Reviews | Elie Wiesel: An Extraordinary Life and Legacy
Washington Jewish Week, June 14, 2019
By Aaron Leibel
Wiesel book helps people remember the man who helped people remember the Shoah
MOMENT EDITOR NADINE EPSTEIN HAS EDITED A BOOK ABOUT OF HER FRIEND ELIE WIESEL.
Yes, Elie Wiesel was a survivor who became the symbol of Jewish suffering and endurance. Yes, he was a fine writer, whose “Night” helped jolt the world’s conscience and change the widespread indifference to the Holocaust. Yes, he won the Noble Peace Prize in 1986.
But, says Nadine Epstein, a friend and the editor of the book “Elie Wiesel: An Extraordinary Life and Legacy,” he was so much more. Showing his humanity — demonstrating that he was not “one-dimensional” — was one reason that she conceived of, and created, the book.
“He was a lovely, gracious man who actually had a mischievous twinkle in his eye,” says Epstein, who is editor-in-chief and CEO of Moment magazine, based in Washington. “He was capable of being really encouraging — he was incredibly encouraging professionally to me — and to many other people.
“He also had an ability to reach people in ways that they understood. He wasn’t an ideologue, and he managed to meet and befriend Republicans and Democrats, people who had all different points of view. He listened to African Americans and Sudanese, to Rwandans, Cambodians, Armenians and Palestinians, and he managed to have conversations with them.”
Epstein says she also shared with her friend and mentor a love of music.
“Music was very important to him, and he had a beautiful voice,” she says.
Shaken by Wiesel’s death in 2016, Epstein says she resolved to do a book about him. In the course of her interviews and conversations for the book, she says she learned far more about him than she had previously known.
The book contains a brief pictorial history of Wiesel; some of his speeches and writings, including a 2013 interview in Moment, which Wiesel helped found in 1975; observations by young readers about “Night” and discussion questions for that book; and 40 reflections about Wiesel based on interviews.
Epstein says she chose the interviewees to provide “a wide range of voices and points of view. … Some people knew him and others didn’t know him quite as well but had unique perspectives.”
In his interview, Patrick Desbois, a Catholic priest whose Yahad-In Unum searches for and documents mass graves of Jewish victims of the Nazis in Eastern Europe, says there is a danger that Wiesel and his work will be forgotten because “people do not want to think about genocides.”
Epstein acknowledges that danger, saying that she often speaks to non-Jews who don’t know anything about Wiesel or the Holocaust and even Jews whose knowledge of him is limited to knowing that he wrote “Night.”
“One of the reasons I decided to do this book,” she says, “is that it is incredibly important that people know about him and the Holocaust.”
Former TV journalist Ted Koppel, who anchored ABC’s Nightline for 25 years, presents a completely different — and fascinating — perspective. Wiesel was “clueless” about American popular culture, he says, noting that despite teaching in St. Petersburg, Fla., in 2009, and a massive advertising campaign for the event, he had no idea that the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals were to play in the Super Bowl across the bay in Tampa,. Nor had he even heard of the Super Bowl itself. Driving his friend to an event, Koppel notes that Wiesel marveled that the TV anchor could pump gas into his car.
Wiesel’s unfamiliarity with the Super Bowl and gassing up a car were not signs that he was “an intellectual snob,” Koppel says. “A lifelong struggle against inhumanity had left little room for the ordinary, the mundane.”
The book is full of photos, all solid, many wonderfully expressive, but at least two that I found almost unbelievably powerful and moving. The full-page shot of Wiesel accompanying the Koppel essay comes as close as I’ve ever seen of a photograph displaying a person’s soul.
And the picture of Oprah Winfrey, clutching his arm outside of Auschwitz and clearly trying not to cry, is the personification of one of our species’ finest qualities: empathy.
Epstein says her book has been well-received since its publication this spring. She hopes it is accessible to a wide range of readers, “from those who are Jewish or not Jewish, to high school students and to everyone 12 to 120.” She believes it will prove useful for classes in public and Jewish schools and for discussions in synagogues.
Robert Siegel and Nadine Epstein will discuss Elie Wiesel: An Extraordinary Life and Legacy at Politics and Prose in the District on June 29 at 6 p.m.
Aaron Leibel is a former editor at The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week.
