“You came for me?” asked a bewildered Mikhail Gorbachev.
“As a Jew, I owe you that much,” responded Elie Wiesel.
French president Mitterand sent Wiesel aboard a government plane to Moscow, where he met Gorbachev immediately after the 1991 coup failure, several months before the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
“When Gorbachev saw me he was moved. I asked myself, why was he moved, with tears in his eyes? Because he had just realized that his friends were not his friends. Every single one had betrayed him. Those whom he had elevated, abandoned him. I have rarely seen a man as lonely as he was. And here comes a young Jew, and says I’m here to help you, to give you support. I was thinking: I’m a yeshiva bucher from Sighet, and all of a sudden I’m involved with presidents, bringing personal messages, and traveling in government planes. I was surprised.”
Wiesel’s life-long self-image as “a yeshiva bucher from Sighet” provided important hints not only into his pre-Holocaust life, but also insights as to how the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize laureate viewed himself. Wiesel has been described as a modem prophet, a moving writer, a brilliant teacher and even a Jewish superstar. He is best known, however, as a survivor of Nazi horrors. Yet to keep describing Wiesel in all the obituaries as a survivor does an injustice to the totality of his life and accomplishments. Elie Wiesel did not merely survive, he triumphed. And if he would have paused long enough to consider it toward the end of his remarkable life, he might even have said he was happy.
Passing away at 87, Wiesel marked nearly 60 years since the publication of the best-selling Night and almost three decades since being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. “I can’t believe it,” he said in a conversation with this writer, smiling and shaking his head at the incredible path his life had taken.
Books were everywhere at Wiesel’s home on the 26th floor of a nondescript Upper East Side Manhattan apartment building. A visitor is first confronted by thousands of books in Hebrew, Yiddish, French, and English that cover nearly every inch of space between the floor and ceiling of the L-shaped living room. One upper shelf in a corner is devoted to the more than 30 titles bearing Wiesel’s name. People are not aware that when he was a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, he was also being seriously considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Two framed pictures are the lone exceptions to the otherwise book-lined walls. When Wiesel sat at his large desk, he faced on the far wall a sketch of Jerusalem. When he turned around to use the computer, he looked right into a dark black-and-white photograph of the house in Sighet where he grew up, which is featured in his memoirs along with 16 pages of family photos.
“Since I began writing, I always face that house,” he said in a television interview. “I must know where I come from.”
Eliezer Wiesel was born in the picturesque town of Sighet, below the Carpathian mountains that were once home to the Ba’al Shem Tov, the father of Chasidism. Tantalized by Chasidic tales his grandfather told, Wiesel’s happiest childhood memories were punctuated with singing Shabbat songs, eating chocolates and studying a page of Talmud under a tree while the other youngsters played ball.
“He was a little sickly and certainly what we call bookish,” recalled Professor David Weiss Halivni, who studied in cheder with Wiesel in Sighet. Halivni, a former professor of religion at Columbia University and one of Wiesel’s closest friends, said that even as a child, Wiesel was “artistically more sensitive” to the mystical teachings of their teacher. Halivni believed Wiesel's sense of humor was conditioned as a child. “Maybe he had a premonition,” he said.
“We were in the ghetto together. He was on the last transport. I was on the first. I left on Monday, he left Thursday,” recalled Halivni. “So we came to Auschwitz at different times.”
“We met in Auschwitz,” said Rabbi Menashe Klein. Wearing a black Chasidic robe, tzitzit, white beard and sidelocks, Klein strikes one as Wiesel’s Old World alter ego. This is perhaps how Wiesel himself might have looked had his life, his studies, and his preoccupation with mysticism not been interrupted by history. “Somehow we got to Buchenwald and were liberated there together,” he said. “We went to France then, and Professor Wiesel attended the Sorbonne. I, on the other hand, kept dwelling in our Torah.”
Rabbi Klein, whose study in Brooklyn was also crowded with religious books, explained that Wiesel took a different path after the war as a result of the shock of his experiences during the Holocaust.
After the war, Wiesel studied in Paris, where he earned money directing a choir. Later he became the Paris correspondent for the Israel daily, Yediot Aharonot, earning $30 a month. His big break came when he moved to New York to work with the Yiddish Forward, earning $175 a month as a copy editor; writer and translator. “I remember when he lived on 103rd Street,” says Halivni. “He had only a small room, narrow, dark—you could see the poverty. I remember him sitting on the floor surrounded by records of Bach. At that time he was practically starving.”
