Feature stories

Students’ words fill Wiesel ‘with hope’

Study of Holocaust at Manhattan high school leads to touching connection

Students and their teachers with Elie Wiesel’s book “Night.”Erica BergerStudents and their teachers with Elie Wiesel’s book “Night.” When 10th-graders in Jaclyn Bifano and Louis Rimesso’s English class at the HS of Art and Design in Midtown East read Elie Wiesel’s powerful memoir “Night,” they did more than just read the words.

They watched a video of Wiesel walking the grounds at Auschwitz. They studied the lives of ordinary German citizens and how they behaved during World War II. They analyzed Nazi propaganda and even Hitler’s own artwork.

For their final projects, they created memorial artwork and poured their hearts out to Wiesel in letters that revealed the depth of their connection to the book.

“I’m a black teenager and I’m very aware of the racism and slavery that happened in my ancestor’s life,” wrote one student. “I personally connected to your story because I can relate to it in a sense of perseverance.”

Their words touched Wiesel, who wrote back to the students just a few weeks after receiving their letters.

“Knowing that you and your classmates will never forget the tragedies of the past fills me with hope,” Wiesel wrote. “You can use your knowledge and understanding to educate those who are unaware.”

Bifano and Rimesso deliberately scheduled the unit to complement their students’ study of the Holocaust in global history class, crafting lessons in such a way that students would be able to reflect in class about what they had read the night before.

“They would come in almost angry about what they had read,” says Rimesso. “They’ve become so desensitized to violence through video games, but this was about making reading real.”

Wiesel’s words resonated even with typically reluctant readers, some of whom were so affected by the book that they began doing their own research on the Holocaust.

“They really connected to him in a lot of ways,” says Bifano. “At first they didn’t know how to fully grasp it. But this actually happened, and it’s important to recognize it.”

Wiesel’s response also deeply touched the students.

“We cried when we read it,” says a sophomore named Jeanine, who framed a copy of the letter to keep at home. “We’re so lucky. This is the last of the survivors, and they’re not going to be here to tell the story. It’s important for us to pass it on.”

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