Among my nearly forty years’ long friendship with Elie Wiesel and coverage of his conscience-prodding commentary, a few are standouts: The November 19, 2013 World Jewish Congress Theodor Herzl Dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria at which Hillary Clinton— in a dazzling midnight blue gown— presented the award to honorees Marion and Elie Wiesel. “When I was First Lady, Elie spoke at the White House…. He reflected on a century marred by wars, strife and division. Despite the horrific unspeakable suffering he endured and witnessed, he remained optimistic. Indifference—he told us that night, is more dangerous than anger and hatred.” In response, Wiesel joshed: “There were two great men in Europe at the time. Herzl and Freud. Luckily they never met. Just imagine Herzl knocking on Freud’s door: ‘I had a dream.’ Freud would have said to Herzl: ‘Sit down. Tell me about your mother’.”
During a visit to his New York wall-to-wall book-filled apartment, his first words were to my daughter Karen: “You have your grandfather’s eyes!” “You knew my grandfather?” She was dumfounded. (My father Matvey Bernsztein—journalist, historian— had been a prisoner in Stalin’s Gulag at the time Elie was a teenager at Buchenwald). Elie smiled: “He was a good friend. We used to meet in the library at the Jewish Theological Seminary and discuss 19th century modern Jewish-German existentialism.”
At the 1993 Dinner of the American and International Societies for Yad Vashem dinner, Wiesel honed in on the organization’s raison d’etre: “Memory. Forgiveness. Anger! I am for forgiveness but…will never forgive the enemies who killed our people. Only the dead can forgive. The danger is when we hate ourselves. The truth will not make us popular, but it must be told…. we are forcing the world to remember.”
At the June 6, 2006 Hillel International Gala, Wiesel mused on why the organization was named after Hillel and not his rival Shammai. “Hillel was compassionate…never angry.” Re making the bride happy, Elie said: “Scripture says the bride is always beautiful, no lies. Shammai’s position was if the bride is not beautiful—no lies. The truth comes first. Why make the bride unhappy?” Tilting his head, Wiesel declared: “Lie!”
“It was at an award ceremony in the early 1960’s that I saw this beautiful woman who consented to marry me” said Wiesel pointing to his wife Marion at the March 8, 2001 National Jewish Books Awards Ceremony at the 92nd Street “Y”. Award recipient Wiesel said: “I write in French because my English is not good enough…. I came to France after the war, learned French…. I received $10 from an American publisher for my book ‘Night’. People read it but did not buy it. On the other hand, people bought ‘ Beggar in Jerusalem’ but did not read it”. Musing about “‘the Crusades, the Inquisition, madness that erupts in history,” he said: I am not a Holocaust writer—I am writing in order not to go mad.”
At the October 23, 2012 United Sates Holocaust Memorial Museum New York Tribute Dinner at the Pierre at which Wiesel shared the podium with Ben Kingsley (who starred in “Schindler’s List”) I asked him to comment on the universalization of the Holocaust as not just a Jewish tragedy but on a par with Rwanda, Somalia, etc. Wiesel replied: “My way of formulating it is that it is a Jewish tragedy with universal implications and applications.”
I last spoke with Elie at the May 28, 2015 “Champions of Jewish Values” Award Gala at the Marriott Marquis whose roster of honorees and speakers included Newt Gingrich. Responding to my usual Yiddish greeting “Vos makht a Yid?” (how goes it with a Jew?) Elie smiled wanly at me from where he sat at a table. A last encounter was at the November 2015 “Blue Card” Benefit at the New York Public Library at which Wiesel received the organizations “Richard C. Holbrooke Award for Social Justice” presented to him by Michael Douglas. Spotting me across the floor as he faced a barrage of photographers, Wiesel nodded and smiled. I did not realize that it was to be a last goodbye.
The international Holocaust survivor community and the world have lost an irreplaceable witness and voice.