Keep learning, Wiesel tells packed house at UF


Published: Tuesday, March 12, 2013 at 10:51 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, March 12, 2013 at 10:51 p.m.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel urged a sold-out crowd at the Phillips Center Tuesday night to never stop chasing knowledge and making an effort to learn.

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FILE PHOTO - In this Sunday Jan. 27, 2008 picture, Boston University Professor Elie Wiesel prepares for the final plenary session of the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, WEF, in Davos, Switzerland. (AP Photo/Keystone, Alessandro della Valle)

The Accent Speaker's Bureau and Jewish Awareness Month at the University of Florida invited the Holocaust survivor, writer and longtime activist to speak to over 1,500 students and locals.

"I believe learning is the goal of my life," Wiesel, 84, said.

He sat in a wooden chair next to a small table and fiddled his hands. Nearly 70 years ago, Wiesel was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, where several of his family members perished. He detailed his experiences in "Night," a 100-page narrative that has been translated into 30 languages and what he calls his "only autobiography."

After a life dedicated to philosophy, writing and active compassion, Wiesel said he uses knowledge to propel him.

"I feel an eagerness to know, to learn," he said. "I am still looking for a teacher."

He paused to lick his lips.

"What will you do with your knowledge?" he asked. "Think about that. To waste knowledge is a sin."

His voice was barely above a whisper, yet his words traveled like thin string through the crowd.

Jennifer Poyner, 37, was stunned.

"That's very sensitive," she said, "not just to him, but to an entire generation. And he's willing to go beyond to tell people what they should know."

Poyner, who teaches English and journalism at Lecanto High in Citrus County, drove about an hour with one of her students, Sarah Chesser, to see Wiesel speak.

Poyner said she's using "Night" as part of a lesson for her 11th graders. One of their assignments was to write letters to Wiesel. When she heard about the event, she knew she had to go. And when she continued connecting the dots, she realized it only made sense to bring a student journalist to write something for The Panther Prowl, the school paper.

So she emailed Accent and arranged for her and Chesser to be part of the media press conference 45 minutes beforehand.

"It was the chance of a lifetime," Poyner said.

Chesser, 16, took notes during the interview and said she noticed how soft-spoken Wiesel was.

"But you have to listen carefully," Chesser remarked, "because what he has to say is worth your time. It's definitely something to appreciate."

In Poyner's possession were her student's letters. She decided to bring them along on the off-chance that Wiesel would see them. In total, there were about 50, she said. She stored them in a manila folder.

Before Wiesel fielded the media's questions, Poyner and Chesser chatted nervously about whether they should give him the letters.

"I did not tell my students to expect an answer," she said.

Minutes before the event, Poyner was met with a pleasant surprise.

An ACCENT coordinator had approached Wiesel and explained the teacher's story. He had agreed to take them.

"She said he would answer them all," Poyner said. "He's an extremely personable man."

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