January 21, 2019

A friend of 7 decades recalls a young Elie Wiesel

In 1946, when Theodore “Ted” Comet was 21, he decided to leave his native Cleveland for France to serve as a volunteer counselor at one of the homes set up for the orphaned Jewish children who had somehow managed to survive the concentration camps.

Before Comet departed, a friend asked him to look up a young relative housed in Versailles. Although Comet didn’t know which French city he would be assigned to, he put a slip with the person’s name and address in his pocket and thought no more about it.

Arriving in France, Comet was fortuitously assigned to the children’s home in Versailles, and on the first morning there, had breakfast with “a very impressive teenager.”

Afterward, as Comet went out for a walk, he suddenly remembered the note and checked the address, which turned out to be that of the same children’s home. Returning there, he looked around for information, saw his breakfast companion, walked up to him and asked whether he had heard of an Elie Wiesel.

“C’est moi (That’s me),” replied the 17-year-old.

Comet stayed at the home in Versailles for six months, spoke frequently with the boy, and in a phone interview after Wiesel’s death on July 2, Comet described how he was taken by the teenager’s musical talents and voice as he sang in French, Hebrew and Yiddish.

“What did Elie tell you about how he survived the Auschwitz, Buna, Gleiwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps?” the Journal asked Comet.

“Oh, we never talked about that,” Comet replied.

Earlier this month, just about every newspaper and TV station featured lengthy obituaries on the global impact of the author of “Night”; in today’s world, it seems inconceivable that Wiesel would have kept totally silent about the trials he’d endured during the previous two years of his life, so eloquently detailed later on — or that Comet, now 92, wouldn’t have pressed him to talk.

From today’s perspective, when school children around the world learn about the Holocaust and new books and movies on the Shoah come out year after year, the general silence of the 1940s and ’50s regarding the recent mass extermination is hard to fathom.

Part of the reason was the survivors, now honored and revered, in the immediate postwar years were often looked upon with considerable suspicion.

Since it was assumed then that practically all European Jews had been killed, male survivors were often assumed to have collaborated with the Nazis, while female survivors were suspected of having slept with the enemy to save their own skins, according to noted Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum.

Berenbaum said in an interview that during the 1946 Nuremberg war crimes trial of Nazi leaders, evidence on the Holocaust played only a minor role.

Peter Hayes and John K. Roth, editors of “The Oxford Handbook of Holocaust Studies,” point out in a sub-chapter on “Survivors and Their Listeners,” that those who had been in concentration camps, and those who had not, felt themselves to be of different worlds, speaking in different languages, incomprehensible to one another.

Often survivors were silenced by well-meant advice such as “Hush up your bad dreams,” and “It’s healthier to forget,” Hayes and Roth noted.

We now realize that it takes some distance, in time and perception, to grapple with historic upheavals. The majority of the most insightful books about wars are published one or two decades after the end of fighting, such as German veteran Erich Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front,” published 11 years after the end of World War I.

The pitfalls of looking back too soon at the disasters of the immediate past are illustrated in the biblical story of Lot’s wife, Berenbaum said. Warned by an angel not to look back at the destruction of Sodom, she disobeyed and was instantly turned into a pillar of salt.

It was not until the1960s and ’70s that some understanding of the Holocaust reached the general public. An initial impulse was the 1961 trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann, the engineer — if not the architect — of the Holocaust.

The often-maligned television and movie industries played a major role in telling the story, with the global impact of the 1978 NBC miniseries “Holocaust,” and, as late as 1993, through Steven Spielberg’s movie “Schindler’s List,” which proved an eye-opener to a new generation.

As Comet rose to top executive positions with the American Zionist Youth Foundation, Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Federation organizations, he maintained his ties with Wiesel.

Toward the end of our interview, Comet recalled two sides of his friend.

In 1970, Comet had asked Wiesel to address the top Jewish leaders assembled in Kansas City, Mo., for the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations. Rather than praise his high-powered audience members for their devotion and generosity, as was — and is – customary at such events, Wiesel took the opportunity to indict the inactivity of American Jewry during the Holocaust in a damning statement.

After briefly touching on his own experiences, Wiesel asked his audience, “How were we able to survive in those conditions? Why would we even want to survive? We were impelled by the need to live to tell the story, for we felt that if you knew, you would act. If we had known then what we know now, namely that you did not act, we would not have been able to survive.”

Comet recalled a happier incident from the following year’s Federation General Assembly, when Wiesel read from the manuscript of one of his works in progress.

In Comet’s words, “Elie walked into the room, sat down at the table with his manuscript, looked at the audience, closed his eyes and started singing a Yiddish song, ‘If I had the strength, I would rush through the streets shouting the holiness of the Sabbath.’ After the reading, Elie closed his manuscript, looked up again, and repeated the song.”

Fortunately, Comet concluded, “Elie did have the strength to run through the streets of our consciousness, proclaiming his message of the sanctity of life.”