Who was the real Moshe Lazar?
(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 an Ancient 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-history-Brian-Josepher-ebook/dp/B07PQT7PF3/ref=sr_1_9?keywords=satan%27s+synagogue&qid=1554465399&s=gateway&sr=8-9.
I am writing a series of profiles related to the book. This is part four. In the first three parts, I offered critical evaluations of three famous chroniclers: Mark the Evangelist, Josephus of the 1st century, or Jesus Century as it was called then, and Elie Wiesel of the 20th century. Those profiles are all available further down this page. Here, I am breaking with the chronicler motif. I am profiling a Holocaust survivor of a different kind. His name was Moshe Lazar and the brushstrokes used in his portraiture would tend toward shades of kindness, generosity, naiveté, and optimism. Contrast those brushstrokes to the typical traits of the survivor: tightly wound, controlling, cunning, distrusting, with moods of paranoia. How did a man who survived the absolute negative of the camps become an optimist? Let’s jump into that question, and much more. What follows is a profile. Or, in the language I used in Satan’s Synagogue, a portraiture. Here are ten brushstrokes:
1) First, some biography. Nicolas de la Garde was born in Satu Mare, Romania in 1928. His father, Hermann, moved the family to Belgium the year after his birth. Nicolas grew up speaking Yiddish in the home, and Flemish on the street. The move to Belgium would have devastating consequences for the family some twelve years later. The German blitzkrieg drove the family further west. They didn’t wait until the Germans, along with their Belgian collaborators, ramped up the systematic persecution against all Jews in 1942. Nicolas’s father piled his family into their Chevy truck and drove into France immediately after the Germans paraded past the Royal Palace in Brussels. The family barely escaped the German army, but more on that in a moment.
Freedom in France was, of course, short-lived. Nicolas and his family were arrested near Toulouse. They were transported to the prison camp of Rivesaltes. Beginning sometime in 1942, the French developed a road to Auschwitz. Prisoners at Rivesaltes and other prisons were transported to the Drancy internment camp, or Gurs. From there, all railways led to Auschwitz.
Something unexpected occurred. The French Underground helped the family escape. Nicolas and his siblings were placed in Catholic schools, as per French Underground protocol. So many Jewish boys survived the war in France in Catholic schools. Some of them, like the historian Saul Friedländer, nearly became priests.
Those are the nuts and bolts of Nicolas’s war years. His intimate stories of survival are lost. Why the Underground rescued the family, for instance, is unknown. Nicolas was not the Elie Wiesel of survivors. He did not document his past, and billboard it for the world to read. He was a quiet survivor, introspective, private. As an adult, Nicolas had a daughter. Even she doesn’t know his full history in France.
After the war, the family reunited. Amazingly, the entire family survived. How did both parents, and their four children, endure four years in the prison of German-occupied France? Again, the history has been lost.
Here’s where Nicolas began to tell his story. He entered the Sorbonne in 1946, working initially toward his bachelor’s. He spent the next decade pursuing those things he couldn’t during the war years. He studied. He traveled the world. He learned languages. In 1948, he joined the Palmach to fight in the Israeli War of Independence. He, in fact, would serve in some capacity in all of Israeli’s early wars. In 1977, he took a teaching position at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. So his war history ended before the Lebanon War. That’s an important detail in studying Nicolas’s life. He didn’t have to answer questions of Israeli’s justified wars. Would he have defended Israeli’s occupation of Southern Lebanon had he served there? Or, would that service have cut at his optimism?
But let’s not jump too far ahead in our story. After fighting in Israel in 1948, he entered Hebrew University. He gained his Masters in 1951. Something of great consequence occurred during his studies in Jerusalem. His mentor, the scholar of romance philology, Hiram Peri, urged Nicolas to devote his life to preserving the Sephardic heritage. Nicolas listened. He returned to the Sorbonne. In 1957, Nicolas gained his doctorate, writing his dissertation on the literature of courtly love. That detail right there should set off the bells of surprise. Nicolas was probably the only survivor in the war’s entire history to write on courtly love. He was a romantic.
