August 18, 2019

Elie Wiesel’s generous soul: ‘Of course I remember you’

Brian Ducoffe was the president of the Jewish student organization Hillel at Chapman University in Orange County while Elie Wiesel was a visiting scholar there. The second time the college junior encountered the Holocaust luminary, he expected Wiesel wouldn’t remember him. He was quite wrong.

“ ‘Of course I remember you,’ ” Ducoffe said Wiesel told him.

Ducoffe’s second mistake: addressing the author as “Professor Wiesel.”

“ ‘We’re friends now. You can call me Elie,’ ” he remembers the Nobel laureate saying.

Wiesel was widely remembered as the author who popularized the genre of Holocaust testimonials and taught the world about the horrors of the Nazi death machine. But to Angelenos who had the opportunity to meet him, he was a deeply caring individual who recalled personal details about those he met and bonded quickly with perfect strangers through laughter and humility.

Not only did Wiesel remember Ducoffe, but he also inquired about the student’s parents and recalled he had taken an internship in Los Angeles, asking him how it had gone.

Wiesel was a distinguished presidential fellow at Chapman University for five years, starting in 2011, spending a week of each year lecturing and meeting with students.

[More reactions to the death of Elie Wiesel]

“It was a really daunting schedule,” said Marilyn Harran, director of the Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education, who hosted Wiesel when he visited. “It probably would have done in a man 20 years younger, but he never complained once. He loved doing it.”

She added that his intense interactions with groups of well-prepared students energized rather than drained him.

Harran recalls being a “nervous wreck” when she picked up Wiesel for the first time from John Wayne Airport in 2005, years before he made his relationship with Chapman official.

His visit had been painstakingly planned in advance, down to the ingredients of the food he was to eat.

“He got in the car, and he looked at me and he said, ‘Now what am I here to do?’ ” Harran said. “And I must have looked like I was going to have a heart attack.”

Wiesel was pulling her leg.

“He looked at me and he started laughing,” she went on. “And he said, ‘No, no, no, I know what I’m here to do.’ ”

She said Wiesel had “a wonderful sense of humor and a wonderful sense of the absurd.”

She remembers him connecting with music students over his love of Beethoven and eagerly chatting in French with students of that language.

As an educator, Wiesel went out of his way to make himself accessible and unintimidating.

“You would imagine [him as] somebody who would be difficult to connect with for a young kid, maybe 19 years old,” Chapman University Chancellor Daniele Struppa told the Journal. “But Professor Wiesel was a teacher at heart. He was always able to get students to be at ease with him and answered any question thoughtfully.”

Wiesel’s frequent visits to Los Angeles earned him a network friends and admirers far beyond Chapman University, including some of L.A.’s most prominent Jewish leaders.

Marvin Hier, founding dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, knew Wiesel personally from years of working with him on speaking engagements. Twice, the men breakfasted together at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem.

A few weeks ago, Hier happened to drop by the Fifth Avenue Synagogue in New York City, where Wiesel regularly attended services, and spotted a tallit bag with Wiesel’s name on it.

“He left his tallis in shul because he would be back,” Hier told the Journal. “Not only was he a great humanitarian on the world stage, but he was a loyal, traditional Jew, in the traditions of our ancestors. That was his greatness: He didn’t run away from his faith.”

Part of Wiesel’s wide appeal rested on his ability to access both religious and secular sensibilities.

“He was a man of all seasons,” said Rabbi Mordechai Einbinder, who met Wiesel about five years ago when he hosted the scholar at Chabad of the Valley in Tarzana. “There was a certain secular side to him, but I think everything in his life was deeply rooted in spirituality.”

Einbinder recalled that Wiesel, who grew up in a Chasidic household and studied kabbalah as a teen, spoke about his relationship with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the leader of the Chabad movement, whom he considered a mentor and spiritual guide.

“People literally hung at every word,” Einbinder said. “You could hear a pin drop. He had a very strong, a very indelible impression on people.”

Wiesel seemed to impress his hosts with the difference between his reputation as an internationally renowned scholar and writer, and his unassuming manner.

“He spoke very softly, yet his words had such impact and such insight,” recalled William Elperin, president of the 1939 Society, an L.A.-based Holocaust remembrance organization. “You felt like you were in the presence of greatness whenever you met with him.”

Elperin said Wiesel had inquired by name after the health of certain survivors to whom the group catered and whom he had met.

On a number of occasions, he and Wiesel “just schmoozed like two friends” over Shabbat dinner in Orange County.

Each time, Elperin and his wife brought Wiesel a challah from the Jewish district on Pico Boulevard — which he loved — and Wiesel delivered a dvar Torah — a Torah lesson — to the delight of the dinner guests, Jewish and non-Jewish.

Struppa, the Chapman chancellor, remembered that during their wide-ranging discussions of spirituality and faith, Wiesel was diligent in “choosing every word with great attention because every word means something.”

But when the talk turned to lighter matters, he assumed a very different tone.

“When the tension dissipated and we were talking about simpler things … then he would be very down to earth, very simple, almost a mischievous character,” Struppa said.

Wiesel’s words were, of course, his ultimate contribution.

“He gave people a language with which to talk about the Holocaust,” said Chaim Seidler-Feller, the former longtime senior rabbi of Hillel at UCLA.

Seidler-Feller came to know Wiesel during a period of about 10 years, beginning in the mid-1970s, when the scholar paid yearly visits to the Westwood campus.

The campus rabbi said in a phone call from Israel that Wiesel was patient and thoughtful even when they disagreed.

For instance, Seidler-Feller’s politics on Israel were more oppositional than Wiesel’s, the latter being an unflagging supporter of the country, who professed a great tolerance for its flaws.

“He knew that I tended to be critical [of Israel],” Seidler-Feller said. “And what I recall about our conversations was the warmth and delicacy with which he both addressed the criticism and talked about his own position and ties to Israel.”

Seidler-Feller got the sense that for Wiesel to criticize Israel would have run counter to his deep, all-consuming love for the Jewish state and people.

“It would be for him the equivalent of publicly deriding his father and mother,” he said. “He couldn’t do that. No matter what they did, he couldn’t do that.”

Wiesel’s audience cut across national, linguistic and ethnic barriers. But fellow survivors of the Holocaust identified with him like no one else could.

Lidia Budgor, a 91-year-old Auschwitz survivor who lives in Encino, said that when she read “Night,” Wiesel’s classic memoir of his experience during the Holocaust, she identified deeply with the sentiments of desolation he expressed and his deep questioning of God.

She said that for the local community of survivors, Wiesel’s death was made all the more heartbreaking by the passing earlier the same week of Jona Goldrich, a local survivor, developer and philanthropist.

Wiesel, like Goldrich, was proof that one could survive the Holocaust and go on to lead a normal, even an extraordinary, life.

“He was in Auschwitz; I was in Auschwitz,” she said. “He fought for his life, and so did I. And how he became a writer — such a strong writer, such a strong advocate for the Jewish people — it’s hard to believe, because after what he went through, sometimes people became very quiet and didn’t want to take part in it. We had enough. But not Elie Wiesel. He was a giant of a man.”