It might seem like tempting fate to run a memorial series while we’re only halfway through the year, but Grub staffers are not known for their superstitions (we’re known for our synchronized kazooing). With the loss of so many cultural luminaries in the first half of 2016, writers in the Grub community and beyond needed time and distance to process what those collective losses meant to them. Some of those losses, like Bowie and Ali, were felt across the globe, while others you might not have heard about at all. In this series, writers come to grips with what we gained and lost in the lives and deaths of key cultural figures this year. In the nineth installment of this series, Jenna Blum reacts to the death of Elie Wiesel.
Godspeed, Dr. Wiesel. We Will Not Forget.
The death of Nobel Prize Laureate, author and perhaps the world's most well-known Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel feels very personal to me. I first learned of Dr. Wiesel as many of us did, by reading his Holocaust memoir Night in high school. I later had the almost unimaginable privilege of taking a literature course from him at Boston University while I was getting my M.A. I remember vividly Dr. Wiesel’s immense courtliness, dignity, humor and intelligence. He never missed a class, even though he was often hurrying in from places like the White House. His class was very quiet, because we were all so in awe of him we were afraid to answer his questions! He would smile and say, “Come, come, somebody must have some ideas.” He made time to meet with each seminar student individually, and when it was my turn to be ushered into his office, he said, “One of my PhD fellows informs me you have interviewed survivors for the Spielberg Survivors of the Shoah Foundation.” He sat back and folded his hands, smiled and waited for me to respond. It is one of the few times in my life I can remember being literally speechless. For all his compassion, I felt there was something almost untouchable about Dr. Wiesel, too--an otherworldly aura. All the survivors I interviewed had it, like a force field: the sense of their having walked through an unholy fire and survived. With Dr. Wiesel this force was extra-strong.
I am humbled to have been in the presence of greatness, for Dr. Wiesel was truly a great man. I am honored beyond words he recommended Those Who Save Us for the Ribalow Prize years later, despite my unimpressive muteness in his class and his office. Most of all, I am fiercely, so fiercely, eternally committed to honoring the spirit in which he wrote his numerous books and which almost every survivor expressed at the end of their interviews as the one thing they wanted future generations to know: “The world should know what happened to us, so it will never happen again.”
With Dr. Wiesel’s passing, we lose a great light but not our memory. Thank you, Dr. Wiesel, for your time here. We will not be silent. We will never forget.
Jenna Blum is the New York Times and internationally bestselling author of novels Those Who Save Us and The Stormchasers and novella "The Lucky One" in anthology Grand Central. Jenna is also one of Oprah's Top 30 Women Writers.