He landed a teaching position immediately. That position took him back to Jerusalem and Hebrew University. I hold an interesting document. It’s something Nicolas gave me late in his life. The document is a contact signed by Nicolas, as he began his teaching career. He didn’t sign his name, though, as Nicolas de la Garde. He took on a Hebrew name: Moshe Lazar.
Lazar became a legendary scholar. In Israel, he developed the department of romance languages at Hebrew University. He moved on to Tel Aviv University, where he founded the school of visual and performing art. Along the way, he taught at the University of Salamanca. Two major events occurred there. He began the quest that Hiram Peri had charged him with. He learned Ladino, the language of Jewish Spain. He then began to translate the major volumes of the Sephardic Classical Library. Secondly, he discovered treasure troves of documents. Some of those documents spoke to the Inquisition period. But other documents traveled thousands of years back in time to the Roman Empire period. I hold some of those documents. I was, perhaps, the last writer to truly know Moshe Lazar. Moshe then was in the process of giving his collections away. He gave me documents.
In 1977, Lazar 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/. See also Allison Engel, “Bibliophile Lazar Plans Special Tome,” USC News, May 2, 2007. http://www.usc.edu/uscnews/stories/13801.html.)
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. The world lost an icon.
2) How did I meet Moshe? In 2006, I began a biography project on Elie Wiesel. I wrote to Wiesel, hoping to gain his participation on my project. “This is a book proposal,” I presented. “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. And for that, I need your assistance. I would like access to you, to interview you, to walk a little with you.”
An “intimate portrayal”: what did I mean? Words came to mind: insightful, penetrating, investigatory, critical yet objective, sympathetic, balanced. That last word reverberated in my head: a balanced biography.
Wiesel responded with a question. He pointed out the many books on his life and work. Did the world need another? His question was pertinent. Visit a library. There are enough books on Wiesel to fill many shelves. There are theological studies. There is much hagiography. There is an abundance of literary critique. There are volumes written as part of youth literature. A literary scholar, Irving Abrahamson, compiled the complete, uncollected and unpublished works of Wiesel, in three volumes. Wiesel himself wrote over a thousand pages of autobiography, in multiple volumes over many years. But to study the voluminous work is to find a fascinating dynamic. Wiesel served as the central source. His story, as he laid it out, dominated. Critical appraisal, working off the historical method, is nonexistent.
There’s another fascinating dynamic. To trace the evolution of Wiesel’s career is to identify a smattering of Jews and Christian theologians who became Wiesel’s early disciples. Academics followed, literary critics, students. His disciples began to extol him, to write about him. A canon was born. As the years went by, an autocatalytic phenomenon occurred, or an increasing on itself. The canon exploded. With rare exception, there were no contributing authors to the canon outside of Wiesel’s inner circle.
What did that mold? Wiesel, despite a library’s worth of volumes, 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 Nobel Peace Prize laureate?
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 circumstantial evidence suggests that he attempted to shut down my research. Repeatedly, he put up roadblocks. But since Wiesel did not participate, and since he closed off those in his inner circles from participation, I had to find another way in. I turned to another form: a literary investigation in the tradition of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Ironically, this form proved invaluable. My research uncovered an Elie Wiesel never before uncovered. (For the full story, please see Satan’s Synagogue.)
3) Flash forward three years. I found Moshe Lazar in 2009. He was the one source on Wiesel I knew I had to find. In those three years of research, or from 2006 to 2009, I studied Wiesel’s life. I interviewed schoolmates from Wiesel’s heder, or Hebrew elementary school. I interviewed his closest friend from Buchenwald. 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 during the building of the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C. I interviewed his eldest sister, until she abruptly ended the interview. I interviewed Wiesel’s first cousin, whose Holocaust journey paralleled Wiesel’s.
