Remembering Elie Wiesel

by Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA)

“Permit me to tell you a story.”

These are the words Elie Wiesel often used to begin an evening’s lecture or one of his “college encounters”.

Why am I using these words? Because they tell best how it happened that I was destined to write a story about this man who has become the prophet of his generation, which is also mine.

A long time ago when I was a little girl pushing a doll carriage along the sidewalk of my Berlin street, a young boy my age sat listening to stories in the House of Study of his hometown in the heart of Central Europe. We were far apart in location, background, and upbringing, yet, without our knowing it, a common experience was being prepared for us which would affect both his future and mine. We did not sense the coming of this experience, because we were both still living in the world of childhood, where all bad stories have happy endings.

Then the whirlwind came. Nothing remained the same.

Destiny was kind to me. I was permitted to live and to grow up in the United States. There, more than two decades later, I picked up a booklet containing a number of stories by a writer named Elie Wiesel.

At some moments in life one knows one has just been struck a by a flash of truth. Everything comes together at that point: something happens, a new insight is born. Such a moment is not easily forgotten.. I was aware of my particular moment when I read “Face in the Window,” a passage its author called “a legend of our time.” With powerful graphic words it describes a man who watches without comment the deportation of the Jews of his town. He says nothing, he does nothing He only observes. He is the symbol of a person, a nation, a world’s inertia in the face of evil: the “I don’t want to get involved” syndrome.

The piece touched me deeply. I knew nothing of Elie Wiesel. Not who he was, nor where he came from. But I felt instant kinship with him. He felt what I felt, and he knew how to express his feelings. He had the gift, the power, and the strong urge to make the words come out. And he spoke to me.

I heard Elie Wiesel speak at public lectures. I saw him on television, knew his face from the covers of his many books.

He was famous.

When my publisher asked whether I would write a book about Wiesel for young people, I said yes, not because I am an expert on Wiesel, but because we both lived through the same unusual time and he expressed so many feelings which I could share.

On a bright January day I traveled to New York for my first face-to-face meeting with Elie Wiesel. My appointment with him was in a mid-Manhattan office suite where an organization had lent him space. In a prior telephone conversation, he had given me explicit directions how to reach his office.  I was impressed with his concern that I should not get lost.

I was properly nervous for this interview with a celebrity. The dark-eyed slender man in the trim gray business suit welcomed me with a sweet smile and did not act like a celebrity at all. With old-world courtesy he ushered me into the room where we would talk.

We sat in the small office and he spoke to me of his childhood, especially of his parents. I had brought along fragments of my manuscript-to-be, and he was particularly interested in seeing that I had the right “tone” in my opening pages. In his own writing, he told me, he must feel the words “sing” before he is sure he is on the right track and continue with the story.

Sitting on a hard chair facing me, Wiesel answered my many questions patiently. I had the feeling I had known this man all of my life: I was seeing a friend.I felt united to him by the fact that, as children, our lives were altered by the Holocaust.

After the interview was over, I wandered through the lunch-hour crowd on East 42nd Street. Originally, I had planned to spend the afternoon with friends in New York. Now, I found I no longer wanted to keep the date.

I had just experienced a homecoming. Those who have heard Wiesel speak at an “encounter” know the sensation: it is a feeling of understanding completely, and of being completely understood. For me, it was an experience I needed to hug to myself, to enfold and digest in private, before talking about it and sharing it with others. I took the next train back to Philadelphia.

“Make this book your own,” he said to me when shaking my hand in farewell that day.”Tell the story the way you feel it.”

My aim then was to tell the story of a victim traveling through hell and emerging as a victor. Perhaps you too, will turn to the stories of Elie Wiesel and understand just a little more clearly why the things he had to say concern you, too.

Born in Germany, Ellen Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for young adult readers, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, and Elie Wiesel. Her most recent publication is The French Physician’s Boy, a novel about Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic.

This piece is excerpted from Witness for Life, the biography about Elie Wiesel that Ellen Stern wrote for KTAV (1982), and is reprinted with the kind permission of the author. 

13 Comments

Filed under American Jewry, European Jewry, history

13 responses to “Remembering Elie Wiesel

  1. After reading this piece, I feel I have missed out because I never knew this man. I love that he “must feel the words “sing” ” in his writing… I will remember that as I write. Great advice.

  2. Elie Wiesel, may we never forget!

  3. He’s amazing!!..I’m avid reader when it comes to testimonies and stories of triumph like his. Truly encouraging person never to be forgotten.

  4. I haven’t read any of his books but I definitely will

  5. I never believe for a moment that the US is a ‘safe’ place for Jews. We are merely tolerated. I was brought up in a non observant Jewish family. My Dad was a WWII vet who fought in the battle of the Bulge and was taken to a ‘liberated’ concentration camp, where he was an eyewitness to the atrocities and condition of the ‘survivors’. He also spoke fluent German. So he was ordered to interrogate the Nazi captives . My Dad was blonde and blue eyed , and to the captives , he looked Aryan. After each formal interrogation in fluent High German, my Dad told them ” I’m a Jew”, and the captives cowered and said ” alles is Kaput, and Hitler ist no gute”.

    I actually saw, Mr. Wiesel at an Lubavitcher event for the Rebbe’s Yahrzeit. I had read “Night” in college, and attended a Temple University Hallel house event , with graphic pictures of the Holocaust , which horrified me. I have experience , from living in diverse neighborhoods with anti semitism and aggressive attempts to convert me. After college , I joined a Jewish Identity Program and heard Holocaust survivors speak. I played violin for one of their programs. Now the home exhibit of Nazi photos and items, are housed in the Klein Jewish Community Center , in NE Philadelphia.

    I believe that We Should Never Forget the Holocaust or the Atrocities that are going on in the world today. Elie Wiesel’s message is personal for me, and we will miss his input, in writing , speaking , and demonstrating about the social issues that need to still be addressed.

  6. This is soooo sad. I met Elie Wiesel last January. He was explaining his life during WWII. It was life changing. He shouldn’t ever be forgotten.😦

  7. sharingiscaring00

    I am a huge fan of Ellie W…thanks for posting in honor of Him….I am a reader of all his books, I love history and I posted him on facebook to honor his death…~Jackie

  8. Thank you for sharing this.

  9. Great post. When my wife was in sixth grade she wrote to Elie and asked if she could interview him for a school report. He wrote back and offered to come and speak to her whole class, but on one condition, he needed a ride. My mother-in-law and then twelve-year-old wife picked up Elie and drove him one hour to the elementary school. Elie was charming, kind, and wise. His generosity and charisma left a lasting impression on my wife that she still tells about with a glow on her face. Elie was certainly one of a kind. A legacy who left lasting impacts on many. This post encapsulates just that. Thank you.

  10. I am a huge fan and am so glad so many do. I own this book and will for my entire life and I miss him!!

  11. I have been teaching his memoir to sophomore students for the past fifteen years. Each year I feel it in a new way. I see it through the eyes of a new group of students. I hope and pray that I do justice to his work as we discuss it. I wish that I could have met him in person.

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