Reminiscences of Elie Wiesel

Wiesel’s blend of belief and doubt, of questioning while clinging to Judaism and to Jewish belief, left a unique heritage and set the tone for Jewish life after the Shoah.

Elie Wiesel (photo credit: REUTERS)
Elie Wiesel
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The death of Elie Wiesel is a loss of major proportions for the Jewish people and for all humanity.
There is no question that as the years went on, Wiesel became larger than life, representing a moral voice in a world in which morality has been sadly lacking. Whether he wanted to or not, he came to stand for the generation of the Holocaust, those that survived and those that did not. With his passing, we sense that that generation has almost disappeared and that soon all that will remain will be their testimonies, among which his will always have a unique standing.
Wiesel’s blend of belief and doubt, of questioning while clinging to Judaism and to Jewish belief, left a unique heritage and set the tone for Jewish life after the Shoah.
I first encountered Wiesel at a convention of the Rabbinical Assembly held in the early 1960s, I believe, in Toronto. The executive vice-president of the RA, Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, had discovered the then young and unknown Wiesel and befriended him. Wanting to gain exposure for the fledgling writer, Rabbi Kelman invited him to speak at the convention. None of us who attended will ever forget Wiesel’s talk. His appearance in itself told a story – young, thin, gaunt, he seemed the very embodiment of the survivor, and his words were equally haunting. The result was that Wiesel was besieged with invitations to speak at Conservative congregations throughout Canada and the US, launching his career as a speaker and as the representative of the Shoah.
Through Kelman Wiesel also was befriended by two great professors at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Saul Lieberman and Abraham Joshua Heschel. Both remained important influences upon Wiesel, helping him retain his Jewish belief and practice while not succumbing to easy answers to the difficult questions that the Shoah poses for believers.
Wiesel, although not a rabbi himself, was granted honorary membership in the RA, a membership he retained throughout his life.
Wiesel wrote many books. To my mind there are three that stand out above the others and that should remain classics, required reading in the ages ahead. The first is Night, the second is The Jews of Silence, the third is A Beggar In Jerusalem. These also represent three aspects of Wiesel’s concerns – to be a witness to the Shoah, to rescue the Jews of the Soviet Union and to defend the State of Israel. Not coincidentally, these were also the three major concerns of 20th century Jewry.
I was one of those rabbis who had the privilege of inviting Wiesel to speak at his congregation in the early days, when he was just becoming well known. I remember that when he was at our home in Wilmette, Illinois he met our children and took an interest in them. Our eldest daughter was 11 or so and told him that she had written a story, something about a mouse. He insisted on reading it and helping her with it and encouraging her to keep writing and using her imagination.
I had one other encounter with Wiesel which also says something about him as a person. When I was editing a volume about Jerusalem for the celebration of Jerusalem’s 3,000 years I wanted to include a selection concerning Jerusalem and the Western Wall in 1967 that appeared in one of his books. The publisher asked for an outrageous sum of money, far beyond anything I had at my disposal, and would not lower it. I remembered that I had read an article in the Hadassah magazine by Wiesel on that subject and asked Hadassah for permission to reprint it. They told me that the rights belonged to Wiesel, so I wrote him, told him the whole story and asked for permission to use it. Wiesel answered me promptly, apologized for his publisher’s attitude and gave me permission to use the Hadassah article without any fee whatsoever.
That was Elie Wiesel. We shall not soon see another of his stature.
The writer, a former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is the author of several books including The Jerusalem Anthology (JPS) and Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy.