Elie Wiesel, who passed away almost three years ago, became an iconic figure in his lifetime as perhaps the most famous survivor of the Holocaust.
On the eve of Yom HaShoah (May 2), I’ve been thinking about a recent conversation among three men who knew him well, touching on who he was, what he meant to world Jewry and how best to honor his memory through acts of courage and kindness — particularly in these politically toxic times, and with the rise of anti-Semitism.
The discussion featured Wiesel’s biographer, journalist Joseph Berger; his longtime former teaching assistant, Ariel Burger; and his son, Elisha. They spoke at a program entitled “18 Portraits: The Life and Afterlife of Elie Wiesel,” sponsored by UJA-Federation of New York for its King David Society of major contributors and held at the charity’s midtown headquarters.
The backdrop for the discussion was an exhibit of 18 striking photographic portraits of Wiesel from different stages of his life. The artist, Meyer Uranovsky, a native of South Africa who lives in Riverdale, explained in an interview that after a friend suggested he do a portrait of Wiesel, he did, and felt moved by the experience. So he did another. “I felt I was being carried along by inspiration,” he said, and in the end produced 18 portraits — chai, as a symbol of life and continuity.
The experience, he told me, “has enriched my life. I feel I contributed something to my people.”
Wiesel, through his writing and teaching, has had a similar effect on so many. The three panelists at the program spoke of Wiesel the man — recalling his pleasant voice, great fondness for Yiddish songs and his simple tastes (favorite brand of coffee: Taster’s Choice) — as well as his impact on young and old around the world.
Together, the portraits and the discussion moderated by Rabbi Menachem Creditor, scholar-in-residence of UJA-Federation, offered fresh, insightful perspectives on the Nobel Peace Laureate — and on those close to him.
Asked to imagine his father’s afterlife, Elisha Wiesel, co-chief information officer at Goldman Sachs, made reference to a dark side of present-day America with “toxic Jew-hatred,” immigrants turned away at the border and a president seeking to divide rather than unify society. On the other hand, Elisha said he feels lifted by the voices of his father’s students, many of whom are passionate advocates for justice and compassion.
Ariel Burger is one of those students. His award-winning book, “Witness,” is based on lessons learned from observing the professor’s many years in the classroom at Boston University. He said the word his mentor used most often was “memory.” Citing a saying from the chasidic master, Rav Nachman, as Wiesel often did, Burger said “we must transform our sufferings into blessings,” making them a bridge so that others might suffer less.
He noted that Wiesel “experienced the world’s madness” and was drawn to teaching works about madness in literary and historical figures from Joan of Arc to Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.”
“To believe that we can make the world a better place is also a kind of madness,” Burger said, “but Professor Wiesel said our choice was to look away in despair or to choose hope and make a difference.”
Burger pointed out that Wiesel only taught one course on the Holocaust in his more than 36 years at Boston University. “When I asked him why, he said, ‘It’s not my job to bring my students to despair.’ His creative solution was to teach it indirectly through great literature.”
Elisha Wiesel acknowledged the despair his father felt after the Holocaust, including not wanting to bring children into the world. Elisha credited his father’s rebbe and chavruta (study partner), the late Rabbi Saul Lieberman, a prominent professor of Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary, for lifting his spirits. And he thanked his mother, Marion, who was in the audience, for her life-affirming outlook.
She responded by commenting that Elisha inherited his father’s “power of acceptance,” recalling that when Elisha was a bit of a rebellious teen with long hair of various colors, her husband remained tolerant.
“My father said, ‘You can have a green Mohawk and I’d still be proud to walk down the street with you,’” Elisha said.
Smiling, he noted with a nod to his mother that her attitude toward his appearance at the time was “unprintable.”
Berger interviewed Wiesel numerous times during his career at The New York Times, and his biography is due out early next year from Yale University Press. “He was a real person, not a mystical saint,” Berger said. Few recall, he said, that Wiesel spent 25 years as a working journalist, including covering stories like the marriage of actress Marilyn Monroe to playwright Arthur Miller.
Most of the work was for low pay from the Israeli and Yiddish press and little recognition. But after the publication of “Night,” which gave voice to the victims as witnesses, he became a quiet but highly respected icon for so many.
“He didn’t just memorialize the Holocaust,” Berger said. “He moved beyond it” and spoke out against genocides in Africa and Europe as well as calling on world Jewry to save the Jews of the Soviet Union and Ethiopia.
“He made the entire world his business,” Elisha agreed. “My father led by example. He was a devout Jew but he was warm to others. He wasn’t confused by his identity.”
During a question-and-answer segment, a woman in the audience who had been a student in Wiesel’s university class described him as a “reluctant modern prophet,” and asked, “Who will have that power now to be that spokesperson?”
Ariel Burger responded by noting that Wiesel always emphasized the importance of countering hatred, even at its earliest signs. “He would say, ‘Fight the hatred but don’t let that fight against hatred define you.’”
Elisha Wiesel agreed, adding that his father not only sought to preserve Holocaust memory and speak out for international human rights but to defend Israel for its actions, despite controversy at times. “He took a lot of heat for that,” Elisha said, adding that while American Jews should be free to voice their opinions, they should also appreciate that it’s the Israelis who are on the frontlines.
Ted Comet, whose 70-year career in Jewish communal service is legendary, offered a closing comment at the program, which he helped organize. He recalled hosting Wiesel, then a lonely young man, for Shabbat meals in New York, and watching him grow into the respected leader he was. “He made us more human,” he said, “and enabled us to touch the divine.”
Elisha, in assessing how his father would respond to world events today, said, “Take it from me. I have experience in not being Elie Wiesel.” One of his father’s primary messages: “Be yourself — we should use the power we each have” to act.
In the end, he said on a more personal note, “When I think of my father’s afterlife, it’s seeing his grandson putting on tefillin every morning.”