To everyone I came across from Wiesel’s period in France, 1945 to 1956, I asked a question. Do you know the whereabouts of Nicolas? At that point in time, I didn’t know his family name. I didn’t know his history. I didn’t know his Hebrew name. All I knew was that Wiesel had written about him in one of his autobiographies. I also knew that I didn’t trust Wiesel’s telling of that story. Nicolas, as a witness, could corroborate or contradict.
Everyone had Nicolas in a different place. One source said he had died. Judith Hemmendinger, a counselor in the orphanages in France after the war, had Nicolas in Tel Aviv, at one of the universities. Benjamin Gross, a philosopher and scholar, had Nicolas in South America. Someone else, I forget now who, had Nicolas in Paris, back at the Sorbonne. There was a dead end at every turn. Then, I asked Katy Hazan, the historian of the orphanages in France and the parent organization that governed them, known as the OSE. She had Nicolas in California.
I scoured the websites of all the major universities in California. I checked the departments of history, languages, performing arts. This took weeks. I didn’t find a Nicolas who matched the biographical details of Nicolas de la Garde. But then, on the USC website, I found a professor with a description that matched my Nicolas. I first wrote to Moshe Lazar, “I believe you are that Nicolas. It’s ironic to me because in searching the world for you I’ve found you at the very university where I began my college studies. I attended USC back in 1990. I dropped out because USC wasn’t for me.” I continued, “I am hoping to have a conversation with you, to get inside certain truths of Elie Wiesel that you alone, I believe, know.”
I was right. Moshe Lazar knew Elie Wiesel like no other. His first email in return suggested his cheerfulness. “Brian,” he wrote, “I have written a long page and had it ready to email it to you, but a devil blew it out!!!” The three exclamation points were his.
He suggested that I call his office. I did. That autumn I spent three months with Moshe. The Alzheimer’s that took his life had begun to really take hold. 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 contradict. But I also found a lucid Moshe. We developed an immediate friendship. Our time was short. Moshe’s mind was going, and he knew it. He needed to pass on some of his towering knowledge. I became a repository of sorts.
4) What did Moshe think of Elie Wiesel? He held a good deal of animosity. He held a good deal of frustration. For an optimist, for a positive, cheerful thinker, the effect was jarring. Moshe felt betrayed. Why? As Sonia Lazar explained, “In the last years, as things piled up, Moshe began to examine the earlier years and the unkind tricks played on him” by Wiesel.
Moshe and Sonia Lazar went into the history of unkind tricks. The first stemmed from the translation job of Wiesel’s iconic memoir, Night. Wiesel wrote the manuscript in Yiddish. Although perfectly fluent in French at that time, Wiesel didn’t feel comfortable doing the actual translation. He asked Moshe Lazar. I won’t go into too much detail here as I documented that history in detail in both Satan’s Synagogue and a profile written on this blog called “Who was the real Elie Wiesel?” (https://satanssynagogue.com/2019/04/11/who-was-the-real-elie-wiesel/) But, according to Lazar, he didn’t receive a word of credit publically, or even a token of remuneration. At the time both Wiesel and Lazar were dirt poor. But later, when Wiesel became a millionaire due to Night’s commercial success, Lazar felt cheated.
He did receive a signed copy of Wiesel’s La Nuit in June 1958. Wiesel inscribed the book in Hebrew. Wiesel framed Lazar’s friendship as a blessing and, in his inscription, he asked what he would have done without that friendship. To Lazar, the meaning was clear. Without him, who would have translated the Yiddish into the French?
Moshe and Sonia Lazar jumped to the last unkind trick, occurring sometime in late 2005 or early 2006. Wiesel wrote a letter to Lazar. In a “sentimental” way, according to the Lazars, Wiesel wrote about “getting older.” He identified Lazar as his “oldest friend.” He wanted to spend more time with Lazar. In fact, the two men hadn’t had contact in years.
