Who was the real Elie Wiesel?

Who was the real Elie Wiesel?

(My latest book, entitled Satan’s Synagogue, has just been released after ten years in the making.  Part historical text, part fictional story – or what I call a faux history – this chronicle follows a circuitous route: from Brooklyn to Austria to Rome to Jerusalem to Nazareth, from Elie Wiesel to Auschwitz to the Holocaust to remembrance and history-making, from Mark to Peter to Jesus to Josephus to a Roman senator named Gaev, from Josephus to Franz Joseph to Josepher.  Along the way, there are ancient documents unearthed, and an assassination attempt uncovered, and a bicycle ride made through Galilee and old Phoenicia, or what I’m calling the Tour de Josephus.  The book is available here: https://www.amazon.com/Satans-Synagogue-Brian-Josepher/dp/1796731927/ref=sr_1_2?crid=1BOJK9W717GRJ&keywords=brian+josepher&qid=1554993946&s=books&sprefix=brian+josepher%2Caps%2C188&sr=1-2-catcorr.

     I am writing a series of profiles related to the book.  This is part one of five.  Part two will examine another famous chronicler.  Look for “Who was the real Josephus?” coming in May.)

I first wrote to Elie Wiesel in the winter of 2006.  “This is a book proposal,” I began.  “I would like to write a biography on you.  A different kind of biography, perhaps, from the books already published.  The biography I propose would not be a blow-by-blow accounting of your life….  I aim to write an intimate portrayal.”

     An “intimate portrayal”: what did I mean?  Words came to mind: insightful, penetrating, investigatory, critical yet objective, sympathetic, balanced.  That last word resonated in my mind: a balanced biography.  That kind of book did not exist on Wiesel.

      Why didn’t that kind of book exist?  There are enough books on the life and work of Wiesel to fill a library.  There are profound theological studies.  There is an abundance of literary critique.  There is much hagiography.  There are volumes written as part of youth literature.  Wiesel himself wrote over a thousand pages of autobiography, in multiple volumes over many years.  Still, despite the voluminous work, Wiesel remains a great unknown, an enigma.  The big questions endure.  How did a Hasidic Jew from a small town in Northern Transylvania become the face of the Holocaust?  How did a yeshiva bocher, or a young man in a religious school, evolve into a man of conscience and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate?

     Over the course of eight years, I navigated his life.  I interviewed schoolmates from Wiesel’s heder, or Hebrew elementary school.  I interviewed his cousin, who was with him in Auschwitz.  I interviewed his closest friend from Buchenwald 1945.  I interviewed his friends from France and the period following the war.  I interviewed his French tutor.  I interviewed the counselors who guided him.  I interviewed theologians and thinkers who knew Wiesel in America.  I interviewed Wiesel’s key lieutenant from the Holocaust museum building era of the 1980s.  I interviewed his eldest sister, until she abruptly ended the interview.  The list goes on.

     I then used all of that material to build a literary investigation in the tradition of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.  My research uncovered an Elie Wiesel never before uncovered.  I called the work, The Gospel According to Elie Wiesel.  GAEW never found publication.  It was too iconoclastic for the reading realm.  It upset too many sensibilities.  I then used my research on Wiesel, added multiple story lines and characters, including Jesus and Josephus, created a faux history, and called it Satan’s Synagogue.  Below you will find a profile of Wiesel.  Or, in the language I used in Satan’s Synagogue, a portraiture.  Here are ten brushstrokes:

1) Wiesel was a master teacher, according to former students.  One of those students, Ariel Burger, recently wrote a book entitled, Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom.  In a question and answer article used by the publisher for publicity, Burger spoke to the genesis of his work on Wiesel.  He couldn’t believe that “so little had been written about his role as a teacher, even though he always said that teaching was the most important public role he played.” (see Ariel Burger’s author page on Amazon, https://www.amazon.com/Witness-Lessons-Elie-Wiesels-Classroom/dp/1328802698/ref=sr_1_fkmrnull_1?crid=1IYDXH5UFHNOQ&keywords=ariel+burger+witness&qid=1554900149&s=gateway&sprefix=ariel+burger%2Caps%2C126&sr=8-1-fkmrnull)  He went on to say that “Wiesel was very supportive of the idea, and we spent time discussing what I might include.”  Of course, those sessions occurred.  Wiesel never allowed anyone outside his circle to write on him, as I documented in Satan’s Synagogue and as I will touch on in these brushstrokes.  Wiesel used his circle to control his narrative.  He held autocratic authority over the telling of his story.  That’s not the grave disappointment found on Burger’s pages, though.  There’s not one critical evaluation of Wiesel in Witness.  All we get is the idealized Wiesel.  The real Wiesel – his ambitions, his overwhelming need to control, his public façade of purity, his fragile psychology, or what I called his psychache in Satan’s Synagogue – remains untouched and unexplored.  As a Festschrift, Witness is a success.  But then, that’s all we have on Wiesel.  Pages and pages of Festschrift.  Books and books of Festschrift.  Winston Churchill once said, “To do justice to a great man, discriminating criticism is always necessary.”  Burger’s book only provides more urgency to the fundamental question: Who was the real Elie Wiesel?

