How Elie Wiesel the Journalist Saw Israel

Once Elie Wiesel decided Israel was not for him, and before he became a best-selling novelist, he had a serious career as a journalist in Israel. The stories he never published may have been the most telling.

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Elie Wiesel in 2006.
Elie Wiesel in 2006.Credit: Eyal Toueg
Shlomo Nakdimon
Shlomo Nakdimon

Eliezer Wiesel, known universally as Elie, garnered every possible international honor. His life medal was the fact that he was an ember plucked from the fires of the Auschwitz crematoria, who in his autobiographical novel “Night” instilled the consciousness of the Holocaust in every corner of the globe. The Nobel Prize for Peace only enhanced his influence.

We met occasionally in the period when I was a journalist covering the international junkets of Israeli prime ministers and foreign ministers, and we also prayed together on Shabbat at the Fifth Avenue Synagogue, an Orthodox shul in Manhattan, when my work took me to the United States. Elie is usually described as having renounced his faith, in the wake of the Holocaust, but his Judaism was so Jewish that it was unsustainable without his lifting his eyes to the Lord. I sat next to him at services as he, wrapped in a tallit, turned the page in the siddur, was called up to the Torah and recited blessings praising God and his kingship.

In my heart I thought that even at these moments, he believed that he was fulfilling the vow he made: “I wrote to testify, to stop the dead from dying” – to defend their memory and their honor. Among those dead, some cried out to the heavens, “Shema Yisrael.” Others protested, “Where are you, God?” Elie was flesh of the flesh of both.

By the time we first met, Elie was already an international figure. I asked him why he didn’t immigrate to Israel, for even if he didn’t live there, the Jewish state was part of his being. He was assuredly an uncompromising defender of Israel, but apart from short stays, he saw the country from afar but never made it his home.

This is his story.

After he emerged from Buchenwald, upon the death camp’s liberation by the Allies, he lived in Paris. Three times the door to the Land of Israel was shut in his face. The first occasion was in November 1947, following the United Nations’ adoption of the partition resolution. He felt incapable of remaining far from the land where his fellow Jews were fighting to establish a state. In Paris, he tried to enlist in the Haganah, the pre-state Jewish underground army, but was rejected in disgrace. Perhaps his appearance – the tormented face that never changed throughout his life – worked against him.

Elie Wiesel in 2006.Credit: Eyal Toueg

The second time was after May 14, 1948, when he registered at the draft office in Paris that Israel had established to take the names of volunteers who wanted to join the fighters there. To his chagrin, the examining doctor found him unfit and advised him “to come back another time.”

After the first time the door was shut, he had taken a job as a translator and editor for the weekly newspaper published in Paris by the Irgun pre-state underground organization (known by its Hebrew acronym, Etzel). After it was shut a second time, he returned to the weekly. According to his account, he had known nothing about the “wars of the Jews” in Israel, and learned about them for the first time at the Irgun weekly. A case in point: the Altalena affair, in which, in June 1948, the nascent Israel Defense Forces, at the order of David Ben-Gurion and his government, sank an Irgun ship carrying weapons and new immigrants.

A young Elie Wiesel in Paris.Credit: Yad Vashem Archive

So it was that in June 1948, Elie Wiesel wrote his first article – recounted in his 1995 memoir, “All Rivers Run to the Sea” – “a fictional commentary on the incomprehensible tragedy of the Altalena we considered it not only a tragedy but a crime – namely, murder and treason.” This bloody incident, it can be said, was also the watershed for him, determining his path into the future. Anger and rage at “good Jews – indeed, Jewish soldiers, even Jewish heroes – firing on their brothers, survivors of hell, who had come to fight alongside them.”

That was the third shutting of the door. “I would not be seen again at the recruitment office I bore a secret wound whose scar would be a long time healing,” Wiesel wrote in his memoir. That episode apparently led him to write a second article, rife with philosophical reflections, titled, “Victors and Defeated,” in which he partly states and partly asks: Even if the Germans were defeated, did we, the Jews, win? A war of Jew against Jew was for him a Jewish defeat.

When the Irgun’s Paris-based weekly shut down in the wake of Israel’s establishment, Wiesel made contact with a French newspaper chain, which sent him to Israel as a correspondent for the daily L’Arche, to write a series of article about the arrival and absorption of new immigrants who had survived the Holocaust in Europe.