A window into the life of Elie Wiesel, Jewish Advocate, May 22, 2019
by Jack Riemer
Nadine Epstein, the Editor in Chief of Moment Magazine, has put together this tribute to Elie Wiesel by some of the people who knew him best, and it is a precious memento to have. Some of the contributors are celebrities, and yet in the end it is the words of Elie Wiesel and the pictures of him—some of which appear here for the first time—that are the most valuable parts of this book. For, as always, Elie Wiesel seems to transcend all the portraits of him and all the praises that are given to him.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks opens this book with a powerful statement, and almost all the tributes that follow seem like mere echoes of his words. He says that Yosef’s last request to his brothers was that, if God ever takes them out of Egypt, they promise that they will take his bones along with them. And when the Israelites travelled through the wilderness, they carried with them, not only the new tablets that Moses brought down from Sinai, but the broken fragments of the old tablets as well. And so, it has been all throughout Jewish history. We carry with us the fragments of our people’s past, their broken lives, and their dreadful deaths, and we refuse to let either their lives or their deaths be forgotten. They live on in us as we continue the journey towards the future. And that was Elie Wiesel’s mission. He gave voice to the victims of the holocaust and he bore witness in the name of humanity to the crimes against them.
The celebrities in this book—who consist of some of the spiritual and the intellectual leadership of Israel and of American Jewry—say much the same things: that he taught the next generation of Jews to remember what happened, that he stood up to President Reagan on world television, and told him that his place was with the victims and not with the perpetrators, and that he taught us all that indifference in the face of evil is the cardinal sin. It is only Martha Hauptman, his devoted secretary at B.U. his son, Elisha, who talks about what it was like to grow up in the home of an icon, and Ted Koppel in the afterword to this book, who enable us to pierce through the mystique of the man and to get to see the human being behind the aura.
Martha Hauptman tells of how he persuaded her to leave her desk and go to be at the bedside of her mother in the hospital, because he insisted that being with her at the end of her life was more important than being on guard at the entrance to his office. Elisha Wiesel tells of how his father once persuaded him to come in and do his homework when he was a child by agreeing to show him how to play soccer, and how he racked up point after point in order to get him to come inside, even though he had probably never played soccer before in his whole life. And Ted Koppel tells of how impressed Elie Wiesel was when he saw him fill up a gas tank by himself when they were travelling on the road because he had never himself been taught how to do that.
Read this book so that you can commune once again with this complex and many-sided man, who could speak with world figures and yet who seemed painfully shy, who felt for the suffering people of Rwanda and Cambodia and yet who was totally identified with the Jewish people, and who taught us to remember evil and yet not give in to hate.
I only wish that there had been some recordings included in this book so that we could listen as well as read the words that he spoke in Oslo and at the white house and at the United Nations , and so that we could hear again the gentle lyric way with which he sang the zemirot that he brought along with him from his childhood home. Who knows? Perhaps we will have these included in the next edition of this book.
Rhapsody in Books Weblog, April 8, 2019
This moving collection of speeches by Wiesel, pictures of him, and essays about him by others pays tribute to the life of Elie Wiesel, who died on July 2, 2016.
Eliezer Wiesel was born in 1928 in Romania, and was deported to Auschwitz in Poland by the Nazis in 1944. There his mother and sister were immediately sent to the gas chambers. He and his father were put in a work camp, and later sent on a death march to concentration camps in Germany in advance of the Allied armies. They ended up in Buchenwald, a Nazi concentration camp near Weimar, Germany. Elie’s father died in late January, 1945. His last word was “Eliezer.
His father missed his freedom by three months. The Soviet Allies had reached Auschwitz eleven days earlier, and the Americans were making their way towards Buchenwald. On April 11, American tanks arrived at the gates, and Buchanwald was liberated by the United States Army. Elie was 16.
In 1955 Elie wrote a book about his experiences in the concentration camps, first in Yiddish and then translated (by him) into French. An abridged version of the memoir was published in English in 1958, called Night. The book would eventually be translated into 35 languages. He went on to write 56 more books, as well as to deliver talks around the world in defense of human rights.
In the Foreword to this tribute, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes:
“Whatever he did and wherever he went, Elie carried with him six million fragments of our people. He was the voice of memory when others sought to forget.”
It may seem like too much of a burden for one man, but as essayist and Wiesel biographer Joseph Berger observed, Wiesel told him “I felt that having survived I owe something to the dead. That was their obsession, to be remembered.” More than anyone else, Berger averred, Elie Wiesel made sure the six million would be remembered.
But he had another message to impart as well.
Sara Bloomfield writes:
“If you wanted to boil down everything to its essence with Elie, the biggest sin was indifference. He felt that indifference was a bigger sin than hate and evil. So he himself had to lead his life that way. That meant speaking truth to power. . . for him, voice was action.”
