Personal Encounters With Elie

Personal Encounters With Elie

Four decades of lessons learned from a master of channeling anger into creativity.

Editor & Publisher of The NY Jewish Week.

Eight years ago at a conference I attended in Jordan promoting international cooperation, an angry young participant sparked tension at a session focused on global water problems.

Identifying herself as a resident of “occupied Palestine,” she used the opportunity of addressing more than 250 thought leaders (including 30 Nobel Prize winners) by launching a tirade against Israel. She concluded that the Jewish state’s “confiscation” of water supplies was part of its “collective punishment [that] creates a humanitarian crisis.”

The participants at the event, which was co-sponsored by the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity and the Hashemite King Abdullah II, were mostly from the Arab world and they applauded enthusiastically.

A few moments later Elie Wiesel (Nobel Peace Laureate, 1986) rose to respond. He noted calmly that he understood the woman’s rage, adding: “I had all the reason in the world to be angry at the world, at God and at the Other,” referring to his experience in a Nazi concentration camp. But he said he channeled those feelings into his writing and teaching, and hoped the woman, who was no longer onstage, would use her anger “for good — for someone else’s benefit.

“I don’t believe in hatred,” he said, describing the emotion as “a cancer” that invades and destroys.

The room was silent. In a few words, spoken in his customary soft voice, he had removed the tension, taken the discussion to a deeper level.

It wasn’t a unique moment for Elie Wiesel — far from it. Throughout his adult life as perhaps the best-known survivor of the Holocaust, he served as the moral conscience of a generation simply by being who he was, speaking his mind, reminding us of our obligation to always remember the darkness — and bring more light into the world.

I remember feeling a sense of awe in witnessing how this frail, gentle man went about inspiring humanity in people by acknowledging the struggle he had — that we all have — in resisting destructive impulses from within. And striving to transform that negativity “for good — for someone else’s benefit.”

Shared memories: Gary Rosenblatt and Elie Wiesel in Baltimore, 1974. Photo by Jerry Esterson

Later that day he told me he was particularly moved by the Palestinian woman’s remarks, and hoped his response would resonate with her. He said he knew the deep-seated bitterness, prejudice and hatred that plagues much of the world is difficult to root out, but that “we have to try.”

Late On Deadline

No one tried harder than Elie Wiesel, who almost from the time of his liberation from Bergen-Belsen as a 16-year-old orphan spent more than 70 years writing, speaking out, teaching, studying, questioning and sharing his darkest fears and prayerful yearnings about man’s capacity to do good or evil.

I feel blessed that from the time we met in 1974, Elie Wiesel was my hero, mentor, advocate and friend.

So much has been written and said, deservedly, in the days since his death about his place in history. With his remarkable biography well known, I offer here some personal memories, glimpses of the man behind the icon.

The first time I heard Elie (as he insisted I call him) speak was in a church, in 1974. The setting was St. John the Divine in Manhattan, and the topic dealt with the Church’s role leading up to the Holocaust. I no longer have my notes of the evening but I remember that the enormous sanctuary was packed and that Wiesel began his remarks by recalling how, as a child in Hungary, he was so afraid of churches that he would cross the street to avoid being near them. For good reason, he said, recalling the Church’s long history of anti-Semitism.

His message was particularly powerful because his words were not spoken in anger. They were personal and poignant.

Later that year, when I became editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times, Elie wrote several encouraging notes to me, and we stayed in touch ever since. About a dozen years later he agreed to write a column in the Jewish Times every other month.

I’m not sure how I persuaded him to take on this assignment. Maybe it was because he has always had a soft spot for Jewish journalism, and Jewish journalists, remembering how he started out in the field, writing and reporting for French, Hebrew and Yiddish publications.

In any event, Elie was gracious, as always, about writing for us. “How can I say no to you?” he would say. But the process was not so simple. He would write his column in French and send it to me by fax. I would then send it on to a local translator. She would translate the piece and send it back to me. I would send it on to Elie, and he would make a few corrections, in English, and send it back to me. And then we would publish it.

(Maybe it was for the best that he was no longer a daily reporter.)

In one of my favorite encounters with him, he came to Baltimore for a major event and held a press conference downtown. When I arrived, a few minutes late, he was at the mike, taking questions from at least a dozen reporters — television, radio, the Baltimore Sun, and more — all crowded around him. In the middle of one of his responses, he looked up and saw me as I was approaching from the back of the room. He stopped and said, “I see that my editor is here. I’m sorry I’m late with my column, Gary. Is it alright if I get it to you tomorrow?”

My fellow members of the press turned around to see to whom the recent Nobel Prize winner was addressing this request. I only wish I had a picture of their faces at that moment.

