As you’ve heard by now, Auschwitz survivor, author, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel died this week at age 87.
Wiesel wrote dozens of books, the first and perhaps most influential of which was Night, a memoir about the horrors he witnessed as a teenager held in the Nazi concentration camps.
“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed,” he wrote famously in the book, which was translated into English in 1960. “Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”
The book has become a staple in many middle and high school English classrooms across the United States and around the world.
Adam Strom, the director of scholarship and innovation for Facing History & Ourselves, a civic-learning organization that offers a framework for teaching the book, says the intimate, detailed depiction of this period of history told through the eyes of a teenager resonates with other young people. Weisel is “raising these large, powerful issues about evil, indifference, dehumanization, the role of God in the face of evil, and parents and children,” said Strom. “For adolescents, they’re starting to begin to understand the world beyond their communities and become aware of questions of injustice.”
Reading the book can be a particularly profound experience for students who’ve seen and felt injustices in their own lives. “Young students who come from Bosnia, Rwanda, the Congo with their own stories can find themselves deeply empowered by Wiesel’s story,” said Strom. “It’s a way to start to understand their own experiences. He’s transforming idea of survivor and refugee into somebody who has moral agency.”
“I never would have dreamed that a book as slim as Night would hold so much power. So much humanity and sorrow. So much suffering,” she wrote. “Night was painful to read. It was so human, and so full of reality, that I found it hard to believe that we were not just allowed to read it at school, but assigned to read it. How could someone so young have lived through so much? ... As we read, we discussed. We felt, and we learned, and we experienced the human side of a tragedy, and I felt myself knowing, for once, what tragedy means.”
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.