Lazar’s initial reaction was to reply in kind, with a sentimental response. He delayed. Some weeks later the news broke. Oprah Winfrey had selected Night for her bookclub. The question immediately struck Lazar: Did sentimentality drive Wiesel to write the letter, or something else? Did Wiesel write his letter of friendship to protect the secret history of Night’s coming of age?
Only Moshe Lazar knew that secret history. Only Moshe Lazar knew that the story Wiesel told in his memoir, All Rivers Run to the Sea, was bunk. Or, “strange, contradictory tales,” as Moshe called them.
In Satan’s Synagogue, I set the record straight. Wiesel was a storyteller. He was not rooted to fact. He set forth a false personal history. But he did more. Wiesel and Moshe Lazar sailed to Brazil together back in the mid-1950s. Moshe Lazar did much of the translation work on Night during that sailing. According to Lazar, the two young men traveled in style, in first class accommodation. As neither Wiesel nor Lazar had any 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.
5) To further highlight the contrast, the Lazars detailed another incident in the history of unkind tricks. In 1973, during the Yom Kippur War, a Rothschild came to Israel to view the war zone. Israeli authorities named Lazar as translator, due to his eloquent French. In the course of their time together Rothschild became interested in Lazar. A friendship developed. Rothschild even referenced Lazar in a newspaper article appearing back in France.
Soon thereafter a woman called the Lazar household. She knew Lazar from their time together at the orphanages in Versailles following the war and she couldn’t believe that Lazar was alive. She had heard that he’d died in 1948, during the Israeli War of Independence.
How did she come to that misinformation? According to Lazar, Wiesel told her the false death story. Both Wiesel and Lazar had crushes on this woman. She, in turn, had a crush on Lazar. After the War of Independence, Lazar theorized, Wiesel fabricated the death of his best friend to improve his chances with her.
If the fabrication led to a romance between this woman and Wiesel, no record exists. Over forty-five years since the phone call, the story has gone cold. Lazar could not identify the woman. His anger over the incident, however, did not wane despite the time passed. He felt wronged. He felt double-crossed. He felt a similar breach over the Cadillacs.
If accurate, what did Lazar’s recollections reveal about Wiesel? In his narrative, Wiesel created an image. He formed brotherhoods, or durable, loyal friendships. In All Rivers Run to the Sea, he wrote of friendship as a “necessity, an obsession. Later I would come to love Epicurus, the Greek philosopher who posited friendship as an ethic.”
Were his words hollow? Lazar’s history of unkind tricks turned the ethic on its head. To believe Lazar is to accuse Wiesel of a wider sanctimony. While his narrative promoted a gospel of brotherhood, Wiesel used his friendship with Lazar for personal advancement. Ambition, not camaraderie, served as the driving force.
6) Ambition segues to another character trait. In All Rivers Run to the Sea and other sources, Wiesel developed another image. This one spoke to his behavior in the death camps. “Logically, I shouldn’t have survived,” he reported. “Sickly, timid, fearful, and lacking all resourcefulness, I never did anything to stay alive. I never volunteered for anything, never jostled anyone to get a tin of soup. Coward that I was, I preferred to eat less and to let myself be devoured by hunger rather than expose myself to blows. I was less afraid of death than of physical suffering.”
Wiesel fashioned a coward survivor. From there, he built a persona. Naomi Seidman, a theologian who did insightful research into Wiesel, described that persona as: “spiritualized, passive, victimized, silent, sad, still somehow dead.” (E.J. Kessler, “The Rage That Elie Wiesel Edited Out of ‘Night’,” The Jewish Daily Forward, October 4, 1996.)
