Annie Hatch, a teacher at Life Academy, writes about a letter her class received from a Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate. Above, the students listen to another speaker on the subject. – Katy
The letter arrived on a cold, rainy day in late January. I saw it sitting there, unobtrusively, in my box in Life Academy’s main office.
I examined the return address closely to make sure it was real. My heart started beating faster as I realized what had happened. My students had written letters to Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel three months earlier, and he had written back.
Back up to the beginning of September.
Before beginning this school year, the majority of my tenth-grade students had never heard of the Holocaust. They had seen countless images of Hitler, but many couldn’t tell me if he was a “good” or “bad” leader. They had no idea what a Jew was. And World War Two was some distant battle, fought eons ago for some obscure reason.
After I had them read Wiesel’s autobiographical book Night, my students were bursting with questions and insights. As an in-class assignment, I asked them to write a letter to the author.
The letter was meant to be just a warm up activity to begin the class, but my students’ responses blew me away. Some expressed humility and empathy I wasn’t used to hearing among 15- and 16-year-olds. As one articulate young woman wrote, “I appreciate that you went back to where it all happened to tell us the story that many still can not take in, even after reading your book. I personally thank you for that, even though it must have been very hard to do.”
Still other students made startlingly poignant connections between Wiesel’s autobiography and their own lives. As one of my undocumented students wrote, “I relate to you in a way by feeling unwanted in a place. I am a 16-year-old girl who wants to live in the United States to work hard to be someone in life but because I am an immigrant my dreams are hard to reach.” Another student wrote, “People where I come from go through hardships such as being jumped for wearing the wrong color or being a certain race. I can’t compare my experiences to yours, but I relate to the violence and hatred you witnessed.”
Some of my students seemed to engage with Wiesel’s writing in a way they had never done with a school text before. One student wrote, “I would like to say again that Night is one of the few books that have inspired me and it’s something that has taught me a lesson in life.”
I was proud, humbled, and impressed by the depth of the responses I received about a topic my students had until recently known so little about. Their letters were so good I decided to send them to Wiesel, who is now 82 years old and still works as a professor at Boston University. Still, as I packed all their typed, polished letters into a big manila envelope, I never expected a response. My students said things like, “C’mon Ms. Hatch. You know he’s never going to write us back.” And although I agreed with them, I put on my optimistic teacher voice and responded, “You never know…”
Three months later, letter in hand, my heart was racing at the prospect of showing my students the letter that was addressed to each and every one of them—and signed by Wiesel himself. The first reaction of many of my students was to deny it could be true. A few even accused me of writing a fake letter. It was as if they couldn’t believe their words were worthy of a response. Yet gradually, Wiesel’s shaky scrawl and my obvious excitement, helped them accept the fact that this author was a real human being who had really taken the time to write them back.
Wiesel wrote that he was “deeply moved” by the students’ letters. He answered their painfully personal questions about whether he had wanted to kill himself or exact revenge. “We must continue to struggle against the rise of hatred,” he wrote. “Your letters reflect your resolve to be sensitive and kind to those who are different. I have hope because of young people like you. By your example, you can make a
difference: start somewhere, anywhere.”
I printed a copy of his letter for each student, and many told me they were going to frame it. One told me her mother had filed it away in a safe place, along with her sister’s diploma.
As for the original, I keep it above my desk at school as a reminder of a great educator who is still counting on young people to make the world a better place.