Elie Wiesel Tribute
TRIBUTE TO ELIE WIESEL
Reflections and Experiences from 70 Years of Friendship
Hon. Associate Executive Vice President, JDC
(Delivered at the Jewish Center on July 9, 2016, at the end of Shiva)
Marc Antony, in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”, opens his
famous oration with the words: “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him”. In contrast I have come not to mourn the passing of Elie Wiesel
but to praise the life and achievements of this remarkable man from the perspective of having been one of the earliest witnesses of his special gifts.
At a time when we lack heroic models we have before us a man who did not permit his experience in hell to leave him embittered, cynical, disengaged or immobilized. On the contrary, he found the profound secret of life – how to transmit trauma into creative energy and action, to assuage one’s own pain by assuaging the pain of others, to heal oneself by healing others
“Ayn Navee B’eero” –It is a common saying that no one is regarded
as a prophet in their own setting. If so, how was it possible for this
graduate of Auschwitz who came to America without position, finances
connections or power base, to become a universally admired prophet in his own time, with obituaries from the president of the United states and world leaders? How did that happen? What did he DO to achieve that?
If you were to ask Elie “What do you do? What do you really do?,
he would probably answer with a rueful smile, ”I am a Maggid – just
a teller of tales.” In consonance with that response I would like to share a few stories that provide some insight into the meaning and make up of this extraordinary man.
My first story: in1946, before departing to France to serve as a student volunteer in a JDC funded OSE home for war orphans, a friend asked me to look up his cousin in Versailles. I responded that I did not know where I would be assigned, put the note in my pocket and forgot about it. Sure enough, upon arrival in France the first place I was sent to was the children’s home in Versailles.
I arrived late at night, met the director and in the morning had breakfast with a very impressive teenager. Afterward I went out for a walk and suddenly remembered the cousin of my friend. To my surprise, the address “63 Avenue de Paris” turned out to be the children’s home. Perplexed, I approached the only person I knew besides the director, the teenager I had breakfast with and asked him whether he knew someone named Elie Wiesel. Startled, he answered: “C’est moi”—that’s me.
That “c’est moi” evolved over time from just a personal response to one of Biblical proportions. When God asked Abraham “Where are you?” and Abraham answers ”Hineni” – I am here, meaning not just that he is physically present but spiritually ready to be God’s messenger for a higher calling, so too has Elie’s primary role been that of a messenger. And it is no coincidence that one of his books is titled: “Messengers of God”.
Which leads to the question: what is the specific substance of
his message? In response, my second story took place in 1970 at the General Assembly of Federations, where I had arranged for him to be the featured speaker. That was his first appearance before Federation leaders and it was a “night to remember”.The part that stands out in my memory more than four decades later was his statement: “How were we able to survive? Furthermore why would we even want to survive? We were impelled by the need to tell the story, for we felt that if you knew, you would act. If we had known then what we know now, that you knew and did not act, we would not have been able to survive.”
Elie’s primary message is: “Zachor”, sustaining the memory of the Holocaust and most importantly, transmuting that memory into “Moral
Action.” This was dramatically illustrated in his confrontation with three American presidents.
First with President Jimmy Carter who wanted the Holocaust museum to focus on all those who suffered under the Nazis. Elie’s position was that they all merited being remembered but the Holocaust was a unique form of human destruction that had to recognized. He won that debate with the museum focused primarily about the Holocaust while also devoting a special section to others who suffered.
The Second was with President Ronald Reagan. The German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, wanting Germany to become part of the west, invited Reagan to visit Germany. When it became known that the projected visit included laying a wreath at the cemetery at Bitburg which included the graves of Nazi soldiers, Elie while at a public ceremony where he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, admonished President Reagan saying, “the Talmud commands us to confront power with truth and the truth is that your place should be with the victims and not their perpetrators.” As a result the visit to Biturg was limited to ten minutes and Bergen-Belsen was added to the itinerary. From that point onward, government officials became more sensitive in dealing with Nazi related matters.
The third confrontation was with President Clinton. After a visit to
Bosnia, Elie reported on the bloodshed and the need to take action. His pressure helped the eventuation of the Dayton Peace Accord.
Elie played a vital role in the struggle to free Soviet Jewry. In 1966 he went to the Soviet Union and on his return wrote the book “Jews of Silence”. He made it very clear to me that the title was not intended to describe the Jews in the Soviet Union but rather the inaction of American Jewry.
For those of us involved in the movement to free Soviet Jewry his book was a breakthrough, projecting the issue onto the larger public arena and his subsequent efforts helped us achieve the greatest political victory of American Jewry. When President Reagen met with the Soviet President Michael Gorbachev there were just four items on his agenda and one of them was Soviet Jewry.
I want to move to his status as an icon. On a spiritual level he radiated life and inspired faith. He helped us learn how to mourn the holocaust, how to remember and how to act.
On a literary level he knew and possessed the power of words: “ to forget is to become an accomplice”, “remembering is a religious action”, “ the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference”,
“to suffer gives no privileges, if used against others it is betrayal, if
used to fight evil it elevates.”
On a personal level he loved interacting with students, as well as world leaders, challenging and inspiring. He made Judaism come alive.
And for all his seriousness he had a great sense of humor and loved a good joke.
On a larger scale, Elie is a symbol of the persistence of the Jewish
people. When we were celebrating the Bris of his son. my wife remarked “Coming from a death camp to creating life, for me it is a sign
that the Jewish people will never go under”
As a humorous aside, during the dancing I found myself next to the
famous violinist, Isaac Stern and jokingly I asked him if he was the Mohel. He responded, “ I perform on a different kind of instrument. “
My final question: what was Elie’s most powerful form of expression?. Given the impact of his books and lectures, it will be a surprise that for me his soul is most movingly conveyed through his singing.
The 92nd street Y had a celebration of the 30th year of his sold out lecture series. How did Elie mark that occasion? After his lecture, the
curtain opened unexpectedly, revealing the Zamir Chorale and Elie
then proceded to sing two Hasidic songs for 20 minutes, raising the
audience to a state of rapture,
When Elie first settled in New York he came to our home for Shabbat meals and I will never forget the ethereal quality of his singing
Shabbat Zmirot. I felt transported to another realm
My closing story describes a scene at the 1971 General Assembly
of the Federations. After his powerful debut the year before there was
a clamor for his return and I made arrangements for him to address a
Saturday afternoon Oneg Shabbat where he would read from a work in
progress. There something startling happened. He walked into the room, sat down at the table with his manuscript, looked at the audience for a moment, then closed his eyes and started singing a
song in Yiddish: “ If I had the strength I would run through the streets
shouting the holiness of Shabbat” After the reading, Elie looked again at the audience, shut his eyes and sang the Yiddish song again.
FORTUNATELY FOR ALL OF US, ELIE DID HAVE THE STRENGTH TO RUN THROUGH THE STREETS OF OUR CONSCIOUSNESS, PROCLAIMING THE SANCTITY OF LIFE. ELIE’s CALL FOR MORAL ACTION HAS MADE US MORE CARING, MORE COMPASSIONATE, MORE SENSITIVE, MORE RESPONSIVE AND THEREBY MORE HUMAN. AND BY MAKING US MORE HUMAN HE ENABLED US TO TOUCH THE DIVINE.