Note the characteristics not found in the persona: vengeful, angry, hostile, cunning, manipulative. How would a persona based on those characteristics have played to a wider audience? Wiesel seemed to have struggled with the question in the 1950s and 1960s, as he wrote his first few books and grappled with his own role in the world. At some point he found an answer. He took a word with French origins: rapprochement. Wiesel didn’t choose an adversarial relationship with the world. He chose reconciliation. When he won the Nobel Prize, the Nobel committee issued a press release, calling him “one of the most important spiritual leaders and guides in an age when violence, repression and racism continue to characterize the world.” Egil Aarvick, chairman of the Nobel committee, took the words in the press release further, labeling Wiesel a “messenger to mankind – not with a message of hate and revenge but with one of brotherhood and atonement.” (Press Release for the Nobel Peace Prize for 1986, October 14, 1986. http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/ peace/laureates/1986/press.html.)
That persona, molded decades before the Nobel, gained Wiesel a toehold in the American imagination. The toehold of authenticity. The toehold of legitimacy. The toehold of consequence. The face of the Holocaust then formed upon a physiognomy of reconciliation, not a physiognomy of anger.
Contrast Wiesel’s coward survivor to the “law of self-preservation” as described by another Auschwitz survivor, Gisella Perl. According to Perl, prisoners “who in their former lives were decent self-respecting human beings now stole, lied, spied, beat the others and – if necessary – killed them, in order to save their miserable lives.”
Another camp survivor, Eli Pfefferkorn, offered a related description. “Securing a spot in a desirable labor, for instance, involved shoving to the head of the line, seen as a risk worth taking. Upon encountering opposition, however, one had to know when to retreat into the chameleon-pajama-like background of the concentration camp. This was also true about lining up for soup. Finding the right spot in the line could mean a thicker bowl of soup – which may add a week’s longevity, but this entailed rough elbowing, as well as timing.” (See Gisella Perl, I was a Doctor in Auschwitz. New York: International Universities Press, 1948. For Eli Pfefferkorn, see Alexander Cockburn, “Did Oprah Pick Another Fibber?” Counterpunch, March 31-April 2, 2006. http://www.counterpunch.org/2006/04/01/truth-and-fiction-in-elie-wiesel-s-night -is-frey-or-wiesel-the-bigger-moral-poseur/.)
Gisella Perl’s law of self-preservation and Eli Pfefferkorn’s rough elbowing fit within a wider concentration camp tenet. “Eat your own bread,” the tenet stated, “and if you can, that of your neighbor.”
Wiesel’s coward survivor ran counter. Did running cars to Brazil alter the image? Did it suggest a different camp history, with instances as a rough elbower? Did it suggest a different post-war history? The young man who moved contraband, and who placed his friend in an illegal position, suggested scheming, cunning, risk, ambition, self-absorption. The young man who moved contraband suggested a psyche of manipulation. Notably, the persona of Wiesel shunned the brushstrokes of a rough elbower, both during the war and in the many decades that followed. Doesn’t the Cadillac detail call for a reevaluation?
7) Moshe Lazar was very much the coward survivor. Still, that doesn’t explain his post-war persona. How did a man who survived the absolute negative of the camps become an optimist? I took this question directly to Moshe Lazar. He answered with one word: fate. He then told a supportive story. His father was a truck driver in Belgium. He drove a Chevy. Lazar emphasized the make of the truck to be clear that his father would not have driven a Ford truck, as Ford was a virulent anti-Semite. As the Germans stormed through Belgium in the early part of the war, his father packed up the truck. Seeking safety, he drove his family, and some other friends, to France. Their path was just ahead of the blitzkrieg. At the River Oise, marking the border, they crossed a bridge into temporary safety. Some moments later, a series of bombs went off, destroying the bridge.
The Germans blew up the bridge, Lazar emphasized. Had their timing been different, the Chevy might have been on the bridge. Or, they might have arrived at the river after the destruction of the bridge, with no way to cross and with imprisonment or death staring them in the face. As happened, they made their way to Toulouse. While they would become prisoners of the Germans, and spend time in French concentration camps, the episode left a defining mark on Lazar. Fate became his guide.
