He called me Gatekeeper.
We were reading Kafka’s “Before the Law,” one of the first stories we read in our three week course at Eckerd College, where a doorkeeper was one of the main figures.
It was January, but I still loved to bask in the Florida sun during the short breaks, which we would take so Professor Elie Wiesel could have a cup of coffee to re-energize for the second half of the class. As I watched him slowly walk beside our professor, Carolyn Johnston, I envisioned how much despair Wiesel encountered in life, which shaped him into the revered writer, humanitarian and Nobel laureate that I was able to learn from.
I would hold the door open for him every day everyday he would take the door himself and insist that I go first. Yet he still gave me the title of Gatekeeper. He was always a gentleman, showing humility even when rooms of students listened to him in awed silence eager to absorb as much of his wisdom as they could.
Elie Wiesel touched millions of lives with his book Night. Within its pages, he recounted the horrors of the Holocaust that stole both of his parents and his young sister. With this book, he became a voice for the millions that had become silent ash in the frigid wind of Auschwitz, Buchenwald. Night not only became the first of the fifty books he would publish throughout his lifetime, but also the first step for the Jewish community to regain possession of their story.
Beyond that, he became a voice for the masses all over the world who were victimized by injustice. He spoke for refugees of war and those killed in the name of terror, the poor begging on the street or those suffering from new forms of holocaust.
He always wanted to know if there was a group that needed to be spoken for, a story that he hadn’t heard yet, because he refused to be blind to suffering as so many had done to his people during the early years of World War II. “The opposite of love is not hate,” he would always say. “It’s indifference.”
He once told a story of how he headed a council for opposing forces from different countries. On one side of the table was a young, white man who had grown up with the beliefs of South Africa’s apartheid. Across the table was Nelson Mandela. Mandela explained to the room the injustices and violence his people had suffered under apartheid. When he was finished, the young man stood. He said, “President Mandela, my parents grew up with the apartheid. They taught me to believe in the apartheid, but because of what you have said today, I no longer believe in the apartheid.” With that, Wiesel slapped his hand on the table, dragged the men to the room next door and locked them in until they could work things out.
I was honored to have a glimpse at the man behind the Nobel legend during two short courses at Eckerd College. He had a sweet tooth, never turning down a cookie or two when offered. He had a great sense of humor and always had a story. He loved the book of Job and hated cold weather. He spoke softly, as if the silence that had overwhelmed him at Auschwitz never truly left him.
If you had the opportunity to speak with him one-on-one, you would have his full attention. He would ask questions about your life as if it was the most interesting thing in the world. He had a phenomenal memory for his age, the years and a quadruple bypass surgery never slowing down his mind. He kept a diary that he always joked would be published after he passed so his students could read of themselves through his eyes.
When I heard that he passed on July 2, my world stood still for a moment. One of my greatest inspirations was gone; a star in my sky had dimmed. For a glimmer of a moment, I panicked. What would happen to his legacy? He has a witness to so many lives. Did this mean they might disappear now that he was gone?
Then I remembered Kafka. At the end, the main character, who had waited years to pass through the gates of the Law, lay on his deathbed and asked the Law’s doorkeeper why no one else ever tried to pass through the gate. The keeper said, “No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.”
Elie Wiesel’s door has now been closed, as he has passed through door after door of the Law. Now, it is our turn to decide if we will pass through our gate.
“We are all witnesses,” Wiesel often said. It was the phrase that cemented my love of storytelling. Now, I hope to make it that foundation for my life’s work, to tell the stories of those who suffer from injustice or succeed in toppling it so their memories may never die.
Witnessing, though, doesn’t just mean merely through telling stories. It means raising our voices, and entering the fray rather than standing in indifference. It means taking up Wiesel’s mantel and telling the world that things are not okay, that the senseless violence needs to stop and we need to take the first step. It’s being a voice for the lost. It’s being a witness to Wiesel himself, to his story, to his life and all he stood for.
After all, if no one else will make the stand then it is our duty, as is was Wiesel’s, to stand ourselves.