August 22, 2019

Elie Wiesel: A personal reflection

In Elie Wiesel’s book-lined office, there were no photos of the many world leaders with whom he met. In fact, there was only one photo.  It sat propped on his desk facing him.

In 1991, I wanted to engage in public dialogue with someone who had influenced the political, social or religious landscape of our world. I had met Professor Wiesel through my work at the 92nd Street Y in New York and it was suggested to me that I approach him.

Chances were slim that he would agree. Why might he be willing to give a recently ordained rabbi such an opportunity? To my surprise, he invited me to his home to further discuss the idea. After the doorman telephoned my arrival, I took the elevator to an upper floor. When the doors opened in the hallway, there stood a waiting Elie Wiesel, who warmly walked me into his apartment office. What I would later learn is that such personal grace was extended to everyone around him.

I shared with him that I was looking to have a wide-ranging, unrehearsed, dialogue based on the underlying values that shaped his life. At the end of our meeting, he said, “I like beginnings,” and some nine months later, he joined me and Rabbi Joseph Telushkin on the stage of the 92nd Street Y. Every seat in the iconic Kaufmann Concert Hall was filled.

What I could not have dreamed was that in the next two decades, we would engage in seven public dialogues, some televised to a national audience. It was also the beginning of a friendship.

During those dialogues (in New York and more recently at Stephen Wise Temple in Los Angeles), we spoke about every imaginable subject: theology, the existence of evil, world events … and we explored the more rarely seen personal side of Professor Wiesel, leading to some moving moments.

One moment that stands out was his response to my question as to why he and others survived the Holocaust. Expecting something profound, his one-word reply took me aback.

Luck.

Later I came to realize the profundity of his response. Many have spoken about the will of those who survived. I am sure that survivors had extraordinary will. And yet, we know that hundreds of thousands of Jews were murdered within moments of arrival at the death camps. To suggest they lacked such will, would have been affront to their memory.

I was blessed to be able to seek Elie’s advice on personal matters. When my wife and I were contemplating a move from New York back to our hometown of Los Angeles, I met with him. I told him we were torn between professional opportunity and family. His initial response was to encourage me to stay in New York. I shared that we wanted our young children to grow up near their grandparents and to be with them on Shabbat. Upon hearing this, his eyes lit up and his magnificent smile bloomed. He gave me his blessing.

My beloved father, Sam, of blessed memory, spent much of his teenage years in the concentration camps of Dora, Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen. His parents were murdered in Auschwitz and four of his five siblings did not survive. My father rarely spoke of what he experienced and what he witnessed.

We are the last generation that will ever meet a Holocaust survivor. There are few of these precious men and women remaining. I implore you to meet them and to talk to them. Take your children. You will have done something beautiful for them and for you.

And what of the lone photo in his office? I had noticed the back of the small photo on his paper laden desk (Professor Wiesel wrote his books on neither computer nor typewriter. He wrote longhand.) on many occasions. My curiosity elevated, I finally asked him the content. He and I were seated in front of the desk and together we waked around to view it.

It was a picture of a modest home. He said it was the home where he lived as a child, in Sighet, Romania.

He never wanted to forget where he came from. He didn’t, and we, his legions of readers and listeners, will not either.

Yechi zichro baruch.


David Woznica is a rabbi at Stephen Wise Temple.