Wednesday, July 6, 2016
My Memories of Elie Wiesel
Motzei Shabbat (this past Saturday night) we all heard that a giant for all of us, Elie Wiesel, passed from his sojourn on this earth. In the obituary that appeared in the New York Times, people were asked to share memories, so here I go. While this is a name that is known to all, I have the particular Zechut (privilege) of having had several meaningful interactions with Elie Wiesel through my life and I would like to add these little snipets to what we know about this amazing human being who was truly G-d’s gift to us all, not just for his memories of how horrible mankind can experience but how honorable and amazing we can aspire to be.
My first experience was in 1970 during one of the huge Soviet Jewry rallies and protests in Washington D.C. I was staying with my girlfriend (Hi JK, if you are reading this) in Silver Spring and we were planning to go to the rally. My parents did not know of my plans but there was no way I was not going to be part of this important event. So off we go, at the age of 17 to this amazing and very emotionally charged gathering. Elie Wiesel was one of the leaders of the march and as it turns out I was standing not too far behind him. This was one of the famous (infamous?) gatherings at which everyone sat in the middle of the street and the police arrested every fourth person they counted. It turns out that while I was actually involved intimately in one of the planning committees for this Rally, I was rather young and looked younger, so no one was carting me off to jail. However, friends of mine told me that I was on the television because they were filming exactly where I was standing behind the man that was leading our very large and noisy group. I called my parents to tell them not to worry and lets just say they were not pleased, actually more than that! I will not even repeat what my sweet father said to me on that occasion! But I remember being so taken by the commitment of the crowd and the stature of this quietly powerful man who was rallying us on.
A few years go by and it is the winter of 1972-73 (I think I have that right). Elie Wiesel was being awarded a citation by B’nai Brith International, and they chose the Presidents of the Hillel campus organizations of University of Maryland and George Washington University to present the award to him. I was the President of the GWU Hillel at the time and therefore was chosen to be able to honor him. I remember snipets of the event, his wife, Marian who was a rather striking woman (and taller than him in high heels) with a great deal of class in a beautiful fitted red dress with her hair in what would now be called an up do. The other student and I were standing with Elie and Marian Wiesel after the presentation and were able to have a conversation about life and their perspectives. I distinctly remember them telling us they would NEVER have children because as survivors who had seen what they saw, they could not subject a child to the horrors of this world. I was so sad because I thought they more than deserved the joy of bringing a new life into the world. So, as the saying goes, “man plans and G-d laughs.” At the time, Marian was already pregnant and their son, Shlomo Elisha would be born later that year. I remember thinking how glad I was that these two soulful people brought another soul into this world. I am pretty sure that this would be what G-d had in mind, if I could be so presumptuous.
More years pass and it is now the mid-eighties. I am being given an award by the Second Generation Children of Holocaust Survivors for curriculum I had written and programs I had created for meaningful Holocaust education. Guess who the speaker is! You guessed! After the program, I had the opportunity once again to stand with Elie Wiesel and I shared my story with him. I asked him, “Do you remember when you received your award from B’nai Brith International?” Of course, he replied, I remember it was one of (if not) my first awards and it was in Washington D.C. I then asked if he remembered who presented the award. He did not but remembered there were students there. So I explained who I was and what I remember him saying and then wished him Mazel Tov on Elisha’s Bar Mitzvah because he would have been 13 by now. At this point, Elie Wiesel was in tears and hugged me. One friend wanted to know what I did to the poor man because as he put it, “He makes others cry, what did you do to make him break down in tears?”
Some years after that, in the later 90’s I was a speaker at a conference in Baltimore, where Elie Wiesel gave the Keynote Address. Afterwards, we spoke and again acknowledged our passing connection in the shared space that brought us together in earlier years. That would be the last time I would see him.
Elie Wiesel was indeed a soulful and important voice for all of us, our children, and for those not even here yet as well. He was and will continue to be a most important voice for our collective memory as we consider the terrible injustices mankind can inflict on us if we are not careful. This was precisely why he led that Soviet Jewry Rally so long ago and why he has continued to be a voice for all injustices that are inflicted on various groups in our human family. It is now on all of us to continue to tell his stories and to continue sharing his voice with others. In this way, WE WILL NEVER FORGET!
Elie Wiesel, thank you for all that you have been and done and will continue to do through those who have learned so much from you. Now rest in peace and may your memory always be for a blessing.