Actor Tom Hanks with Auschwitz survivors Mary Bauer, left, and Betty Cohen, at Wilshire Boulevard Temple on April 23. Photo by Danielle Berrin

Moving & Shaking: Tom Hanks reads ‘Night,’ San Fernando Valley Breakfast for Israel and more


About 1,000 people attended a reading of “Night,” Elie Wiesel’s memoir of his experience during the Holocaust. The April 23 event at Wilshire Boulevard Temple (WBT) was held in observance of Yom HaShoah, the first since Wiesel’s death in July.

“This afternoon’s reading is a wakeup call … a call to activism, to compassion, to understanding,” WBT Rabbi Susan Nanus, one of the event’s organizers, said during her introductory remarks.

Steven Z. Leder, WBT’s senior rabbi, was the first to read from the memoir. He was followed by readers who, among others, included actor Tom Hanks; talk show host Tavis Smiley; Rabbis David Wolpe, Karen Fox, Daniel Bouskila and Laura Geller; philanthropist Sharon Nazarian; Jewish Journal senior writer and columnist Danielle Berrin; and the consuls general of Germany and Israel in Los Angeles, Hans Jorg Neumann and Sam Grundwerg, respectively.

After the conclusion of the reading, which lasted about three hours, the audience in the synagogue’s Byzantine-revival sanctuary stood and observed a moment of silence and then recited the Mourner’s Kaddish for the 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

A video of the reading can be watched at jewishjournal.com.

On the same day at Congregation Kol Ami, a West Hollywood Reform synagogue, Danny Maseng, chazzan and spiritual leader of Makom LA, recited prayers and lit memorial candles during a ceremony in commemoration of Yom HaShoah.

“Human spirit is the light of God,” Maseng said.

Attendees included David Straus, a board member of Jewish World Watch, and Rev. Keith Cox, spiritual leader at the Center for Spiritual Living Los Angeles.

—Eitan Arom, Staff Writer


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From left: Doug Williams, Jewish National Fund Los Angeles board member; Sarita and Sam Grundwerg, Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles; and Shlomi Vayzer, a Jewish National Fund Israeli emissary in L.A. Photo courtesy of Jewish National Fund

The inaugural San Fernando Valley Breakfast for Israel by the Jewish National Fund (JNF) was held March 30 and included a panel discussion on the 50th anniversary of Jerusalem’s 1967 reunification.

The annual breakfast, which the JNF holds most years at a location in the Los Angeles Basin, this time was moved to the Warner Center Marriott Woodland Hills to connect with the large Israeli community in the San Fernando Valley.

Film and television producer Howard Rosenman moderated the discussion, which featured panelists Yoel Rosby, JNF’s Ammunition Hill Liaison; Larry Russ, a lawyer and supporter of the Ammunition Hill Memorial Site; and Phillip Yankofsky, an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) veteran of the Six-Day War.

Ammunition Hill holds great significance in the formation of the modern Jewish state. In the 1930s, the British built a police academy in North Jerusalem and stored ammunition on the adjacent hill, which came to be known as Ammunition Hill. In the 1948 War of Independence, Jordanians captured the site and Jewish Jerusalem was split in two. The hill sat at a crossroads and was the centerpiece of defense. Heavily fortified with dozens of trenches terraced into the hill, it was an intimidating obstacle to overcome. It became the historic site of the battle for the reunification of Jerusalem.

Early on the morning of June 6, 1967, about 150 Israeli paratroopers attacked the hill believing, based on erroneous intelligence, that they outnumbered the Jordanians 3 to 1. In fact, the Jordanian forces also had about 150 soldiers. Fierce hand-to-hand combat ensued. By 8 a.m., the Israeli forces had taken the hill, but not without sustaining losses — 36 were killed and 90 were wounded. Seventy-one Jordanians died in the battle. On June 7, 1967, IDF commander Motta Gur announced, “Har HaBayit beyadeinu!” (“The Temple Mount is in our hands!”), the realization of a 2,000-year-old dream for Israelis.

Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles Sam Grundwerg discussed how JNF is cultivating the land of Israel and enriching the lives of its people. He also provided an overview of the region and the changing realities in the Middle East, from the latest security threats to the newest security innovations.

— Ayala Or-El, Contributing Writer


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From left: Jeff Goldstein, general manager at Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary; Professor Laurie Levenson; retired judge Burt Pines; UC Irvine School of Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky and Rabbi Gary Ezra Oren. Photo courtesy of AJU Whizin Center for Continuing Education

Nearly 500 people filled Gindi Auditorium at American Jewish University (AJU) in Los Angeles on March 26 to take part in AJU’s 14th annual biblical trial, “The Book of Jonah: The People v. The Sailors for Attempted Murder.”

Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino started the event by introducing the biblical text and the case for attempted murder against the sailors who threw Jonah overboard.

Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, prosecuted the sailors. Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Irvine School of Law, acted as the sailors’ defense attorney. Levenson and Chemerinsky had participated as opposing counsel in the event’s previous years. Past cases included “The People v. Abraham,” “The People v. King David” and “The People v. Moses.”

Burt Pines, a retired Los Angeles County Superior Court judge, presided over the mock trial, which included opening arguments, rebuttals and closing arguments.

“Where else will you find almost 500 Jews from all over Los Angeles gathered together on a Sunday morning to learn about our ancient texts?” said Rabbi Gary Oren, vice president and dean of AJU’s Whizin Center for Continuing Education.

After the two-hour program, a vote by the audience serving as the jury found the sailors not guilty. It was a familiar verdict, as defendants have been acquitted in all 14 of the biblical trials.

Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary sponsored the event.

— Oren Peleg, Contributing Writer


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From left: Samara Hutman, executive director of Remember Us; child survivors Henry Slucki, Eva Brettler and Marie Kaufman; and novelist Mona Simpson at Diesel, A Book Store in Brentwood. Photo by Deeana Goodman

Holocaust survivors and their families, friends and guests gathered on April 19 at Diesel, A Bookstore in Brentwood to celebrate the release of the second edition of “How We Survived: 52 Personal Stories by Child Survivors of the Holocaust,” a self-published book by the group Child Survivors of the Holocaust, Los Angeles.

As evening fell, some two dozen participants gathered in the bookstore’s courtyard, surrounded by the illuminated windows of neighboring boutiques. Child survivors Eva Brettler, Henry Slucki and Marie Kaufman, the book’s lead editor, read passages from their accounts in “How We Survived.”

The new edition includes a foreword from Samara Hutman, executive director of Remember Us: The Holocaust Bnai Mitzvah Project. Hutman, who helped organize the event, joined the survivors on a panel moderated by novelist Mona Simpson.

Slucki said that as the ranks of Holocaust survivors began to thin in the first decade of the 21st century, “it became an urgent matter for us to get this published before we couldn’t tell our stories any longer. No two stories are alike.”

A committee worked on the book for five years before its 2011 publication.

Kaufman said the book would impress on her descendants and those of other child survivors that they owe their lives to the kindness of strangers who protected Jews during the Holocaust.

“I want them to know why they are in this world — because of people who cared,” Kaufman said.

Brettler echoed that sentiment.

“The only way that 8-year-old could survive,” she said, referring to herself, “was through the compassion of strangers. And I am fortunate to have grandchildren who keep that compassion alive.”

— Eitan Arom, Staff Writer


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Tess Cutler. Photo by Lynn Pelkey.

Tess Cutler has joined the editorial staff of the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles as a video producer.

Cutler will head the Journal’s efforts to produce original videos and will work with writers to add video content to their stories. Her position is made possible by a grant from the Jewish Venture Philanthropy Fund.

“Tess has been a longtime Jewish Journal contributing writer while she has been studying and working in video production,” Jewish Journal Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Rob Eshman said in a statement. “We are excited to have her on board full-time in her new role.”

Cutler interned at Tablet magazine in New York and attended Santa Fe University of Art and Design in New Mexico, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in creative writing/English literature.

“I’m ecstatic to flourish and grow with the Jewish Journal family,” Cutler said. “I think that’s what I’m most excited about, to turn my lens on or use my lens to capture the great community that we have.”

Moving & Shaking highlights events, honors and simchas. Got a tip? Email ryant@jewishjournal.com.

EXCLUSIVE: Tom Hanks on Elie Wiesel, the importance of Holocaust remembrance


 

In an exclusive interview, Tom Hanks talks about spending time with Elie Wiesel at the Friar’s Club in New York City where they discussed topics ranging from displaced persons camps to dogs.

Hanks also discussed the importance of Holocaust remembrance.

Interview by Danielle Berrin
Video by Tess Cutler

Actor Tom Hanks with Auschwitz survivors Mary Bauer, left, and Betty Cohen, at Wilshire Boulevard Temple on April 23. Photo by Danielle Berrin

Moving & Shaking: Tom Hanks, survivors and others do a live-reading of Elie Wiesel’s ‘Night’


About 1,000 people attended a reading of “Night,” Elie Wiesel’s memoir of his experience during the Holocaust, on April 23 at Wilshire Boulevard Temple (WBT) in observance of Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, the first since Wiesel’s death in July.

“This afternoon’s reading is a wakeup call … a call to activism, to compassion, to understanding,” WBT Rabbi Susan Nanus, one of the event’s organizers, said during her introductory remarks.

Steven Z. Leder, WBT’s senior rabbi, was the first to read from the memoir. He was followed by readers who, among others, included actor Tom Hanks; talk show host Tavis Smiley; Rabbis David Wolpe, Karen Fox, Daniel Bouskila and Laura Geller; philanthropist Sharon Nazarian; Jewish Journal senior writer and columnist Danielle Berrin; and the consuls general of Germany and Israel in Los Angeles, Hans Jorg Neumann and Sam Grundwerg, respectively.

After the conclusion of the reading, which lasted about three hours, the audience in the synagogue’s Byzantine-revival sanctuary stood and observed a moment of silence and then recited the Mourner’s Kaddish for the 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

A video of the reading can be watched at jewishjournal.com.

On the same day at Congregation Kol Ami, a West Hollywood Reform synagogue, Danny Maseng, chazzan and spiritual leader of Makom LA, recited prayers and lit memorial candles during a ceremony in commemoration of Yom HaShoah.

“Human spirit is the light of God,” Maseng said.

Attendees included David Straus, a board member of Jewish World Watch, and Rev. Keith Cox, spiritual leader at the Center for Spiritual Living Los Angeles.

 

Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Holocaust survivor, dies at 87


Holocaust survivor, activist and writer Elie Wiesel, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for becoming the life-long voice of millions of Holocaust victims, has died, Israel's Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem said on Saturday.

Wiesel, a philosopher, speaker, playwright and professor who also campaigned for the tyrannized and forgotten around the world, was 87.

The Romanian-born Wiesel lived by the credo expressed in “Night,” his landmark story of the Holocaust – “to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”

[Quotes from Elie Wiesel]

In awarding the Peace Prize in 1986, the Nobel Committee praised Wiesel as a “messenger to mankind” and “one of the most important spiritual leaders and guides in an age when violence, repression and racism continue to characterize the world.”

