I was in the eighth grade in 2004 when I read Night by Elie Wiesel. It spoke to me as someone who had gone through a genocide perpetrated on another continent almost 50 years after the Holocaust. That his words could reverberate across time and culture demonstrates their singular power.
I had immigrated to the United States three years earlier with my sister and her family. I was six years old when the conflict started in Rwanda. My sister Claire, 15, and I had lived with our parents and two other siblings in the capital Kigali. We had a beautiful life that we have not seen or experienced ever since. Like everyone in Rwanda, our lives changed forever in 1994 when what I call “noise” and others call “genocide” broke out in our country. Claire and I were separated from our parents in order to survive. By pure chance we managed to escape the carnage; for the next six years we lived in seven different African countries in and outside of refugee camps before seeking asylum with the International Organization of Migration. Eventually we made it to the United States, the same country that took in many of those who survived Nazism. It was in America where I first stepped into a classroom, learned about genocide, and was introduced to Elie Wiesel’s writings.
My copy of Night is dog-eared. The pages are filled with plastic colored “flags” that are blue, green, purple, and yellow. Vocabulary is in the margins; phrases and sentences are underlined, some with pencil, and some with pen. Many words are circled. At the end of every chapter, I asked Mr. Wiesel questions, never suspecting that someday I would get to ask them of him in person. My English teacher’s email address and home telephone number are on a post-it note inside the back cover for when I needed help. A recent addition is a note from Professor Elie Wiesel himself.
I still remember where I was sitting when I first opened Night. I hung on to every word in the text. I also remember shutting the door to my bedroom. It was past midnight (way past my bedtime) and I wanted to keep on reading. I stayed up all night reading, crying, and not believing that I had found a language that expressed what I had been feeling for many years, telling of experiences that my sister and I tragically knew so well, but had not shared with each other or anyone for ten years. “The days were like nights, and the nights left the dregs of their darkness in our souls….”
I do not remember sleeping or eating or how I got to school the following day. But I remember sitting in my class feeling a mix of emotions — anger and sadness, but also excitement to finally burst and say everything. I did not know where to start. I had a lot to share but I realized that not everyone in the classroom had finished the whole book. However, I remember telling my teacher that this, pointing at the book, described similar experiences to what the people in my country had gone through. From that day on, I realized that my family’s story about what happened in Rwanda and in refugee camps was not going to be a secret anymore. It was not going to be something I was ashamed about. I thought, if Mr. Wiesel could share his experiences after surviving that kind of horror, I could too. Or, I could at least try to learn how to honor those who did not survive. I did, I danced about it, I played about it, I sewed about it and spoke about it and even wrote about it.
After reading Night, I went on a quest to learn not only what had happened in Germany and in Rwanda, but also in Cambodia, in Bosnia, in Sudan, and more recently in Syria and in countless other largely forgotten places in history. I wanted to know so I could remember the victims and try to understand what makes people commit such crimes and how they might be prevented in the future. I had to begin raising my voice as Elie had raised his.
Twelve years ago I began speaking at a number of schools, organizations, and companies; this path took me to places that I had never imagined. It led me to communities of genocide survivors. It took me to the Oprah Show, where Oprah reunited my family and me after 12 years, to meeting and connecting with Elie Wiesel himself, and to serving with him on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s board of directors. Elie Wiesel and his book Night have changed my life, shifting the way I see and treat people and inspiring me to fight injustices any way I am able.
Night may be one of the most important books that people can read today. It is a story of how hate can slowly take over a society. It shows what happens when people are dehumanized.
Night transports the reader to experience hate at the front lines. A hate that leads indiviuals to disregard the humanity in others. It shows how easily people can be taught to hate and kill each other without mercy. But it also teaches how much we can love, care and have empathy for each other. When someone reads Night, it’s impossible for them to remain a silent observer to hate crimes and injustices. It demands action from the reader. Elie Wiesel’s book Night is relevant even more today, and his words live on forever.
Top photo: Harpo, Inc./George Burns