald, and his Nobel Prize. My family connection to the Holocaust is right next to my mentor’s Holocaust history. Are there coincidences or is it a spark of the divine and we are tested to recognize when it happens? I believe the placing of these glass cases next to each other is a modern miracle in my life and one where the lessons keep teaching me to notice the sparks of the divine around us. The lessons learned from my cousin would fill another lecture, for another time.
So what did I learn from Prof. Elie Wiesel?
What lessons can I share with you that will hopefully stay in your hearts and minds? What lessons changed my life and will hopefully inspire you as well?
Prof Elie Wiesel opened my heart and mind in a way no other teacher has.
How many of you have held a prayer book? I grew up going to an orthodox day school, orthodox Hebrew school, taught music and prayer as a teenager, and went to synagogue regularly with my father, a cantor. You would think that I had held a prayer book in my hands thousands and thousands of times. I never thought about it the way Prof. Wiesel described it-
He said that just the very act of holding a prayer book was a privilege, a holy act. Prayer can save a soul, and give you inner strength to survive. Imagine a concentration camp prisoner holding a prayer book? They would be killed on the spot just for holding one. What we take for granted is truly an honor and a sacred privilege. When I hold a prayer book now, I hold onto it for dear life sometimes, I think about those even today, who would be changed for the better if they could have the luxury of a prayer book and the opportunity to pray.
I learned the importance of faith- in his first book of memoirs, Elie Wiesel wrote, “ The Ss wanted their victims to see them not as superior men, but as gods- they had all the rights, we had none. They fed us or killed us on a whim, and we had no right to even look at them. But the faith that bound me to the Gd of Israel and of my ancestors remained immune to all that…it remained nearly intact”
This one lesson changed my life for sure.
Don’t identify with all 6,000,000…it is too great. Identify with ONE. If every one of us could live for one of them, it would be a victory- your life will be full of meaning.
Live a doubly Jewish life- or live a doubly righteous religious life- Light Shabbat candles, do a mitzvah for one who never had the opportunity.
When you say a prayer, sing a song, hold a prayer book, think of one who could not experience it- it takes on a deeper meaning, and you will not take your life and your opportunities for granted. Lost hopes and promises can be redeemed through our actions.
People often ask me why I pack so much into a day? “ how do you make 25 hours out of a 24 hour day?” I think I don’t want to waste time- I think I learned from Prof. Wiesel that time is precious and we are lucky to just be alive- it is a miracle that we are even here today- Live life to the fullest- make your life count- be meaningful- help others- I don’t want to take it for granted.
Be a moral person who truly cares about others and this tragedy of unspeakable horror will never happen again. Don’t be afraid to speak up in the face of injustice and hate.
That is a lesson we need today more than ever.
It relates to our lives in ways we may not realize. If you see someone being bullied, speak up right away- get authorities involved right away. We should not tolerate bullying in any form. Racism, Anti-Semitism, Terrorists are an unfortunate part of our world today- we need to speak up and create a world where this is not tolerated.
There are no bad questions- only bad answers. What a refreshing concept to hear from a world-class teacher? Don’t be afraid to ask questions- a lesson for all of us, children and adults alike.
When we look at the Holocaust and ask where was G-d, instead ask, where was Man?
In Judaism there is no blessing for giving tzedakah, no blessing for doing the right thing, for an act of “ charity”, or generosity of time, spirit or finances. Why? Because it could take too long to say the blessing- better to act first!
Never give in to despair- only a human can move you to despair, and only a human can move you to elevation. It is up to us to choose life and move forward.
Remember the face of the other is worth your hope, your generosity and your humanity.
The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference.
Think higher, feel deeper – Elevate yourself by the choices you make.
Respect the other for the mystery the other contains. Respect the other for what they understand and for what they don’t understand.
His classroom became a safe sanctuary for students from every background and experience. Everyone’s life experiences could find a home with Prof. Wiesel and a compassionate ear. Learning was done with compassion, wonder and questions.
A wonderful book helps us understand Wiesel even further entitled, “ Jewish, Literary and Moral Perspectives”
Ariel Burger, in an essay from that book called, “ Toward A Methodolgoy of Wonder; Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom” writes:
How does one educate towards memory? Wiesel’s answer is that “ listening to a witness makes a listener a witness”.
In Elie Wiesel, “ Jewish, Literary and Moral Perspectives”; he is quoted, “ In our tradition, anyone who teaches you something, a word, a sentence, a story, becomes your teacher. So I have many teachers..the Jewish tradition is a tradition of teaching: disciples one day become teachers- we are teachers because we are disciples- we are disciples because we know how to listen… My grandfather Dodye Feig is one of those no longer alive, and yet his teaching is alive, because I am.”
Listening to a witness makes a listener a witness.
Prof. Wiesel asks at the end of every course,
“What you have learned and what will you do with what you have learned?”
“How have you changed? Who are you now that you have indeed received something from your teacher? Who are you now?”
Wiesel does something very rare- he gives his students permission to be transformed and to become teachers and leaders based on that transformation.
Ariel Burger continues to teach the lessons from that incredible classroom and hopes to inspire educators and leaders to continue this tradition.
I was transformed by his teaching from that very first day in class. I hope you will share, study and help keep the lessons and questions from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom alive for future generations.
There are no chance encounters-
This for me is certainly true- the day I walked into Elie Wiesel’s classroom was one of those moments. It continues to enrich my life and give it meaning.
May the lessons from Elie Wiesel’s classroom resonate within you, and bring more meaning and purpose to your lives as well. In this way, the Holocaust will not have destroyed our humanity, but we will continue to carry the memory forward in our humanity.