Voice Of The Survivor Generation Who Bore Witness To Horror
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Voice Of The Survivor Generation Who Bore Witness To Horror

Nobel laureate, author of the harrowing ‘Night,’ he wrestled with his faith and urged the world to never forget the Holocaust.

Elie Wiesel speaks during a celebration of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's 20th anniversary in 2013. Getty
Elie Wiesel speaks during a celebration of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's 20th anniversary in 2013. Getty

Beginning in early 2016, two aging Holocaust survivors would meet once a week to talk about old times at the Upper East Side home of one of the old friends.

Abraham Foxman, recently retired national director of the Anti-Defamation League, suggested the get-togethers to Elie Wiesel, author and Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Foxman would come to Mr. Wiesel’s home.

“We reminisce. We sit and schmooze” about philosophy, religion, history, current events, or whatever topic might interest them that day, Foxman said. “It’s primarily in Yiddish.”
One day, Foxman said, he mentioned that his busy schedule as leader of the country’s most prominent organization that combated anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination, had not allowed much time for the advanced Torah learning he missed.

“Why don’t we learn?” Mr. Wiesel asked.

So Wiesel, who had chasidic roots in Romania, and Foxman, who came from an Orthodox family in Poland, would spend some time regularly studying a page of Talmud, that week’s Torah portion, or a similar subject.

“He’s the teacher,” Foxman said of Mr. Wiesel, who died on Saturday, July 2, at his home in Manhattan. He was 87. “I’m the student.”

Like other people interviewed in recent weeks, as news of Mr. Wiesel’s failing health spread, Foxman spoke of Mr. Wiesel in present tense. Most, even people decades younger than he, simply called him “Elie.”

In the public mind, Mr. Wiesel, a one-time journalist who had studied at the Sorbonne after his liberation from Buchenwald and continued to write in French, was a modern-day prophet with perpetually sad, haunting eyes and unkempt hair.

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Elie Wiesel speaks after winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. Bjoern Sigurdsoen/AFP/Getty Images

Foxman and other people who had known Mr. Wiesel for a long time and who shared private moments with him recalled him this week as many things: a writer who chronicled his experiences at Auschwitz and became the voice of the survivor generation; as a survivor of four concentration camps who was reluctant to speak about his wartime experiences; as a witness to atrocities who made it his mission to bear witness to the world; as an individual who dedicated his life to preserving collective memory but coped with the loss of his own memory near the end of his life; as a highly visible Jewish spokesman who spoke out on human rights issues that affected the Jewish and non-Jewish communities.

They also remembered him as a religious Jew who maintained a life as an Orthodox Jew despite his Holocaust-induced crisis of faith; as a best-selling author whose early books were rejected at first by publishers; as a shy man who became against his will a celebrity; as an adult who carried with him the losses he had endured as a child. They remembered him too as an avid supporter of Israel who drew criticism from Israelis for not settling there and from some Jews in this country for automatically coming to Israel’s defense and seeming to ignore Israeli diplomatic or military miscues; as a longtime resident of New York City who became a citizen of the world; as a feted A-lister who was oblivious to the trappings of fame.

But they also remembered his kindness. He was a busy man who would not refuse a friend’s request to speak at a school or dinner; an intellectual who was happiest reading and writing in his dimly lit study; and especially as a loyal friend who would show up, without fanfare, sometimes unexpectedly, at weddings and bar-bat mitzvahs and funerals and other events of his extended family.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who knew Mr. Wiesel for almost 30 years, called him “the global face of the Jewish people,” a public figure who appeared on television with Oprah Winfrey and drew respect for daring to criticize U.S. presidents to their face.

But, said Foxman, fellow survivors, in whose company he often seemed most comfortable, held him in a special place in their hearts.

“The survivor community was very proud of him,” Foxman said. “They were not able to communicate their pain the way he did.”

With a turn of a phrase, Mr. Wiesel was able to convey sights and sounds and feelings that transcended words.

Typical were the opening sentences of “Night,” the 1960 autobiography of his Holocaust experience that established his reputation as a master writer and as a chronicler of the Shoah: “Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children. … Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”

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With a series of subsequent successful books, both fiction and nonfiction, with annual speeches at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, with interviews that he freely granted as he traveled around the world, Mr. Wiesel (shown at right in 1980 in a Getty Images photo) turned from a single author into one of the most recognized Jews in the world, who would speak in their name.