Wiesel did not waver in his campaign never to let the world forget the Holocaust horror. While at the White House in 1985 to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, he even rebuked U.S. President Ronald Reagan for planning to lay a wreath at a German cemetery where some of Hitler's notorious Waffen SS troops were buried.

“Don't go to Bitburg,” Wiesel said. “That place is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS.”

[Excerpts from works of Elie Wiesel]

Wiesel became close to U.S. President Barack Obama but the friendship did not deter him from criticizing U.S. policy on Israel. He spoke out in favor of Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and pushed the United States and other world powers to take a harder stance against Iran over its nuclear program. Wiesel attended the joint session of the U.S. Congress in 2015 when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke on the dangers of Iran's program.

Wiesel and his foundation both were victims of the wide-ranging Ponzi scheme run by New York financier Bernie Madoff, with Wiesel and his wife losing their life's savings and the foundation losing $15.2 million. “'Psychopath' – it's too nice a word for him,” he said of Madoff in 2009.

Wiesel was a hollow-eyed 16-year-old when he emerged from the newly liberated Buchenwald concentration camp in 1945. He had been orphaned by the Nazis and their identification number, A-7713, was tattooed on his arm as a physical manifestation of his broken faith and the nightmares that would haunt him throughout his life.

Wiesel and his family had first been taken by the Nazis from the village of Sighetu Marmatiei in the Transylvania region of Romania to Auschwitz, where his mother and one of his sisters died.Wiesel and his father, Shlomo, ended up in Buchenwald, where Shlomo died. In “Night” Wieselwrote of his shame at lying silently in his bunk while his father was beaten nearby.

After the war Wiesel made his way to France, studied at the Sorbonne and by 19 had become a journalist. He pondered suicide and never wrote of or discussed his Holocaust experience until 10 years after the war as a part of a vow to himself. He was 27 years old in 1955 when “Night” was published in Yiddish, and Wiesel would later rewrite it for a world audience.

“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed …,” Wiesel wrote. “Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live.”

Asked by an interviewer in 2000 why he did not go insane, Wiesel said, “To this day that is a mystery to me.”

By 2008, the New York Times said “Night” had sold an estimated 10 million copies, including 3 million after talk-show hostess Oprah Winfrey made it a spotlight selection for her book club in 2006.

In 1985 Wiesel helped break ground in Washington for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the following year was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In typical fashion, he dedicated the prize to all those who survived the Nazi horror, calling them “an example to humankind how not to succumb to despair.”

Wiesel, who became a U.S. citizen in 1963, was slight in stature but a compelling figure when he spoke. With a chiseled profile, burning eyes and a shock of gray hair, he could silence a crowd by merely standing up.

He was often described as somber. An old friend, Chicago professor Irving Abrahamson, once said of him: “I've never seen Elie give a belly laugh. He'll chuckle, he'll smile, there'll be a twinkle in his eye. But never a laugh from within.”

A few years after winning the peace prize, he established the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, which, in addition to Israeli and Jewish causes, campaigned for Miskito Indians in Nicaragua, Cambodian refugees, victims of South African apartheid and of famine and genocide in Africa.

Wiesel wrote more than 50 books – novels, non-fiction, memoirs and many with a Holocaust theme – and held a long-running professorship at Boston University. In one of his later books, “Open Heart,” he used his 2011 quintuple-bypass surgery as impetus for reflection on his life.

“I have already been the beneficiary of so many miracles, which I know I owe to my ancestors,” he wrote. “All I have achieved has been and continues to be dedicated to their murdered dreams – and hopes.”

He collected scores of awards and honors, including an honorary knighthood in Britain. Obama presented him the National Humanities Medal in 2009.

Wiesel was attacked in a San Francisco hotel in 2007 by a 22-year-old Holocaust denier, but not injured.

Wiesel and wife Marion married in 1969 and their son, Elisha, was born in 1972.

MORE ON ELIE WIESEL:


A friend recalls Wiesel a caring mentor, moral guide


Elie Wiesel, Nobel laureate, author and Holocaust survivor, who died July 2 at the age of 87, served as an emissary for survivors to the world’s leaders. But to those who knew him, he was most of all a caring mentor and friend who eschewed the label of public figure.

“I don’t consider myself as a public figure,” he told the Journal in 2013 shortly before his 85th birthday. “I am a teacher. A writer and a teacher.”

Wiesel turned the unspeakable tragedy of the Holocaust into volume after volume of path-breaking memoirs, fiction and treatises. He may be best remembered for “Night,” a personal history of his time at Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

The scion of a Chasidic family, Wiesel wielded a storyteller’s wit and was sought out by many as a spiritual guide.

In an interview from Poland as the news spread Saturday of Wiesel’s passing, Holocaust scholar and Wiesel’s friend of four decades, Michael Berenbaum, suggested Wiesel could be remembered as “a secular Chasidic rebbe” to the “many followers and people who sought moral guidance from him.”

When people came to Wiesel looking for guidance, Berenbaum said, “he didn't say no easily, which sometimes got him into trouble.”

Berenbaum remembered his friend as a man who traded in Yiddish stories and humor and who “sang with intensity and laughed with intensity.”

But when the occasion called for it, “he was fully capable of being angry.”

For instance, Berenbaum recalled a time when Wiesel dressed down President Ronald Reagan for planning to lay a wreath at a German military cemetery in Bitburg, where Nazi storm troopers were interred.