2) Wiesel was a profound storyteller and a fundamental chronicler of the 20th century.  He had an extraordinary talent; he could conjure up not only the image of the concentration camp universe, but its breath, its smell, its echo, its reverberation.  That talent produced a cult of personality.  Wiesel developed a kingdom of followers and disciples, in the traditions of his Hasidic ancestry.  He occupied the seat of the rebbe.  The rebbe-to-disciple relationship produced a fierce sense of protection.  To challenge Wiesel publically became a rarity bordering on blasphemy.  There were a few mitnagidim, or opponents, to Wiesel.  The Holocaust survivor Eli Pfefferkorn, who was once a follower but eventually broke with Wiesel, was one.  The literary critic Alfred Kazin, who also cherished Wiesel early in their friendship but eventually saw Wiesel as an act, was another.  I am the latest.  In Satan’s Synagogue, I question Wiesel in the narrative he told.  I question Wiesel in how, and why, he portrayed himself as he did.  I question Wiesel in the role he created for himself.  I think Wiesel created both a Biblical character and a Gospel.  He framed himself as a prophet while quietly advancing a kind of sanctimony.

     Notably, Wiesel’s Gospel linked to the New Testament.  Consider some linkages.  As the Gospels of Jesus framed an idealized birth scene to contrast the later trauma on the cross, Wiesel romanticized his childhood to contrast the absolute negative of Auschwitz.  In Auschwitz, according to Wiesel, unyielding suffering provoked his argumentation with God.  The detail has a link to Jesus on the cross.  Death followed the suffering, figuratively, as Wiesel became a corpse in a mirror at the end of his iconic memoir, Night.  Resurrection followed death, figuratively, as Wiesel became a messenger to mankind.  The war ended for Wiesel in Buchenwald 1945.  He then experienced a period in the proverbial desert.  He appeared lost and hungry.  But he found his calling: writing, remembrance, witness, using his personal history to draw attention to current genocides and great injustices.  As Jesus used his platform to castigate the decadence of the ruling Pharisees, to overturn the tables of the moneychangers, Wiesel used his voice to advocate on behalf of Soviet refuseniks and dissidents.  He continued his missionary work in places like South Africa, Nigeria, Argentina and Cambodia.

3) If Wiesel’s mission included some truly admirable work, a strong subtext of narcissism pervaded.  He made a career of distilling and billboarding the Holocaust’s essence as he saw it, usually with himself at the center.  He developed his prophet persona, replete with a physiognomy.  But he took his persona beyond the prophet.  He reached for an illustrious figure in Jewish traditions: a Tzaddik, a wholly righteous person.  In Hasidic traditions, the Tzaddik has some superhuman qualities.  A charismatic leader, he can be imbued with access to the divine.  I think Wiesel positioned himself as the American Tzaddik.

     To what was Wiesel moored?  To condense my project down to a few lines, he was moored to self-achievement and self-promotion.  He was moored to control at a high cost.  He was moored to storytelling at the expense of historicity.  Such a mooring, for a novelist, would hardly be worth a footnote.  But Wiesel positioned himself as much more than a novelist.  He positioned himself as the emissary for the “traumatized generation,” as he so artfully named the survivors.  He positioned himself as the docent of Auschwitz.  He positioned himself as the voice of conscience.  In those self-appointed roles, did he have the right to compromise truth?  Did he have the right to build legend?  Did he have the right to create an apocrypha?

     Let’s examine one example among many.  In his autobiography, All Rivers Run to the Sea, Wiesel documented the story behind the writing of Night.  That is to say, why did he wait ten years to write the memoir, as his self-stated record claimed, and how did the writing process proceed?  According to Wiesel, he wrote the memoir on a ship called the Provence, while sailing from France to Brazil.  He wrote the memoir in a full sprint.