But fate as explanation, I think, missed some fundamental facts. Moshe Lazar did not lose any members of his immediate family to the Holocaust. Four children and both parents survived. Nor were the Lazars sent east, to the death camps of Poland. That’s not to say that life in the camps of France was easy. Lazar described the starvation in the camps, and his reaction to it. He learned not to eat. He learned not to drink. Food was the currency. If a prisoner could go without, Lazar reasoned, he didn’t have to deal in the economy. Lazar starved. He tunneled inside in his conditioning. The Moshe Lazar I knew lived a life based on some of that conditioning. Food meant nothing to him. Daily cares such as weather, traffic, noise; they did not seem to exist in his head. Ironically, he lived in Los Angeles, where food, traffic and weather are the preoccupations.
8) Back in 2009, when I visited with the Lazars in their apartment in Culver City, Sonia pulled me into the kitchen. “I need to talk to you,” she said, with her urgency engaged. I quickly realized something about Sonia Lazar that I would later put my thumb on. She exhibited the traits of the concentration camp survivor: wound incredibly tight, controlling, cunning, distrusting, with moods of paranoia. While she was born in New York, and spent the early years of her life far away from German-controlled Europe, she took on the persona of the rough elbower. Moshe Lazar, who married a bit later in life, around the age of forty, found a rough elbower. The Lazars were a study in psychological role reversal. What did that suggest about whom Moshe could be comfortable with?
In the kitchen, Sonia quickly and quietly spoke about Moshe’s “lifelong” ambition. He had a book project in mind, or an “opus” in Sonia’s words. He had been collecting materials for decades. He’d produced an extensive outline. Still, the book could not get off the ground, and Moshe, then in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, needed help in the writing process. Would I be interested in teaming up with him to write the book, Sonia asked.
Hours after that initial conversation, Sonia sent me an email with more information. She explained the idea behind the project. Taking directly from Moshe’s outline, she wrote about a “synthetic analysis of the origins and development of anti-Semitic typologies through art, theater, and literature. These are reflections of man’s unconscious and with propaganda imagery, we are dealing with one of the most powerful delivery systems available to men and governments.”
I liked the phrase “delivery systems.” The rest felt to me like language meant for a philosophy department. I interpreted those words into a series of questions: How did anti-Semitism begin? How did it develop? How was it shaped into an anti-Jewish persecution language? How was that language turned into a canned image of Jews and Judaism? How did that canned image, producing a grotesque and dehumanized Jew, become a powerful propaganda? How is that propaganda alive today, over many millennia since its initial building block?
I immediately became interested in the work. But then Sonia hit me with more information: the project already had a historian attached to it. A woman named Stephanie had been working with Moshe in an effort to build the materials into that extensive outline. Sonia and Moshe adored Stephanie, I soon realized. I did not.
Well, that’s not quite correct. I didn’t have a personal reaction when meeting. But professionally, Stephanie immediately struck me as one of those scholars who collects materials but has no ability to conceive of story. That’s not a cut on Stephanie. The vast majority of scholars are collectors of materials. They are not writers. They might become authors. But there is an ocean between collectors of materials and storytellers. Stephanie lived on the collector side of the ocean.
So did Moshe. The reason Moshe hadn’t written the book project had everything to do with his kind of scholarship. He was a collector. Sonia would argue otherwise. She would point to his many books. But in those books Moshe served as editor and/or translator, never as primary writer. Moshe, and Stephanie, needed a primary writer.
I joined the fray some months later. Against my better judgment, I agreed to a triangulation. Stephanie would do the research for the chapters. I would take her research and form a narrative. Moshe and Sonia would then edit the work.
I immediately felt handcuffed by the agreement. I was not delving deeply into the source materials. Those materials were presented to me and as Sonia wanted the project done quickly – in Moshe’s lifetime, she hoped – I didn’t have time to do independent research. I produced the first chapter in a month. We’d all agreed that the first chapter would serve as a litmus case. If everyone liked it, we’d move forward. If not, then I would be canned.