Though Reagan visited Bitburg nevertheless, he did so “”humbled and diminished,” Berenbaum said.

Throughout his life Wiesel carried with him the weight of his wartime years, yet, Berenbaum said, “Wiesel dealt with his trauma by turning it into a moral weapon.

“More than any human being I know, he was responsible for changing the status of Holocaust survivors from victims and refugees to witnesses with a moral mission, not only to remember the past but to transform the future,” he said.

Despite the great influence he wielded, Wiesel never attached himself to any one organization or group.

Though he chaired the President’s Commission on the Holocaust and led the establishment of United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., with Berenbaum as a deputy, “he never made the museum the base of his operations,” Berenbaum said.

“He was the only Jewish leader I know who had no institutional base,” he said. “Wiesel had the charisma of his own self.”

Berenbaum recalled that Wiesel accomplished much of his writing on an IBM Selectric typewriter, even after “many of us were walking around with laptop computers,” making his “enormous productivity” all the more impressive.

Wiesel’s writings remain crucial for both Jews and non-Jews in grappling with the implications of genocide on God and human nature.

“He used the Holocaust as a means of humanizing the world and spurring its moral conscience and moral decency,” he said.

Paraphrasing a Chasidic saying, Berenbaum said of his friend: “Sometimes you shout at the world to change the world, and sometimes you shout at the world to make sure the world doesn't change you. Wiesel did both.”

Survivor, storyteller, celebrity, sage: Elie Wiesel at 85


When talking about Elie Wiesel, who turns 85 on Sept. 30, it is far too easy to fall into a list of superlatives. 

As a child who survived Auschwitz and other concentration camps, Wiesel witnessed more death and more horrors than most human beings ever will. A onetime journalist who wrote for Hebrew- and Yiddish-language newspapers, starting in the 1950s, Wiesel has gone on to publish more books than most writers ever do, including “Night,” which has become the second-most widely read work of Holocaust literature in the world. He’s received more awards and honorary doctorates and rarified accolades than most university professors might dream of — including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 — and has, quite possibly, met with with more world leaders than any Jew in history. 

In a wide-ranging interview earlier this year, Wiesel talked to the Journal about some of the lesser-known parts of his remarkable life, including his years working as a journalist, and he expressed concern about what he saw as an increased tendency toward violence in today’s world. Softly, speaking in a contemplative tone, Wiesel used mostly short sentences and never moved to touch the shiny platter of pastries on the table before him. 

But when I offhandedly called him a “public figure,” he swiftly shot down the characterization. 

“I don’t consider myself as a public figure,” Wiesel told me. “I am a teacher. A writer and a teacher at the same time — for me, writing and teaching are the same.”

Not knowing exactly what to make of Wiesel’s comment, I called Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum, who has known Wiesel well for 35 years. 

“It’s an inaccurate statement,” Berenbaum said. A professor at American Jewish University and an expert in the development of historical museums and films, Berenbaum wrote his doctoral dissertation in the 1970s about Wiesel’s work and later worked with Wiesel on the council that created the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., in the 1980s. “There’s nobody else who would argue that.”

Indeed, countering Wiesel’s humble assertion isn’t difficult; the survivor’s forceful objection to President Ronald Reagan’s 1985 visit to the Bitburg Military Cemetery, where members of the SS are buried, is but one instance of Wiesel publicly challenging a world leader. 

And wherever he goes, Wiesel is certainly accorded treatment befitting a public figure. I met him in April on the campus of Chapman University in Orange County, where he was spending his third consecutive year as a Distinguished Presidential Fellow. On my way to the quiet room in the school’s main library where we were to meet, I passed a poster for Wiesel’s three staged discussions taking place during his weeklong stay there, as well as a glass case in the lobby displaying more than a dozen of Wiesel’s published books and a bronze bust of the author near the entrance to a library room devoted to Holocaust studies. 

Among today’s living Jewish leaders, Berenbaum said, Wiesel is unique. 

“Wiesel is probably the only major American Jewish thinker who is an international figure of world renown without either billions of dollars or an institutional base,” Berenbaum said. “Wiesel’s moral power base is directly related to the moral stature that has been accorded to the Holocaust, and to Wiesel as its most eloquent living survivor voice.”

Unlike, say, philanthropists Ronald Lauder or Charles Bronfman, or the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman, or any rabbi one can think of, Wiesel has served as a voice for the voiceless, a voice for the Jewish people and the Jewish state, a voice against genocide, a voice against Holocaust denial — and he’s done all this on the strength of his own reputation, his conviction and his writing. 

One could liken him to others who survived totalitarian regimes and then went on to lead — figures like Nelson Mandela or Vaclav Havel — but unlike those two men, Wiesel seems to feel, or at least project, more discomfort with his own present-day moral authority and power. 

Wiesel also rejects any characterization of him as a “Holocaust author.” 

“I’ve published 16-plus books; maybe three or four deal with that subject,” Wiesel said. “My classes? When I began my career, at City College in New York and then Boston University, only the first two years I taught what you call ‘Holocaust literature.’ I don’t teach it anymore. I don’t know how.”

Such a statement might surprise many of Wiesel’s readers, largely because most of them are very familiar only with “Night,” first published some 55 years ago in French. Wiesel is fully aware of this, of course; at Chapman, he signs the copies of what most of the undergraduates first read in high school. Indeed, some high school teachers feel so strongly about the book’s instructional value that they have their students read it twice. 