Ronald S. Lauder said he still hears Elie’s voice, “telling us what he would say to anyone who would listen: that people of good conscience have a moral obligation to speak out, be heard and fight bigotry.”
Many of the essays about Wiesel were written by people who were influenced by him to alter their career paths or to change other important life decisions. They felt embraced by him, inspired by him, and gained courage from his example.
People looked to Wiesel to deliver some insights into the nature of evil in the world and how to understand it. Where was God during the Holocaust? Where is God in the face of all the other suffering in the world? Michael Berenbaum said that it took Wiesel until the 1990s to make peace with God. But he did so; the cantor who conducted his funeral service said that “Elie was a man of profound faith and sincerity…”
Weisel, in an interview with Nadine Epstein in 2013 included in the book, spoke about his relationship with God, saying:
“. . . with God, the question, ‘Where is God?’ has obsessed me for many years and still does without an answer.’ But, he explained, he remained profoundly attached to his parents and grandparents and thought ‘What good do I do them if I say goodbye to God?’”
In a 1972 commencement address he urged graduates to have faith in spite of the mystery of God. He said:
“. . . anyone who tells you he has the answers to the questions — with all apologies to your teachers — I do not believe them. There are no answers to true questions. There are only good questions, painful sometimes, exuberant at others. Whatever I have learned in my life is questions. And whatever I have tried to share with friends is questions.”
As “The Economist” pointed out in its obituary for Wiesel, the questions about God never stopped for him:
“His Talmud-studying childhood had been devoted to God, but where had God been in the camps? Why had He allowed Tzipora, the little golden-haired sister, to die for nothing? Why had He caused old men to fall down from dysentery on forced marches, when they might have died peacefully in their beds? Why had God created man, if only to abandon him? What exactly did God need man for?
. . . He railed at God, and yet still strapped on his tefillin and recited his prayers as fervently as he had done on the day of his bar mitzvah. For ritual, too, was part of memory. And besides, how could he ever get closer to the mystery of God, unless he battered Him with his doubts?”
He may not have had answers about God, but he did have opinions on mankind. In an interview with David Axelrod in 2013, Axelrod asked him how he still believed in God in light of the Holocaust. Wiesel replied in effect, “Why look at God? Why not look at man?”
Elie Wiesel seemed to reflect that school of Jewish thought that holds that God created mankind, gave them rules by which to live, and then left them to it. In the face of evil, the emphasis should not be on asking “Where is God?” [i.e., “passing the theological buck” to a deity who has given us free will, per Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg] but on putting the responsibility for evil on human beings. Rabbi Ruttenberg points out, just as Elie Wiesel might have said himself, that it is human beings who have the power to build gas chambers or dismantle them, or to stand idly by and do nothing.
In a speech he gave at the White House on April 12, 1999 reproduced in this book, Wiesel said that indifference was more dangerous than anger and hatred:
“…indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor – never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten. . . . in denying their humanity we betray our own.”
Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, at which time the Committee called him a “messenger to mankind,” stating that through his struggle to come to terms with “his own personal experience of total humiliation and of the utter contempt for humanity shown in Hitler’s death camps,” as well as his “practical work in the cause of peace,” Wiesel had delivered a message “of peace, atonement, and human dignity” to humanity.
An Afterword by Ted Koppel sums up Wiesel’s character by way of explaining why he would never have made a good President of the United States:
“He would have been incapable of the shallowness, the sheer nastiness. Elie Wiesel could never have adjusted to the constant demands of moral compromise. He was, simply, an unwavering symbol of uncompromising decency.”
Discussion: Perhaps there is no better time for this book to be published. It is not only that the incidence of anti-Semitic acts been on the rise. The Anti-Defamation League reported an increase of nearly 60 percent in anti-Semitic incidents between 2016 and 2017 in the U.S. The French Interior Ministry observed that anti-Semitic incidents in France jumped by 74 percent in 2018. In addition, alarming figures disclosed by CNN document widespread lack of knowledge about the Holocaust:
“Ignorance about the Holocaust is growing, particularly among young people. In the United States, a 2018 survey showed that 66% of millennials could not identify what the Auschwitz concentration and death camp was.
A recent CNN poll in Europe revealed that about a third of the 7,000 European respondents across seven countries knew ‘just a little or nothing at all’ about the Holocaust. In France, nearly 20% of young adults between the ages of 18 and 34 said they had never heard of the Holocaust.”
This shocking amount of unfamiliarity with what happened in the not too distant past puts not only Jews at risk, but even the idea of what civilization should be, and how different right is from wrong (as opposed to, say, the amoral assessment of Neo-Nazis versus protestors as consisting of “good people on both sides”).
