Is Elie Wiesel Happy?
By YOSEF I. ABRAMOWITZ
Editor's note: This two-part profile of Elie Wiesel, written by the publisher of JBooks.com in 1996, was originally published in the Boston Jewish Advocate and other Jewish newspapers.
“You came for me?” asked a bewildered Mikhail Gorbachev.
“As a Jew, I owe you that much,” responded Elie Wiesel. French president Mitterand sent Wiesel aboard a government plane to Moscow, where he met Gorbachev immediately after the 1991 coup failure, several months before the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
“When Gorbachev saw me he was moved. I asked myself, why was he moved, with tears in his eyes? Because he had just realized that his friends were not his friends. Every single one had betrayed him. Those whom he had elevated, abandoned him. I have rarely seen a man as lonely as he was. And here comes a young Jew, and says I’m here to help you, to give you support. I was thinking: I’m a yeshiva bucher from Sighet, and all of a sudden I’m involved with presidents, bringing personal messages, and traveling in government planes. I was surprised.”
Wiesel’s self-image as “a yeshiva bucher from Sighet” provides important hints not only into his pre-Holocaust life, but also insights as to how the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize laureate views himself today. Wiesel has been described as a modem prophet, a moving writer, a brilliant teacher and even a Jewish superstar. He is best known, however, as a survivor of Nazi horrors. Yet to keep describing Wiesel as a survivor does an injustice to the totality of his life and accomplishments. Elie Wiesel has not merely survived, he has triumphed. And if he would pause long enough to consider it, he might even say he is happy.
At 68, Wiesel marks 40 years since the publication of the bestselling Night and almost a decade since being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. “I can’t believe it,” he says, smiling and shaking hishead at the incredible path his life has taken. “Forty years have passed, and the schedule keeps getting heavier and heavier.”
Books are everywhere at Wiesel’s home on the 26th floor of a nondescript Upper East Side Manhattan apartment building. A visitor is first confronted by thousands of books in Hebrew, Yiddish, French, and English that cover nearly every inch of space between the floor and ceiling of the L-shaped living room. One upper shelf in a corner is devoted to the more than 30 titles bearing Wiesel’s name.
Two framed pictures are the lone exceptions to the otherwise book-lined walls. When Wiesel sits at his large desk, he faces on the far wall a sketch of Jerusalem. When he turns around to use the computer, he looks right into a dark black-and-white photograph of the house in Sighet where he grew up, which is featured in his memoirs along with 16 pages of family photos. “Since I began writing, I always face that house,” he said in a television interview. “I must know where I come from.”
Eliezer Wiesel was born in the picturesque town of Sighet, below the Carpathian mountains that were once home to the Ba’al Shem Tov, the father of Chasidism. Tantalized by Chasidic tales his grandfather told, Wiesel’s happiest childhood memories are punctuated with singing Shabbat songs, eating chocolates and studying a page of Talmud under a tree while the other youngsters played ball.
“He was a little sickly and certainly what we call bookish,” recalls Professor David Weiss Halivni, who studied in cheder with Wiesel in Sighet. Halivni, now a professor of religion at Columbia University and one of Wiesel’s closest friends, says that even as a child, Wiesel was “artistically more sensitive” to the mystical teachings of their teacher. Halivni believes Wiesel's sense of humor was conditioned as a child. “Maybe he had a premonition,” he says.
“We were in the ghetto together. He was on the last transport. I was on the first. I left on Monday, he left Thursday,” recalls Halivni, as if it occurred last week. “So we came to Auschwitz at different times.”
“We met in Auschwitz,” says Rabbi Menashe Klein. Wearing a black Chasidic robe, tzitzit, white beard and sidelocks, Klein strikes one as Wiesel’s Old World alter ego. This is perhaps how Wiesel himself might have looked had his life, his studies, and his preoccupation with mysticism not been interrupted by history. “Somehow we got to Buchenwald and were liberated there together,” he says. “We went to France then, and Professor Wiesel attended the Sorbonne. I, on the other hand, kept dwelling in our Torah.”
Rabbi Klein, whose study in Brooklyn is also crowded with religious books, explains that Wiesel took a different path after the war as a result of the shock of his experiences during the Holocaust.
After the war, Wiesel studied in Paris, where he earned money directing a choir. Later he became the Paris correspondent for the Israel daily, Yediot Aharonot, earning $30 a month. His big break came when he moved to New York to work with the Yiddish Forward, earning $175 a month as a copy editor; writer and translator. “I remember when he lived on 103rd Street,” says Halivni. “He had only a small room, narrow, dark—you could see the poverty. I remember him sitting on the floor surrounded by records of Bach. At that time he was practically starving.”
