It was three years ago that I stumbled accidentally on a quote by Albert Einstein that stopped me in my tracks because it so captured everything I believe and everything I know to be true about the way we are all intimately connected to one another.
And then Rabbi Robert Marcus, who had helped so many children but was unable to save the life of his own eleven-year-old son Jay, became part of my journey. In his heartbreak, he’d reached out and written to Einstein seeking words of comfort, words to help him make sense of his own tragic loss. In return, he received Einstein’s powerful description of a world that is all one.
Over the past three years, I’ve been searching the world for Buchenwald boys who could offer me any piece of information about Rabbi Marcus, who died in 1951.
But the one Buchenwald boy I most wanted to speak to, the one who I believed could really put Rabbi Marcus’s story into context for me, was Elie Wiesel.
I so longed to interview Elie. I’d write, I’d call, I’d e-mail. His assistant always told me that his calendar was completely booked.
One friend of mine who knew Elie told me he was in poor health and that his mind might not be as clear as it once was. Perhaps Elie didn’t remember Rabbi Marcus. Perhaps that was why I couldn’t reach him.
Still, every few weeks I’d e-mail again requesting an interview.
I waited and reached out for three years and then, one day, I got a response! Elie wanted to speak with me. On the afternoon of our interview I was so excited my heart was pounding in my chest.
I still worried that Elie might not have much to tell me about Rabbi Marcus, but I was so grateful and honored to be able to speak with him. Then I asked my first question: “Do you remember Rabbi Robert Marcus?”
Elie said, “Do I remember?”
He said, “I saw a soldier appear with a Star of David sewn onto his military uniform.”
Elie explained, “This meant a lot. Up to that moment, for us, a Star of David was a mark of death. And here suddenly it was a mark of freedom!”
That’s not something you forget.
Then Elie told me about the power of that moment when Rabbi Marcus led the very first prayer service in the Buchenwald concentration camp. “We prayed all the time in Buchenwald,” Elie said, “but this was different. It was a great happiness, surprising. It meant a great deal that we could pray with him.”
Elie told me that he was in awe of Rabbi Marcus. He said, “Naomi, the distance from us boys to Rabbi Marcus was like the distance from the earth to the sun.” Seventy years had passed, but his memories of that time had not faded.
And then I spoke with Elie about Judith, the young woman who took charge of his orphanage after liberation.
I asked Elie, “What stood out for you about Judith?”
He said, “Her smile.”
I asked him, “Could you feel her confidence?”
“Oh yes,” he said, “absolutely, we all felt it. She came from a place of security and happiness. She created a safe place for us. Judith knew what we needed.”
With kindness, Elie allowed me to probe into those days with Judith. I asked him, “Did you know when you first arrived at Ecouis that you and all the boys had been diagnosed as damaged beyond repair?”
Elie replied in a voice filled with pain and understanding, “Yes, I was aware of that.”
Elie told me about the day when Judith reorganized rooms by village. “It was a powerful moment,” he said.
I asked Elie if he remembered Niny. It turned out that Elie, too, had a mad crush on the beautiful Niny.
Then I spoke with Elie about the day the boys argued over whether they should say the mourner’s Kaddish for their families. Elie was one of the boys who stayed to recite the prayer for the departed. He told me that even from a distance of seventy years, it was too difficult for him to speak about that day.
I said to Elie, “Judith told me she saw hope return to the boys. Did Judith give you hope?”
Elie said, “It’s a very strong word, ‘hope,’ I’m not sure I’d use that word.”
“What word would you use?”
“Hopefully, I’ll find it. One day I’ll find it.”
Toward the end of our conversation I asked Elie the question I’d been longing to ask him: if he knew about a letter Rabbi Marcus had written to Einstein after the death of his son Jay. Elie told me he did not. I read Elie Einstein’s letter to Rabbi Marcus and then I asked him, “What was the most important thing that got you through your worst times?”
Without missing a beat Elie replied, “Friendship … without a doubt, friendship.”
Yes, friendship, of course! As Elie spoke I was beginning to see threads of connection. The way you can even be a friend to a total stranger. How Rabbi Marcus was there for Elie Wiesel and how Einstein was there for Rabbi Marcus. Strangers who reached beyond themselves to lift up and save another — people who rose above that “optical delusion of separateness.”
We are all part of a whole.
You never know how a stranger is going to enter your life and save you and lift you and liberate you from the delusion that you are alone.
At that moment, I was about to say thank you and hang up, but then I realized that I owed Elie Wiesel my gratitude, not for agreeing to do this interview, but for an act of kindness he bestowed upon me many years ago without even knowing it. I needed to thank him, and I might never have another chance.
So before I hung up with Elie I hesitated, but then I gathered up my courage because I just knew I had to tell him how he had saved my life. I told Elie, “I need to tell you something. I assume you must hear this from so many people, how you’ve helped them, but I need to tell you what you did for me in my life.”
“You cannot imagine how moved I am right now,” Elie said. “Tell me what happened.”
We are all part of a whole. You never know how a stranger is going to enter your life and save you and lift you and liberate you from the delusion that you are alone.
And so I began: “I grew up in Brooklyn. My father taught me, from the time I was a small child, he began teaching me Torah and commentaries and how to pray, too. He’d take me with him to synagogue every Sabbath and I would sit beside him and play with the strands of his prayer shawl.”
I told Elie about my father’s murder when I was fifteen years old and that I was an angry kid, so angry and lost and sad. I said I didn’t have a plan for ending my life, but I didn’t have any plan for living either.
I was only fifteen years old and I felt like I had come to the end of things. My father was gone. My mother wasn’t the same woman anymore. The Sabbath wasn’t the same. I wasn’t the same. Prayer? How could prayer be the same? And what good was God anyway?
I said, “At that lowest point of my life, my mother saw that you were giving a lecture and she asked me to go with her. I didn’t want to go, but she encouraged me and I went. It was a freezing-cold December night and we took the subway from Boro Park all the way up to the 92nd Street Y.” I said, “I walked into this massive auditorium full of old people and I so didn’t want to be there. We were sitting in the second-to-last row and I so regretted that I’d agreed to come to this thing. But then all of a sudden, the lights went down and you walked onstage and sat down at a desk with just a spotlight on you, and began speaking. At first, I was daydreaming as you spoke, but then your words began to seep into my well-defended heart. Yes, your words were sinking in, the kindness of your voice. And your hands were performing some sort of ballet in the dark. It was as if your hands were doing a performance to the words you spoke all on their own. I remember being transfixed by your hands, and realizing it was the first time I experienced beauty since the day my father died. I was mesmerized. Watching and listening to you, a man who had been to hell and back, and seeing you offer beauty to the world gave me some sort of spark of hope. And somehow, that night, you opened a door for me to step through. That night was the beginning, a first step in many steps that would lead me back, bit by bit, out of the depths that had threatened to overtake me. Many years have passed and I have had many causes for joy. And I want to thank you for teaching me that there was hope in my future and that I would have cause to celebrate and to give thanks.”
I said to Elie, “A man stands in front of an auditorium of two thousand people and he has no idea that he’s opened a new door for some lost fifteen-year-old kid who is listening and taking it all in.”
Elie said to me, “You cannot imagine how touched I am.”
Sadly, Elie Wiesel died not long after our intimate conversation. I will treasure the precious wisdom he shared with me always and the final words we spoke to each other:
He said, “Naomi, you found your way.”
“You are a blessing,” I replied.
“So are you,” he said. “Don’t forget that. Believe in that. More and more blessings.”
From: “Einstein and the Rabbi: Searching for the Soul” by Naomi Levy (Macmillan, 2017). Reprinted with permission.