Kati Marton: ‘Elie Was Not a Stranger to Any Human Frailty’
At Moment‘s 2016 benefit gala, journalist Kati Marton spoke about her memories of Elie Wiesel, who died in July. A transcript of her remarks is below.
Remembering Elie Wiesel: ‘With Him You Went to the Heart of Things Fast’
By Kati Marton
Each of us fortunate enough to have known him carry our own Elie in our heart. My friendship with Elie began in a dimly lit, Stockholm synagogue in 1981. I arrived from Budapest to attend the first World Conference on Raoul Wallenberg. What good fortune to find myself sharing a pew with Elie! I quickly learned that with him you went to the heart of things fast. A shared language sped our communication. Hungarian was his mother tongue and mine, and French our second language (in his case, the third after Hebrew). So, mixing Hungarian and French, I related to Elie what I had just learned in Budapest: that I was not Roman Catholic—the religion I was raised in—but Jewish, and that my grandparents had been part of the same monstrous transport as Elie himself; and with the same destination: Auschwitz. Unlike Elie, my grandparents did not survive. To this day I have never seen a photograph of them. All this I discovered during an interview with a woman rescued by Wallenberg in Budapest. “How could my parents keep such a basic fact from me?” I asked Elie. I was full of outrage. He was not. Elie gave his characteristic shrug and that look of his: angelic sadness. “Your parents survived,” he said. “You are here because of that fact—don’t be so tough on them.”
Elie was not a stranger to any human frailty. What had he not seen during his long night in that cauldron of cruelty? Nor did it bother him that I was ignorant of his faith and its rich culture and history—now suddenly my inheritance. “You are a good person,” he said, and that seemed sufficient for us to be friends—for three decades.
Much later, I told him that I had met a still-spry lady in her 80s—my grandparents’ fellow passenger on the death train, who told me my grandmother, Anna, recited the Shema—the Jewish prayer which begins “Hear, O Israel”—the whole way to Auschwitz. “So,” Elie said, “You have the faith in your bloodstream.”
Nothing about his fellow man surprised Elie. People are not angels—this he knew. When, during a long drive back to New York from my son’s New England boarding school, Elie told me Bernard Madoff had robbed him of his savings, “ A Jew!” I spluttered, “A Jew could do this to you!”
He shook his head. “Un escroc,” he said simply. A crook, in French. Again the small shrug as if to say, Jews have crooks, too.
There was something paradoxical to me about a deeply observant Jew who was at the same time very much a man of the world. But that did not mean he forgave or rationalized cruelty or inhumanity—whoever its victims. Cambodians, Bosnian Muslims, Tibetans, Syrians—he spoke up for all of them until the last. Nor was he surprised that the world had once again turned demented and glacial (his words). Nor that again we find sound reasons to stay on the sidelines while inhumanity unfolds before our eyes in real time in Syria.
How we miss his strict moral authority, his simple, powerful, searing words. “Mr. President,” he told President Ronald Reagan, who planned on laying a wreath near Nazi graves, buried under snow in Bitberg Cemetery, “this place is not your place!”
I loved Elie Wiesel’s handsome, lined, infinitely sad face. It was the face of Central Europe, my father’s face. When he smiled, the sun seemed to peek though the clouds for just one minute. To say that we shall not see his like again is to state the obvious. Far more meaningful would be if we could say of the atrocities Elie witnessed as a child—we shall not see their like ever again. If only we could.