I had picked my college based on one professor; Holocaust Author and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Elie Wiesel. I believe it was Tuesday afternoon, 3:00 pm, sitting on comfortable sofas in his office the Nobel laureate (although at that point he hadn’t yet received the Nobel award) Professor Elie Wiesel would charm us at Boston University. He was the first survivor, who started to talk and write about the holocaust (‘Night’ went on to sell millions of copies). But it is easy to forget there were many other aspects of this soft-spoken, passionate man. We students were privileged to meet him every week as he told over the stories of his youth for a semester. His message to us, reiterated in almost every story though disguised with many faces and voices; was how fortunate we are to be able to learn wherever and whatever we want. He demanded us to use that ‘right’ throughout our lives so we could elevate ourselves.
Wiesel was born in Sighet, Transylvania (Romania), in the Carpathian Mountains, on September 30, 1928. Sarah Wiesel, his mother, was the daughter of a Vizhnitz Hassid. She spent time in jail for helping Polish Jews enter the country illegally. Shlomo Wiesel, his father, encouraged Elie to learn Hebrew and to read literature, while his mother encouraged him to study the Torah. Two out of three of his sisters, Beatrice and Hilda, survived the war. They were fortunate to be reunited at a French orphanage. They eventually immigrated to North America.
In 1944, the German army deported the Jewish community in Sighet to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Wiesel and his father were sent to the work camp Buna, a sub-camp of Auschwitz III-Monowitz. He managed to remain with his father for more than eight months as they were shuffled among three concentration camps in the final days of the war. On January 28, 1945, after they all had been forced to march to Buchenwald, Wiesel’s father was killed by an SS guard, only weeks before the camp was liberated by the US Third Army on April 11.
For ten years after the war, Wiesel refused to write about or discuss his experiences during the Holocaust, like many holocaust survivors, he was afraid to limit his experiences with mere words. But Elie Wiesel became the first voice to be heard. He recognized it was necessary to maintain a world consciousness, a global memory. He became the world’s moral reminder and storyteller.
He was a singer of tales. His books were our texts; ‘Messengers of God’ (I have it personally signed by him) and ‘Four Hasidic Masters’, ‘A Jew Today’ and others delving into his past and what turned out to be from his very encouragement; our future. He spoke of the love of the great Jewish masters; the storytellers and the great Rabbis who loved and worried over their flock.
It wasn’t a class about the holocaust, though his stories couldn’t help but mention the end of such beautiful traditions and the destruction of families. He proudly would mention how some of the Chassidic houses were re-established and building new dynasties. His message in the classes, in his books, in his lectures I believe were all the same; I’ll tell it to you like he wrote in the ‘Four Hasidic Masters’:
(After a simple Jew complains to Rebbe Pinhas of Koretz that he has questions about faith and doesn’t know how to resolve them, the Rav answers him.)
When a Jew can provide no answer, he at least has a tale to tell. And so Rebbe Pinhas of Koretz invited the visitor to come closer, and then said with a smile: “know, my young friend, that what is happening to you also happened to me…You see, “said Rebbe Pinhas of Koretz, “the questions remained questions. But I was able to go on…”
The moral of the story: in the first place, young people learn not to fear questions – provided they have studied before and — go on studying after. Secondly, doubts are not necessarily destructive – provided they bring them to a Rebbe.
What did Pinhas of Koretz try to teach his young visitor? One: not to give up; even in some questions are without answers, go on asking them. Two: one must not think that one is alone and that one’s inner tragedy is exclusively one’s own; others have gone through the same sorrow and endured the same anguish. Three: one must know where to look, and to whom. Four: God is everywhere, even in pain, even in the search for faith. Five: a good story in Hasidism is not about miracles, but about friendship and hope – the greatest miracles of all.
Eli Wiesel left us his words; may we learn from him and go study from those who know wisdom.