Today we even have heard Trump supporters on the right, such as the one cited here, arguing that Hitler “just wanted to make Germany great again.”
We desperately need the reminder provided by this book about the twisted ideologies, fear, and prejudice that led to this horrifying lapse of humanity. Elie Wiesel, as Rabbi Sacks stated, “was the voice of memory when others sought to forget. …” There is so much danger in forgetting. In honoring Wiesel, we honor that memory just as we honor life more than its destruction from hate.
Evaluation: It would be hard to exaggerate how inspirational this book is. Elie Wiesel, as Ted Koppel said, converted pain, injustice, and horror into love, compassion, and tolerance. This tribute does not focus on the horror, however, but on the steps Wiesel took to fight silence and indifference, and to advocate for “tikkun olam,” the Jewish concept of social action and the pursuit of social justice to “heal the world.” Tikkun olam asks people to take ownership of their world instead of looking to God to do it. Wiesel was a living embodiment of, and advocate for, the necessity for humanity repairing the world through justice and righteousness.
This book would make an excellent gift for everyone you know, but especially, for everyone you love.
Gazeta, spring 2019
by Tressa Berman
This newly released tribute to the late Elie Wiesel (1928–2016) is a selected compilation of visual narratives and personal reflections on the life and legacy of one of the most preeminent human rights thought leaders of the 20th and early 21st centuries. Elie Wiesel is remembered here by such prominent and diverse Jewish voices as Itzak Perlman, Michael Berenbaum, Dani Dayan, Mark Podwal, and Martha Hauptman (his personal assistant for almost thirty years), plus many more unexpected contributors, including Oprah Winfrey. Most vivid are the portraits by those who knew him best, and most telling are the praises by historians of the Holocaust and Jewish history, the survivors, the celebrators of life, and the recoverers of loss, to which Wiesel’s life itself was a living testament. Indeed, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out in the preface of the book, “Whatever he did and wherever he went, Elie carried with him six million fragments of our people. His was the voice of memory when others sought to forget.”
“I have learned the danger of indifference, the crime of indifference. For the opposite of love … is not hate but indifference.”
Included in this compendium is an interview with Wiesel himself, conducted by Elisha Wiesel (the son of Elie and Marion), standing before the famous quote of his father: “One person of integrity can make a difference.” This personal and public account of his father’s accomplishments and teachings segues into perhaps the most captivating section of the book—Elie Wiesel’s own words, essays, and speeches, written and presented in over forty years. His mission was not only to remember, but to act in accord
with that memory to prevent collective harm and to heal it where it already occurred. As he stated in his acceptance speech for the 1985 Congressional Gold Medal of Achievement, “I have learned the danger of indifference, the crime of indifference.
For the opposite of love, I have learned, is not hate but indifference.” From receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 until the final decade of his life, Elie Wiesel lived his words with a prophetic grace and an empathy for humankind borne of his own experience.
Midwest Book Review, June 2019
Synopsis: A survivor of Auschwitz and a powerful, enduring voice of the Holocaust, Elie Wiesel (1928-2016) was also a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a hero of human rights, a professor and the author of more than 50 books.
Among his accomplishments, Wiesel co-founded Moment Magazine with Leonard Fein in 1975 to be a place of conversation for America’s Jews. For editor-in-chief Nadine Epstein, he became a mentor and friend after she took over the magazine in 2004.
In “Elie Wiesel, An Extraordinary Life and Legacy: Writings, Photographs and Reflections”, Epstein shares her memories of Wiesel and brings together 36 interviews with friends, colleagues and others who knew him — including, his son Elisha, Michael Berenbaum, Wolf Blitzer, Father Patrick Debois, Ronald S. Lauder, Bernard Henri-Levi, Kati Marton, Natan Sharansky, Ben Kingsley, and Oprah Winfrey. The foreword is by British Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and the afterword is by broadcaster Ted Koppel.
To celebrate this humanitarian and keep his inspiration alive, Epstein presents readers with a visual history of Wiesel’s life and examines the influence of Night. This chilling story of the Holocaust has already gripped the souls of millions of readers.
Epstein also includes a selection of his speeches and writings, lively conversations with teenagers about Night and discussion questions. This deftly edited biography is enhanced with more than 100 photos.
Critique: Impressively informative, exceptionally well organized, and memorable presented, “Elie Wiesel, An Extraordinary Life and Legacy: Writings, Photographs and Reflections” is an extraordinary and unreservedly recommended addition to personal, community, and academic library 20th Century Biography collections in general, and Elie Wiesel supplemental studies reading lists in particular.