Although Wiesel says he does not cover his own writings in his classes, others who study and teach Holocaust literature have devoted years — and numerous pages in scholarly journals — to dissecting the narrative of “Night,” and have expended a lot of energy on the question of how to classify the book. 

“If you want to get Wiesel angry,” Berenbaum told me, “all you have to do is call ‘Night’ a novel instead of a memoir.”

“ ‘Night’ is not a novel, it’s an autobiography,” Wiesel told an interviewer for the Paris Review back in 1978. “It’s a memoir. It’s testimony.”

Wiesel also told that interviewer that he still had the 860-odd-page Yiddish manuscript that later became the book. Left unmentioned in that interview was the version of that Yiddish text that was published, in 1956, two years before “La Nuit,” under the title “Un di velt hot geshvign” (“And the World Was Silent”). 

In 1996, Naomi Seidman, a professor at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, closely examined the slim French volume alongside Wiesel’s Yiddish-language account, and found “Un di velt” to be an angrier work than “La Nuit,” from its first pages through to its end. 

Among Seidman’s examples: Wiesel dedicated both books to the memory of his father, mother and younger sister, Tzipora, but in “Un di velt,” he mentions his parents’ names, Sarah and Shlomo — and mentions explicitly that all three “were killed by the German murderers.” 

Seidman also noted significant differences in the ways each book reveals Wiesel’s writing process: In the Yiddish memoir, he starts to write immediately after liberation, while the French text says he started writing only after a 10-year vow of silence. 

Seidman’s article provoked much conversation and debate — at the time, Eli Pfefferkorn, a Holocaust survivor, called her close reading “an attempt to undermine the authenticity of ‘Night’ as witness testimony.” (Pfefferkorn has since told Seidman that he’s changed his mind about her article and about Wiesel.) Holocaust deniers have used the scholarly debate over discrepancies for their own dubious purposes. As for Wiesel’s own reaction, Seidman said she’s never spoken with him about it. 

“I heard he was angry after my essay was published, and tried to call him, but couldn’t get through,” Seidman wrote to me in an e-mail earlier this month. “Later I sat across from him at a dinner party, and hoped he wouldn’t catch my name.” 

Whatever Wiesel’s influence may have been before, it was Oprah Winfrey’s decision, in 2006, to select “Night” for her book club, which put the book on the best-seller list for the first time and afforded Wiesel a new level of recognition. 

The awards for Wiesel haven’t stopped coming. Named three times by Time magazine as one of the world’s 100 most influential people, Wiesel is set to also receive Israeli President Shimon Peres’ Medal of Distinction this year. 

At Chapman, though, Wiesel brushed off his celebrity. 

“I have everything; what can I want?” Wiesel said. “I love teaching — I have teaching obligations; I love writing — I write. What else do I need? Honors? I have enough. Pirke Avot [Ethics of the Fathers] said, ‘If you pursue honors, they run away.’ I have, thank God, all the highest honors that a human being can get. So what? Has it changed me?”

I asked — perhaps foolishly — if it had. 

“No,” Wiesel said, his voice dropping into its lowest register. Look, if Auschwitz hasn’t changed me, you think honors can change me?”

Some have speculated that those honors may have changed the way people approach Wiesel, though. 

“I have found that Wiesel tends to be ‘celebrated’ rather than questioned in any probing way,” Gary Weissman wrote to me in an e-mail. An assistant professor of English at the University of Cincinnati, Weissman has written about “Night” and about the challenges of teaching Wiesel’s text. 

“Many are investing in treating — and experiencing! — Wiesel as a holy figure, rather than as a complex and real human being,” Weissman wrote in his e-mail. 

Weissman said he hasn’t ever spoken with Wiesel; indeed, many of those who have looked critically at Wiesel’s work nevertheless hold the man in high esteem. 

“I have met him several times, but always too briefly to receive much of an impression,” Harold Bloom, a professor of English at Yale University, wrote in an e-mail. “I regret that his writing to me seems to possess neither cognitive nor aesthetic elements that cause me to meditate further. His has been an honorable life and I respect him.” 

Even Seidman called Wiesel “a very impressive man,” and said that in her 2006 book, “Faithful Renderings,” she had revised her essay about Wiesel in ways that were “much more generous” than she had been 10 years earlier.

“I think I was too judgmental,” Seidman wrote in an e-mail.

It’s hard to stand in judgment of Wiesel, especially today, when he is received around the world in the manner of a visiting sage. Indeed, every word Wiesel says can make news — as I found on April 16, one day after the terrorist attack that targeted the Boston Marathon. At the time, very little was known about the bombers or their motives; in that environment, my reporting that Wiesel, in our interview at Chapman, had called on President Barack Obama to appoint “a special commission of educators and philosophers and social philosophers and thinkers” to investigate the attacks, instantly became news. The short blog entry was shared 700 times on Facebook; Los Angeles Times columnist Patt Morrison asked Wiesel about the commission when she met him later that week. 

Over the course of his life, Wiesel has been approached with these big kinds of questions, and he’s addressed them in his writings. His next book, Wiesel told me, will be about a philosophy of teaching and friendship.

But even today, it’s often Wiesel’s stories that have the greatest impact on listeners. In our ranging conversation, Wiesel and I talked a lot about journalism. Long before he became a celebrity, Wiesel filed stories in Yiddish and Hebrew, first in Paris and later in New York. He told me about the weeks after Kennedy was assassinated, when he put in 18-hour days as the New York-based correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Aharonot. Back then, Wiesel said, he used to wire his stories from the offices of Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA). He used Hebrew to write shorthand — and still does today. 

