Who was the real Elie Wiesel?

My latest book, a critical biography entitled The Gospel According to Elie Wiesel, has just been released after 15 years in the making.  The book is available here: https://www.amazon.com/Gospel-According-Elie-Wiesel/dp/B0BKSCY45K/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1667292802&sr=8-8.

     I am writing a series of profiles related to the book.  This is part ii.  Part iii will examine one case of sex slavery in Auschwitz.  Look for “A Pipel’s War Story,” coming soon. 

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 even mean?  Words came to mind at the time: insightful, penetrating, investigatory, critical, objective.  The words resonated in my mind.  That kind of book did not exist on Wiesel.  Why?

     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 multiple decades.  Still, despite the incredible outpouring of work, Wiesel remained a great unknown, an enigma.  The big questions endured.  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, gaining a Nobel Peace Prize along the way?

     Wiesel rejected my proposal, kindly, gently.  At that point I thought the project was dead.  But it wasn’t.  Something about the Wiesel narrative just didn’t set right with me.  Something about his rejection, too personal, too intimate, pushed me forward.  I turned to a literary investigation in the tradition of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Over the course of the next 15 years, I navigated Wiesel’s 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.

     Here’s what my research uncovered.  The previously unknowable Wiesel.  One word came to dominate Wiesel’s rise to fame.  Ambition.  He was as ambitious as any presidential aspirant.  He couched that ego in a lamination of humility.  Was the humility an act?

     Below you will find a portraiture of Wiesel:

1) Wiesel was a master teacher, according to former students.  One of those students, Ariel Burger, wrote a book in 2018, 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.)

     Burger 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.  Here’s what Burger missed.  Wiesel never allowed anyone outside his circle to write on him, as I documented in The Gospel According to Elie Wiesel (GAEW).  Unknown to Wiesel’s writers, perhaps, Wiesel used his circle to control the narrative.  He held autocratic authority over the telling of his story.

     But that’s not the grave disappointment found on Burger’s pages.  There’s not one critical evaluation of Wiesel in Witness.  There’s only 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 GAEW– 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.  In GAEW, I gave Wiesel a title: the docent of Auschwitz.

     The history shows that Wiesel’s 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.  In turn, the rebbe-to-disciple relationship produced a fierce sense of protection.  To challenge Wiesel publicly became a rarity bordering on blasphemy.  There were a few mitnagidim, or opponents, to Wiesel.  Let’s mention three.

     The Holocaust survivor Eli Pfefferkorn proudly displayed the badge later in his life.  Decades before, he met and befriended Wiesel.  On the museum building project in Washington, D.C., he became Wiesel’s alter ego.  Appointed by the president of the United States, Wiesel could not speak his mind.  Pfefferkorn took the blowhorn.  He became the wild card, the schemer, the operator.  But his allegiances to Wiesel fell apart.  Pfefferkorn cited Wiesel for betrayal, for turning his back on his core constituency.  It was “close to a tragedy,” Pfefferkorn remarked in an author interview.  “By turning against the survivors, he was turning against himself.”

     The literary critic Alfred Kazin preceded Pfefferkorn on the mitnagidim queue.  The literary record indicates that Kazin grew captivated with Wiesel early in the 1960s.  “As we sat in Riverside Park watching young families on parade,” Kazin recalled in an autobiographical essay, “Wiesel’s dramatically tortured face, his martyred thinness, the deliberateness of his speech, were all the more striking because he suffered violent headaches.  I felt very humble.  He looked as if he had taken into himself the whole cruelty of what Churchill had called ‘the worst episode in human history.’”

     (See Alfred Kazin, “My Debt to Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi,” in David Rosenberg, ed., Testimony: Contemporary Writers Make the Holocaust Personal.  New York: Times Books, 1989.)

     But Wiesel’s decades-long development sent Kazin into full retreat.  He came to see a platform idol, a celebrity, a “professional survivor.”  Wiesel never missed an opportunity to put the Shoah face on for the camera.

     Kazin excoriated in his personal journals.  Apparently, the two men met by chance on a flight from Boston to New York.  Wiesel “languidly” invited Kazin to sit with him.  The conversation “steered away from all grievances.”  Kazin continued, “As the plane doors were about to close, some unimaginably Hasidic characters in full regalia came in, and I asked Elie if his characters always followed him.”

