Remembering Elie Wiesel

The death of Elie Wiesel has hit me particularly hard, as my last surviving uncle is only one year younger and ill. The last survivors of the Holocaust are dying and as a child of survivors, I feel as though we are losing the connection to that Jewish world that was destroyed by the Holocaust.

July 11, 2016

The death of Elie Wiesel has hit me particularly hard, as my last surviving uncle is only one year younger and ill. The last survivors of the Holocaust are dying and as a child of survivors, I feel as though we are losing the connection to that Jewish world that was destroyed by the Holocaust.

Yes, we have rebuilt and reconstituted ourselves as a people and we have our Jewish State and have rebuilt Jewish life in Europe, but the life, traditions and culture of shtetl Europe are being erased along with the final survivors.

I was first connected to Elie through his book Night, which was given to me when I was ten. I was then reconnected to him in the 1960’s when I was part of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry. He gave a voice to the Jews of Silence in the Soviet Union.

We met again in the early 1980’s when my wife, Nancy, scheduled a meeting with him to discuss a film project she was working on about children of survivors, which he endorsed. When he learned that Nancy was a descendent of the luminary Hassidic rabbi, Menachem Mendel of Kotsk, he was intrigued and wanted to learn more about her family and background. He was invited to our wedding and although he couldn’t attend, he sent us a beautifully written personal note.

In June 1999, nearly ten years later, I had the privilege of escorting Elie through a refugee camp in Skopie, Macedonia where over 100,000 refugees had come after fleeing brutal violence in Kosovo. JDC had set up a tent in one corner of the camp where we brought Jewish volunteers and Israeli counselors to work with the children in this desolate camp. President Clinton had appointed Elie as a special envoy to the Kosovar refugees.

The night before our visit, we sat together at a state-sponsored dinner. Elie had many probing questions and we shared personal moments. He was enthralled by what the Jews and specifically myself, as a child of Holocaust survivors, were doing there to help Muslim refugees. He was so very proud of the Joint and our historic mission.

We also discussed Jewish needs in the former Soviet Union and the rebirth of Judaism in places like Eastern Europe and even Cuba. He remained fascinated as he listened to my story that included JDC’s nonsectarian International Development Program (IDP).

I will never forget that right then and there Elie quoted our great sage, Hillel, who said, ‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I?’

At dinner, he expressed his hidden fear of returning to the camp the next morning, only to find the specter of the Holocaust hung in the air.

While walking through the camp the following morning, we met hundreds of refugees. The pain of their stories was etched on Elie’s brow as he intently listened to the men and women’s horrific stories. He held them, crying right along with them as they recounted the atrocities they managed to survive.

The camp was hot and filthy. After hours of wading through a vast mass of disheveled humanity and hearing countless stories, we rounded a corner and heard surprising sounds–laughter and song. I explained that we had established a day camp for the children.

As we got closer to the exuberance, dozens of smiling children surrounded Elie and a young girl presented him with a picture of a flower that she had just drawn.

He turned and said, ‘You have given laughter and song back to these children whose parents are traumatized and only able to cry.’ Those words were repeated in his final report to President Clinton.

I next met Elie in 2006 to discuss the possibility of bringing the youth Aliyah model from Israel to Rwanda. Elie expressed his disdain for the lack of international response to the 1994 genocide, telling Anne Heyman, z’l, the founder of the village, that the Joint was the jewel of the Jewish organizational world and that our mission and work embodies the true essence, beauty, and values of our religion.

Professor Wiesel was a healer. He helped survivors and children of survivors heal the wounds and trauma of both the Holocaust and our past. Through the work of the Joint, we are working not only to repair this fractured world, but also help heal our own personal wounds.

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