     “I spent most of the voyage in my cabin working,” he claimed.  “I was writing my account of the concentration camp years – in Yiddish.  I wrote feverishly, breathlessly, without reading.  I wrote to testify, to stop the dead from dying, to justify my own survival.  I wrote to speak to those who were gone.  As long as I spoke to them, they would live on, at least in my memory.”

     Note the tone: a tight, intense, compelling scene.  The reader feels somehow present in Wiesel’s cabin, watching.  In terms of Holocaust awareness, this scene served as a tipping point.  Wiesel’s climb as the emissary of the Holocaust generation began here, as his story poured out.

     According to Wiesel’s version of events, he wrote 862 pages in Yiddish.  Meanwhile, he missed the story he was supposed to cover.  In the 1950s Wiesel wrote a column for an Israeli newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth.  The column, entitled “Sparks from the City of Light,” focused on Paris, where Wiesel lived.  According to Wiesel, his editor at the newspaper suggested the trip.

     He described, “It seems the Catholic Church was conducting suspicious missionary activities in Israel, particularly among Jews recently arrived from Eastern Europe.  They were poor and unhappy, and Rome’s emissaries offered them visas for Brazil, free passage, and two hundred dollars each, provided they converted to Catholicism.”

     When the Provence arrived at the port of Sao Paulo, the immigrants caught his eye.  Their visas had been annulled.  They couldn’t disembark.  Wiesel asked one of the ship’s officers a question: How long would the refugees have to remain on board?  “Until someone gives them visas,” the officer answered.  The ship then began to sail for the next port of call.

     According to Wiesel, he had a decision to make: either to disembark or to stay with the refugees.  He remained on board, he claimed, along with his large manuscript.  “We sailed from port to port,” Wiesel declared, “pariahs rejected everywhere.”

     Wiesel, at this point in his tale, assumed a role.  “A sort of spokesman for the exiles,” he described.  Substitute one word – survivors for exiles – and the description fit Wiesel’s emissary role.

     At the port of Buenos Aires, Wiesel introduced a crucial character.  His name was Marc Turkow and he was a superstar in the Yiddish publishing world.  A serendipitous moment occurred.  Turkow noticed Wiesel’s large manuscript.  “He wanted to know what it was and whether he could look at it,” Wiesel claimed.  “I showed it to him, explaining that it was unfinished.  ‘That’s all right,’ he said.  ‘Let me take it away.’”

     Wiesel complied.  Turkow disappeared from Wiesel’s narrative.  He reappeared, briefly, in December 1956.  Wiesel “received from Buenos Aires the first copy of my Yiddish testimony ‘And the World Stayed Silent,’ which I had finished on the boat to Brazil.”  Wiesel’s memoir became volume 117 of Turkow’s Dos poylishe yidntum (Polish Jewry), a series that included Holocaust memoirs.

     The sailing, according to Wiesel’s dating, took place in the spring of 1954.  That same spring, or possibly 1955 (Wiesel’s dating can be contradictory), Wiesel interviewed the famed writer, François Mauriac.  As Wiesel told the story in “An Interview Unlike Any Other,” (see Elie Wiesel, A Jew Today), Mauriac wanted to know the details of Wiesel’s Holocaust experience.  Wiesel objected.  “I shook my head,” he described.  “‘I cannot, I cannot speak of it, please, don’t insist.’”

     Mauriac, though, pushed Wiesel further.  He wanted to know why Wiesel had not written of his experiences in the camps.  Wiesel indicated his ten-year vow of silence.  Mauriac pressed.  “‘I think that you are wrong,’” he said, according to Wiesel.  “‘You are wrong not to speak…”  The ellipsis was Wiesel’s.  Mauriac continued, “‘Listen to the old man that I am: one must speak out…’”

     From there, according to Wiesel, he began to write.  “One year later,” as Wiesel described, he sent Mauriac the completed manuscript, “written under the seal of memory and silence.”

     From there, the historical record is clear.  Mauriac reached out to a contact in the publishing business, Jérôme Lindon of Les Editions de Minuit.  In June of 1958, La Nuit came into the world, with a foreword by Mauriac.  The English version would follow and Wiesel’s climb as the emissary of the Holocaust generation would begin its slow ascent.

     That, in a nutshell, seems to be the backstory behind the writing and publishing of Night.  Let’s take a moment to do the math.  According to Wiesel, he wrote a manuscript of over eight hundred pages while on board the ship.  The Provence took approximately two weeks to cross the Atlantic.  Simple math suggests that Wiesel produced some sixty pages a day on his typewriter.  Such totals spark a dose of skepticism.

