Elie Wiesel, My Ladder: Memories of My Longtime Teacher and Friend

Professor Wiesel and I spoke every Rosh Hodesh for 25 years. Our conversations were special, but not always easy.

Elie Wiesel, pictured in 2009.
Bela Szandelszky, AP

For some 25 years my teacher, Elie Wiesel, and I spoke by phone every Rosh Hodesh, the beginning of the new Jewish month. The idea came up when we took leave of one another by saying “a good Hodesh, Hodesh tov,” after meeting in his New York apartment. I suggested that, if we didn’t have the opportunity to speak in person on every Rosh Hodesh, at least we could try to do so by phone. He characteristically responded, “Great.” And we did.

That was his way. I would make a suggestion, and he would answer in the affirmative, celebrating his student’s initiative. Rosh Hodesh would loom up, and, even when his remarkable travels took him far afield, he would try to get back to me within a few days. Sometimes the conversation would be brief, but intense. Onone Rosh Hodesh in the winter month of Kislev, I pointed out that the day’s Torah reading spoke of the Patriarch Jacob’s dream of a ladder stretching from the ground toward heaven, and added, “Is there any greater episode, more splendid image?” Quoting the relevant Hebrew verses from memory, Professor Wiesel took the episode and image to the next level: “What does it mean? We are each other’s ladder, we help each other by being the other’s ladder.”

He was surely mine. But he was telling me — as he told all his students — I and we were surely his.

He was my ladder, lifting me beyond what was taken for granted, searching for what he called the penimiyus of the penimiyus, the inner dimension of the inner dimension. That dimension could be simple but revelatory. After my son was born, Professor Wiesel instructed me that essential was, on the day before his brit milah, to speak to my son about what it means to be a Jew, what it means to be descended from Avraham Avinu, whose signature he would bear and whose mission he would have the privilege of continuing in the world. I did as my teacher said, enveloping my week-old son in the story of the Jewish people.

Speaking on Rosh Hodesh was special but not always easy. Rosh Hodesh Sivan was the day before the yahrzeit of Professor Wiesel’s mother and youngest sister, who were murdered in Auschwitz on 2 Sivan, 5704 (1944). For a long time, I did not refer to that tragedy, knowing as I did the depth of pain associated with it. The last thing I wanted to do was to cause my teacher suffering, or even discomfort. His father’s yahrzeit, difficult though the memory must always have been, had a different, more public coloring. Indeed, Professor Wiesel had begun an early 1961 essay, “The Death of My Father,” with the words: “The anniversary of the death of a certain Shlomo ben Nissel falls on the eighteenth day of the month of Shvat. He was my father...”

In contrast, his mother and sister’s yahrzeit remained a private zone. Yet not entirely. In his 1994 autobiography, “All Rivers Run to the Sea”, Professor Wiesel had written about the loss, first commenting that it was on the 2nd of Sivan 5696 (1936) that his grandfather’s master, the Viznitzer Rebbe, had passed away; The eight year old Eliezer had commemorated the sad occasion by hanging a photograph of the Rebbe on the wall. Professor Wiesel then went on to note that it was on the same date, eight years later, that his mother and sister perished.

So, as the years went on, I felt it insensitive, if we were speaking on or around 2 Sivan, not to acknowledge the loss. One recent year when I did, Professor Wiesel, having often discussed with me my research on wartime Jewish calendars, responded wryly: “I see you do well at keeping track of other people’s calendars!” “Not all people,” I replied, “certain people. You taught us that, too,” trying to convey that his lessons were never being ignored or lost. “What else can we do but teach one another,” was his comment, typical of his uncompromising faith in what his students could offer.

Dates and calendars were also my entry to asking about Auschwitz and Buchenwald. It was unusual for us to discuss his wartime experience, not because it was off limits, but rather because he was so generously insistent on hearing about me. “How is your parnassa? Do you want me to do anything to help?” He was ready to do anything — and, over the years, did, both in ways I knew of, and in ways behind the scenes.

Yet there were times when one of us would turn the conversation to the war. “Do you remember seeing a Jewish calendar in Buchenwald?” I inquired. Like all my questions, no matter how arcane or self-centered, my teacher took this one with the utmost seriousness. “I remember vaguely seeing one. But I didn’t need it because Menashe knew it all.” “Menashe” referred to Rabbi Menashe Klein, ztz”l, the great Torah sage who, five years Professor Wiesel’s senior, had been his companion and mentor in the concentration camp, in the postwar youth centers in France, and, later in life, as a weekly study partner. “Menashe” was one of those who epitomized the power of Torah to radiate light to the world, even in Buchenwald; eventually, for Rabbi Menashe’s Jerusalem study center, Professor Wiesel dedicated a yeshiva in memory of his father.

“I knew Menashe was sick and had been including his name in my prayers every morning,” Professor Wiesel related to me shortly after Rabbi Menashe’s passing in 2011. “That day, however, somehow I forgot to include his name; later I received a phone call telling me Menashe had passed away early that morning. It was just like a Chasidic story,” my teacher concluded, bringing meaning and sense to an experience of profound loss.

This was my teacher’s way, whether on our Rosh Hodesh conversations or otherwise. Through study and dialogue, meeting in person or speaking over the phone, nothing could have pleased him more than to nurture his students, helping us cope with sadness, suffering, and death, filling us with the joy of his care, concern, and love of learning and people.

And to show us what we could become. “I knew where you were going even then, before you knew, which is only natural,” he shared with me some thirty-five years after we had first met. How did he know? By that time, I didn’t need to ask.

Avraham (Alan) Rosen has authored or edited twelve books on Holocaust literature, testimony, and history. He was a doctoral student and teaching assistant for Elie Wiesel, and a talmid muvhak for almost forty years. His latest book is titled 'Elie Wiesel: Jewish, Literary, and Moral Perspectives.'