I was fortunate enough to meet Wiesel in November of 1998, when he gave a talk as part of the Carlson Lecture Series, co-sponsored by the Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies at Northrop Auditorium. After the talk (which I remember very well), I was able to introduce myself. He was gracious and kind and listened intently as I spoke of “The Watch” with him. I remember him being surprised that I knew it; I cannot recall how long the conversation lasted, or anything more than the warmth of his smile and handshake, but he certainly made an impression on me. In 1999, I graduated with my Masters of Liberal Studies, specializing in Holocaust representation in the visual arts and have worked in the field in one capacity or another ever since.
I have been to Auschwitz and Birkenau more than once. For a week I walked back and forth under the infamous Arbeit macht freisign. I never was able to forget where I was, nor did it get easier to walk that path. In Birkenau I found myself looking at the ground, watching my feet tread the well-worn dirt paths. In a moment of heat and fatigue I sat upon the ruins of Canada, the sorting warehouse for the belongings brought by the transported. In a blur, I caught a glimmer of a shiny object by my right foot. Digging a bit, I uncovered a tiny pearl button. My mind raced, who did it belong too? Where did it come from? Why of all days, did it appear to me now? Trying to focus I could hear Wiesel’s voice reading the words of his story. Like him, I wanted to clean the button, keep it safe, bring it with me, give it life. In the end I put it back, I left it where it belonged. The dead needed to remain — it was up to me to remember, to educate.
Wiesel once said, “Man, as long as he lives, is immortal. One minute before his death he shall be immortal. But one minute later, God wins.” Certainly a true statement, and yet I believe we can safely argue that Wiesel in death will continue to live on through his words. I am not the first to be inspired by his writing nor will I be the last. Because of him the Holocaust will not be forgotten, and those of us he inspired will continue to bear witness, continue to stand up against injustice. Time nor death can ever take that from us.
Jodi Elowitz is an adjunct professor of the Humanities at Gateway Community College in Phoenix, Arizona, and former Program Coordinator for the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.