Two years ago, Elie Wiesel faced sudden, life-threatening open-heart surgery. Initially, he failed to grasp its seriousness.
In fact, when the Nobel Laureate’s doctors saw his test results and told him to meet them immediately in the emergency room of Lenox Hill Hospital, Wiesel first stole away for two hours to rush to his office for an appointment with some Iranian dissidents.
Without much time to anticipate cardiac surgery on five blocked arteries, he said the Shema on the operating-room table and later awakened to sharp pain. Between heaven and earth, he contemplated, dreamed and imagined his earlier life, his losses, faith, family, work, the unknowable and all that mattered to him.
His newest book — after publishing more than 50 previous titles — “Open Heart,” is a slender, powerful and beautiful narrative, following his inner life during his hospital adventure. A compact memoir that unfolds in spare, poetic language, the book touches on his childhood, time in Auschwitz, years in Paris after the war, meeting his wife Marion, newcomer experiences in New York City, his teachers and the birth of his son Elisha, with notes about “Night” and other books. Again and again, Wiesel chooses life.
“Such is the miracle,” he writes. “A tale about despair becomes a tale against despair.” Now 84, he keeps up a packed schedule of travel, speaking, teaching and running the Elie Wiesel Foundation with his wife. The Jewish Week caught up with Wiesel last week.
Q: First, how are you feeling these days?
A: Baruch HaShem. [Thank God] Better. Slowly.
I remember that above your desk you have a picture of your town, Sighet. You’ve said that you live in your memories. Was that the case in the operating room and in the days after the surgery?
My memories were more vibrant than ever.
All of a sudden I was being taken to the operating room. I saw Marion and Elisha accompanying me to a door. And then the closing of the door and a moment of fear, the darkest moment of fear of the whole episode.
Did you feel your parents’ presence?
Yes, I wanted that. I thought about it. Because they were there. I wanted to see them. Maybe they came to accompany me.
After three days, you wanted to pray. What inspired you?
Yes, I asked for my tefillin. I wear tefillin every day. In Auschwitz, my father and I would get up with one pair of tefillin between us. How can I not? It has almost nothing to do with the Ribbono shel Olam [Master of the Universe], much more to do with my father and grandfather.
Do you think that survivors of the Shoah experience critical illness differently than others might?
I can only speak for myself. I survived; I had lived with death, even in death. Why should I be afraid now?.
Did you glimpse the other side, the “threshold of the beyond?”
I imagined heshbon hanefesh [literally, accounting of the soul]. We Jews believe in that. [He writes of wondering when the angels would interrogate him, asking first how honest he had been in life. He sees a fiery universe of sinners, and then ancestors, prophets and poets imploring God to show mercy. ]
You write about all the unfinished projects — the classes you still want to teach, books to write, words to discover, lessons to receive, questions to pursue. You mention wanting to write a book about friendship.
For me, friendship is a religion, the most beautiful religion of all. In a dictatorship, they believe in comrades, not friends. A friendship is so different. [In Hebrew] we have so many words — yedid, chaver, the most beautiful is ach.
At what point did you consider writing a book about this experience?
Almost immediately. As soon as I could write, I took notes. In the hospital, I felt terrible pain. By day three or four, I began thinking: Since I shall live, I have to tell this story.
Has this experience changed the way you live?
Maybe physically, but not metaphysically.
Wiesel will be speaking about “Open Heart” on Thursday, May 9, 8 p.m., at the 92nd Street Y, 1395 Lexington Ave.. For ticket information, go to 92y.org.