From that comment about handwriting, Wiesel shifted into a story of a notebook that his sister recovered from Sighet, the town where he grew up. In that yellowing book, Wiesel found an essay he had written in 1941, when he was 13 years old, called “Reflections on the Interpretation of the High Holidays Liturgy.” 

Meshugge!” Wiesel said, laughing at his former self, an ambitious adolescent, an innocent who knew nothing of what was to come. 

“All of a sudden,” Wiesel continued, “there is one page, which is out of the blue.” 

It was a record of the credit that his family — which owned a small grocery store — had extended to people in their town. 

“All of a sudden, I see there, in the store, [the name], Akiba Drumer, who takes six bottles of this and this. Another thing, another person, a whole page of names,” Wiesel said. “Akiba Drumer; I wrote about him in ‘Night.’ I described about how he came to my father in Auschwitz, he said: ‘In three days, I will be gone. Please say Kaddish.’

“And he owes me six bottles of something in this little book!” Wiesel continued with a chuckle. “So, first of all, I forgave him the debt.”

As readers of “Night” will remember, Drumer’s prophecy comes true — Google his name today and you’ll find links to notes for the many middle and high school students who have to write about the book. Wiesel, who has lived to embody the memory of Drumer and the millions of others killed in the Holocaust, is as powerful and influential as he is precisely because he can, in a few words, bring Drumer into a library’s conference room, just by mentioning a 70-year-old list of names.

But as powerful as Wiesel’s stories are, they cannot match the real-life impact of the events they relate on the man before me. I heard a story of a notebook; Wiesel feels its power. 

“I kept it,” Wiesel told me. “And I had palpitations the whole day. I couldn’t read. That little book — and I was 13 when I wrote it.”

Elie Wiesel and questions of God and duty


The madness always calls him back.  You only have to glance at Elie Wiesel’s tortured face to know that he is always at risk.  Even after the countless novels and the Nobel Peace Prize.  Even after producing “Night,” his devastating masterpiece about Auschwitz.  Even after all the interviews and speeches and frustratingly vague answers about God’s presence and absence, both before, during, and after the Nazi assault.  Even after marriage and fatherhood and grand-fatherhood; danger lurks.

Perhaps it is because we unwittingly keep pressing him to comfort us with his “survival.”  We insist upon his civility and nobility and his restraint and forgiveness, and he has, and keeps willingly obliging us.  But at what cost?  They murdered his mother and baby sister upon arrival in the camps, and he watched his father die later on.  Two sisters survived.  He wound up a shaky young teenager alone in Paris, where he resumed his religious studies but also felt the lure of secular pursuits and a compulsion to tell his story and make sure the world remembered.  He tried to enter other worlds that weren’t marred by the tragedy he had endured, but it kept pulling him back.  He wanted to make sure that people understood the specificity of this Jewish tragedy and was irritated by those who were careless in their representations of it.  An old man now and in poor health, he keeps talking and teaching and praying and hoping for a better world he unfortunately has not yet lived to see.  He has spoken out vigorously against other genocides and spent years assisting Russian Jews escape the Soviet Union.  In that, he allows himself a small measure of pride, but it fades against the doubts he harbors that perhaps somehow he has not done enough; perhaps he could have done more.

We unintentionally place a tremendous burden on the shoulders of Holocaust survivors. We re-traumatize them in order to secure our own feelings of safety in a world still wildly unfriendly to the Jews.  Back in 1986, Phillip Roth interviewed Primo Levi, another Auschwitz survivor, and seemed obsessed with presenting Primo Levi as someone who somehow outwitted the Nazis.  Roth talks about how alert and astute the 67-year-old Levi seemed, and listed with pride his many accomplishments: his work as a chemist, his books, his wife and children, and the tender care he showed for his 92-year-old mother who still lived with him.  Roth describes Levi’s reaction to his own personal tragedy as a “profoundly civilized and spirited response to those who did all they could to sever his ever sustaining connection and tear him and his kind out of history.”  Roth seems to so much want to see Levi as triumphant that he can’t really see him at all.  Roth is not trying to be deceptive.  On the contrary; his fine piece about Levi seems spiritually hungry and sad; but still does a disservice to him.  Primo Levi committed suicide years later after several bouts with severe depression.  In a similar way, we treat Elie Wiesel.  Not as a grief stricken man who has suffered intolerable losses, but rather as someone who has transcended his own agony.  But no one can or ever has.

In a sense, asking someone to deny their own inner reality causes them further rupture.  It was in “Night” that Elie Wiesel was able to summon his most private feelings about what had happened to him and he did so with unforgettable candor.  He wrote about the moment he stopped believing in God saying, “Blessed be God’s name?  Why, but why would I bless him?  Every fiber in me rebelled.  Because He caused thousands of children to burn in His mass graves?  Because He kept six crematoria working day and night, including Sabbath and the Holy Days?  Because in His great might, He had created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, and so many other factories of death?  How could I say to Him: Blessed be Thou, Almighty, Master of the Universe, who chose us among all nations to be tortured day and night, to watch as our fathers, our mothers, our brothers end up in the furnaces?…But now, I no longer pleaded for anything.  I was no longer able to lament.  On the contrary.  I felt very strong.  I was the accuser, God the accused.  My eyes had opened and I was alone, terribly alone in a world without God, without man.”

But Elie Wiesel returned to some sort of shaky truce with God and religious study and began to filter his memories through a religious narrative of faith and forgiveness.  He became the public Elie Wiesel, the one who is afraid to offend us, who wants to offer solace and ask for little in return.  The one who often seems awkward; sometimes disingenuous; a man cut off from his most primal feelings.  A man who presents a “self” to the world that becomes indistinguishable from his own inner self.