In 1956, Wiesel stepped off a curb in Times Square and was struck by a speeding taxi. Following the accident, which left him hospitalized for seven months, Wiesel desperately needed money and tried covering the United Nations on crutches for Yediot. Golda Meir, then foreign minister, took pity on the young journalist and would invite him back to her hotel suite, where she would prepare omelets and tea and brief him on the day’s events. In 1967, his books, which had been commercial failures, began to sell, and Wiesel was able to leave daily journalism to concentrate on book writing.
So powerfully embedded in the popular psyche is Wiesel’s association with the Holocaust that many would find it surprising that the topic rarely comes up in his classes or in his writings. “When people didn’t talk about the Shoah, I felt I had to. So many people are doing it now, I don’t need to any more,” he explains. In fact, he always thinks twice about raising the issue. “I’m afraid of making it into a routine. I want it that whenever I mention the word Shoah, I should stop for a second and my voice should tremble, my whole being should tremble before pronouncing that word.”
Halivni leaves public speaking about the Holocaust to Wiesel. “But when he comes to see me,” he says, “He listens and I shout.”
While the Holocaust rarely figures prominently in Wiesel’s public life anymore, his sensitivity as a survivor has given him an appreciation for every moment, and for life’s fragility. He and his wife, Marion, still travel on separate flights. “Just in case,” he says like a quick prayer, eyes flashing toward Heaven. It also drives him to work hard.
“There are people who want to do more than they can. Wiesel is one of them,” says Rabbi Klein, who, like Wiesel, goes to sleep late and wakes up early to study and write. “For Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize is no more than a ladder, a step, toward fulfilling a goal for which he remained alive: to do for the Jewish people.”
“A person cannot live with the feeling that they have achieved the highest,” says Halivni, who claims that the Nobel Prize has been a mixed blessing for Wiesel.
“The Nobel Prize did not become an end, rather a new beginning. He realizes that the Nobel Prize was given to him as ‘Mr. Jew,’ and therefore he owes it to the Jewish people. In a sense it entails a greater responsibility. It has imposed a burden on him; the possibility of extending help, because of his connections, is much bigger. There is nothing more frightening for a sensitive person than having power.”
While New York is far from Sighet, Elie Wiesel is never far from the forces that molded his childhood: chasidism and the Holocaust. And the struggle of these two forces to coexist in one soul is what shapes Elie Wiesel today, providing the creative tension for his ongoing achievements and writings. Deep within him lies a young yeshiva bucher from Sighet; deep within he believes he survived the Nazi horrors for a purpose, as yet unfulfilled.
Even so, Elie Wiesel is where he wants to be and is probably as content as he can ever be—unless the Messiah arrives soon to redeem the Jewish people, and, of course, the world.
Clad in a well-tailored gray suit and hugging a velvet blue Torah scroll, Elie Wiesel dances in a tight circle with his friends and sings songs of praise to the God he has so often challenged. Wiesel is glowing; gone is the trademark somber look that is naturally chiseled in his sullen, handsome face. It is Simchat Torah for the Jewish people. Yet for Wiesel it is more; it is also his birthday.
“We never celebrated birthdays at home,” Wiesel says of his childhood. He still rarely celebrates the occasion because “to me every minute is a victory.”
Wiesel credits his sanity to his family and friends. “I read, I listen to music, I speak with friends. My life is full. The main thing is not to waste time.” But then he adds, “Sometimes I think that I too am insane. I was always in the minority, like the madman. When I began to talk about trying to teach the Shoah, how many others were there? When I began for RussianJewry, how many others were there then?”
“What keeps Wiesel sane?” ponders Rabbi Menashe Klein, a friend from Auschwitz. “We sing together, eat together, daven together, walk together. He comes here before every holiday. Mostly we meet, we talk.” Klein says that Wiesel, who sang in a choir as a child, still loves to sing Chasidic melodies. “He would begin singing Friday night at 5:30 p.m. and wouldn’t stop until after 2 a.m.”
Wiesel says that his daily study of Jewish texts is essential for him. “I love to study. It gives you a good sense of proportion. After all, what Rambam says maybe is more important than the article I wrote for The New York Times.”
Wiesel's preoccupation with books began early. When others were hording food and valuables, the young Wiesel brought books to study onto the cramped cattle car to Auschwitz.
Dr. David Weiss Halivni, a childhood friend, and Wiesel express their friendship today by always speaking Hebrew to each other. Halivni is one of the few who can really make Wiesel laugh. “The lightest moments we have are when we bring up characters from Sighet,” he says, referring to their boyhood village.
