Back Bay High students lose a pen pal with Elie Wiesel's death
English teacher Joel Flores and student Sarah White pose with a letter and book written by Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel in Flores’ classroom at Back Bay High School in Costa Mesa. Wiesel died July 2, nine days after Flores received this letter from him addressed to the class. (Kevin Chang | Daily Pilot)
By Alex Chan,Contact Reporter
For years, Back Bay High School English teacher Joel Flores told his students that their class might be the last to write letters to author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.
But every year, when Flores' classes at the Costa Mesa school would write and send their letters, Wiesel would write back.
That won't happen again.
When Wiesel died July 2 at age 87, the world lost a powerful voice for human rights. But the Back Bay students lost a pen pal. Flores and his class received Wiesel's last letter on June 23, the last day of school.
"I took it for granted every year and I'd think, 'Yeah, we're still going to get letters,'" Flores said. "I feel a deep sense of loss."
Starting in 2005 at Costa Mesa's Estancia High School, Flores had his classes read Wiesel's 1956 book, "Night," based on the author's experiences as a teenage prisoner in the Nazis' Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps in 1944-45. Afterward, the students would have a letter writing lesson.
The letter on the left was written by Elie Wiesel to the students in Back Bay High School teacher Joel Flores’ sophomore English class. The book on the right, “Night,” is a memoir of Wiesel’s imprisonment in Nazi concentration camps. Flores has his students read the book every school year. (Kevin Chang | Daily Pilot)
"It's part of the curriculum to cover how to write business letters," Flores said. "I combined the learning about how to write a business letter with the end of this book project because we were running out of time to cover everything."
The time-crunch solution soon led to a tradition that Flores would carry to Back Bay sophomore English classes.
After reading Wiesel's work, the sophomores would use their letters to him to learn how to write a proper salutation, format the body of the letter, ask questions, conclude by thanking him for his time, then fold, address and stamp the letter.
Each year, the students' handwritten letters were sent to The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity based in New York City. A single response from Wiesel was sent to the whole class.
Back Bay sophomore Sarah White — a student in Flores' class of about 15 who wrote to Wiesel this past spring — said her letter was the first she had written to an author in school.
"I asked him how he gets through his days, how does he keep strength even with all the horrible memories?" Sarah said. "He shows that no matter what age you are, you can have the strength of an adult."
"Night" chronicles Wiesel's memories of seeing Jews lined up on their way to the gas chambers and how he felt his God had been "murdered."
"In the letters, [the students] mostly tell him how much they admire him and how brave he is," Flores said.
On the last day of this past school year, Flores stopped at his mailbox in the Back Bay office and found what would be the last letter he and his students would receive from Wiesel.
He read Wiesel's words out loud to his class.
"I am moved to learn of the effect that my memoir 'Night' had on you," the letter read. "As a writer, nothing is more important. … Knowing that you will never forget the tragedies of the past fills me with hope."
In reading "Night," sophomore Jennifer Chavez said she found a story she hadn't come across in history books and lessons.
"This is more than just history, it's something people went through," Jennifer said. "Mr. Flores said [Wiesel had] written back to classes before, but I was surprised that we were the last class. He's lived so long and journeyed through a lot."
Wiesel, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, was 15 when he was sent to Auschwitz with his family in 1944. After he was moved to and freed from the Buchenwald camp in 1945, only he and two of his sisters had survived.
"He's such a monumental example of someone who stands for peace," Flores said. "Even though [the story] happened during World War II, it's still relevant today. The hate that causes violence is still manifested today, but the more aware and sensitive we are, the more we can change ourselves, our community and our world."
In his last words to the Back Bay students, Wiesel wrote: "You can use your knowledge and understanding to educate those who are unaware. You can make a difference in creating a new kind of century. Keep learning and reading, more and more, to continue to think higher and feel deeper."
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