     Let’s continue with the skepticism.  According to Wiesel, he gave his just-written, unedited manuscript to a publisher.  That manuscript was his one and only copy.  Would Wiesel or any writer trust his only copy to a stranger, albeit a publisher?  And if he did, wouldn’t he follow up with Turkow in between the spring of 1954 and December 1956, when publishing occurred?  Wiesel didn’t address these holes.

     That leads to the original 862 pages.  According to Wiesel, he cut the manuscript severely for the French version of Night.  He never addressed the logistics of those enormous cuts.  He never addressed when the cuts took place, or how, or what specifically got lost.

     That leads to the translation.  According to Wiesel, it took him a year to write Night in French.  Wiesel’s story is a little screwy at this point.  Did he meet Mauriac first?  Did he then sail to Brazil and write the Yiddish manuscript?  Did he then turn the Yiddish into the French?  Or, did he sail on the Provence first?  Did he then turn the Yiddish, written feverishly, into the French, with the interview of Mauriac occurring sometime within that year?

     To these sizeable doubts, the one source in a position to possibly correct the historical record offered his version of events.  For Wiesel did not travel to Brazil alone.  “My poet friend Nicolas, now immersed in South American literature, proposed to go with me,” Wiesel indicated in his autobiography.  “A resourceful Israeli friend somehow managed to come up with free boat tickets for us…”

     Let’s leave that last line for a moment to introduce Nicolas de la Garde.  Like Wiesel, he was born in Romania in 1928.  His father, in fact, was born in Wiesel’s hometown of Sighet.  Nicolas’s family moved to Belgium the year after his birth.  Nicolas survived the war in hiding and in various concentration camps in France, including the notorious camp of Gurs.  In the summer of 1946, Nicolas’s mother took a job as a cook at an orphanage at Versailles.  Wiesel met Nicolas de la Garde there.  Nicolas gained his doctorate from the Sorbonne in 1957.  He immediately procured a teaching position at Hebrew University.  There, he changed his name to Moshe Lazar.

     Lazar became a legendary scholar.  At Hebrew University he developed the department of romance languages.  He moved on to Tel Aviv University to found the school of visual and performing art.  In 1977, he moved to the University of Southern California, where he taught until his retirement in 2011.  Students at USC described Lazar as a “rock star” professor and a “one-man humanities department.”  Lazar spoke thirteen languages.  (See Jordan Hurder, The Windbag Litwag, http://chancepress.wordpress.com/category /marc-chagall/.)

     Late in life, his language turned erratic.  During the first decade of the 21st century, Lazar began to suffer from Alzheimer’s.  It’s a horrible irony.  Alzheimer’s took away his speech.  Lazar died in December 2012.  But in Satan’s Synagogue, Lazar came forward with his story for the first time.  When he offered that story, he was in the early stages of his disease.  As a counter to possible misremembering, Lazar’s wife sat in on the interviews.  Sonia Lazar had heard the stories for years.  She could corroborate or dispel.

     Moshe Lazar agreed with Wiesel on one detail: the two traveled to Brazil together on board the Provence.  The rest he called “strange, contradictory tales.”  According to Lazar, Wiesel wrote the Yiddish version in Paris.  He contracted with Marc Turkow to publish before the sailing to Brazil.  The historical record shows that Wiesel had a direct contact to Turkow.  His name was Leon Leneman and he was an important journalist in the Yiddish world.  Wiesel was a boarder in the Leneman home following his stint in the orphanage.  Wiesel, though, didn’t give his only copy to a stranger, who happened to board the ship in Buenos Aires.  That was a part of Wiesel’s apocrypha.  The Yiddish version was complete.

     On board the Provence, Lazar began to translate Wiesel’s manuscript from Yiddish to French.  He worked for six hours every day, according to his recollections.  The Provence docked at the port of Buenos Aires.  Lazar and Wiesel disembarked.  Asked about the refugees on board the ship, unable to leave, Lazar simply shook his head.  The fiction was so sizable; he couldn’t even muster words of dissent.

     Lazar and Wiesel checked into a hotel.  Early the next morning Wiesel woke him with “urgent” news.  He had to return to Paris, immediately.  Wiesel and Lazar had planned on a two-month tour, including a month at sea as part of round-trip sailing.  Lazar, who hadn’t finished the translation job on board the Provence, stayed in South America.  He spent several more weeks on the translation.  He then sent both manuscripts, the Yiddish and the translated French, back to Wiesel in Paris.