The tales he heard from them were harsh: The Israelis don’t like us, the newcomers told him, they don’t want to accept us. Or, in the words of a teacher from Lodz: “We came here hoping to escape humiliation.” A merchant from Radom told him, “in their [the Israelis’] eyes, I am human wreckage.” Or, he wrote, “proud Israelis” asserted: “Six-hundred thousand of us defeated six well-equipped Arab armies. Six million of you let yourselves be led like lambs to the slaughter.”

Wiesel not only reported, he also pondered, “How to explain it to [the Israelis]? How to tell them that they didn’t understand, could never understand?”

In his memoir, he summed up what had effectively come to pass. “Zionism’s virtues had been so lauded and the disasters of the Diaspora so decried that the two now seemed incompatible: Zionism was great, beautiful, and honorable; the Diaspora had perverted and dishonored man, leading him to Auschwitz. In the kibbutzim surviving children and children of survivors were urged to forget the past In this atmosphere little attention was paid to the Holocaust. For many years it was barely mentioned.”

After agonizing over the matter, he did not publish the series of articles.

Dov Judkowski.Credit: Yaakov Saar / GPO

Following the end of his relationship with L’Arche, Wiesel sought to become the Paris correspondent for an Israeli newspaper. Yedioth Ahronoth was the only daily that did not have a correspondent in the City of Light. The editor in chief, Dr. Herzl Rosenblum, opened its pages to him. The paper’s owner, Yehuda Mozes, invited him to his home, where he met Dov Judkowski, a relative of Mozes – and, like Wiesel, a survivor.

According to a popular saying, you don’t learn journalism, you’re born with it. Wiesel’s first editor at the Irgun weekly, Yosef Chrust, who had journalistic experience and was fluent in many languages, implanted in him the ironclad rule that is a gift for all generations, declaring: “Your [written] sentence must be clear enough to be understood and enigmatic enough to pique curiosity. A good piece combines style and substance. It must not say everything – never say everything – while nevertheless suggesting that there is an everything.”

Chrust was later an editor at Herut, the newspaper of the Revisionist movement in Israel, where he edited the work of novice journalists who went on to become stars in their field.

Judkowski formulated a parallel rule about journalism – catchier and more Israeli: “A newspaper is not an encyclopedia. Seven words are enough to say everything. The main thing is for [people named] Rabinovich and Mizrahi to understand what you write.”

Yoel Rappel, director of the Elie Wiesel Archive in Boston.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

Yoel Rappel, director of the Elie Wiesel Archive in Boston, has related that there are more than a million documents, which were being catalogued with an eye to the future – namely, digital access for researchers. Among them are 1,000 letters exchanged between Judkowski and Wiesel, a correspondence of teacher and pupil, which merit a separate book of their own.

In the Israeli newspaper industry, the 1950s and ‘60s were marked by the titanic battle between Yedioth Ahronoth and Maariv. Only those who were caught up in the fray, as I was – as a journalist with Yedioth – can understand the underlying thrust of Judkowski’s letter to Wiesel, in which he wrote: “I want you to keep an eye on all kinds of tricks that newspapers use in order to boost their circulation.” Wiesel replied: “A daily cartoon would be good lots of boxes, piquant headlines You know better than me.”

Judkowski: “You did an excellent job and everyone agrees that you wiped the floor with the competitor [Maariv], as [a leading journalist, Natan] Gordos, a friend of [Maariv’s] Philip Benn, put it: ‘Benn’s coverage was goyish, Elie’s was Jewish.’”

Wiesel garnered a huge scoop when he became the first reporter to interview the Israeli boy Yossele Shumacher immediately after the boy was liberated from his kidnappers. (In a 1960 cause celebre, Shumacher’s grandfather, who wanted the boy to have an ultra-Orthodox education, snatched him from his parents, and arranged to have him smuggled out of the country. Ben-Gurion ordered the Mossad to bring him back, at all costs.)

‘Don’t miss out’

In 1963, Judkowski, who was at the time the paper’s managing editor but later was its editor in chief, and who was knowledgeable about behind-the-scenes developments, cabled Wiesel: “My dear Elie, an important matter. You know undoubtedly that there is American pressure for us to stop the scientific development at Dimona. That is the ‘diplomatic issue’ that is being mentioned in [media] reports about the correspondence between [President] Kennedy and [Prime Minister Levi] Eshkol. This week, Eshkol sent Kennedy a reply. We need to follow up on this and get reactions from the American side. The replies are sent via the embassy in Washington. Please, don’t miss out.”

