This Week in My Classes (September 29, 2008)

I didn’t post anything about my classes last week. Mental clutter is my lame excuse–that, and I used what ‘extra’ energy I had to get done one of the book reviews I’ve been working on, and to read two quite long graduate thesis chapters. So really, I wasn’t slacking off! Actually, since one thing I was doing was launching Vanity Fair in my 19th-century fiction class, the little piece I posted on that at The Valve sort of counts. Anyway, here’s what’s up at this point.

English 1010: This week we start our work on Elie Wiesel’s Night. I chose this text for this course because it seemed to epitomize the idea I pitch in the class about great writing not being aimed at college classrooms and anthologies but being a form of intervention in the world. Night is a highly-wrought text, conspicuously literary, deliberate in its language and devices, and urgent in its attempt to reach us on an important subject. It’s also enormously moving–and (not an insignificant consideration for a first-year class) it’s very short. My experience has been that students arrive in class without much historical background (my own view would be that, at the very least, modern history should be a graduation requirement for all high school students, but here at least, it is optional). I opened today, therefore, with an overview of the Holocaust, beginning with the rise of the Nazi party in the 1930s and going briefly through the steps towards the ‘final solution.’ Throughout I emphasize the problems Wiesel and others have raised about finding appropriate language to refer to the mass murders, including objections to the term “Holocaust”; I also (again, following Wiesel’s prompts) try to balance a sense of the overwhelming scale of suffering and death with attention to individual faces and stories. In my introductory lecture I also talk a bit about Wiesel himself, about the textual history of Night, and about its status (and, perhaps, limits) as a memoir, rather than a comprehensive or authoritative history. Finally, I try to give some fresh urgency to his mantra of “never forget” by mentioning some notorious contemporary Holocaust deniers.

I worked hard on my PowerPoint slides for this lecture, trying first to put faces on the abstractions, but also to provide starting points for the problems of language and representation that we will work on. It is an almost unbearable job to do; I found myself in tears several times, particularly as I worked on the topic of “selection.” In the Preface, Wiesel asks,

Was there a way to describe . . . the vanishing of a beautiful, well-behaved little Jewish girl with golden hair and a sad smile, murdered with her mother the very night of their arrival? How was one to speak of them without trembling and a heart broken for all eternity? . . . And yet, having lived through this experience, one could not keep silent, no matter how difficult, if not impossible, it was to speak.

Here’s the account of that incident he gives:

An SS came toward us wielding a club. He commanded:

“Men to the left! Women to the right!”

Eight words spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion. Eight simple, short words. yet that was the moment when I left my mother. There was no time to think, and I already felt my father’s hand press against mine: we were alone. In a fraction of a second I could see my mother, my sisters, move to the right. Tzipora was holding Mother’s hand. I saw them walking farther and farther away; Mother was stroking my sister’s blond hair, as if to protect her. And I walked on with my father, with the men. I didn’t know that this was the moment in time and the place where I was leaving my mother and Tzipora forever.

Tzipora was seven, the same age as my own daughter. It’s the mother I mourn for most, though: she would have known, or feared, more of the truth, and felt the devastation of walking her child towards it.

Did it seem trivial to move to Vanity Fair for my afternoon class? It did, a bit, and though I got my head into it and enjoyed myself, and I think it was a pretty good session, I find that now, having returned imaginatively and emotionally to that scene on the platform at Auschwitz, I don’t feel like writing it up. Instead, here are some links to some remarkable online resources for learning about (and teaching about) the Holocaust:

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

USC Shoah Foundation Institute

Yad Vashem: The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority

Holocaust Denial on Trial

The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity

Elie Wiesel Nobel Prize Interview

Elie Wiesel Academy of Achievement Interview

Night on Oprah’s Book Club

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