Jewish Ledger, June 25, 2019
by Stacey Dresner
Three years after his passing, those who knew Elie Wiesel as a friend and mentor reflect on his life and legacy
NEW YORK –When Nadine Epstein became editor-in-chief and CEO of Moment Magazine in 2004 its co-founder Elie Wiesel became a friend and mentor.
Now, just prior to the third anniversary of Wiesel’s death on July 2, Epstein has published Elie Wiesel: An Extraordinary Life and Legacy – Writings, Reflections, Photographs.
Edited by Epstein, the book includes “A Visual History” of Wiesel that takes the reader from his birth in 1928 in Sighet, Romania, his time as a teenager in Auschwitz, and the publication of Night, his seminal work on his Holocaust experience, to his years as a journalist, professor, Nobel Peace Prize winner and as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says in his forward, “the leading voice of the survivors of the Holocaust.”
The bulk of the book is made up of reflections about Wiesel from 36 contributors including Michael Berenbaum, founding director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Philanthropist Ronald Lauder, Natan Sharansky and Oprah Winfrey.
The book also includes more than 100 photos of Wiesel: portraits of him as a solemn young man, family photos, and group shots with well-known colleagues and friends.
Besides her duties at Moment Magazine, Epstein is founder and executive director of the Center for Creative Change and founder of the Daniel Pearl Investigative Journalism Initiative. She has covered politics in the Chicago bureau of the New York Times and at the City News Bureau of Chicago. She was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan, holds a B.A. and M.A. in International Relations from the University of Pennsylvania, and was a University Fellow in the political science doctoral program at Columbia University.
Epstein has written several books, contributed to anthology collections and co-written a documentary film that was a semifinalist for the 2001 Academy Awards.
In her introduction to the book, Epstein, who lives in Washington, D.C., says, “We believe that it is critical to keep Elie’s memory alive at a time when antisemitism and prejudice of all kinds in the United States and Europe are once again on the rise and the lessons he taught have been called into question.”
Recently, the Ledger talked to Epstein about her book, her friendship with Elie Wiesel, and how she says he “expanded her universe.”
Wiesel with Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and Josef Rosensaft in Jerusalem at a 1970 commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen.
JEWISH LEDGER (JL): In your introduction to your new book you write, “When you come into the presence of a hero like Elie Wiesel and pay attention, your universe within expands.” How did he help your universe to expand?
NADINE EPSTEIN (NE): When I first met him I had just taken over Moment and I went up to Boston to see him. He was then teaching at Boston University and I walked into this gorgeous, spacious, wood-paneled, book-lined room and he jumped up from behind his desk and said, “What can I do for you?” Every time I talked to him, by the way, he would start the conversation by saying this. It was an incredibly lovely gesture; he was very generous in that way.
Still, I was completely tongue-tied. I felt like I was speaking to a character in Night who was 15 years old and suffering through the Holocaust. It took me a long time to become comfortable enough to be able to see him as a person. Over the years we became friends and we bonded over writing. He was very encouraging of my work at Moment and pushed me to have confidence in and develop my own voice. In the process of writing the book my universe was expanded even further. In talking to other people who knew him I came away with a fuller view of who he was. Understanding another person more deeply, in particular Elie, has helped to enhance my universe.
On Dec. 10 1986, Elie Wiesel received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway, presented to him by Egil Aarvik (right) chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, as his wife, Marion, and their son, Elisha, looked on.
JL: Did any of the contributors share something about Elie Wiesel that you hadn’t known before – anything that surprised you?
NE: I didn’t go into it with preconceived ideas. Every contributor’s story had its own beauty, its own meaning and its own wrinkles of surprise. Some people said things that managed to capture something in a perfect way, like Jonathan Sacks in the book’s foreword, “Whatever he did and wherever he went, Elie carried within him six million fragments of our people.”
I learned a lot from Natan Sharansky. He talked about how Elie’s most significant legacy was having brought the plight of Soviet Jews in the 1960s to the attention of the world and of the American Jewish community, and how Elie’s book The Jews of Silence helped unify the American Jewish community to take action and succeed in bringing Jews out of the Soviet Union.
I was struck by Jean Bloch Rosensaft’s story. She is the child of survivors and as a young girl, she and her sister and her parents traveled to Israel on a ship. The girls would explore the ship and they would often see this haunted looking man walking the deck. He didn’t say anything to them, but they were scared of him. One day they were walking on deck with their father and their father said, “Elie, Hi! What are you doing here?” and Elie said “Sam!” It turns out they knew each other. This story was a glimpse into Elie’s suffering as a young man. There are more than 100 photographs in the book and it’s reflected the early photos. He doesn’t smile.