In 1956, Wiesel stepped off a curb in Times Square and was struck by a speeding taxi. Following the accident, which left him hospitalized for seven months, Wiesel desperately needed money and tried covering the United Nations on crutches for Yediot. Golda Meir, then foreign minister, took pity on the young journalist and would invite him back to her hotel suite, where she would prepare omelets and tea and brief him on the day’s events. In 1967, his books, which had been commercial failures, began to sell, and Wiesel was able to leave daily journalism to concentrate on book writing.
So powerfully embedded in the popular psyche is Wiesel’s association with the Holocaust that many would find it surprising that the topic rarely came up in his classes or in his writings.
“When people didn’t talk about the Shoah, I felt I had to. So many people are doing it now, I don’t need to any more,” he explained. In fact, he always thought twice about raising the issue. “I’m afraid of making it into a routine. I want it that whenever I mention the word Shoah, I should stop for a second and my voice should tremble, my whole being should tremble before pronouncing that word.”
Halivni left public speaking about the Holocaust to Wiesel. “But when he comes to see me,” he said, “He listens and I shout.”
While the Holocaust rarely figures prominently in Wiesel’s public life in the later years of his life, his sensitivity as a survivor gave him an appreciation for every moment, and for life’s fragility. He and his wife, Marion, used to travel on separate flights. “Just in case,” he said, like a quick prayer, eyes flashing toward Heaven.
It also drove him to work hard.
“There are people who want to do more than they can. Wiesel is one of them,” said Rabbi Klein, who, like Wiesel, went to sleep late and woke up early to study and write. “For Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize is no more than a ladder, a step, toward fulfilling a goal for which he remained alive: to do for the Jewish people.”
“A person cannot live with the feeling that they have achieved the highest,” said Halivni, who claimed that the Nobel Prize had been a mixed blessing for Wiesel.
“The Nobel Prize did not become an end, rather a new beginning. He realizes that the Nobel Prize was given to him as ‘Mr. Jew,’ and therefore he owes it to the Jewish people. In a sense it entails a greater responsibility. It has imposed a burden on him; the possibility of extending help, because of his connections, is much bigger. There is nothing more frightening for a sensitive person than having power.”
While New York is far from Sighet, Elie Wiesel was never far from the forces that molded his childhood: chasidism and the Holocaust. And the struggle of these two forces to coexist in one soul is what shaped Elie Wiesel until his last day, providing the creative tension for his achievements and writings. Deep within him lay a young yeshiva bucher from Sighet; deep within he believed he survived the Nazi horrors for a purpose.
* * *
Clad in a well-tailored gray suit and hugging a velvet blue Torah scroll, Elie Wiesel danced in a tight circle with his friends and sang songs of praise to the God he had so often challenged. Wiesel was glowing; gone was the trademark somber look that is naturally chiseled in his sullen, handsome face. It was Simchat Torah for the Jewish people. Yet for Wiesel it was more; it was also his birthday.
“We never celebrated birthdays at home,” Wiesel said of his childhood. He rarely celebrated the occasion because “to me every minute is a victory.”
Wiesel credited his sanity to his family and friends. “I read, I listen to music, I speak with friends. My life is full. The main thing is not to waste time.” But then he added, “Sometimes I think that I too am insane. I was always in the minority, like the madman. When I began to talk about trying to teach the Shoah, how many others were there? When I began for Russian Jewry, how many others were there then?” “What keeps Wiesel sane?” pondered Rabbi Menashe Klein. “We sing together, eat together, daven together, walk together. He comes here before every holiday. Mostly we meet, we talk.” Klein says that Wiesel, who sang in a choir as a child, still loved to sing Chasidic melodies. “He would begin singing Friday night at 5:30 p.m. and wouldn’t stop until after 2 a.m.”
Wiesel said that his daily study of Jewish texts was essential for him. “I love to study. It gives you a good sense of proportion. After all, what Rambam says maybe is more important than the article I wrote for The New York Times.”
Wiesel's preoccupation with books began early. When others were hording food and valuables, the young Wiesel brought books to study onto the cramped cattle car to Auschwitz.
Dr. David Weiss Halivni and Wiesel expressed their friendship by always speaking Hebrew to each other. Halivni was one of the few who could really make Wiesel laugh. “The lightest moments we have are when we bring up characters from Sighet,” he said.
What kind of characters? There was the shadchan (matchmaker), Ziegenfeld, who always walked with an umbrella. And then there was the tall shochet (ritual slaughterer) and his short wife. And many others. “Hardly a conversation passes when we don’t talk about Sighet,” Halivni said. “When describing these things, recapturing the comical aspects of Sighet, then I see him having a hearty laugh.”
