November 21, 2018

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.”