OA KLAND – Were it not for Elie Wiesel’s 1965 book The Jews of Silence, it’s unlikely that the plight of three million Soviet Jews behind the iron curtain would ever have been resolved.
This was the overarching theme of a panel discussion on the legacy of Elie Wiesel on Saturday at Limmud FSU in Oakland.
The panel included Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky; Dr. Yoel Rappel, the founder and former director of the Elie Wiesel Archive Institute at Boston University; Prof. Steven Katz, a personal friend of Wiesel’s for over 40 years and the Slater chairman in Holocaust Studies at Boston University; Julius Berman, Claims Conference president; and Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, the executive director for UCLA Hillel.
In a room filled with attendees from the former Soviet Union, it was Sharansky’s words about Wiesel that people came to hear.
Sharansky confessed that it took time for him to appreciate Wiesel and his work “because in 1965 I was young and still very far from the idea of fighting for Soviet Jewry.”
However, he said, once he did start to become an activist, it became clear that Soviet Jewry’s enemy wasn’t just the KGB but “another silent enemy – the belief that speaking publicly about Soviet Jewry was very harmful to Soviet Jews.”
This was the thought not only in 1965 but also in 1975 and 1985, Sharansky said.
“Even when I was in prison, any public speech about Soviet Jews was seen as bad for us, and the Americans believed that too.”
It was Wiesel’s The Jews of Silence, Sharansky said, that was so powerful and showed the terrible situation that Soviet Jewry was in. As a result, “it took root in the American Jewish community because after this book, even the KGB couldn’t convince people to keep quiet about Soviet Jewry.”
Sharansky also pointed out that Wiesel’s original title for Night was “While the World Was Silent,” and this is what spurred him to write about Soviet Jewry – the fear they had that the world wouldn’t know what was happening to them.
“‘We Jews cannot permit this to happen to us for the second time in a generation’,” Said Sharansky, quoting Wiesel.
Along with Wiesel’s embracing of the three million Soviet refuseniks, Sharansky said, and much like Israel has people who adopt “lone soldiers,” Wiesel personally adopted many Soviets who would go on to become some of the leading refuseniks of their time.
Asked if he ever received any good advice from Wiesel, Sharansky noted the upcoming 30th anniversary of the march on Washington on December 7, 1987, when 250,000 Jews mobilized in a solidarity march for Soviet Jewry the day before a summit between then-president Ronald Reagan and then-Soviet premier Mikhael Gorbachev.
“It’s a battle that American Jewry should proudly be known for,” Sharansky said, “but what is less known is that from the moment Elie and I proposed the March in 1986, shortly after my release [from prison], there was a lot of resistance to it from Jewish organizations.”
Sharansky said Wiesel told him: “‘Natan, don’t waste time on meeting with Jewish organizations.
Only students can do this. They will convince the Jewish organizations.’ This was the best advice I ever received,” Sharansky said, noting that he went and spoke with 50 different Jewish organizations, and Wiesel worked with the heads of the World Union of Jewish Students in France and England.
Five weeks before the Reagan- Gorbachev summit, the Jewish student groups organized and brought in the large Jewish organizations for the march. “Elie was right,” Sharansky said. “If you want to get things done, it must be through the students.”
Rappel said it was impossible to describe Wiesel in one sentence. “Wiesel was the most famous Holocaust survivor, the author of the most famous book about the Holocaust [Night, published in 1956] a philosopher, professor at Boston University, a famous activist for human rights, the greatest supporter of the State of Israel, and an author of 57 books,” Rappel said, adding that more than anything else, he was the fighter for Soviet Jewry, and The Jews of Silence was the first book to address their plight, following Wiesel’s visit there in 1965.
Rappel also recounted that between 1965 and 1990 Wiesel devoted at least one hour a day to fight for Soviet Jewry. “In [Wiesel’s] archives you can see over 10,000 letters from families in the Soviet Union that wrote to him and he responded to every single one of them personally.”
Sharansky said Wiesel was involved in the fight for Soviet Jewry on a personal level. “I heard from him personally and he told me there wasn’t a day in his life that he didn’t think about Soviet Jewry, and he said he wanted to be remembered in history as the person who wouldn’t allow the world to be silent about Soviet Jewry.”
Rappel concurred, noting that of the 57 books Wiesel wrote in his lifetime in at least three or four he stated, ‘If people remember me in the future I hope they will remember me for my fight for Soviet Jewry.”
On a personal note, Sharansky recalled Wiesel being a great singer of niggunim (Jewish melody). “It was a pleasure to hear him sing on Erev Shabbat.
He could talk about the shtetls from Russia and Ukraine and where the songs came from. He sang like a hazan in shul. His voice was part of his neshama (soul).”