It is this Elie Wisel that comes to the forefront in “Open Heart” (Alfred A. Knopf, $20), his new short memoir about his recent open-heart surgery.  There is a void in his personal narratives, an absent presence that unsettles the reader.  The book begins in June of 2011 after he has returned from Jerusalem where he has spent some time with friends.  He discovers he needs a quadruple bypass and attempts to reveal to us his thoughts upon entering the surgical chamber.    He thinks warmly about his wife, his beloved son, his most cherished grandchildren and his many close friends.  He worries about his students.  Unexpectedly, he sees startling images of his dead mother and father and baby sister, which have become unusually vivid.  He recalls certain memories of his grown son as a little boy and how he felt overcome, even then, with a desire to protect him.  He writes movingly “Mornings, when he left for nursery school, Marion and I would walk him to the yellow school bus.  As I watched the vehicle draw away, my heart beat faster.  I see him still, his little hand motioning to us. And deep inside me I prayed to God to protect him.” 

As the memoir progresses Wiesel confesses he fears he has fallen short.  He asks, “Have I performed my duty as a survivor?  Have I transmitted all I was able to?  Too much, perhaps?…Did I commit a sin by saying too much, while fully knowing that no person who did not experience the proximity of death there can ever understand what we, the survivors, were subjected to from morning till night, under a silent sky?”  Still bewildered by God’s silence, he asks politely, “What shall I say to God?  That I was also counting on his help?  Shall I have the nerve to reproach Him for his incomprehensible silence while Satan was winning his victories?  While my father, Shlomo son of Eliezer and Nissel, lay dying on his cot?’’  Wiesel survives his heart surgery and a year after reports feeling strained and tired but still consumed by his relentless study of the ancient and immortal texts where he believes the answers lay hidden to his pleading questions.


Elaine Margolin is a frequent contributor of book reviews to the Jewish Journal and other publications.

Opinion: Bridge to empathy


If you like your satire dark, I mean jet black, you probably love the scene from episode four, season four of “Weeds,” in which Len Botwin, played by Albert Brooks, gives a history lesson to his young nephew Shane.

“Listen, genocide can happen again if we’re not vigilant,” Uncle Len says. “It must never happen again.”

“It has happened again,” Shane says.

“What are you talking about?”

“Genocide. In Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia.”

“No, no. To Jews,” Len says. “It must never happen again to Jews. What do I give a s—- about the other places?”

I hate to ruin the joke by actually thinking about it, but what makes it work is that if Uncle Len is an utter hypocrite, so are we all. Only a few sick souls would say they are pro-genocide, yet humanity, for all its protestations, is still better at condemning holocausts than actually stopping them.

That’s not because we don’t know what genocides look like; it’s because we don’t know what they feel like. That’s what “Weeds” is really mocking. Mass killing is mass killing, but I relate to it so much better when it is my masses being killed. It’s not facts we lack, but empathy.

Eighteen years ago, Branko Lustig, Gerald Molen and Steven Spielberg were on a private jet flying from Krakow, Poland to Los Angeles.

The three men had just finished “Schindler’s List” — Spielberg directing, the other two producing — and they were returning home.

Spielberg spent a good part of the flight reading “Night” by Elie Wiesel.

When he finished the book, he jumped up from his seat and walked over to where Lustig and Molen were sitting.

“We only told one story,” Spielberg said. “There are so many more.”

Lustig nodded: He has numbers on his arm from Auschwitz to prove it.

“How many survivors are there?” Spielberg asked.

“About 350,000,” Lustig replied.

“We have to tell their stories.”

Back in Los Angeles, Lustig prepared a budget. It would cost $68 million to tell all the stories, Lustig determined. So they decided on 50,000.

Two weeks ago, in the living room of Dan and Jenna Adler in Westwood, about 100 people came together to talk about the organization born, in a sense, on that jet.

The name has become a bit unwieldy (it’s no “Jaws”): The USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education. But 18 years later, the Shoah Foundation has accomplished exactly what it initially set out to do: Its archive contains 105,000 hours of footage of 52,000 survivor’s testimonies, recorded in 34 languages from 57 countries.

“They represent the voice of conscience of our age,” Shoah Foundation president Stephen Smith told the group. “They are there for us to listen to and to listen to again. Because they are not just text, they are soul.”

The power of the Shoah Foundation’s mission, what sets it apart for me from all the important museums and memorials built up around the Holocaust, is that it is, like its creator, in the business of storytelling. And stories are that all-important bridge that can take us from cold hard facts to empathy.

I defy you to sit and watch any one of the testimonies and not end up immersed in the experience of a stranger’s pain. A decade ago, on my first tour of the Shoah Foundation, back when it was housed in a series of trailers on the Universal Studios backlot, I remember a technician wanted to show me how the indexing worked, and, to illustrate, he started playing a random survivor tape. As the story unfolded, I ignored every word coming out of my guide’s mouth, and I started to tear.

Of course, making Jews cry, as writer Ben Hecht once said, is no great accomplishment. The brilliance of the Shoah Foundation is that it understands the intersection of story and technology. It is not, as the name suggests, about the past, but about the future: How do you convey history to unborn generations? How do you connect people across the time and across cultures? To do that, story matters, but so does the mechanisms by which you convey those stories.