Ted Koppel tells a wonderful story in the afterword he wrote for the book. He and Elie were very good friends. Elie was going to speak to his “Nightline” staff at a retreat or something and Ted picked him up at the airport in his car. Ted stops for gas. He gets out of the car, puts the gas in the car, pays, gets back in the car and Elie says to him, “How do you know how to do that?” You learn about another aspect of Elie – that he was a man who didn’t drive or put gas in cars. He inhabited a very intellectual world.
In the reflections of Elie’s cantor, Joseph Maloveny, you’ll learn that Elie had a beautiful voice and that he knew a huge amount about classical music, Jewish liturgical music, and folk music.
Sonari Glinton, who was one of Elie’s students at Boston University, tells this wonderful story about how he was in school on the south side of Chicago, and he was assigned to do a book report. Out of laziness, he chose the shortest book he could find, Night, and it completely transformed his life. He ended up going to school at Boston University because Elie was there. He became Elie’s student and later a journalist because, as he says, Elie taught him to speak out for what he believes. Sonari went on to be the longest serving African American male at NPR.
JL: Why write the book now?
NE: In the book, Father Patrick Desbois [founder of Yahad-In Unum, which locates and documents mass graves of Jews murdered by the Nazis in Eastern Europe] warns that we are in danger of forgetting Elie Wiesel and people like him. I agree. The Holocaust survivor generation is leaving us, and I’m always surprised by how many people have never heard of Elie. In the Jewish world, more people have heard of Elie. They know his name. They know he is somebody they should know about. They may know that he wrote Night, which they may have read. But they often don’t have a deep understanding of who Elie was and what he stood for.
At the dedication ceremonies for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on April 22, 1993 – Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day: (l to r) Israeli President Chaim Herzog, President Bill Clinton, and Elie Wiesel.
JL: Were you also influenced to write the book by the steep rise in antisemitism in the U.S. and around the world?
NE: Absolutely. The world has changed dramatically since Elie died, which will be three years ago July 2. … It was impossible to foresee that in a few months there would be a newly empowered Far Right in the United States that, which would be whipping up an icy blast of national anti-Jewish sentiment, a kind we hadn’t seen in decades. It was months before neo-Nazis trolled Jews in Whitefish, Montana; before the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville; before the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue; before the killing at the Chabad service in Poway, California.
Elie missed all this and there is a part of me that’s glad that he did. But then there is another part of me that wishes that he were here because he was a very visible presence, a respected voice in speaking out against prejudice of all kinds. And that’s important to remember – that he spoke out against all kinds of prejudice, all kinds of suffering, all kinds of genocide, even though he felt the Holocaust was a unique kind of evil. And one of his major issues was antisemitism. He had this ability to speak with political leaders, and speak his mind with them in a very graceful, kind of non-ideological way, and he did so with President Reagan during Bitburg.
In 2006, Wiesel and actor and humanitarian activist George Clooney addressed the UN Security Council about the ethnic violence in Darfur.
JL: What impact do you think he would have had if he were alive today?
NE: I think Elie would have been someone who would have commanded the respect of President Trump and members of his administration and he could have been a guide in a positive way. And I think there are some lessons we can learn from him. He had a special touch. He managed throughout most of his life to transcend polarization. He had a way of being able to talk to a lot of different people and part of that was because he had that moral gravity that came with having suffered through the Holocaust; he was someone who had experienced and known evil in its ugliest form.
There were other reasons he could transcend polarization as well. He was able to reach people in ways they understood. He wasn’t an ideologue. He was able to talk to Republicans and Democrats. And while he enjoyed the tumult of cultural, religious, social and political thought, he always wanted that tumult to be tasteful and civil.
So what can we learn from him? We can, as he counseled, not forget, not be indifferent. We can remember to care about all kinds of suffering and take action to combat it. But we can also listen and encourage other voices and we can graciously bend over backwards to be civil in our own discourse. Elie knew too well what would happen when communication and civility break down and evil ascends.
This message is incredibly important for us to hear now, to remember, and to take forward with us and to teach to our children.
Book Q&As with Deborah Kalb, June 28, 2019
Nadine Epstein is the editor of the new book Elie Wiesel: An Extraordinary Life and Legacy, She is the editor-in-chief and CEO of Momentmagazine, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Q: Why did you decide to compile and edit this book about Elie Wiesel?
