Elie Wiesel, the Nobel peace laureate and perhaps the most respected figure in Jewish life, is being honored this week by the 92nd Street Y on the occasion of his 180th appearance there, a run that has spanned almost five decades.
“Since the first time Elie Wiesel spoke at the 92Y more than 40 years ago, his stories, discourses and teachings have defined his impeccable truth-telling and courage,” noted Rabbi Peter Rubinstein, director of Jewish community at the Y. “He has inspired us to tirelessly work for a more just society and kinder humanity.”
The speakers for the Nov. 20 event are former U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, award-winning television journalist Jeff Greenfield and neuroscientist and medicine Nobel laureate Eric Kandel, and I am honored to be included among them.
Since February 1967, when Wiesel, now 86, first spoke at the Y about his own work, his much-anticipated lecture series and programs have ranged from biblical and chasidic stories to teachings of the Talmudic masters to analyses on the state of world Jewry. But this special evening, which will feature performances by violinist Pinchas Zukerman and the Young People’s Chorus of NYC, marks 10 times Chai — 180 — and will be a celebration of Wiesel’s life; the arc of that life has taken him from the orphaned, painfully shy teenage Holocaust survivor, to the novelist who first exposed readers to the horrors of life in a concentration camp in 1958’s “Night,” to the soft-spoken but commanding moral conscience of the modern world.
Consider: Only Elie Wiesel could chide a president of the United States in public, on at least two occasions, and do so with both conviction and grace. On the eve of President Ronald Reagan’s 1985 visit to Germany, which was to include a controversial visit to the Bitburg military cemetery that includes the graves of 49 members of the Waffen-SS, Wiesel entreated the president not to go to Bitburg. “That place is not your place,” he said at a nationally televised White House ceremony. “Your place is with the victims of the SS.”
Fourteen years later, on a spring night in Washington, Wiesel called out President Bill Clinton for failure to respond sufficiently to the massacres in Rwanda, where as many as a million people had been slaughtered in less than four months in 1994. I was a guest, courtesy of the featured speaker, at a White House program dedicated to “The Perils of Indifference.” In his address to more than 200 dignitaries, Wiesel asserted that “to be indifferent to suffering is what makes humans inhuman.” While noting that “this time,” referring to the then-current Kosovo crisis, “the world was not silent,” he turned to the president and asked, “Why are we so involved, so nobly, in Kosovo? Why are we not in Rwanda? … I know one thing,” he continued, “we could have prevented that massacre. Why didn’t we?”
Clinton acknowledged that “we could have prevented a significant amount of it,” but he noted that it all happened so fast and there was no mechanism like NATO through which to respond quickly. It will never happen again, he vowed in a soft voice, appearing chastised.
While Wiesel will be described at the 92nd Street Y program as an iconic storyteller, educator and humanitarian — and deservedly so — I plan to focus on his early career as a journalist, and how his love of the profession and empathy for those striving to balance objective reporting with concern for Jewish values made him a personal role model. Ever since I met him 40 years ago he has been a mentor and source of advice and support.
In his 1995, memoir, “All Rivers Run To The Sea,” Wiesel recalled a major decision of conscience he had to make that would impact on integrity and his future as a journalist. It happened when he was working temporarily as a translator at a World Jewish Congress conference in Geneva. The meeting was charged with emotion, leading up to Israel’s negotiations with Germany over reparations in 1952. Wiesel, a low-paid journalist at the time for Yediot Achronot, the Israeli daily, was enticed by the pay — $200 a day as a translator vs. the $50 a month he was making with Yediot.
During a heated discussion at a closed session over whether Israel would be violating its moral values by taking money from Germany, WJC leader Nachum Goldmann asserted that it was more important for Israel to receive financial compensation than to commemorate the Nazi victims through reciting Kaddish.
“Now I had a big problem,” Wiesel wrote in his memoir. “As an interpreter I was sworn to secrecy, but as a journalist did I have the right not to report to the Israeli and Jewish public the outrageous words I had just heard?”
Though he stood to lose good pay and have his reporting challenged, perhaps putting his professional future at risk, he felt he had no choice but to resign his temporary translator assignment and publish what had transpired. It was, after all, the truth.
His “scoop” became an international sensation, though Goldmann denied the statement attributed to him, insisting it was fantasy. Somehow Goldmann and Wiesel remained cordial, and years later, the world Jewish leader laughed about the incident and advised his friend to “write your novels, tell your chasidic tales but don’t ever get involved in politics, it’s not for you.”
Wiesel chose to do it all, though. He wrote dozens of novels, explored the world of chasidim and Jewish texts, and was often among the first to address the plight of those in need — Soviet Jewry, Cambodian refugees, the Kurds, victims of genocide in Africa, Ethiopian Jews — and to call attention to humanitarian concerns, like apartheid in South Africa and the danger of nuclear arms. And he has always spoken up for the sacred memory of the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis, and for the present and future of Israel and the Jewish people.
In his memoir Wiesel wrote that he tried to launch a Jewish weekly magazine, first in France and later in the U.S. “A real magazine,” is what he dreamed of, “with a real editorial team.” He has mentioned that dream to me several times over the years. Alas, it never came to be, and I think in some small way he still pines for the life of the journalist.
But we in the field, along with people of good will everywhere, can only applaud the spirit, wisdom and compassion of the man behind the legend — the voice of and conscience of a generation.
L’chaim, Elie Wiesel — to life.