In its first phase, the foundation collected those testimonies. In the second, it indexed them. One-hundred-and-twenty people divided the testimonies into one minute segments and recorded every name mentioned — 1.5 million of them — every place and every event. That took five years.

Now the foundation is focused on preserving the tapes and distributing them. With 235,000 tapes Smith said it will take four years, working three shifts per day, and cost $10 million to digitize the content.

As it does this, the foundation is also pushing the content out to the world. At 36 university partners, from New York University to Charles University in Prague, students can access the archive online. At the Adlers’ home, several of the educators who work as liaisons with the foundations for schools in Eastern and Central European countries spoke about the impact the stories have on the lives of their students.

“What we are doing with the testimony is much wider than even combating anti-Semitism and commemorating the Holocaust,” said Martin Smok, senior international program consultant for the foundation in Prague. “We are using the most documented genocide that took place in a cultural and social space that’s the closest to our own culture to show traits of human behavior that are actually present in our everyday life.”

Starting this week, as we mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the foundation has made available 1,000 testimonies online through a software program it developed called iWitness. The English-language testimonies will be available to stream, search and fashion into projects. The foundation has provided its technology to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and to Yad Vashem, as well.

Meantime, the Shoah Foundation is translating its collection into Chinese and other languages, and broadening its content to include testimony from victims of genocide in Rwanda, Cambodia and Armenia.

“I interviewed 24 people for the genocide museum in Kigali,” Smith said. “Every single one of them knew the killers of their family. They were their neighbors and, dare I say, their friends. When genocide happens it isn’t some extraordinary activity, it emerges out of our ordinary society.”

It turns out that we do give a s—- after all.

Briefs: Jews, Muslims join to combat Islamophobia and anti-Semitism


Jews, Muslims Join in Program to Combat Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism

On Nov. 17, some 20 devout Muslims from the King Fahad Mosque bowed and prostrated themselves as they recited the Isha, or night prayer, at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, with about 80 Jews watching the unfamiliar ritual. At the same time, in another room of the Reform temple, Jewish congregants participated in the Ma’ariv evening prayer, watched respectfully by a group of Muslims.

The separate but interwoven prayer sessions represented the beginning of a “twinning” movement under the theme, “Confronting Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism Together,” bringing together 50 synagogues and 50 mosques across the United States and Canada.

At Temple Emanuel, the presidential election of Barack Obama was an implicit factor in the hopeful attitudes of several speakers. After saying that “together, Jews and Muslims can send a message to the purveyors of hate and bigotry,” Usman Madha, director of the King Fahad Mosque, led some 300 attendees in a rousing, “Yes, we can; yes, we can” — the Obama campaign’s mantra.

At a post-meeting reception Adam Motiwala, 24, an information technology consultant whose parents emigrated from Pakistan, called the evening “awesome.” At another table, Bobbe Salkowitz commented, “I think there is a feeling in this country that we can’t push problems under the rug anymore. We have to be honest but reach out to each other at the same time.”

— Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Iranian Muslim Media Attend Launch of Persian-Language Book on Holocaust

On Nov. 10, representatives of more than a dozen Southern California-based Persian-language news media outlets owned by Iranian Muslims gathered at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in West Los Angeles for the launch of a newly translated Persian-language version of “Night” by Nobel Prize-winning author Elie Wiesel.

His famous memoir, describing his imprisonment in several concentration camps during the Holocaust, was translated and published under the auspices of the L.A.-based Iranian Jewish organization, Graduate Society Foundation. The group published the book in Persian in an effort to combat the Holocaust denial campaign of Iran’s current fundamentalist Islamic regime.

“These days, where the Iranian government is the only one in the world that has Holocaust denial as their stated official policy, it is significant that such a book is being presented for the Persian-speaking world to read and understand firsthand the truth about the horrors of Holocaust,” said George Haroonian, a Los Angeles Iranian activist involved with the event.

Timing for the release of the Persian-language translation of “Night” coincided with the day after the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht.

Since 2004, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other Iranian officials have promoted an international propaganda war against the Holocaust in an effort to discredit the existence of the State of Israel.

During the past few years, the Wiesenthal Center, with the help of local Iranian Jews, has been reaching out to Southern California-based Iranian Muslim news media that transmit programming to Iran via satellite.

“The vast majority of Iran’s population is under 30 years old, and they lack the knowledge to counter the state’s campaign to deny the Nazi genocide against the Jewish people,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Wiesenthal Center. “As the regime in Tehran continues to threaten Israel, it is vital that the citizens of that country are armed with the truth.”

Last year, the center provided “10 Facts About the Holocaust” in Persian on its Web site. In 2006, it welcomed members of the local Iranian media to tour the Museum of Tolerance in order to educate them about the Holocaust.

The preface to “Night” currently can be read in Persian on the center’s multilingual Web site, www.AskMusa.org, with more selections to be posted soon. The Web site is designed to encourage Muslims to learn about and ask questions via the Internet from experts on Judaism and Jewish culture.

— Karmel Melamed, Contributing Writer

New Torah for AJU

Temple Adat Shalom donated a Sephardic-style Torah scroll to American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. Apparently, the Aron HaKodesh got a little crowded when Adat Shalom and Temple Beth Torah, both Conservative synagogues, merged in July 2007.

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(From left) Rabbi Aaron Alexander, Assistant Dean of Zeigler School; Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, Dean of Zeigler School; Kent Ugoretz, former President of Temple Beth Torah; Andrea Nitz, President of Adat Shalom; Rabbi Toba August, rabbi of Adat Shalom; Rabbi Jay Strear, Vice President Development.