     According to Lazar, the original Yiddish didn’t amount to anything close to 862 pages.  Asked why Wiesel exaggerated the total, Lazar didn’t weigh in.  Wiesel, though he never addressed the logistics of the cuts, did address the effect.  “Suddenly I was left with six hundred pages and I thought, ‘Well, there are enough pages here for other books.’” (Harry James Cargas, Harry James Cargas in conversation with Elie Wiesel.)

     Note the unexpected.  Note the serendipity.  These brushstrokes help to form the fuller portraiture of Elie Wiesel.  They flow into his wider brushstroke of humility.  In Wiesel’s description the cuts served a fundamental role.  They propelled his writing career forward.  But if accurate, Lazar’s recollections debunked the total.  The cuts were apocrypha.

     Asked what Wiesel did on the ship while Lazar worked on the translation, Lazar replied with one word, “Nothing.”  His word came out strained, tight, tense.  At the end of his life, Lazar held a great deal of animosity toward Wiesel.  He felt betrayed.  Why?  Sonia Lazar explained, “In the last years, as things piled up, he began to examine the earlier years and the unkind tricks played on him” by Wiesel.  For the full history of those tricks, please see Satan’s Synagogue.  But let’s address one of those tricks and circle back to Wiesel’s line about the Israeli friend who “somehow managed to come up with free boat tickets.”

     According to Lazar, the two young men traveled in style, in first class accommodation.  As neither Wiesel nor Lazar had money, how did they wrangle the tickets?  Lazar reported, Wiesel “had been paid to take two luxurious Cadillacs to Brazil.”  The Cadillacs were contraband.  Lazar found out about the cars upon disembarkation.  One Cadillac had been registered in Wiesel’s name, the other in Lazar’s name.  If accurate, Wiesel then made Lazar a trafficker.  What would have happened had the authorities in Brazil learned of the smuggling operation?

     Lazar was ripe for such schemes.  His wife described him as “naïve” and “optimistic.”  She told a story to demonstrate.  In the 1970s Wiesel interviewed Lazar for a film.  Wiesel couldn’t believe the “great optimism” flowing from Lazar, “despite his experiences in the camps!”

     Sonia Lazar described her husband as an “optimistic Holocaust survivor,” or a rare breed.  “Contrast that to Elie Wiesel,” Sonia Lazar concluded.

4) Wiesel was a heroic figure.  In the 1950s and 60s, when few outside the survivor demographic listened or cared about the Holocaust, he worked on behalf of survivors.  He gave them voice.  He then used his voice to advocate on behalf of Soviet refuseniks and dissidents beginning in the mid-1960s.  He continued his advocacy work around the world.  It’s a profound record.  He won a Nobel Peace Prize for his work.

(Well, let’s be clear.  The Nobel Peace Prize is as spurious as they come.  First off, a quiet yet relentless campaigning takes place for all wannabe recipients.  My investigation shows a multipronged campaign, occurring over many years, to win Wiesel the prize.  Secondly, let’s just consider some of the names on the winner’s list.  Henry Kissinger, Yasser Arafat, Muhammad Anwar el-Sadat, Menachem Begin.  It’s hard to call any of these people peace advocates considering their wider history.  A signature on a document does not make them promoters of peace.  The Nobel peace prize committee seems to dwell in childlike naiveté.   Notably, Wiesel later awarded Kissinger the Elie Wiesel Remembrance Award.  That was a strange cozying up to a Machiavellian.)

5) His narcissism got in the way.  After winning the Nobel, Wiesel created a foundation.  The foundation served as a platform for Wiesel’s self-promotion.  In Satan’s Synagogue, I gave it a name.  A one-man state department.  Consider some of his questionable diplomacy.  In the summer of 1992, international observers and journalists began to chronicle widespread atrocities in Bosnia.  The reportage evoked images of World War II and the concentration camp universe.  In fact, the parallels to the Holocaust were eerie, as if the perpetrators had a model on which to build their form of annihilation.  As in the Holocaust, the genocide in Bosnia sparked its own vocabulary.  The term “ethnic cleansing,” attributed to the Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic and Bosnian Serb Radovan Karadzic, came into the world.  Talk of “ethnic cleansing” resulted in an international outcry to stop the atrocities.   

     At the end of August 1992, a critical moment occurred.  A conference, to advance peace negotiations and to close the prison camps, was held in London.  Top Western diplomats, mainly foreign ministers including Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, attended.  So did all the key players from the Balkan region.  One attendee, the president of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Alija Izetbegovic, a Muslim by birth, referred to the prison camps as death camps.  Such talk conjured one death camp in particular.  Auschwitz loomed over the entire proceedings.