A: I went to his funeral in New York, and I thought, I need to do something. I travel a lot, and I talk to people, and in the big world out there are a lot of people who haven’t heard of who he is, or they just know his name. Even in the Jewish world not everybody knows that much about him. I thought it important that he not be forgotten.
When I first met him in 2004-2005, I went to see him in Boston, and my heart was beating so fast. I knew him from reading Night, I knew him as a teenager [in the book]. He grew to be so much more. That voice informed everything he became. He overcame so much suffering. He had a much larger message of combating suffering around the world, and that’s important today.
Q: What was his role in creating Moment magazine?
A: He was the co-founder, with Leonard Fein. He chose the name.Der Moment was the most famous independent Yiddish paper that was read all over Eastern Europe. Elie’s dad used to read the paper. Elie was a yeshiva boy—he was forbidden from reading about the world. He was very devoted to Judaism, to studying texts. He sawDer Moment on the kitchen table and never read it.
After the Holocaust, it was clear he wasn’t going to be a rabbi or hazan; he was going to have a secular career. He loved to write, and he thought of being a journalist because of Der Moment. The name carried the legacy of the paper that was extinguished by the Nazis. [Wiesel and Fein] brought it to a new era.
Q: How did you choose the people to contribute to the book?
A: Some people I just knew we wanted to have. Some knew him well, some had an important way of looking at him.
Natan Sharansky was included because Elie had written Jews of Silence. He went to the Soviet Union in the early-to-mid ‘60s and awakened the American Jewish community to what was going on in the Soviet Union with Jews. Jews never agree with each other, but they became unified and got the Jews out of the Soviet Union. That’s the most important thing [Sharansky] thinks Elie should be remembered for.
Ted Koppel spoke at the funeral. He had amazing stories about Elie, about how one time he was speaking at a retreat for Nightline staff. Ted drove him, and pulled over at a gas station and put gas into the car. Elie said, How did you know how to do that? It said so much about Elie. He was a grounded person but he lived in a very intellectual world.
I wanted to have diversity in the book. Elie was very encouraging of women but the world he lived in was mostly filled with men. I went out of my way to find women he was friends with. I ran into Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, and she said, I knew Elie, and I said, You can be in the book now!
Sonari Glinton grew up the son of a single mom. He was in Catholic school and didn’t like reading. He picked the shortest book [for an assignment], which was Night. He writes about how it transformed his life. Later he studied with Elie at Boston University.
Q: In your introduction, you write, “We believe that it is critical to keep Elie’s memory alive at a time when anti-Semitism and prejudice of all kinds in the United States and Europe are once again on the rise, and the lessons he taught have been called into question.” What do you see as his legacy?
A: The third anniversary of his death is July 2. The world has changed so dramatically since he died. On July 2, 2016, the New York Times headline said, Donald Trump deletes tweet showing Hillary Clinton in a Star of David shape. Europe was in the throes of the refugee crisis. There were a lot of alarm bells.
This was before Richard Spencer had a victory party [where people said] Heil Trump, before Charlottesville, before worshippers were massacred in Pittsburgh and a woman was killed in Poway.
Elie missed all of this. On the one hand, I’m glad he missed it, but on the other hand I wish he were here. He was a very respected voice. He could have spoken out about prejudice of all kinds, including anti-Semitism. He was one of a few people President Trump and members of the administration would have had respect for
He had the ability to talk to everyone. He had written an incredible book, he had a history that allowed him to carry the resonance of the Holocaust. He wasn’t an ideologue. He could talk to people—he met and befriended Democrats and Republicans. He was very cosmopolitan, and he embraced civil discourse.
One very important lesson is that we can’t be him, but we can not forget, and we can remember to take action to combat suffering, to bend over backwards to be civil in our discourse. He knew what happened when it breaks down and what evil ascends from that.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: With this book, we created our own imprint. We partnered with Mandel Vilar Press to do the Elie Wiesel book. We have two more books coming out.
One is with Bob Mankoff, the former New Yorker cartoon editor,Have I Got a Cartoon For You, about Jewish cartoonists.
One is with [the late] Theodore Bikel, about his childhood. It’s an illustrated book, expanded by his wife, Aimee Ginsburg Bikel.
Both are coming out in the fall.
Also, Moment took over all the Forward print readers, and I’m working on my own new book!
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I think for me the book did expand my understanding of Elie. It’s a wonderful book to share with students, young people from 10 up. It’s important for young people to look at it—it makes his life very accessible. It looks like a gift book, and it is, but inside it has real content.
