Thursday, June 01, 2023

My first experience with Elie Wiesel was in the classroom.

I was in a Jewish Literature class. We had finished reading Shalom Aleichem and were moving on to Wiesel’s Night. Our instructor was a short, frum man who always wore a dark suit to class. This was in the spring of 1975. Our class, composed of young men and women, was a sea of blue jeans, t-shirts and sandals.

The teacher had a passion for literature. He would stand up on his tiptoes and his voice could be almost a whisper when going over a word or line in our classwork. It was as if he was there in a shtetl when it came to the works of Shalom Aleichem.

But when it came to Night, all of that changed. Our teacher’s voice trembled through the words and our discussions of the images in Wiesel’s most well-known work.

Many of us in the room had grown up with the Holocaust, had relatives lost all over Europe. We almost took it for granted that the Holocaust was part of our family’s very constitution. I had a great uncle, a highly decorated German soldier during WWI, who was taken away and killed. I also had a great aunt, who came from Germany to the US, but hated it in New York and returned to Germany. Her life ended in a concentration camp.

So why read a book about the Holocaust? I “knew” about the Holocaust. But then we read Night out loud, and I realized I knew nothing. I had never regarded the survivors I knew, parents and grandparents of friends, as witnesses to the unthinkable. Wiesel’s words orated through my teacher’s trembling voice changed that perception.

Our class went from somewhat cocky and inattentive to quiet and teary. It was as if Wiesel was in the room. I had managed to miss one of the world’s great voices until a college class brought him into my life. During the years following, Wiesel, the prolific writer of some 50 books, provided more information, more tough, but necessary to read, chapters.

Flash forward to the dining room.

In 1986, my then Baltimore Jewish Times Editor Gary Rosenblatt brought Wiesel to Kneseth Israel, a kehillah located in Annapolis, Md. Wiesel gave what was the first annual speech in memory of the late Rabbi Morris Rosenblatt, a spiritual leader beloved all through and beyond the Annapolis community by Jews and gentiles.

I have trouble remembering what Wiesel said, because I couldn’t believe that I was in the same room, albeit a big room like a sanctuary, with him. He had gone from Jewish literature author to hero.

After the event, Gary invited Jewish Times staff members back to his parents’ house, across the street from the shul, to meet Wiesel. My wife, Lisa, and I were actually the first ones to arrive. Esther, Gary’s now-deceased mother, was serving Wiesel a meal.

I was star struck. As in I could not move. I’d interviewed many famous people before, but this was entirely different. There was Elie Wiesel at the dining room table. “Say the right thing Phil, don’t miss this chance” my inner-voice was screaming.

Yet it was Elie Wiesel who spoke first.

“So,” he said to me, “what do you have to say for yourself?” The great Elie Wiesel asked me a question!

In the review of my life, when it comes to the most embarrassing words to ever leave my vocal chords, what I would answer ranks right up there.

Here I am standing near one of the world’s greatest men, a real hero, and the best I could hear myself say was, “We’ve come to watch you eat.”

Yes, that’s what I said. He laughed. But I wanted to disappear or at least somehow press a “do-over” button.

Finally others arrived at the house, and I was able to get “unstuck” and ask real questions.

Flash forward: A sitting room or study in Wiesel’s New York home.

This time, I had time alone with Wiesel.

Yes, he smiled when he remembered me as the guy who told him I’d come to watch him eat.

Once beyond that, our conversation was all about Israel, improving Jewish education and the urgency of teaching the Holocaust to not just Jewish children but all children. Wiesel told me of his concerns that the Holocaust generations were dying out, and that it was up to us to teach our children the truth.

He said the word “truth” several times during the interview.

He spoke in a voice just above a whisper, so I had to lean in to hear every word, which all were precious to me. His sad eyes were almost liquid with tears, his voice almost weeping when we talked about everything from Palestinian terrorism to contemporary genocide to the future we leave to our children.

Wiesel would come to my children’s school’s annual event as keynote speaker the following week, where he spent most of his speech talking to the students in attendance and how it was their responsibility to remember the Holocaust and to preserve the dignities of human rights and civility.

I was in the “room” for several Wiesel lectures over the years.

Just knowing he was out there reaching the world made me feel more secure as a Jew.

In accepting his 1986 Nobel Peace Prize, Wiesel said about the Holocaust “…it is surely human to forget, even want to forget. Only God and God alone can and must remember everything.”

But then there’s his quote, “To forget the victims means to kill them a second time. So I couldn’t prevent the first death. I surely must be capable of saving them from a second death.”

Those words of Elie Wiesel I will carry with me from room to room the rest of my life.

By Phil Jacobs

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