Sept. 29, 2003
By Lester Marks
It seems a curious thing -- after spending some few hours drifting through a jumble of memories, recollections from 44 years spent as a professor, an ombudsman, a citizen of Ohio University and Athens -- that the event that keeps returning to me in most vivid detail had little to do with me. Except, perhaps, for what it taught me about the triumph of one man, about his beauty and strength in rising from ashes of degradation and despair.
Elie Wiesel had requested that he be lodged at a motel, rather than at the OU guesthouse, so that he would not disturb other university guests. When, at 7 a.m., on the first morning of his visit, I stopped by to pick him up at the Ohio University Inn, he was seated in the lobby, buried in some manuscript, pen in hand. The desk clerk whispered to me that Mr. Wiesel had been there, reading and writing, since 4 a.m., having eaten only some fruit. I learned later that he subsisted on a light vegetarian diet and only a few hours of sleep each night.
During those three days in early May of 1988, this man touched my life more profoundly than I could have imagined.
It was not only his memorable address to a packed Mem Aud (the topic was "When the Unthinkable Happens: Implications of the Holocaust for the Nuclear Arms Race"), it was the man himself: the writer; the humanitarian; the Hungarian boy who had once listed his address as Birkenau, Auschwitz, Buchenwald. It was the man who understood that a writer has a duty to remind us of the past and to help us to understand it so that we may help ourselves to live with others and ourselves.
Perhaps that is why Elie Wiesel, as a condition of his coming to Athens, requested that he speak also at the high school, to younger people who were just beginning to discover that a past exists. At Athens High School he spoke, or rather held quiet, intimate conversations with first, the student cast of "The Diary of Anne Frank," and then with the student body as a whole. The experience for them, for me sitting small in the back of the room, was a communion. We were enveloped by an honest intellect, a loving heart.
Lester Marks is a professor emeritus of English.
This article was reprinted from “Ohio University Recollections for the Bicentennial Anniversary 1804-2004.” The book was compiled by the Ohio University Emeriti Association.