I got canned. I’d conceived of the project as a literary investigation, in the Solzhenitsyn tradition. Stephanie, and probably Sonia, couldn’t get her head around the investigatory part. Stephanie wanted history narrated in her scholarly way. She didn’t want the investigatory, almost whodunit style, that I wanted. I lost the argument. In my parting email to Sonia, I argued that she’d made the wrong choice. To go with Stephanie was the death knell of the project. It would linger for some time but ultimately remain in outline form, as Stephanie would continue to collect materials without forming a storyteller’s narrative. The book would never come into the world.
While the project ended for me, an extraordinary file came into my possession during my time spent with Moshe Lazar. I spent hours and hours with Moshe, both at his home and at the University of Southern California. In the privacy of his university office, Moshe handed me what he called his “secret stash.”
Moshe hadn’t shared the contents of his “secret stash” with anybody, including his wife. He claimed that he would be “excommunicated by the rabbis” if he did. Excommunication bothered him. Moshe had a muddled relationship with his religion. He’d rejected God, as his years in the concentration camp universe had taught him. But he’d formed a fervent commitment to his Jewishness, to the culture and the history, to the people and the literature, to the memory. Judaism gave him hope. He could not leave hope behind.
We had a handshake agreement. I would not go public with the contents of his stash in his lifetime. Moshe Lazar died on December 13, 2012. The question for public consumption then became: What was in his secret stash?
9) Let me jump to a second question. How did Moshe originally come to possess it? This history dates back to 1952. After finishing his master’s degree at Hebrew University, Lazar gained his first teaching appointment at the University of Salamanca in northwestern Spain, not far from the Portuguese border. At that time, Lazar spoke Spanish and due to influences in that part of Spain, he would learn Portuguese. During this time, he would also learn Ladino. He would become the world’s foremost expert in that language. Ladino led him on a scholarly journey, as he began to find and translate original manuscripts. His first find was a Jewish prayer book for women, dating to the Inquisition of the 15th century. Other manuscripts followed. Most of the manuscripts’ authors, according to Lazar, were burned at the stake.
But Lazar also found manuscripts and other documents that had nothing to do with Jews of the Inquisition. He deposited them in his “secret stash.” His “secret stash” grew into a sizeable box. The contents are extraordinary. There are documents that unveil the secret life of the Jewish historian known as Josephus. There are documents that speak to the 1st century and the growing movement known to the world as Christianity – called the Jews for Jesus movement in those times. There are documents that detail the lives of Paul the Apostle, and Peter, and Mark the Evangelist. There are documents on a certain Roman senator, who quietly funded and promoted the burgeoning Christian movement. Quietly being the operative word. Had he been exposed in those years, he would have been crucified.
Actually, that’s not quite correct. The Romans didn’t believe in capitol punishment for their citizens. They believed in banishment.
There are also documents detailing the true history of the emperor, Tiberius, and his successor, Caligula, and the important emperor of the second century, Hadrian. There are documents pointing to the Silk Road, and how a certain route came into existence. The list of documents goes on. I built my latest book, Satan’s Synagogue, on some of these documents. My next book will continue that trend.
10) I should say that I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Moshe Lazar. When he died, I lost a friend. And the world lost a righteous man. Moshe was not the kind of righteous man who needed to promote his righteousness. There was no billboarding, no publicity campaign, no hunt for a Nobel Prize. Moshe was a kind of quiet righteousness. In a loud world, his voice whispered true decency and wisdom. The loss of that voice bellows like thunder.
One thought on “Who was the real Moshe Lazar?”
The notion of a quiet, rightous man, still an optimist after all that he suffered, is a surprise occurrence in our current world of bombast, billboarding, and self-advertisement. How fortunate you were to know him, and how inspiring. He comes to life in your book–a lively, fascinating character; one whom I enjoyed meeting.