     (See Richard M. Cook, ed., Alfred Kazin’s Journals.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.)

     I am the latest on the short list of mitnagidim.  In GAEW, 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 neo-prophet.  In the Wiesel-created and Wiesel-controlled narrative, a different Jeremiah came into the world.  Not the whiny Jeremiah.  Not the PTSD Jeremiah.  The Jeremiah of righteous counsel.  The docent of Auschwitz quietly advanced the strongest sanctimony.

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, subtly reducing appearance to marginalia.  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?  As presented in GAEW, 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 his apocrypha?

4) Let’s be clear.  At times, 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 voice to that terrible history.  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 the work, ostensibly.

     Let’s expose the flipside.  Beginning in the mid-1970s, an advocacy operation began.  In GAEW, I gave that advocacy a name: the Wiesel-for-Nobel campaign.  Wiesel made some highly questionable decisions in his push to win the Nobel.  For instance, he aligned with a German politician who, as a younger man, had believed in the Nazi cause.  The record shows that Wiesel needed this politician on his side.  This politician had reach to the very top of the German Bundestag.  Wiesel needed the support of Chancellor Helmut Kohl to win the Nobel.  He got it. Strangely, Wiesel then invited this German politician to the Nobel awards ceremony.

     When Pfefferkorn called out Wiesel for “turning against the survivors,” this is some of what he meant.

5) Wiesel’s narcissism got in his way.  After winning the Nobel, Wiesel created a foundation.  The foundation served as a platform for Wiesel’s self-promotion.  In GAEW, 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 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 so blinded by his own ambitions?  Was he a victim of his own one-man state department publicity? 

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 narrative.  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 in his narrative, of pursuit.  There’s no talk of ambition.  A definitive brushstroke in the self-portraiture of Elie Wiesel emerged, 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 successes.

     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 in an author interview, “I, as his agent, did not do anything to promote him, nor did he promote himself.  People just came after him…”

     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 then 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 did she acknowledge her role as paid publicist.  Never did Wiesel acknowledge her role.  It’s a totally fascinating form of chicanery. 

7) 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.

     Wiesel’s history of lawsuit threats circles over to the most renowned lawsuit intimidator of our era, Donald Trump.  In fact, the two men shared some notable traits.  Let’s end this portraiture with a study, not found in GAEW.

     Both Wiesel and Trump 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 relationship with his father has been well documented.  In fact, I went in depth in an earlier book, Trump-a-Lincoln-a-Lago.  Adjectives used to describe Trump’s father jump off the page.  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 with a trusted colleague, 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.”

     (See Harry James Cargas, Harry James Cargas in conversation with Elie Wiesel.  New York: Paulist Press, 1976.)

     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 could create characters, plot lines, and story development unchallenged.  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 GAEW.  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.

     But a notable meeting purportedly took place in the late spring of 2016.  Wiesel and Trump had a private lunch. At that point in time Trump had essentially gained the Republican nomination for president.  Why would a luncheon take place between these two seemingly disparate men and what was discussed?

     The historical record offers little response.  While Ted Koppel reported the luncheon, he didn’t know the content discussed.  (See Max Kutner, “What Did Donald Trump and Elie Wiesel Discuss Over Lunch?,” Newsweek, July 15, 2016.  Online at https://www.newsweek.com/ wiesel-trump-lunch-meeting-480506.)  But let’s speculate.  Trump’s reasons for meeting with Wiesel seem clear.  Trump was doing what politicians do: trying to shore up support.  In this case, Jewish support.

     Wiesel’s reasons for the lunch appear to touch on his psyche.  Let’s circle back to that child and father walking to religious services together, as described by Wiesel.  Let’s circle back to rejection, bereavement.  Bereavement created a cycle, a deep and unmitigated longing for more attention.  Spin the psyche into the 1960s.  When Wiesel began his climb to world fame, he found an irresistible dynamic.  He liked the attention.  The attention fed into his ambition.  Wiesel, as documented in GAEW, wanted to play “world stage politics” with a “humanistic touch.”

     Wiesel died on July 2, 2016.  And yet, some weeks earlier, with Wiesel in ill health, according to the reportage, he met with Trump.  His ambition, even while suffering from a long and terminal illness, remained until his final days.

     This is the true Elie Wiesel.

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