For his part, Wiesel updated Judkowski: “Dov my friend, a report – but for heaven’s sake don’t run it. The United States refused to sign a mutual security pact with Israel. The security guarantee that [President] Kennedy gave Golda a year ago still stands. I’m the only one who has this information, so if you publish it [anonymously], they will know it came from me.” Indeed, Golda Meir, both as foreign minister and later as prime minister, had a special relationship with Wiesel, and it’s likely that he received the information from Meir herself.

Judkowski and Wiesel continued to correspond even after the latter left the newspaper to take up an academic career in the United States. In this context, this remark by Judkowski to Wiesel is of interest: “ told me that you are becoming one of the most famous authors in the United States – I am starting to collect your letters. One day they’ll probably be worth a lot of money.” Indeed, “Night,” which documents the Holocaust with a power previously unknown, has sold tens of millions of copies in virtually every possible language.

Peruse back issues of Yedioth Ahronoth from the period in which Wiesel worked for the paper and you will find that his stories enriched it with hundreds of lead headlines and numberless revelations.

Pierre Mendes.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

I’ll conclude with a story that displays elements of good journalism, even if the reporter didn’t get what he was after.

In the 1950s, Judkowski assigned Wiesel to interview French Premier Pierre Mendes France. France was then entangled in a number of international brouhahas, and an interview with a media-reluctant prime minister would be considered a scoop. Wiesel’s request to the French leader’s bureau was turned down. He then wrote the premier a despairing and nave but also smart letter in his superb French: “Mr. Prime Minister, If you refuse to grant me an interview, one of two things will happen: either my newspaper, which is spending a fortune on cables, will go bankrupt and I will be unemployed, or I will be fired. In either case the responsibility will be yours.”

Mendes France scribbled a note in reply: An interview, no; but if your paper goes bankrupt or you are fired, I will personally find you a job. Wiesel reported this to Judkowski, who replied, “See, you are already in direct contact with him. Just keep trying.” Judkowski never threw in the towel.

A somewhat odd-looking person used to turn up in Israel during that period. He had difficulty moving his left leg and his right hand. A gilded emblem of the Palmach, the Haganah’s elite strike force, was always pinned to his lapel. He proved his stature by displaying photographs in which he was always seen in the company of world-renowned figures. Tall tales. But the fact was that when reporters waited in enclosed areas during international events, this person was always seen by the side of world leaders. Wiesel met the man – he said his name was Yosef Givon – at an event at the Israeli Embassy in Paris. They got on famously, and Wiesel told Givon about the unattainable interview with Mendes France. Givon’s response suggested that it would be a piece of cake for him to arrange it.

President Barack Obama has lunch with Elie Wiesel in the Oval Office Private Dining Room, May 4, 2010. Credit: Pete Souza / White House

One day, after numerous postponements, Givon invited Wiesel to accompany him to the residence of the premier. His wife received the visitors warmly, even kissing Givon on both cheeks. “My husband will be here any minute now,” she promised, and set the table.

Wiesel was on pins and needles. Suddenly the phone rang. The hostess answered and was informed by her husband that he was unavoidably delayed in parliament and therefore would not be coming. Wiesel reported to Judkowski, who as always did not despair. “Why give up? You’re a friend of the family now,” he told him. The way was open.

The interview was finally held, although not thanks to Givon, and only after Mendes had retired. Wiesel consoled himself by noting sarcastically, “But he did take me to lunch at the home of the Mendes France family, didn’t he?” Givon died young. Poet Haim Gouri published a series of articles in the Israeli newspaper Lamerhav under the heading, “Who knows Yosef G?” – but never cracked his secret.

Many years passed. Wiesel was a welcome guest in the residence of American presidents and Israeli prime ministers. His secret intercession even resolved disagreements between the two countries. When Israeli television broadcast a program in which he appeared next to President Barack Obama at Buchenwald – as a survivor of the death camp, he was able to give the president a first-hand account – I thought: What person in the world is capable of instilling in the leader of the Free World, who through no fault of his own is not well informed about that terrible history, a true feeling of what it was like there? My own feeling is that it could only have been Elie Wiesel.

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