“He became a brand,” someone who spoke his conscience without fear of personal or political consequences, said author-lawyer Thane Rosenbaum, a friend of Mr. Wiesel for a quarter century. “He wasn’t well suited to be ‘Elie Wiesel.’” By disposition, he was a private man, a man of letters who “was forced to become a diplomat,” Rosenbaum said.

Surviving the Holocaust gave Mr. Wiesel an authenticity, a gravitas he used to advocate for people who lacked his fame or literary ability, and for causes that might otherwise languish in anonymity.

“To remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin of all,” he was fond of saying.
He was a bookish lover of literature who threw out the ceremonial first pitch at a World Series game — in 1986, before the New York Mets faced the Boston Red Sox.

“Auschwitz turned him into a rock star,” Rosenbaum said. “If not for Auschwitz, he would have been a mystic in the Carpathian Mountains,” where Sighet, his hometown, was located.

The Prisoner From Sighet

Mr. Wiesel — Eliezer ben Shlomo — was born to parents who owned a grocery store. In 1940, his village came under the rule of Hungary, an ally of Nazi Germany. In March 1944, German soldiers occupied Sighet. In June 1944, his family was shipped to Auschwitz. Mr. Wiesel, prisoner A-7713, was 15. “Life in the cattle cars,” he would say later, “was the death of my adolescence.”
His mother Sarah and younger sister Tziporah were taken to the gas chambers.

From Auschwitz, Mr. Wiesel and his father were taken to Buna, an Auschwitz sub-camp where he witnessed a “trial” conducted by three religious Jews against God, which became the basis for a play he wrote in 1979, “The Trial of God.”

In January 1945, Mr. Wiesel was among the Buna prisoners who took part in a 10-day death march to Buchenwald, in eastern Germany. Of the 20,000 prisoners who left Buna, 6,000 reached Buchenwald. Upon arrival, Mr. Wiesel’s father died of dysentery, starvation and exhaustion.
On April 11, the U.S. Army arrived.

Sick with intestinal problems, Mr. Wiesel was hospitalized; there he wrote the outline for a book about his experiences during the Holocaust, but he was not ready to publish. “I didn’t want to use the wrong words,” he would later explain.

Part of a group of 400 orphans who were taken to France, he tried to immigrate to Palestine, but was not allowed. For two years he stayed in different homes in France, then began to study French with a tutor.

Eventually, he was reunited with his sister Hilda, who had seen his picture in a newspaper; and later, with his sister Bea.

In 1948, Mr. Wiesel enrolled at the Sorbonne, where he studied literature, philosophy and psychology. At one point, poor and depressed, he considered suicide. Many prominent writers who survived the Holocaust had taken their own lives. His obsession to write saved his life, he would say. “There was a point when I felt I could have slid into death. I felt on the edge. I was seeing the land of the dead, and I was no longer alive. My temptation [to commit suicide] was before I had begun to write. Never since. I had not given my testament. And that was a compelling reason — not to live but to survive. A survivor’s testimony is more important than anything that can be written about survivors.”

“Whenever Elie would meet with survivors,” said Sam Bloch, a Bergen-Belsen survivor and a founder of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants, “he would always tell us, ‘Write your stories.’ He believed passionately in the power of the written word as a permanent form of remembrance.”

When Mr. Wiesel’s spirits improved, he affiliated with the Irgun, the militant Zionist organization, translating material from Hebrew to Yiddish for the Irgun newspaper.

At one point, he offered to go to Palestine and join the underground fighters. “Very naively I went to the Jewish Agency in Paris. I felt I had to do something,” he explained in an interview with The Paris Review several decades later. “I could only hope that if I became a member I would not have had to kill … my place was with the Jewish people. Whatever the Jews were doing, I had to be with them.”

The Irgun did not accept his offer to join the underground.

Mr. Wiesel began working as a reporter for L’arche, and in 1949 traveled to Israel, where he took a job as a reporter for Yediot Achronot, which sent him on assignments around the world.

