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Trials of Torment

Barbara Bensoussan

In one of the last interviews before his passing last week, Elie Wiesel shared his own tortured reflections

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

eli

"They look at us, and subconsciously they're bothered. They think: What are you Jews still doing here? We did everything we could to get rid of you!".

E
lie Wiesel once said: “I decided to devote my life to telling the story because I felt that having survived I owe something to the dead. And anyone who does not remember betrays them again.” Wiesel was one of the earliest and most masterful chroniclers of the concentration camp experience, having experienced it himself in Auschwitz. 

Using his gifts as a storyteller to publicize the horrors the world might otherwise have chosen to forget, he assumed the role of a universal conscience, calling the nations of the world to task against anti-Semitism and hate; assailing injustices such as the oppression of Soviet Jews, South African apartheid, and genocide committed in faraway lands such as Cambodia, Bosnia, Darfur and mostly recently, Syria. 

With his passing on Shabbos at age 87, accolades and condolences poured in from world leaders and opinion makers who hailed Elie Wiesel for his moral fortitude. Wiesel’s popularity was perhaps due, at least in part, to his willingness to admit his inability to understand extreme evil and human malevolence. During his lifetime, portions of the Orthodox Jewish world had not embraced Wiesel, who wrote about his personal spiritual battles stemming from confusion over the “hester panim” — Hashem’s seeming silence — in the face of the overwhelming evil he experienced. It was a topic that Wiesel alluded to in a formal but brief interview we conducted in 2014 at the sleek Madison Avenue office of the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity. 

The foundation, created after Wiesel won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, states that its mission is “to combat indifference, intolerance, and injustice through international dialogue and youth-focused programs that promote acceptance, understanding, and equality.” The foundation maintains Beit Tzipora Centers (named for Wiesel’s martyred sister Tzipora) in Ashkelon and Kiryat Malachi that help educate and integrate Ethiopian Jews into Israeli society. 

The small waiting room at his Madison Avenue office was adorned with a large framed poster for a film by Elie’s wife Marion (Erster Rose) Wiesel entitled Children of the Night. 

The foundation’s offices were staffed by a small cadre of bright young interns busy with paperwork and computer screens. One smiling secretary led me down a hallway lined with melancholy photos of prewar Europe and full yet tidy bookshelves, into Wiesel’s spacious but equally bookshelf-laden office. He sat behind an enormous desk, but rose to greet me, elegantly dressed with the rosette of the French Legion of Honor adorning his suit lapel. His trademark tousled gray locks still full, he invited us to the couches in the sitting area. 

Having undergone serious heart surgery, Wiesel had looked thin and frail. I was told in advance that he only had the strength for a 20-minute interview. His voice wasn’t strong, and I often strained to catch all of his words.

"That place, Mr. President, is not for you." President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George Bush applaud Elie Wiesel's speech at the White House, even as the Congressional Medal honoree chided Reagan for his planned visit to the controversial Bitburg Cemetery

His parents, back in Sighet, Romania, were Vizhnitzer chassidim. “I had every reason to leave my religion,” Wiesel said, “but I don’t want to be the last link in the chain.” Although he drifted from his roots, he professed deep attachment to chassidic teachings, even though his own books about great rebbes read more like storytelling and history than hagiography. He davened in the Fifth Avenue Synagogue near his home on Manhattan’s East Side, but when he visited Israel, as he did up to three times a year when he was well enough, he enjoyed davening in a chassidic shtiebel. “When I came to the US in 1955, there was almost no chassidic world — just a few shtieblach. Today,” as he made a sweeping gesture with his arm, “it’s an empire. 

“Kein yirbu,” he added, with a sincere smile. “They are the religious edge that influences the middle.” Probing further, I suggested that this flourishing of a vibrant religious community is the best revenge against the Nazis. Wiesel deflected that. “Religion, davening is not revenge,” he said.

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