INTERVIEW WITH TEACHER BRYNN MANDEL ABOUT THE BOOK
“ELIE WIESEL: AN EXTRAORDINARY LIFE AND LEGACY.”
Mandel teaches English, journalism and college composition at
Lewis S. Mills High School in Burlington, Connecticut.
How has Elie Wiesel: An Extraordinary Life and Legacy helped you teach your students about Wiesel and the Holocaust?
I use the book at the end of our reading of Night. I first hold up several of the images before the class as a whole, so that they can connect real faces to the names and people they read about in Wiesel’s narrative. I hold up some of the earlier-era images and walk among the students so they can look at them. They often stop me and ask me to spend a little more time in front of them with the photographs, especially the one of Wiesel’s mother and sisters. I think the photographs are a reality check because Wiesel’s story is so nightmarishly otherworldly it is easy for young readers to almost be lulled into the mistaken notion that this is a novel as opposed to a horrific, real-life account, despite our constant discussions, reminders and pre-reading work. The images of real people bring it back in a visceral way. Yes, that was the little seven-year-old girl in the red coat who, along with her mother, turned away from Elie and his father one final time before they were murdered by the Nazis. Students also tend to spend a lot of time looking at the image of Wiesel in the bunk. I think it helps to drive home what life looked like for Wiesel, who at that point was close in age to my students.
I also share how the book is filled with reflections about Wiesel, and how he won the Nobel Prize, to update students on his life after Night and to build something of a bridge to the now. In particular, I share a few details from the passage by Sonari Glinton, the former NPR journalist, as it speaks to concepts such as finding yourself that my students can particularly relate to. After this, I typically pass the book around for students to flip through on their own. I also have it available for them to consult as they work on a final individual project about the concept of indifference. The text of Wiesel’s speech upon receipt of the Congressional Gold Medal of Achievement as well as his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance address supplement their understanding and knowledge of the concept of indifference and its consequences.
What are your students’ backgrounds?
The high school at which I teach is fairly homogeneous; there is little ethnic, racial or religious diversity. There is slightly more socioeconomic diversity, but the school is largely middle-class. The students hail from two towns; one is a suburb on the outer fringe of Hartford suburbs, the second town is slightly more rural. I teach Night to ninth graders, and my students tend to be on the honors track.
Do they know much about the Holocaust when they come into your classes?
Some students have some knowledge of the Holocaust, usually from having previously read a book that touches on the Holocaust in middle school, though this is far from a universal experience. Largely, students have vague or general knowledge, but not the breadth or depth of concrete understanding. In general, I would say their knowledge of the Holocaust is limited.
Do you recommend the book to other teachers to use with their students?
I recommend it for teachers to use as a supplement to Night. To many adolescents, anything pre-21st century seems like a very long time ago. The era of the Holocaust and World War II can seem downright ancient, and it takes some reminding that, although these events might seem distant in time and place, there are people walking among us today who lived through these experiences or were deeply impacted by them. Elie Wiesel: An Extraordinary Life and Legacy offers a nice bridge to the present, to both update Elie Wiesel’s story, including his remarkable humanitarian accomplishments and efforts in his adult life, as well as demonstrating his impact on others, including those who the students clearly recognize or are familiar with, such as Oprah Winfrey. Again, I think these aspects help students build connections to their present.
Do you recommend the book to other teachers to increase their own knowledge and augment their understanding of Night?
The same attributes that make the book useful for students to review after reading extend to teachers, as well. Although teachers have more knowledge of the Holocaust and Elie Wiesel, it offers a nice teaching tool and accessible way to see the tremendous contemporary influence Wiesel has had—from his Nobel Prize to his work as a college professor and humanitarian. Some teachers may be somewhat aware of Wiesel’s more contemporary adult work, but the book fleshes out more of those vast impacts for those who are primarily familiar with Night.
Are there any other reflections that you think are particularly helpful to your students?
As I mentioned, the kids tend to relate to Sonari Glinton’s reflection. He talks about Wiesel’s guidance when Glinton was a young college student grappling with finding his way and place in the world. It is a very accessible vignette to which young teens can relate. Other reflections offer context: For example, the one by the founding project director of the USHMM demonstrates Elie Wiesel’s willingness to go against the grain for what he believed in, even when others did not always agree or necessarily understand. This is important and resonant to students. The reflection by Michael Berenbaum also sheds light on the interesting rationale of why Wiesel initially wrote in French as opposed to other languages, which helps us as teachers and readers gain understanding of his purpose for writing Night and how deliberately thoughtful he was in fulfilling his life’s work and mission to bear witness and never forget.