     What transpired proved notable.  Elie Wiesel attended the conference on the invitation of President Dobrica Cosic of Yugoslavia.  According to Wiesel, Cosic proposed that a commission, led by Wiesel, travel to Bosnia to investigate the conditions in the prison camps.  At the conference, the other leaders went along.  They promised freedom of movement.  Cosic took the gesture further.  Before Wiesel, he appealed to Karadzic to close all the camps in his territory.  Karadzic accepted.  The two leaders signed an agreement.

     Pierre Hazan, then a diplomatic correspondent who covered the Balkan wars extensively, called that document a “paper” agreement.  It was worthless.  It would never take effect.  (See Pierre Hazan, Justice in a Time of War.  Hazan participated in an author interview, September 3, 2013.)

     Hazan framed the conference as a façade.  The Balkan strongmen hoped to gain a “veneer of legitimacy.”  In Wiesel, they found the ideal frontman.  Here was the witness to the concentration camp universe.  Here was the docent of Auschwitz.  Here was a voice of conscience.  Here was someone who could confer, in the court of public opinion, a favorable image.

     Hazan, though, took the framing further.  The Balkan leaders weren’t alone in using the persona of Wiesel.  Why did the leaders of the Western democracies turn to Wiesel?  Following the reportage of atrocities, public opinion expressed outrage.  Cries could be heard for a vigorous intervention.  The Western leaders responded by ratcheting up the pressure on the Balkan strongmen during the London conference.  They threatened the belligerents by naming a special investigator to examine the crimes.  They imposed economic sanctions.  They raised the idea of military intervention.  “The words are strong,” Hazan described, “but no one is fooled.  Behind the rhetoric and spectacle of politicians outraged by the policy of ethnic cleansing, this conference is, above all, an attempt to intimidate the belligerents into compliance and to calm an indignant public.  It is not about sending soldiers to die in Sarajevo.”

     Hazan called the London conference a “theater.”  Wiesel served as the perfect symbol, according to Hazan, or “the living dead man returned from the Nazi camps meets the organizers of ‘ethnic cleansing.’”  In the persona of Wiesel, Western moral conscience had a public face.

     Was Wiesel aware of the duplicity?  Did he realize that he was a tool, as all sides played Wiesel for their own gain?  Or, was he blinded by his own ambitions?  Was he a victim of his own one-man state department publicity?

     During his tour, Wiesel met privately with Milosevic and publically with Karadzic.  The interview with Karadzic took place in Karadzic’s palace.  Wiesel brought an entourage, including members of the American and European press.  The scene was photographed and filmed by the press.  In the push and pull between a war criminal and a witness who had once been a victim of war criminals, some basic questions emerged of Wiesel.  Why would he meet with alleged war criminals?  What would he hope to gain?  Was he that enamored with his own role in the proceedings?  And if Wiesel truly believed in his mission, why did he create a media event?

6) Wiesel developed a most unique public image.  His self-portraiture centered on humility.  He removed himself from the forces of ambition.  He shaped his character upon the moral fibers of work: to study, to write, and to teach, as noted in the Ariel Burger article.  Meanwhile, his credits piled up.  He wrote indefatigably.  He won literary prizes in France.  He served two presidents as the Chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council.  He won the highest prizes bestowed by the U.S. government: the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  His crowning achievement occurred in 1986 with the Nobel Peace Prize.

     Wiesel developed a distance between himself and his accomplishments.  There’s no talk of taking action, of pursuit.  There’s no talk of ambition.  A definitive brushstroke in the self-portraiture of Elie Wiesel emerges, the brushstroke of humility.  The world fame and import fell to him.  He played no role in his accomplishments.  Rather, he expressed wonder at his success.

     This incredulity found a champion in Wiesel’s longtime literary agent, Georges Borchardt.  Wiesel met Borchardt in the late 1950s.  Borchardt then represented the French publishing house Les Editions de Minuit in New York.  Through Borchardt’s efforts, Wiesel’s iconic memoir, Night, found an American publisher.  A confidential, trusting relationship grew from these roots.

     Asked about the promotion of Wiesel during the long width of Wiesel’s career, Borchardt responded, “I, as his agent, did not do anything to promote him, nor did he promote himself.  People just came after him…” (Author correspondence with Georges Borchardt, May 1, 2009.)

     Borchardt’s statement held some merit.  In July 1966, for instance, the 92nd Street Y contacted Wiesel.  His lecture series began with the Y’s outreach.  But consider Borchardt’s pronoun, I.  He focused on himself.  His statement missed the wider story.  Was there duplicity in Borchardt’s grammar?

