Elie Wiesel Is Up to His Neck in Work

The world's most famous Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, paid a lightning visit to Israel this week to claim yet another award. At 84, he still has many plans, including writing a book with Barack Obama.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

A year ago, a woman in her forties arrived at Elie Wiesel's office at Boston University. "Do you recognize me?" she asked the Holocaust survivor, professor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Wiesel remembered her well. Twenty years earlier, she had been a beautiful young student in one of his humanities courses. In one class, Wiesel had noticed a flower making its way to her from a male student, passed along by everyone in the lecture hall.

"I remember you. But what can I do for you?" he asked, puzzled.

"Two decades have passed," she replied. "The guy who gave me the flower is now my husband. We have two lovely children and we are happy. I only came to say thank you. Thank you, because we met through you." Then she went on her way.

Wiesel, who has written some 60 books - including the best-seller "Night," about his period in Auschwitz - likes to tell stories. Especially if they have a happy ending. "If I were immersed in constant melancholy I would not be who I am. Don't forget that I come from a Hasidic background, with its song, melody, piyyut (liturgy ) and dance," he told Haaretz this week, in Jerusalem.

Wiesel has been the recipient of countless prizes and prestigious titles in every corner of the world. Among the most prominent: a Nobel Peace Prize, two major medals in the United States, a British title of nobility, membership in the French Legion of Honor, and more than 100 honorary doctoral degrees. But he apparently still has room for more, as this week he made a lightning visit to Israel to collect another honor.

This time it was the Nadav Peoplehood Award, conferred by the Nadav Foundation to individuals who have contributed to the Jewish people and to humanity. The foundation was established 10 years ago by Leonid Nevzlin, who is the chairman of the board of governors of the Tel Aviv-based Beit Hatfutsot: The Museum of the Jewish People and one of the owners of Haaretz.

Wiesel, who celebrated his 84th birthday on September 30, looks and sounds well and says he is up to his neck in work - despite the open-heart surgery he underwent a year ago. "All the arteries were blocked, and I had to cut down the number of lectures I give at the university. But next year I hope to go back to class teaching, which is what I like," he says.

Much of his time is devoted to writing: "I am always working on something, even now. But I can't tell you about it. I believe in superstitions. You don't talk about a child who hasn't been born."

He did, however, agree to disclose an interesting project that will resume after the presidential elections in the United States. "[President Barack] Obama and I decided to write a book together, a book of two friends," he says.

Wiesel became friends with Obama in 2009, a few months after the Democratic candidate was elected. Obama's staff invited Wiesel to join the president on a visit to the site of Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany. Wiesel had first arrived at the camp at the end of World War II, with his father and other prisoners, following a death march from Auschwitz. His mother and his younger sister were murdered there, while Wiesel and his father, who did forced labor there, survived; his father died at Buchenwald. Only Wiesel and two of his sisters were still alive at the liberation.

When Obama concluded his remarks at Buchenwald, he whispered to Wiesel, "The last word has to be yours here." Choking with tears, Wiesel made an impromptu speech in which he said to Obama, "Mr. President, we have such high hopes for you, because you, with your moral vision of history, will be able and compelled to change this world into a better place ... You are our last hope."

Since then, he adds, the two have become good friends and he is occasionally invited to dinner by the president: "We talk about philosophy, contemplation, thought, but never about politics. He is a thinking person, a person with depth and intellectual curiosity."

Do you never talk about Israel?

"From time to time we also mention Israel. He is critical about some things - but show me any president who has not been. I try to explain to him the meta-historical aspect of what is happening in Israel and of the Jewish destiny. I have faith in him. You can talk to him. He is a good listener."

Actually, Wiesel and Obama first met many years ago, when Wiesel was invited to lecture at the California college in which Obama was a student. "Your lecture has stayed with me to this day," the president told him years later. "When I heard that, my pulse went up," Wiesel says. "I told myself that I have to be careful, because I can never know whether anyone in the audience will be a future president."

Never draw comparisons

Wiesel also met Benjamin Netanyahu when the future prime minister was still a young man. After the Entebbe operation, in 1976, in which Netanyahu's brother Yoni was killed, Wiesel received a letter from their father, Benzion Netanyahu. "He wrote me that my books had influenced Yoni," Wiesel notes, "and that my books were mentioned in his letters and diaries."

A few weeks later, Netanyahu, Sr. showed up at Wiesel's office accompanied by a young man who sat in the corner and listened to their conversation. "The youngster was Bibi, who was a student in the United States," Wiesel recalls. "After that he came frequently. He never told me what he wanted. I suppose he wanted to meet the person who had had an influence on his brother."

What is your opinion of Netanyahu's performance as prime minister?

"I know that politics in Israel is existential - not like in America, where I live and work. So I am very careful about giving advice. After all, who am I? I know that there is sensitivity here to the historical nexus, without which one cannot understand what is going on in this place. A tiny country surrounded by enemies, which always has to contemplate its survival."

Do you accept the analogy Netanyahu draws between the Iranian nuclear project and the Holocaust?

"I understand why he is making the analogy, but I would not make it. I never draw comparisons. After all, words fail when it comes to the Holocaust. I never compare the Holocaust to any other tragedy. But I am not prime minister ... For the past three years, I have been waging a struggle against [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad around the world, demanding that he be arrested and placed on trial, as was done to Eichmann. He should be charged with a desire to commit genocide. I hope the Mossad, which caught a man like Eichmann, will be able to catch him and get him tried in an international court. Someone like him must not be allowed to sleep quietly."

