I have read many letters by Elie Wiesel. I read dozens of eulogies that he wrote and delivered. But now I myself find it difficult to find the words to say goodbye to him. Elie Wiesel, who was revealed to me over many years during which I established and directed his archive at Boston University, was a different figure than the one many people in Israel know.
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In our work together he was a man who reflected great warmth, seriousness with humor, deep thought with a smile on his lips.
A small anecdote. Each year Elie Wiesel would give a series of three public lectures at Boston University. More than 2,000 people would come to each lecture – most of them, by the way, non-Jews. One time the subject of his lecture was “messiah.” I wondered how he would begin, although I usually read the content of his lectures beforehand. His opening words were “I believe in the messiah. Jesus was not the messiah.”
I thought the ceiling in the lecture hall would fall down, that the audience would flee. But everyone remained seated and he delivered another sentence. “I believe in the messiah as Maimonides described him.” And the lecture began from there.
That was Elie Wiesel. A man of extraordinary courage, with clear opinions, enormous knowledge of the Jewish bookshelf and of general culture, and with a unique ability to harness this enormous knowledge and diversity of contexts for the people of Israel and the Land of Israel.
Elie did not live in Israel. Ever. But he was the greatest of all the lovers of Israel and he worked for it unceasingly even when he was occupied above and beyond. The matters of the State of Israel came before anything else.
In the early 1950s he set himself a mission: to inculcate the memory of the Holocaust for the coming generations and to prevent it from happening again anywhere else on the face of the earth. For his work and his achievements in this realm he received the Nobel Peace Prize.
In one of his letters I found that he had wanted to be remembered in the future as having devoted his life to Soviet Jewry. I asked him about this and he said that for 25 years, between 1965 and 1990, not a day went by that he did not devote at least one hour to this issue. In the Elie Wiesel Archive the subject of the Holocaust and Soviet Jewry vie in extent. Many more than 100,000 documents are devoted to each.
Elie Wiesel did not put one penny that he received for his work involving the Holocaust into his own pocket. Not even the proceeds from his book “Night,” the most widely read book in the world about the Holocaust. The mudslinging statements in Israel that he was making a “business” out of it hurt him very deeply. When we spoke about this on more than one occasion, he said to me “I won’t say it publicly, but you know that all the money I received in the past or will receive in the future – all of it will be a donation to the State of Israel.
That was Elie Wiesel. The one and only, whom we as Jews must thank from here and for all the generations of the future.
Yoel Rappel is the founder and director of the Elie Wiesel Archive.
As told to Ofer Aderet.