     Wiesel hired a promoter, the B’nai B’rith lecture bureau, in the spring of 1967.  The bureau, then and now, represents renowned Jewish public figures and scholars.  Lily Edelman became Wiesel’s publicist.  In many different sources over the years, Edelman interviewed and wrote about Wiesel.  Never does she acknowledge her role as paid publicist.  Never does Wiesel acknowledge her role.

     Wiesel’s incredulity expressed a kind of purity.  The advance of Wiesel’s brand, however, developed through a more active, assertive role.  To hire an agency did not remove Wiesel from self-promotion.  Rather, it added a layer.  A similar dynamic played out in Wiesel’s campaign to win the Nobel Prize.

     Notably, the lack of self-promotion as a defining characteristic paralleled the New Testament.  “He stayed outside in remote places,” the Gospel of Mark detailed Jesus’ movement.  “Yet people kept coming to him from all quarters.” (Mark 1:45.  Oxford Study Bible.)  Was Wiesel’s framing coincidental?  A lack of self-promotion, an overwhelming tone of humility, promoted Wiesel as modest, somber, interior.  Meanwhile, the Gospels of Jesus imbued the figure with similar characteristics.  Did Wiesel have the Jesus example in mind?

7) Why was Wiesel’s Jesus framing significant?  Beginning with the Night story in the 1950s, Wiesel established himself as bilingual.  His language spoke to both Jews and Christians.  He offered a mooring in which both faiths could identify.  This language was part of Wiesel’s genius.

     Go read Night.  Near the end of Wiesel’s time in Auschwitz, he described a hanging.  In Wiesel’s rendering, he subtly mirrored the crucifixion of Jesus.  In Wiesel, Crucifixion 32 shifted to Hanging 1944.  Golgotha met Auschwitz.

     Wiesel’s scene resonated with Christian readers.  The first, François Mauriac, described Wiesel as holding on to “the far reaches of the two testaments.” (François Mauriac, “Le Bloc-Notes de François Mauriac,” Le Figaro Littéraire, June 8, 1963.)  Other Christian readers followed.  Among them, John K. Roth called the hanging scene the book’s “key.”  He asked, “Who, what, is dying on the gallows?”  He answered, “One child, all children, and Elie Wiesel among them.” (John K. Roth, “Telling a Tale That Cannot Be Told: Reflections on the Authorship of Elie Wiesel,” in Alvin H. Rosenfeld and Irving Greenberg, eds., Confronting the Holocaust: The Impact of Elie Wiesel.)

     Remarkably, Wiesel’s rendering of the scene stands alone.  There were multiple witnesses to that hanging.  I found and interviewed a number of them, as I documented in Satan’s Synagogue.  None of them remembered the scene the way Wiesel described.  One of them, Siegmund Kalinski, called Wiesel’s rendering “a fantasy, just to make an impression on his readers.” (Author interview with Siegmund Kalinski, April 18, 2009.) 

8) Wiesel was, quietly, an incredibly litigious person.  He threatened lawsuits relentlessly.  Perhaps the case can be made that Wiesel used the threat of lawsuits to yield power and control.  Perhaps the case can be made that the threat of lawsuits was a part of his psychache.

9) Wiesel was nearly as litigious as Trump.  That isn’t their only similarity.  Both men loved, and sought out, the limelight to a fault.  Both men built their campaigns on loyalty.  Loyalty meant saying the earth was flat if the leader deemed it so.  Disloyalty got you shunned.  Both men suffered from massive abandonment issues as children, stemming from their fathers.  Trump’s father has been well-documented: autocratic, recalcitrant, certainly emotionally unavailable but very possibly lacking in emotional intelligence.  Wiesel’s father, in the years before his death at Buchenwald, was a merchant, a grocery store owner.  In an interview (see Harry James Cargas, Harry James Cargas in conversation with Elie Wiesel), Wiesel reflected on his early relationship with his father.  The store took away the attentions of his father. 

     “He worked hard from early morning to late at night,” Wiesel recalled.  “He was more absent from home than present because either he was in the store or he was working for the community.”  According to Wiesel, and corroborated by other eyewitnesses, Wiesel’s father was a dayan, or community organizer and arbiter.

     Due to his work life, Wiesel’s father had one day a week to spend with his son.  That time came on Shabbat.  Wiesel attached to a memory.  Following the ritual mikveh, father and son walked to services together.  The father took his son’s hand.  “I liked it when he did that, and I like to remember it now,” Wiesel commented in his autobiography, All Rivers Run to the Sea.  “I felt reassured, content.  Bound to me, he belonged to me.  We formed a bloc.”