Is liquidation also an option?

"I would not say 'to liquidate.' I can't hear myself saying that someone should be killed. I am not capable of that."

On the subject of the Holocaust: Last month, the sculptor Dani Karavan dedicated a memorial monument in Berlin to the Holocaust of the Gypsies. He told Haaretz that if it were up to him, he would make do with one monument for everyone murdered in the Holocaust and not have separate monuments for Jews, gays and Gypsies, as was done in Berlin. What do you think?

"I remember the night on which all the Gypsies in Birkenau were counted. It happened close to where I was, it was impossible not to hear. But I am against comparisons. It is wrong to compare one person's death to that of another. If in present-day culture a monument is what is crucial, then fine. Who am I to tell them how to remember? I respect their right."

The Holocaust has also come up in the discourse about the refugee problem in Israel.

"I came to Paris after the war as a refugee. We had nowhere to go. I also came to the United States as a refugee. When I hear the word 'refugees,' I automatically and emotionally identify with their rights. [Prime Minister Menachem] Begin brought refugees from Vietnam to Israel. I see that as a great compliment to Israel, which constitutes a hope for refugees. If I were in the government, I would persuade the prime minister to see the beauty in the fact that people see Israel as a haven - from their sadness to their hope."

Prof. Yehuda Elkana, an educator who died recently, called for the Holocaust to be "forgotten" and was critical of the intensity with which it was implanted in the consciousness of the Israeli public. As a Holocaust survivor, what do you think?

"I will not argue with the deceased, but I think the exact opposite. The Holocaust must be remembered, with all the pain. A Jewish people without a memory has nothing to do here: the Bible, Abraham, Moses ... The problem is different. The human brain is not capable of absorbing all these memories, because there are too many of them. Whom shall we remember? Only the relatives? Only those who were put to death as soon as they arrived at the train? Only the children? It is good for us to learn and know the limits of humanity. We must not forget what civilized people once did. People raised on Kant, Fichte and Hegel. People who listened to Beethoven and read Schiller in the morning, and in the afternoon killed children and parents."

Do you think about death?

"I have been thinking about death for many years. From the place I came from, I lived with the dead and amid death. I knew that every hour could be the last, and every day the final one. It is part of my character and my nature. I am not preparing anything, but one of my students is now organizing my archive. He found thousands of things which I myself no longer knew existed. It takes a great deal of time. My archive will be stored at Boston University, where I have worked for 40 years."

Wiesel lives in New York with his wife; his son and two grandchildren also live in the United States. He has never lived in Israel, though our conversation was conducted in Hebrew. He learned the holy tongue as a boy in his native Romania. His mother, Sarah, came from a Hasidic home. Under her influence, Wiesel drew close to Judaism and pursued religious studies. His father, Shlomo-Elisha, was an adherent of the Enlightenment.

"When I was 13 he told me, 'It is fine that you study Talmud every day, but I want you to learn modern Hebrew as well.' He found a tutor for me. To this day I remember his curly earlocks," Wiesel recalls.

Wiesel went to the tutor three times a week and studied the works of Bialik, Tchernichovsky and Frishman. "That is still my Hebrew. I don't know any slang, because I don't live in Israel," he says. In 1949, he was sent to Israel as a reporter by a French newspaper and decided to pursue a career in journalism. For years he was a correspondent for the mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth, first in Paris and afterward in the United States.

The media world has changed unrecognizably since then...

"When I worked for Yedioth Ahronoth there were many daily papers in Israel, including Al Hamishmar [the organ of the left-wing Mapam party]. When I started, Yedioth was the poorest of the papers, and when I left it was the richest. When I was a correspondent in New York there were 12 daily papers. It was hard for me to buy them all - my salary wasn't the highest. Today there are only three. Everything has changed. Radio and television took their place. I personally prefer the written word."

Radio and television? We are in the age of the Internet ...

"To this day I don't know how to use it. I do not belong to this world. I continue to write everything in longhand. If I have to see something on the Internet, I ask my secretary or students. I am lucky, because I have people who do it for me. I can allow myself not to learn the things I do not know. That's how I live, continuing to write everything by hand."

His encounter with the world of computers was traumatic, he recalls. "My son was studying computer sciences at Yale. He told me he was ashamed to say that his father didn't use a computer. So he brought me a computer and said, 'At least see what it is.' That day I wrote 12 pages on the computer with two fingers ... The spirit descended upon me and I knew it was good. But suddenly the screen went black. I sat there, literally gaping. I switched colors. The machine got Alzheimer's."

Click the alert icon to follow topics:



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.
From $1 for the first month

Already signed up? LOG IN


בנימין נתניהו השקת ספר

Netanyahu’s Israel Is About to Slam the Door on the Diaspora

עדי שטרן

Head of Israel’s Top Art Academy Leads a Quiet Revolution

Charles Lindbergh addressing an America First Committee rally on October 3, 1941.

Ken Burns’ Brilliant ‘The U.S. and the Holocaust’ Has Only One Problem

Skyscrapers in Ramat Gan and Tel Aviv.

Israel May Have Caught the Worst American Disease, New Research Shows

ג'אמיל דקוור

Why the Head of ACLU’s Human Rights Program Has Regrets About Emigrating From Israel


Netanyahu’s Election Win Dealt a Grievous Blow to Judaism