- Gazing into the Mirror of Wiesel's Night, Together
I must begin with a confession. When I last taught Literature of the Holocaust, I cut Wiesel's Night from the reading list. Teachers are always making hard choices. There's just too much compelling literature to teach in this class. I teach only texts written by survivors. That narrows the field somewhat —so, no Cynthia Ozick, no Anne Michaels, or Ursula Hegi, or Art Spiegelman. I sneak in Nathan Englander's short story "The Tumblers" as end-of-semester reading and for the final exam, but that's a closing flourish. Eliminating Night carries a hint of heresy and a measure of guilt. But with Oprah Winfrey as champion, and 10 million copies sold, Night's dominance in discussions of Holocaust literature has long been secured. Less pervasive texts, such as Ida Fink's A Scrap of Time and Other Stories, Lore Segal's Other People's Houses, Charlotte Delbo's Auschwitz and After, Jurek Becker's Jacob the Liar, and Imre Kertesz's Kaddish for an Unborn Child, claim my class's attention. Perhaps you hear too in the opening of this review of Alan Rosen's edition of essays on Wiesel's Night, in the Modern Language Association's series Approaches to Teaching, the echo of Kertesz's 2002 Nobel Prize for Literature lecture, "I must begin with a confession" (604). Kertesz's confessional, analytical literature tackles the need to understand and even explain the Holocaust, as well as the totalitarian oppression to which Auschwitz [End Page 167] attests. Wiesel's project is a different one. I seek, in my classroom of about thirty undergraduate students from all disciplinary majors, texts that pose knotty problems for students to untangle, often in small work groups, sometimes using in-class writing followed by problem-solving group exercises. The learning method, a version of think/pair/share, becomes also a model for responsible reading, thinking, and even action on the issues the texts pose. It had been less evident to me that Night served as fruitfully for a problem-solving pedagogy.
One small token, then, of the success of Rosen's anthology is Wiesel's Night's place in my syllabus this semester. Rosen has gathered a community of scholars and teachers who together testify to Wiesel's efficacy in the college classroom. Although one might think that teaching Literature of the Holocaust would be a lonely experience, for me and for the colleagues gathered in Alan Rosen's anthology, the moments of solitude are far outnumbered by the shared construction of defiance, resistance, and determination. While Night shares with other Holocaust memoirs the thematic of the aloneness of camp experience, Rosen has collected eighteen teachers and scholars who together create a communal intellectual and ethical life. In the voices of the eighteen scholar/ teachers, symbolically numbering Chai, or life, Rosen's volume breathes new life into the study and teaching of Night. Imaginatively, through their vibrant conversations with each other and with the text, they have helped me to understand Night's place in the work of my college classroom.
In my teaching, I collaborate with an interdisciplinary team of Holocaust scholars at Keene State College under the umbrella of the Cohen Center for Holocaust Studies, soon to become the Cohen Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. While there can be no denying the pain in these profound texts, as Alan Rosen's introduction attests, the eighteen voices that excavate "Historical and Cultural Contexts," "Literary Contexts," and "Courses and Classroom Strategies" together shed light on the darkest of times. For me, then, because of the challenges and pleasures of teaching together with a team, it is not pain and aloneness that become the greatest classroom challenges in teaching the Holocaust, in particular Wiesel's Night. Instead, as Wiesel ages, as the survivors die whose testimony, like that of Congressman Tom Lantos, bears witness, as students look back in alienation to the deep history of anti-Semitism and the mid-twentieth-century history of World War II and the Holocaust, it is...