     That bloc dissolved in an instant.  When someone else joined in the walk, the father released the hand.  The act caused his son to feel “abandoned, even rejected…”  The image is arresting.  For moments, snippets, Wiesel had his father’s undivided attention.  That attention inspired gratification.  Note the great warmth, the unity, the ownership.  The child reveled in the attention.  The moments, though, were fleeting.  Something always followed, something that took his father’s attention away.  Wiesel felt rejected.  Rejection led to bereavement.

     Where did bereavement lead?  Bereavement created a cycle, a deep and unmitigated longing for more attention.  What did the child learn from that wound?  How to hoard what he craved?  How to invent to facilitate more?  How to act to coerce?  How to control?

     Trump’s early life contained some of the same markers.  Of course, Trump didn’t lose his father to the Holocaust.  He didn’t watch his father die, as Wiesel did.  The war year, from the spring of 1944 to April 1945, intensified Wiesel’s sense of bereavement.  The war year produced a person who desperately needed to control his universe.  Control came easily to the writer.  In his fiction, his memoirs and even his journalism, Wiesel created character, plot lines, and story development.  There was no outside threat, no voice of contention.  Control came almost as easily to the emissary, and to the teacher.  But that control was put to the test during the 1980s and the building of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., as I documented in Satan’s Synagogue.  Wiesel entered a new and collaborative enterprise.  He had a great deal personally at stake.  He felt threatened.  In the face of perceived threat he tightened his control.  He formed an oligarchy as a protective layer.  He surrounded himself with loyalists.  The tentacles reach out to Trump’s oligarchy, to his obsession with control, to his wound relationship with his father.

10) Let me circle back to the beginning of this portraiture.  I asked a question.  Why doesn’t a balanced biography of Wiesel exist?  Wiesel did respond to my book proposal.  He pointed out the many books on his life and work.  Did the world need another?

     At that time, I accepted his response.  But something gnawed on me.  I continued to read the oeuvre and I discovered a fascinating dynamic.  Wiesel’s narrative served as the central source for all books on him.  His story, as he laid it out, dominated.  Critical appraisal, working off the historical method, was nonexistent.

     How did this come to pass?  Let’s consider one example.  Ellen Norman Stern authored two pivotal works on Wiesel as part of a youth series.  She originally met with Wiesel sometime in the early 1980s.  “We sat in the small office and he spoke to me of his childhood, especially of his parents,” Stern described in her introduction to Elie Wiesel: Witness for Life.  “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 page.”  Stern welcomed Wiesel’s guidance.  “I had the feeling I had known this man all of my life,” she continued.  “I was seeing a friend.  I felt united to him by the fact that, as children, our lives were altered by the Holocaust.”

     Stern came from Berlin.  Her family fled in 1939 for the United States, some of the last Jews to escape the prison that Europe would become.  Stern went on to describe that first meeting with Wiesel as “a homecoming.”  If her description clearly emphasized appreciation and gratitude, if her motivations for the meeting seemed clear – to raise the level of the manuscript – a question reverberates.  What were Wiesel’s motivations?  Perhaps, as Stern implied, Wiesel guided for purely literary purposes.  According to his narrative, he paid particular emphasis to the first page.  If it didn’t “sing,” if he didn’t “hear the melody,” then he discontinued.  He set the project aside.  He waited.  The first page determined the flow of the story.  (See Harry James Cargas, Harry James Cargas in Conversation with Elie Wiesel.)

     Perhaps, in Stern’s case, Wiesel merely acted as storytelling adviser.  Or, perhaps he sought control.  If control issues flooded his psyche, we see his need to control, in the case of Ellen Norman Stern, by offering his guidance.  In so doing, did Wiesel manage who would write about him, and how they would write?  The question, of course, circles back to the latest book on Wiesel, Ariel Burger’s Witness.

     For me, a smaller question lingered.  How did my proposal, back in 2006, strike Wiesel?  Had others in my position, outside his circle, submitted similar proposals over the years?  Had he reacted to those proposals as he did to mine?  The record remains hazy.  While Wiesel responded to my proposal with kind words of rejection, strong evidence suggests that he attempted to shut down my research.  In Satan’s Synagogue, I documented the roadblocks Wiesel erected.  Roadblocks circle back to my book proposal.  Was his question a roadblock, offered not out of humility, as it read on paper, but rather out of control, as I would be working independently, uninterested in promoting his agenda?

     For me, the questions linger on.

2 thoughts on “Who was the real Elie Wiesel?

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