When I learned of Elie Wiesel’s death at 87 last week, I immediately recalled a long-ago phone call. “I wonder if you would do me a favor,” Wiesel inquired. He had recently written a glowing review of my novel, The Eighth Sin, about the fate of gypsies during the Nazi years. We met shortly afterward, when he took me to lunch. It was I who owed him, not the other way around.
The favor he was seeking, it turned out, was for me to sign onto Jimmy Carter’s new Commission on the Holocaust. By then, Elie knew my opinion of the thirty-ninth president, but assured me that there would be no interference from the Oval Office. I wondered who the commission members would be, expecting the usual group of senators and congressmen seeking ink. “Myself,” he said, “and some fellow survivors.” I reminded him that I was only a writer, not a victim of the twentieth-century’s central crime.
“Don’t you think,” he asked, “that witnesses deserve a witness?”
Vito Corleone never made a more persuasive offer. I accepted on the spot, and flew to Poland a month later.
I thought it would be impossible to convey the collective dread as our tour bus headed west from Kraków. “Ladies and gentlemen,” the guide announced, “our next stop will be Auschwitz.” And I thought it equally hopeless to describe the amalgam of rage and grief during the visit to Babi Yar outside Kiev. Though upward of 30,000 Jews were slain at that site by German troops in September 1941, there was not a stone, not a plaque, not a single reminder of what had occurred. A small sign commemorated “Russians” who had been executed. Elie was having none of it. He and his colleagues ringed the place with inscribed yellow ribbons. They stated the historical truth in Hebrew letters.
There were many other side trips to the killing fields, and I continued to wonder how all this could be communicated to readers who, like me, were not present—perhaps not even alive—during the Nazi years. But Elie promised, “the words will come when you need them.” And so they did. My story ran in Time and was widely reprinted. Thus began a long friendship with the man who continued to make moral statements in his novels and nonfiction, and to speak them to heads of state.
In 1984, for example, in an effort to embrace the democratic Federal Republic of Germany, Ronald Reagan announced that he would visit Bitburg, a cemetery where Nazi SS officers were buried. Before a televised audience, Elie told the president: “I implore you to do something else, to find another way, another site. That place, Mr. President, is not your place.” Reagan went anyway, but stayed only 10 minutes. A visit to the site of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp was hastily added to the official schedule. Reagan stopped there for an hour.
Decades later, when Hamas began murdering Israeli children, Elie told me that he was going to sign an ad condemning the killers. Referring to the Old Testament, its headline read: jews rejected child sacrifice 3,500 years ago. now it’s hamas’s turn. “The reverberations,” Elie predicted, “will be instantaneous.” He was correct. The London Times rejected the ad outright; after it ran in the New York Times, voices on the left, ever ready to overlook the inhuman when it suits their purposes, attacked the signee. An organization calling itself the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, claiming to represent some 300 Holocaust survivors, bitterly criticized the defender of Israel’s “ongoing occupation and colonization of historic Palestine.”
No matter. Elie continued to go his own way, impervious to foes of any and all sizes. He gave the lie to them at every turn. Those who said that he was self-aggrandizing were disappointed to learn that when he was given the Nobel Prize in 1986, the cash reward went to the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity. The low-overhead charity grants scholarships to needy students of every faith and background.
Those who accused him of an obsession with the Jewish Holocaust, when there had been so many other genocides in the twentieth century, distorted the record. In fact, he spoke and wrote many times in defense of victimized leaders like Nelson Mandela, Andrei Sakharov, and Lech Walesa. “Of course,” he insisted, “we must remember the suffering of my people. At the time of their greatest suffering no one was there to help them. This is why I speak for the voiceless—the Ethiopians, the boat people, the Mesquite Indians, the Argentinian ‘desaparecidos’—and yes, the Palestinians. At times the list appears to be endless.” But in those days his energy was endless as well, and he advocated for all the deprived and disenfranchised. Those actions did not diminish until he entered his eighties. Even then, he remained formidable, until he underwent a quintuple bypass four years ago.
“When I wonder about God’s miracles, I have only to look in the mirror,” he told me shortly after the procedure. “I was a frail child, brought up in the ghetto of Sighet, Romania. Every Easter, I was beaten up by Polish youths. At the age of 16, I was taken to Auschwitz along with my siblings and parents. There, my brother died. My father and I went on to Buchenwald, where he perished. When American troops liberated the camp, I went to France, and became a journalist for an obscure, almost penniless paper. It sent me to interview Francois Mauriac, the Catholic intellectual. He went on about the suffering of Jesus until I cried, ‘There were Jewish children who suffered and died in terrible agonies, why don’t you talk about them?’
“I ran out of the room, embarrassed at my outburst. But he caught up with me at the elevator. Now he was in tears, apologizing and urging me to write my story and theirs. I did, in Night. Not a big seller at all. But gradually, it seemed to enter the world’s bloodstream.
“After that came other books. I moved to New York. There I was run down by a taxi. I survived that, too. I kept writing, lecturing at the 92nd Street Y, teaching at Boston University. I married, had a son, grandchildren. One day, I received a call from Oprah Winfrey, then the most prominent name in television. She had a reading club, and she had selected Night. It became an international bestseller.
“Who knew all this would happen to an obscure, underweight boy who was marked for an early grave decades ago?”
That child looked out at me from the seamed face of a pained and weary laureate who had seen too much but still hadn’t testified enough. “With all the honors, all the experiences,” I asked him, “how would you like to be remembered?”
“As a melamed,” he answered, without a moment’s hesitation. “The Hebrew term for teacher. It is the highest calling known to humanity.”
More than 50 books of nonfiction and fiction bear his name. All remain in print. The foundation scholarships continue unabated. The Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies has become a permanent part of Boston University. His contempt for the Iranian deal, expressed in a final full-page ad, has already been borne out. Elie’s wish will be granted.
Photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images