During one assignment, an interview with the Catholic writer Francois Mauriac, Mr. Wiesel became enraged when Mauriac kept speaking about the suffering of Jesus. During the war, Mr. Wiesel told the writer, he had seen Jewish children “every one of whom who suffered a thousand times more, six million times more, than Christ on the cross. And we don’t speak about them.” He ran from the room. Mauriac convinced him to write about his experiences.

Pleading With Presidents

Working from the outline he had written after liberation, he turned out an 862-page Yiddish manuscript, “And the World Was Silent,” which a publisher in Argentina turned into a 245-page book in French called “La Nuif” (“Night”), published in France in 1958.

In 1955, Mr. Wiesel moved to New York as a foreign correspondent for Yediot Achronot. The next year he was hit by a taxi; while recuperating, he wrote a novel, “Dawn,” about a concentration camp survivor. Some three dozen more books followed, many of them about the extinguished Jewish life in Europe. “I want to show not only how the Jews died, but how they lived before they died,” he would explain.

In 1965, he visited the Soviet Union. “The Jews of Silence,” in 1966, which brought the plight of Soviet Jews to world attention, was “seminal,” said Glenn Richter, then national coordinator of the activist Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry. “Wiesel pushed the button [of public concern for Soviet Jews] before people knew there were buttons to push.”

In 1969 Mr. Wiesel married Marion Rose,who translated all of his books from French. In 1972 their son, Shlomo Elisha, named for Mr. Wiesel’s father, was born. They survive him.
During the next decades he spoke out for other human rights causes, including apartheid in South Africa, and genocide in Cambodia and Armenia, and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation,” he would explain.

In 1986 he won the Nobel Peace Prize.

A professor, first at the City University of New York, then at Boston University, he was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to head the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. In 1988 he established the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, which brought attention to issues of hatred and ethnic conflicts.

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Elie Wiesel speaks while U.S. President Barack Obama, right, and International Buchenwald Committee President Bertrand Herz listen during a visit to former Buchenwald concentration camp in 2009. Getty Images

At the dedication of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington in 1993, he declared, “For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.”

“During the 1950s and 1960s, the Jewish community and the larger world were disinterested in our experiences,” Bloch, the American Gathering founder, said. “There was a resounding silence that made us, the survivors, feel isolated and disregarded. Elie’s writings recorded our memories and validated our identities as the surviving remnant.”

As the survivors’ conscience, Mr. Wiesel twice spoke up to U.S. presidents: in 1985, on the eve of President Reagan’s visit to the Bitburg military cemetery in Germany, where members of the Waffen-SS are buried, he pleaded with the president, “That place is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS”; and in 1993, at the opening of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, criticizing Bill Clinton for failing to have the U.S. government respond sufficiently to the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, part of the former Yugoslavia, he urged, “As a Jew I am saying that we must do something to stop the bloodshed in that country! People fight each other and children die. Why? Something, anything must be done.”

Mr. Wiesel criticized the presidents “in a respectful way,” said attorney Menachem Rosensaft, a child of Holocaust survivors who became close friends of Mr. Wiesel in New York City. “Both of them [the presidents] took” the criticism without taking offense. “They understood it was not a political attack.”

“He was never parochial,” Rosensaft said. “He always made it clear that the lessons of the Shoah, the unique Jewish dimension, were universal. He had a very broad understanding of what it means to be a witness — it means speaking truth to power, recognizing that others have suffered as well.”

This created bonds that went across religious and ethnic boundaries.

Rabbi Boteach tells about the time he visited a New York public school, most of whose students were African-American or Hispanic. He was introduced as “Michael Jackson’s rabbi,” because of his then-close relationship with the pop star.

A 14-year-old black student asked the rabbi, “Is it true that you know Elie Wiesel?”

Rabbi Boteach said he was surprised by the question. The student said he had read “Night,” adding that it was “one of the most moving books I have read.”

In 2016 Mr. Wiesel spoke out against the nuclear agreement the United States was negotiating with Iran. “I appeal to President Obama and Congress to demand as a condition of continued talks, the total dismantling of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and the regime’s public and complete repudiation of all genocidal intent against Israel,” he wrote in a full-page New York Times ad paid for by hedge fund manager and mega-philanthropist Michael Steinhardt.

In recent decades Mr. Wiesel came under criticism from some people, especially in liberal circles, for what they saw as his automatic, doctrinaire defense of Israel and his unwillingness to chastise Israel or the country’s army or settlers who reportedly harassed Palestinian Arabs.