—Interview with Deborah Kalb
Too Jewish podcast, May 28, 2019
Nadine Epstein was interviewed by Rabbi Sam Cohon. You can listen to it on iTunes here or visit http://www.toojewishradio.com/
Three Years After Elie Wiesel’s Death, We Are Desperate for Voices Like His
Newsweek op-ed, July 2, 2019
by Nadine Epstein
On July 2, 2016, when Nobel Prize peace laureate Elie Wiesel died, a New York Times headline read, “Donald Trump Deletes Tweet Showing Hillary Clinton and Star of David Shape.” Across the Atlantic, Brexiteers had already won their fateful referendum, and Europe, the continent of Wiesel’s birth, was in the throes of the refugee crisis.
Although alarm bells were ringing, it was impossible to foresee that in a few short months the newly empowered far right in the United States would whip up nationalist sentiment and generate an icy blast of anti-Semitism such as this country had not seen in decades.
It was a few months before members of Richard Spencer’s National Policy Institute would celebrate with Nazi-style “Hail Trump” salutes at an election victory party.
It was six months before neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer would begin to target and troll Jews in Whitefish, Montana.
It was just over a year before the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville left a woman dead.
And it was more than two years before the massacre of worshippers at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue by a self-proclaimed anti-Semite and the shooting at a Chabad service in Poway, California, that killed one Jew and injured three more.
Wiesel missed all this, and part of me is glad. Another part of me wishes he were here, a visible presence, a respected voice to speak out against growing prejudice of all kinds—including anti-Semitism.
After all, he had performed the important function of standing up to an American president before. In 1985, President Ronald accepted German Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s invitation to speak at the cemetery in Bitburg, Germany, where members of Hitler’s elite Waffen-SS were buried. Holocaust survivors were shocked and distressed. Wiesel, the chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, took the lead.
“That place, Mr. President, is not your place,” he said during a speech at the White House that April upon receiving the Congressional Gold Medal. “Your place is with the victims of the SS.” Wiesel’s stance made headlines and was overwhelmingly supported by both houses of Congress, Jewish organizations, veterans’ groups and others.
I believe Wiesel, beloved by many Jews and non-Jews, would have been one of the few people who would have commanded the respect of President Donald Trump and members of his administration. He could have been a guide and positive influence.
Wiesel had a special touch. He managed throughout most of his long public life to transcend polarization, albeit not the bitter polarization we have now. He was able to talk to everyone, including world leaders who sought him out.
How did he do it?
To begin with, he had a history that readers of his first book, Night, could never forget. Wiesel carried with him the resonance of the Holocaust. He was a man who had seen, experienced and known evil in its ugliest form. This imbued him with a moral authority respected by people on all sides.
Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel attends a press conference after an Interfaith Leaders delegation meeting at the United Nations on October 27, 2004, in New York City.CHRIS HONDROS/GETTY
Shaped as he was by his religious Jewish upbringing and despite his belief that the Holocaust was unique, Wiesel knew suffering was not. As someone who helped give us language to express the horror of the Holocaust, he wanted others to find their language and be recognized for their pain. He listened to—and counseled—African Americans shaped by legacy of slavery and deeply entrenched societal racism. He did the same for victims of genocides in Sudan, Rwanda, Bosnia, Cambodia and Armenia.
As both a particularist and a universalist, Wiesel was able to reach people in ways they understood. I recently spoke with a reporter who had been at Wiesel’s apartment on November 4, 1995—the day Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. He was there to interview Wiesel, but instead sat by as person after person, including world leaders, called to discuss the tragedy. Wiesel conversed with the callers in English, French, Hebrew and Yiddish, and the reporter was struck by the nuance with which Wiesel fielded calls and comforted so many from disparate political, cultural and religious backgrounds.
Wiesel was not an ideologue. He practiced discretion (remember discretion?). For example, he didn’t agree with all Israeli government policies, but was generally careful not to express them publicly because, he said, he didn’t live there. He met and befriended Republican and Democratic presidents. He was, in my experience, a cosmopolitan man who eschewed xenophobia and extreme political beliefs, and embraced civil discourse, thinking and behavior.
He enjoyed the tumult of cultural religious social political thought, but he wanted that tumult to be civil and tasteful.
We can’t be Elie Wiesel. But we can and should learn from those like him who survived the Holocaust and other genocides. We can, as he counseled, not forget, not be indifferent, remember to care about all suffering and take action to combat it. We can listen and encourage other voices, and graciously bend over backward to be civil in our discourse.