I was tempted to say, in my toughest newspaper-guy voice: “Well, OK, Professor, but don’t let it ever happen again.”

Instead I answered, “Tomorrow would be just fine.”

For The Sake Of A ‘Scoop’

One of the important lessons I learned from Elie was about integrity as a journalist, and as a mensch.

He led by example. In his 1995 memoir, “All Rivers Run To The Sea,” he recalled a major decision of conscience he had to make that would impact on his honor and on his future as a journalist. It happened when he was offered work 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. Elie was, at the time, a low-paid journalist for Yediot Achronot, the Israeli daily. He was enticed by the pay — $200 a day as a translator versus the $50 a month he was making with Yediot. So he took the translating job.

During a heated discussion at a closed session over whether Israel would be violating its moral values by taking money from Germany, the famous World Jewish Congress leader Nachum Goldmann asserted that it was more important for Israel to receive financial compensation than to commemorate the Nazi victims by reciting the Kaddish.

“Now I had a big problem,” Elie 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 Nachum Goldmann denied the statement attributed to him, insisting it was fantasy. Somehow the two men remained cordial, and, years later, when they were together, Goldmann 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.”

He was wrong, though. Elie always followed his conscience. He wrote dozens of novels, explored the world of chasidim and Jewish texts, and was among the first to address the plight of those in need, from the Jews of Russia to victims of genocide in Africa. And he always spoke up — even to presidents of the United States — for the sacred memory of the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis, for the present and future of Israel and the Jewish people, and for innocent victims of hatred, anywhere and everywhere.

Though neither a rabbi nor the elected head of a Jewish organization, only he had the authority and the unique blend of chutzpah and dignity to publicly call out world leaders for their ethical flaws in public policies.

In 1985, he chided President Reagan about going to a military cemetery in Bitburg, Germany that had graves of Nazi soldiers. “That place, Mr. President, is not your place,” he said. “Your place is with the victims of the SS.”

I was at the Clinton White House in April 1999, as Elie’s guest when,  speaking to a group of about 200 leaders on “The Perils of Indifference,” he asked the president directly why the U.S. was involved, “so nobly, in Kosovo,” but not in Rwanda, where genocide had taken an enormous toll. “I know one thing. We could have prevented that massacre,” Elie said. “Why didn’t we?”

Clinton acknowledged that more could have been done, while noting how swiftly the killings took place. But it will never happen again, he vowed in a soft voice, appearing chastised.

The Consummate Reporter

I will always cherish the many private meetings I had with Elie in his book-lined study, he eager to learn about communal trends and personalities, and me seeking his advice and views on the issues of the day. He cared very much about Jewish journalism, and was supportive of The Jewish Week in any way he could. He appeared at our public forums gratis, and especially enjoyed dialogues with our Write On for Israel high school students. He even offered testimonials to encourage subscriptions to the paper, describing The Jewish Week as “like a good and trusted friend … courageous, inspiring, fair-minded and strong.”

He spoke of his love for Israel and resistance to publicly criticizing its leaders, even when he had his own differences with them, and he shared his observations about U.S. presidents and other world leaders who asked for his advice, sometimes chuckling over their all-too human foibles. (“I have no power,” he once said, “but I have access to those who have power.”)

He talked of his chasidic roots and studies; though not a member of Chabad, he had great admiration for the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, and met with him frequently. He described his daily routine, beginning with Talmud study in the early hours of the morning (“I don’t need much sleep”), and writing for several hours, either in his diary or for a novel or essay he was working on. His afternoons often would include ad hoc encounters with people in need — from dignitaries seeking his political advice to everyday men and women who sought him out for personal reasons. He seemed bemused by the fact that he was never quite sure how his day would turn out.

For all of his vital work and obligations, he was there when you needed him. After my family decided to create an annual lecture in memory of my father at his longtime synagogue in Annapolis, Md., Elie readily agreed to speak at the inaugural program in 1986, and drew almost 1,000 people.

He preferred to describe himself as a teacher. He deeply enjoyed the weekly courses he taught for many years at Boston University, and he imparted his wisdom in countless lectures, including 180 alone at the 92nd Street Y, on a wide range of subjects.

I think of him as the consummate reporter. Whether as a journalist, memoirist or novelist, his primary “beat” was the Jewish world — past, present and future. He told the story of our people with a unique blend of honesty, insight and compassion. That “beat” grew to become the world at large, the workings of the human heart. And the world read, and listened.

Hopefully, it will continue to take Elie’s message to heart: Remember the past to ensure the future. Recall the dark of “Night” and bless the promise of “Dawn.”

I will always hear that soft but resolute voice. May it be heard for generations to come, and may his memory be a blessing.

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