In a 1988 open letter, Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, who served as vice president of the World Jewish Congress, wrote, “You, Elie, care far too much about the Jewish people, and about Israel, to indulge falls from grace and, de facto, to lend comfort to zealots.”

“Perhaps another generation can criticize Israel — I cannot,” Wiesel would answer.

“One cannot expect anything else but staunch defense of Israel” from someone who underwent what Mr. Wiesel had undergone, Rabbi Boteach said. “He survived genocide.”

“He saw it as his obligation to support and defend and not add to the attacks” on Israel, Rosensaft said. “I don’t think the criticism bothered him as long as he believed that what he did was in accordance with his beliefs and principles.”

'How Can You Believe In God?'

Mr. Wiesel, who was reluctant to speak in detail about his personal faith or religious observance, returned as an adult to his childhood roots in Judaism. He would speak often about his “wounded faith.”

“I am very concerned, even obsessed, with God,” he told one interviewer. “I protest against Him. I shout at Him.”

The writer who wrote about the “Jews of Silence” said he often struggled with the God of silence. “I believe during the Holocaust the covenant was broken,” he said in a 1983 New York Times profile.

People would often ask him, “How can you believe in God?” He would ask, in turn, “How can you believe in man? After all, God did not send down Auschwitz from heaven.”
“For me,” he told Oprah Winfrey, “it is as impossible to accept Auschwitz with God as without God.”

But prayer, and Talmud study, remained a part of his life, at a small chasidic synagogue on the Upper West Side, at Fifth Avenue Synagogue on the Upper East Side, among the Chabad-Lubavitch Jews of Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

He would put on tefillin daily, and light yahrtzeit candles for his family. “Suppose I put on tefillin,” he told The New York Times. "That is for a personal reason. I say, if I have problems with God, it is not the tefillin’s fault. If I have problems with God, why should I blame the Sabbath? The Talmud? When you study Talmud you say, all right, if I went through all this and I had crises and I had obstacles, why should I blame it on the Talmud.”

“I want to follow the tradition of my father and my grandfather,” he told another interviewer. “I don’t feel I should break the chain.”

Mr. Wiesel was a victim of the 2008 Bernard Madoff fraudulent investment scandal that cost investors an estimated $50 billion. He was quoted as calling Madoff a “psychopath … sociopath.”
His foundation lost a reported $15.2 million to Madoff, and he and his wife lost their life savings, also estimated to be several million dollars.

The scaled-down foundation, which has conducted extensive fund-raising activities in the last eight years, still runs essay contests and sponsor educational programs in Ethiopia.

While Mr. Wiesel’s personal savings disappeared, his income from speeches and royalties has continued, Rosensaft said.

Reports surfaced that billionaire and Orthodox benefactor Ira Rennert, a close friend of the Wiesels, had given Mr. Wiesel generous financial assistance, but the IRS forms filed by charitable organizations — the last one available is from 2014 — do not indicate the foundation’s sources of income, and Rennert did not respond to a request for an interview from The Jewish Week.

Mr. Wiesel’s losses did not seem to shake his façade, friends said. “It’s only money,” he would say.

People who knew only the public Elie Wiesel assumed he was a morose man, said Dr. Isaac Herschkopf, a psychiatrist who knew Mr. Wiesel for two decades. He was a man who was easily brought to loud laughter, Herschkopf said.

“Elie has a great sense of humor,” said Dr. Mark Podwal, a New York physician and artist who illustrated Mr. Wiesel’s 1993 Haggadah and collaborated with him on many other publishing projects. “He doesn’t tell jokes. But he really appreciates jokes.”

“When I lecture, I don’t speak about subjects that make people cry,” Mr. Wiesel said in his Paris Review interview. “I don’t want people to cry; I want them to laugh. I want them to sing. They cried enough.”

Rosensaft said one of his fondest memories is of Mr. Wiesel and his late father, Josef, singing chasidic “niggunim,” melodies “from their childhood,” together. Mr. Wiesel was a frequent guest in the Rosensaft home.

“They harmonized,” Rosensaft said. The niggunim reminded them of a time and place before the Shoah, he said. “In those moments, they both went home.”

steve@jewishweek.org

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