The haunting and compelling work of Elie Wiesel, the author and humanitarian who will deliver the address at Lehigh’s 142nd commencement, was discussed recently by a panel of experts from Lehigh and Lafayette College. The event drew 50 people to the admissions theatre of the Alumni Memorial Building, including students interested in learning more about Wiesel’s work before hearing him speak in late May.
Lloyd Steffen, professor of religion studies and university chaplain, convened the panel so that faculty members who know and appreciate Wiesel’s work could share their insights.
Steffen said Wiesel’s work—particularly Night, perhaps the most widely read story of survival in the Nazi death camps of World War II—had helped shape his own theological education at a time when the debate over whether God had “died” was raging in American society.
Wiesel’s writings, Steffen said, “became a symbol for me of the endurance of the questions we put to God and to one another about God….the questions about meaning and hope, forgiveness, resistance, remembrance and endurance.”
An avenue for understanding Jewish history
Alice Eckhardt, professor emerita of religion studies, discussed Wiesel’s impact in bringing the full moral and theological significance of the Holocaust to consciousness through his writing and his heart-wrenching recounting of life in the Nazi concentration camps. Eckhardt, who was instrumental in bringing Wiesel to campus twice during the 1970s, encouraged the audience to view Wiesel’s work as a new avenue for understanding Jewish history.
Wiesel’s work is a powerful tool to help non-Jewish students understand the horror of the Holocaust, said Laurence Silberstein, professor of Jewish Studies and director of the Philip and Muriel Berman Center, who teaches a “Responses to the Holocaust” course at Lehigh.
The way the Holocaust will be viewed by future generations and the role it may play in Jewish identity was discussed by Seth Goren, associate chaplain and director of Jewish Student Life.
Ruth Setton, novelist and professor of practice in the Philip and Muriel Berman Center for Jewish Studies, shared the experience of meeting a man she later learned was Wiesel, and being struck by the saddest eyes: “He has ghosts in those eyes, and every time I read his books, I see those eyes,” she said.
Others panelists include Robert Cohn, professor of Jewish Studies at Lafayette, who came to know Wiesel personally when Cohn was a graduate student at Stanford who would drive Wiesel to his lectures; and Sharon Wiles-Young, director of library access services, who told the audience that Wiesel edited down the original 900-page manuscript titled And the World Kept Silent, to the spare, 130-page work that eventually was published as Night.
She speculated that Wiesel had edited out the anger and guilt to create a sparse memoir of enduring power and influence.
In all, said Wiles-Young, Lehigh’s libraries contain 44 pieces of Wiesel’s work.