A Night of Night

This time I read the new translation by Wiesel's wife, Marion.

Last week, I participated in a program produced and led by my oldest son’s 10th grade English class at Palo Alto High School. It was about Eli Wiesel’s first and most famous book, Night, which the students had studied and the adult participants had been asked to read before coming to the event. Interestingly, there were things I learned that evening that were far scarier than Elie Wiesel’s experience in the Holocaust.

OK, maybe I am being a little over-dramatic (Wiesel’s experiences, like those of the other victims of the Holocaust were unimaginably horrific), but I came away from the program with the overwhelming feeling that there is something wrong with the educational system in this country. It’s not what the students in my son’s class said that scared me, but rather what they would not have said had they not been in the special course that they are in.

My son opted to take a Facing History And Ourselves track in English this year. FHAO is a national organization that has been around for quite a while, whose mission is to link the study of history to the making of moral choices today. This is the lens through which my son and his classmates are considering all the literature and associated history that they are encountering this year.

The Night of Night program last week was one of the major highlights of the year for the students, for which they prepared to lead a variety of group presentations and discussions with the attending adult guests (family, friends, teachers and community members) on topics such as Elie Wiesel’s life post-Night, confronting genocide (with a focus on Armenia and the Holocaust), art and the Holocaust, music from Terezin, honoring survivors, and confronting hate in the 21st century (with a focus on hate online).

Photo taken by American soldier upon the liberation of Buchenwald. Wiesel can be seen in the top row on the far right.

I, someone for whom the Holocaust cast a shadow over my education from the youngest ages and for whom it was very real and immediate (and who was exposed to both Night and Night and Fog probably far earlier than I should have been), was eager to hear what people of other backgrounds had to say about the book. I was surprised, though, to find that many of the adults had never read Night prior to this event. I guess I had been under the false impression that it was on the reading list of almost every high school and/or college class. And I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that not everyone follows Oprah Winfrey’s reading recommendations. Nonetheless, I found the discussion interesting (I participated in the group focusing on music from Terezin, because my son was leading that one), and I was impressed by the serious thought the students had put into their preparation. I was an active participant in the discussion and even managed, to my son’s relief, not to go too much into Jewish and Holocaust (I once worked at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York) educator mode.

Although this was not a Jewish educational program, I could not help but think about the symbolism of our reading (and in my case re-reading for the umpteenth time) and discussing right before Passover  this account of the deportation of Hungarian Jews to Nazi concentration camps. It was on Passover 1944 that the Nazis tore the Jews of Hungary from their homes. The date on which Jews commemorate the Holocaust, Yom Hashoah, is linked to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, which took place on seder night, 1943 (International Holocaust Remembrance Day is on January 23rd, in commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1945).

I was also struck by the very coincidentally Jewish nature of the evening, which was framed by the course’s teacher, David Cohen, opening with the quote from early in the book when Wiesel recounts that Moshe the Beadle “explained to me, with great emphasis, that every question possessed a power that was lost in the answer.” Cohen stressed that the power of what his students were doing was in their asking hard questions. The evening closed with a student’s speech in which she said, “I am facing questions that I will never be able to answer.” Like the child who asks the Four Questions at the Passover seder, the students in the FHAO class, won’t get quick or easy to understand answers. But at least they are posing the questions and challenges and searching, with the help of supportive adults, for their explanations and solutions.

Elie Wiesel and President Obama recently visited the Buchenwald site together.

This, of course, makes me feel emotions like pride and joy. What evokes shock, fear and anger in me, however, is what the regional director of FHAO said toward the close of the program. In emphasizing how unique the FHAO experience is for students, he identified three core ideas as part of the mah nishtanah of his organization’s educational approach. First, rigorous content is conveyed in the course, with students gaining historical understanding and learning how to ask essential questions and make meaning of what they are studying. Second, they students have an emotional engagement with the material, examining deep questions of the human condition. Finally, they are involved in ethical reflection; they dare [his word] to connect things they learn to their own lives.

So why am I shocked, fearful and angry? Why does this scare me? Because this is what education is supposed to be for all students, not just ones electing to take the FHAO course. Why should a student have to “dare” to connect what she is learning to her own life and the world around her? If what happens in an FHAO course does not happen in others, if all that is really happening in the others is teaching to the test and rote learning devoid of ethical considerations, then how will young people be able to understand, internalize and act in the way that Wiesel says (in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech) we must act? –

“…And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – becomes the center of the universe.”

That placenot the high school classroom, not the SAT and AP test, not the college resume or application. Not the self.

© 2010 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

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3 Responses to “A Night of Night”

  1. Randi Brenowitz Says:

    Renee,

    Do you know Joyce Reynolds Sinclair? She is a local person – a member of Beth AM and OFJCC – and a National Board member of FHAO. You two would love each other. If you don’t know her, I’d be happy to make the intros

    ~Randi

  2. Rose Barlow Says:

    The answer to your question is that one of the ‘unintended’ consequences of the excision of any moral/ethical (Judeo-Christian derived) content from public school in this country is that courses such as this require active opt-in. Somewhere, along the way, the baby got thrown out with the bathwater and now the majority of high school students will graduate without ever experiencing this kind of educational experience.

  3. Vavi Says:

    Oh, so true and so well articulated!
    Because teaching and educating are not synonymous.
    Somewhere along the road to measurable successes, educating a person became a lost art.

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