What kind of characters? There was the shadchan (matchmaker), Ziegenfeld, who always walked with an umbrella. And then there was the tall shochet (ritual slaughterer) and his short wife. And many others. “Hardly a conversation passes when we don’t talk about Sighet,” Halivni says. “When describing these things, recapturing the comical aspects of Sighet, then I see him having a hearty laugh.”
Is Wiesel happy? To his friends, the question seems irrelevant. “We never think in those terms,” says Halivni. He explains that Chasidic spirituality gives Wiesel freedom—a second liberation—and that Wiesel. “needs the joy of Chasidut because he cannot always live in the shadow of the Holocaust.” Wiesel, hesitant to allow an affirmative answer, gives a traditional response. “We don’t speak about happiness in our faith, we speak about simcha vesasson (joy and gladness). What do we ask for? Shalom, yes. We mainly ask for Yirat shamayim (fear of heaven), for study, for chaim shel Torah (life of Torah). What is Torah? Meaning. My life has been the pursuit of meaning, not joy.”
For Wiesel, without a Jewish context there is no enjoyment. When asked. about simcha vesasson in his own life, he pauses briefly, and then his words flow in his soft French accent. “Nineteen forty-eight, when Israel was born. I remember that Shabbat in Paris. I felt joy that came from history. Then the ‘67 war. Shichrur Yerushalayim (the liberation of Jerusalem), something that remains with me. And Simchat Torah in Moscow with young people.”
Yet now “there is something missing, and when something is missing, happiness can’t be present because happiness means nothing is missing. What is missing?” The Boston University professor pauses and then answers the question. “Certainty. The haunting idea that the century is ending, you have the feeling that it is trying to purge itself of its demons, of its nightmares with the pursuit of violence of bloodshed, of hatred.
“In this generation, the pursuit of pleasure is at the expense of happiness. Pleasure is instant pleasure. Everything we are obtaining is instant. Instant meaning, instant love, instant philosophy, instant truth.
“The Gaon of Vilna said that the hardest mitzvah to accomplish is ‘v’samachta bechagecha' (rejoice in your holidays). ‘Do not steal,’ ‘do not kill,’ everything is easy. ‘Vesamachta bechagecha!’ To make sure that you rejoice,” Wiesel says energetically.
Wiesel’s voice then becomes barely audible, his downward gaze is steady. His consciousness seems to have been transported to another time. “Another kind of joy, even deeper than that, and more personal, was the birth of my son... even more, the brit of my son. To me in my life, it has the importance of the birth of Israel, the reunification of Jerusalem. I felt it in my body, in every cell of my body....”
The phone breaks his trance, and Wiesel walks over to his executive-size mahogany desk to answer it. On it sit two photographs: One of him with his wife and their son Shlomo-Elisha, and one a close-up of their son, both taken at least 15 years ago. Wiesel named his son after his father, who was in the camps with him and died only weeks before Wiesel’s liberation. “I was 16 years old when my father died,” writes Wiesel in his memoirs.
“My father was dead and the pain was gone. I no longer felt anything. Someone had died inside me, and that someone was me.”
“My father had no official position in the community, he was a kind of intercessor in the community, he was a grocery store owner,” Wiesel says in a tone of great respect. “Somehow, I don’t know how, he always defended the Jews with the authorities. Therefore, when something would happen, they would come to my father.” At times his father was so busy with Jewish communal business that the young Wiesel would only see him at home on the Sabbath.
Wiesel himself has no official position in the Jewish community, yet he has served as an intercessor with heads of state, including President Reagan prior to his trip to Bitburg and President Clinton, to ask him to do more to help the Bosnians.
“The need to help Jews, I think I am following in my father’s footsteps and I think he would have wanted it that way,” says Wiesel. Wiesel says that he has only recently realized the similarities between himself and his father, and explains that it took a long time to come to this conclusion “because of kibbud av (respect of one’s father), I didn’t dare compare myself with him. He saved Jewish lives; I didn’t. I try to teach, but he saved Jewish lives. He was arrested, he was tortured. I was not. So how can I compare myself to him?”
Just as Wiesel still struggles with being a son, he is still wrestling with being a father. “The hardest is to be a good father, always” confesses Wiesel. Halivni says that it is not easy being the son of a great man. Shlomo-Elisha, a Yale graduate, has been heard to say, half-jokingly: “It’s hard growing up in a house where your dad is the arbiter of morality in the 20th century.”
Wiesel believes that “the father-son relationship is a test, both for the father and for the son. When the son leaves home, it is harder for the father than for the son,” he says, hoping not to betray the privacy of his family life while trying to convey the love and understanding he has for his son. “The son has to free himself on the one hand, and at the same time be loyal,” he says, speaking perhaps about both his relationship with his father and his son’s with him. “The hardest things are the most rewarding.”