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Chicago Students Learn a Lesson in Resilience when Elie Wiesel Visits

April 25, 2002
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More than 40 years after it was first published, Elie Wiesel’s powerful, first-hand account of his experiences in Nazi concentration camps has been discovered by Chicago schoolchildren, their teachers and parents.

Wiesel’s slim, 109-page volume, “Night,” was tapped by Mayor Richard Daley’s committee as the “One Book, One Chicago” choice for the 2001-2002 school year.

The program attempts to build cultural literacy and community by encouraging Chicago residents to read the same books.

Fresh from a trip to Israel, where he participated in an international conference on the legacy of Holocaust survivors, Wiesel spent a day in Chicago last week to hear what students at Orr High School thought of his book.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner and author of 40 books shared with the students insights into his adolescence, much of which was spent in Auschwitz-Birkenau with his father, who died before the camps were liberated.

“I strongly recommend this book,” Daley said. “Every paragraph makes you stop and reflect on good and evil. It illustrates mankind’s capacity for evil and the incredible resilience of the human spirit. Elie understands this and has devoted his entire life to the struggle for humanity.”

An English teacher at Orr High School, Tony Howard, was the facilitator for the school’s book club, which attracted students in all grades.

“Each of the 109 pages was a journey,” Howard said.

Wiesel’s close relationship with his father in the camps comes through on almost every page of the book, and didn’t escape the students. Wiesel described it to reporters.

“Before we were taken, my father was very involved in communal affairs; I was involved in my studies. I saw him on Shabbat,” he said. “When we were taken to the camps, it was the first time we were constantly together. All I had was my father. All of a sudden, this man who symbolized authority and knowledge for me did not know what to do; he had no advice. It was almost unbearable for a son to see this.

“I had thought that if my father died, I would die. I would lose all taste for life,” he continued. “Having survived by chance, I felt I must confer a meaning on my survival. There was nothing else I could do, so I wrote. Who knows whether they were the proper words? Maybe God. God speaks, but does not read.”

Alisha Burkes, a senior at the school, said, “My initial reaction was confused and angry. I didn’t want to continue. I felt at least half of what he was going through, but I wasn’t him. I couldn’t feel everything. He survived for his father and he survived to talk about it, and I thank him.”

Freshman Shawn Duncan said that the book taught “great values.”

“I read about the bond with his father. I’d never heard or seen of a bond that lasted that long,” he said. “Mentally, they were joined like brothers, making hard decisions.”

For freshman Dominique Trotter, losing a mother, father and sister, as Wiesel did, is almost inconceivable.

“I would not have been able to handle that,” she said. “He gave me the determination to follow all my goals.”

Wiesel also spoke at the Harold Washington Library’s Winter Garden, where supporters of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum joined hundreds to hear his thoughts.

The current situation in Israel distresses him, Wiesel said.

“I have never seen them all so sad and so down. They don’t like what they are doing, but they have no choice,” he said. “They told me that they wish we could do something else to stop the suicide killings, but they don’t know what to do. Neither do I. I would be the first to advise, but there are no other methods to stop those who target seders, Bar Mitzvahs, supermarkets.”

Wiesel said he does not see similarities between the political climate now — marked by a rising wave of anti- Semitism in Europe — and that in the 1930s.

“There was only one Holocaust,” Wiesel said. “We cannot and should not compare the two times.”

He also commented on the recent call by several members of the Nobel prize committee to take back, because of Israel’s recent military incursion in the West Bank, the peace prize that was awarded to Shimon Peres in 1994.

“The committee cannot take back the Nobel Prize, and it cannot be given back,” Wiesel said.

But, he added, “If anyone could ask that a prize be taken back, I would lead the way to remove Arafat’s prize,” referring to the Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

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