When her husband was notified in the fall of 1986 that he had won the Nobel Peace Prize, and about $400,000 that went along with it, Marion Wiesel suggested they buy a sailboat.
“I love sailing,” she said with a smile during a recent interview.
But the couple quickly decided to use the funds for more charitable purposes, establishing the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity.
Though named after her husband, the foundation has become Mrs. Wiesel’s full-time job. Over the years, the philanthropy’s work has expanded from sponsoring international conferences on moral issues of the day to concentrating on hands-on philanthropy, like helping Ethiopian youngsters in Israel. She spends most of her time raising funds, planning projects and coordinating programs.
The redirection of the foundation began about 10 years ago after Mrs. Wiesel visited a caravan of Ethiopian Jews living in poverty, and she was moved to help them.
“I felt strongly that while our foundation was doing good and important things, it was a bit cerebral,” she said. “I thought it was time to do something that could produce immediate results.”
“Her contribution is vital,” her husband said. “I can’t imagine the foundation without her. She gives it her body and heart, especially her commitment to the children.”
This was evident during a conversation in her home office, where she took delight in showing a visitor an album of photos of Ethiopian youngsters participating in educational programs at one of two centers the Wiesel Foundation has created for after-school care and educational enrichment.
Mrs. Wiesel no doubt has an added degree of empathy for children who have been uprooted from their native lands, having been a refugee herself. She and her family were forced to leave their home during the Holocaust and were placed in an internment camp in France, before making their way to Switzerland in 1942, where they stayed until after the war. She met her future husband, then a journalist, in the mid-1960s. They were married in 1969, and have a grown son, Elisha.
For many years, Mrs. Wiesel remained in the background, translating a dozen of her husband’s books from French to English. But as the foundation has grown, so has her involvement.
In October, the foundation honored First Lady Laura Bush for her lifelong commitment to education at a black-tie dinner at The Plaza. Nearly 600 people were there and the event raised $1.6 million. Past honorees have included Hillary Clinton, when she was first lady, Danielle Mitterand, the former first lady of France, and King Juan Carlos of Spain.
Most of the foundation’s budget of about $1 million goes to the programs in Israel. Some 900 Ethiopian children are now in the after-school sessions in Ashkelon and Kiryat Malachi, one of the poorest areas in Israel. Mrs. Wiesel noted that the youngsters are picked up after school and taken to a center where they are fed a hot meal and helped with their homework and other projects by qualified adults. The foundation recently added a library and video room for the Kiryat Malachi center.
“The children take great pride in having a place they can call their own,” Mrs. Wiesel said. She noted that problems of racism in Israel have improved, but cautioned that “we will be judged by future generations on how we handled the Ethiopian absorption. They were brought to Israel with great fanfare but if we let these people down now, it will be a great shame.”
She said the foundation is planning to cosponsor a conference with Ben-Gurion University of the Negev this year on the absorption of Ethiopians into Israeli culture and potential ways to improve the process.
One of her goals is to launch a program similar to the Israeli after-school centers for needy children in New York City, but for now, she said, “it is still a dream.”