I had the pleasure of meeting Elie Wiesel once, at the New York Times in a large room with enormous picture windows out of which one could see a stretch across the night lights of New York City. It was for a book launch for my cousin’s book about his family, a memoir. I have to confess that I was somewhat awestruck by the venue and the view and the smell of newsprint and of course by everything that Wiesel represented in the world. My cousin introduced me to Wiesel and my memories of him are that he was shorter than I expected for someone who was clearly so great and that his eyes were more penetrating than any I had ever seen. When he looked at me I felt as though he saw straight into the heart of me, into my soul as it were. I was in his presence for less than 5 minutes. I was too in awe to say anything except ‘Lovely to meet you’ and to smile. But I will never forget the intensity of his gaze. When I heard that Wiesel had passed away I remembered fondly this one fleeting encounter and I counted myself as honoured to have had the opportunity to meet him all those years ago in that big room in the sky with the picture windows.
When I heard that Ariel was writing this book I knew that he had to meet my cousin whose last name is also ironically Berger (different spelling and not related). It is serendipitous that my cousin, Joseph Berger is also writing a book about Wiesel although his is more of a biography. Ariel and Joe spoke. Ariel’s book was published. Joe’s book should be out next year. I jumped to read Ariel’s book and I will similarly jump to read Joe’s.
Witness is quite possibly one of the most special books I have ever had the pleasure of reading. I confess that I wasn’t quite sure what to expect … how was Burger going to share the “lessons from Elie Wiesel’s classroom”? I wasn’t disappointed. This book invoked in me a deep sorrow and sense of loss at the reality that I never got to sit in Wiesel’s classroom, that I never had the privilege of learning from him in the way that Burger so clearly did. The lessons and thoughts that Burger shares in this book are beyond inspiring. They are magnificent and profound and from the first words I was immediately reminded of the intensity of Wiesel’s gaze as I remembered it and of his path through the world as a true witness – a witness not just to tragedy and inconceivable devastation but more importantly, as a teacher and a mentor, a witness to the way that young people’s minds can grow and change as they are challenged to think and rethink their perceptions of the world and of life. In this, Wiesel was clearly a master and Burger was so fortunate to have the extended opportunity of spending so much time at the feet of such a giant.
There is so much wisdom in this book that it is impossible in one reading to do it justice. What I will share is that it is one book that I will not be sharing with friends. I want to read it again and underline the key passages that trouble me or make me smile. I want to make a list of books that Wiesel recommended or used in his teaching and I want to try and capture for myself some of his valuable lessons and find ways to use them in my life. I will be telling my friends to buy their own copies so that they can know the joy with which Wiesel lived and the way he inspired others to similarly find their joy.
This is one of those books that every thinking and feeling human being needs to read. And if you have the chance to meet Ariel Burger make sure you listen intently to all he says. His gaze is not nearly as intense as Wiesel’s – I know because I have had the pleasure of learning with Ariel. Ariel’s gaze is more graceful and less intimidating. What I remember of being in his presence is the way his gaze provides spaces for him to listen. This book stands out as a sign of Burger’s true talent as a thinker and a listener. A witness in his own right.