Was Wiesel happy? To his friends, the question seemed irrelevant. “We never think in those terms,” said Halivni. He explained that Chasidic spirituality gave Wiesel freedom—a second liberation—and that Wiesel “needs the joy of Chasidut because he cannot always live in the shadow of the Holocaust.”
Wiesel, hesitant to allow an affirmative answer, gave a traditional response. “We don’t speak about happiness in our faith, we speak about simcha vesasson (joy and gladness). What do we ask for? Shalom, yes. We mainly ask for Yirat shamayim (fear of heaven), for study, for chaim shel Torah (life of Torah). What is Torah? Meaning. My life has been the pursuit of meaning, not joy.”
For Wiesel, without a Jewish context there was no enjoyment. When asked. about simcha vesasson in his own life, he paused briefly, and then his words flowed in his soft French accent. “Nineteen forty-eight, when Israel was born. I remember that Shabbat in Paris. I felt joy that came from history. Then the ‘67 war. Shichrur Yerushalayim (the liberation of Jerusalem), something that remains with me. And Simchat Torah in Moscow with young people.”
Yet “there is something missing, and when something is missing, happiness can’t be present because happiness means nothing is missing. What is missing?” The Boston University professor paused and then answered the question. “Certainty. You have the haunting feeling that history is trying to purge itself of its demons, of its nightmares with the pursuit of violence of bloodshed, of hatred.
“In this generation, the pursuit of pleasure is at the expense of happiness. Pleasure is instant pleasure. Everything we are obtaining is instant. Instant meaning, instant love, instant philosophy, instant truth.
“The Gaon of Vilna said that the hardest mitzvah to accomplish is ‘v’samachta bechagecha' (rejoice in your holidays). ‘Do not steal,’ ‘do not kill,’ everything is easy. ‘Vesamachta bechagecha!’ To make sure that you rejoice,” Wiesel said energetically.
Wiesel’s voice then became barely audible, his downward gaze was steady. His consciousness seemed to have been transported to another time. “Another kind of joy, even deeper than that, and more personal, was the birth of my son... even more, the brit of my son. To me in my life, it has the importance of the birth of Israel, the reunification of Jerusalem. I felt it in my body, in every cell of my body....”
The phone broke his trance, and Wiesel walked over to his executive-size mahogany desk to answer it. On it sit two photographs: One of him with his wife and their son Shlomo-Elisha, and one a close-up of their son, both taken at least 35 years ago. Wiesel named his son after his father, who was in the camps with him and died only weeks before Wiesel’s liberation. “I was 16 years old when my father died,” writes Wiesel in his memoirs.
“My father was dead and the pain was gone. I no longer felt anything. Someone had died inside me, and that someone was me.”
“My father had no official position in the community, he was a kind of intercessor in the community, he was a grocery store owner,” Wiesel said in a tone of great respect. “Somehow, I don’t know how, he always defended the Jews with the authorities. Therefore, when something would happen, they would come to my father.” At times his father was so busy with Jewish communal business that the young Wiesel would only see him at home on the Sabbath.
Wiesel himself had no official position in the Jewish community, yet he has served as an intercessor with heads of state, including President Reagan prior to his trip to Bitburg and President Clinton, to ask him to do more to help the Bosnians. As Prime Ministers, both Ehud Olmert and Binyamin Netanyahu tried convincing Wiesel to accept the position of President of the State of Israel. “The need to help Jews, I think I am following in my father’s footsteps and I think he would have wanted it that way,” said Wiesel. Wiesel said that he has only recently realized the similarities between himself and his father, and explains that it took a long time to come to this conclusion “because of kibbud av (respect of one’s father), I didn’t dare compare myself with him. He saved Jewish lives; I didn’t. I try to teach, but he saved Jewish lives. He was arrested, he was tortured. I was not. So how can I compare myself to him?” Just as Wiesel struggled with being a son, he also wrestled with being a father. “The hardest is to be a good father, always” confessed Wiesel. Halivni says that it is not easy being the son of a great man. Shlomo-Elisha, a Yale graduate who now works in finance, had been heard to say, half-jokingly: “It’s hard growing up in a house where your dad is the arbiter of morality in the 20th century.”
Wiesel believed that “the father-son relationship is a test, both for the father and for the son. When the son leaves home, it is harder for the father than for the son,” he said, hoping not to betray the privacy of his family life while trying to convey the love and understanding he had for his son. “The son has to free himself on the one hand, and at the same time be loyal,” he said, speaking perhaps about both his relationship with his father and his son’s with him. “The hardest things are the most rewarding.”
Yosef I. Abramowitz, Elie Wiesel’s student, serves as CEO of Energiya Global Capital and can be followed @KaptainSunshine
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