Abraham Foxman was not surprised by his friend Elie Wiesel’s death, but he found the sense of loss inescapable.
It wasn’t just the loss of a friend, someone with whom he could share memories of lost European childhoods in Yiddish, that Mr. Foxman was mourning. “We surviving survivors lost our most authentic voice of memory,” he said. “The world lost a great moral voice. We — the Jewish people, and the state of Israel — lost a strong, constant defender.”
Elie Wiesel died last Saturday, July 2, at 87; his legacy, Mr. Foxman said, is wide-ranging.
Mr. Foxman, who lives in Bergen County, worked for the Anti-Defamation League for 50 years and headed it for almost 30; soon after he retired, he became the first head of a new center studying anti-Semitism at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in downtown Manhattan. When he talks about Mr. Wiesel, who was about a decade older and therefore a teenager during the Holocaust, it is not only with love and a deep respect, but also with a hard-earned understanding.
Had it not been for Mr. Wiesel, Mr. Foxman said, knowledge of the Holocaust might not have been seared as deeply as it has been into the world’s consciousness. “One of the things that he did for both the Jewish people and the world is that he took a uniquely Jewish tragedy — which until Wiesel developed his voice was only our tragedy.
“For some of us, it was too heavy to bear. For some of us” — back in that time, in the 1950s and 60s, when survivors didn’t talk about it except perhaps among themselves, when the bright new postwar world had no corners for those dark images and middle-of-the-night horrors — “it even was embarrassing,” a grim reliving not only of fear and death but also of humiliation and utter powerlessness. “We didn’t want to talk about it. We didn’t want to pass it on to our children.”
That started to change in 1960, with the American publication of Mr. Wiesel’s first Holocaust memoir, “Night.” The book’s power was in the strength and specificity of its images. Once the book’s truth seeped into readers’ minds, it was there to stay.
Later, Mr. Wiesel was able to use this background to help other peoples in other places around the world.
“And then came Elie, who took this very particular Jewish tragedy onto the world stage, without making it universal,” Mr. Foxman said. It didn’t lose its uniqueness — he was quoted as saying that not all victims were Jews, but Jews were all victims — and he didn’t take away from the tragedy, which went beyond the Jewish people.
“He added the universal — he became an advocate for the Cambodians, the Rwandans, the Yugoslavs — but he never detracted from the Jewishness of the tragedy.”
That extremely hard balance, between the universal and the particular, was one that Mr. Wiesel maintained throughout his life, Mr. Foxman said.
Mr. Wiesel did not fear Holocaust deniers, according to Mr. Foxman. There is a vast historical record that only people blinded with hate could deny. “He was much more concerned about trivialization. That could undo memory. If you have soup Nazis and everything-else Nazis, and if every police officer becomes the Gestapo, it so undermines the understanding of what Nazism is, of what Hitler was, that it leaves nothing to take a lesson from. Nothing to remember.”
His advocacy for Jews extended beyond the Shoah victims who were his most immediate concern. “He was a visionary,” Mr. Foxman said. “I credit him more than anybody else except the Soviet Jews themselves with bringing the issue of Soviet Jewry to the fore,” Mr. Foxman said. “It was his visit and his book” — that was “The Jews of Silence,” published in 1966 — “that made us all of a sudden discover Soviet Jewry.”
In an entirely different direction, “Elie and his wife, Marion, built a school for Ethiopian immigrants in Israel,” he said. Mr. Wiesel had a sharp sense of fairness; he fought its lack whenever he could. “Once, when Elie and I were in Israel at the same time, he and I went to visit the Bialik-Rogozin School — it’s a school for illegal immigrants in Tel Aviv,” Mr. Foxman said. “The kids were from Africa, from Asia, from the Philippines; most of them were born in Israel but their parents were illegal immigrants.” There was a political question just then, “as there is every couple of months,” about whether those children would be able to stay in Israel. “Most of those kids were going to be expelled, and there they were, speaking Hebrew, singing Hebrew.” That’s what they knew, Mr. Foxman said.
And his friend, Mr. Wiesel? “He sang with them and he danced with them,” Mr. Foxman said.
It has become nearly a cliché by now, but Mr. Wiesel did “speak truth to power,” Mr. Foxman said. He recalled the time, in 1985, when Mr. Wiesel told the president of the United States, Ronald Reagan, that he was wrong in going to Bitburg, Germany, to leave a wreath on the grave of Waffen-SS soldiers. “That place, Mr. President, is not your place,” Mr. Wiesel said, in a losing attempt to get Mr. Reagan to change his mind. “Having the strength and the power to walk into the White House and say that to the president and the world — it looks simple but it is not simple,” Mr. Foxman said.
“There are a lot of words to describe Elie, but probably the most powerful are teacher and preacher. He loved to teach. His greatest moments were speaking at the 92nd Street Y, or at Boston University, or meeting with kids.”
Many people struggle with faith; regular life offers many reasons to disbelieve. The effect of the Holocaust on faith was vast, unimaginable to outsiders. “He struggled with faith,” Mr. Foxman said about his friend. “We all struggle with faith.”
The two men met every two weeks or so for the last several years, at first in restaurants, and then, as Mr. Wiesel’s health declined, in his home. “I would try to visit every Friday if I could, and his wife would permit me an hour or so,” Mr. Foxman said. “Those were precious, precious conversations. We spoke in Yiddish — that was his comfort zone. French was his writing language, and he and I talked about the language he dreamed in. Sometimes it was French, but usually it was Yiddish. That was still the mamaloshen,” the mother tongue, the language of parents and children and before-the-fall love. “So we spoke in Yiddish,” Mr. Foxman said.
“We talked about his childhood, the cheder, the joy and happiness he felt then. People saw him as a prophet of destruction, but he really was a prophet of hope.”
Sometimes they’d turn from the purely personal to more abstract matters. “We talked about the eternal, universal questions, about forgiveness, about memory, about the history of the Jewish people,” Mr. Foxman said. “Religion and faith was a frequent subject.
“All survivors struggle with it,” he continued. “I struggle with it. My father helped me — I asked him how can you teach me religion, after what you have seen and lived through, and my father said, ‘These are the works of man, not of God.” My father saw the manifestation of God as the miracles.
“Elie’s view was that his father, his grandfather, and his great grandfather all had faith in God. He was not going to be the first to break that chain.
“‘If I’m angry at God, that means that I’m not going to celebrate Shabbat? Or the miracle of the Torah?’
“We all find rationales, and he did too, but he never resolved it. He always continued to tussle with the question. But now, he is in a different universe, where he can ask those questions directly to the Almighty.
“He asked a lot of questions, but the fact that he did not know the answers did not turn him against whatever he was questioning.
“Elie had a charm and a charisma,” Mr. Foxman said. “He spoke in a very low voice, so you had to strain to listen to him.
“His message was even more anti-hate than it was pro-love,” he continued. “He said that love is a very difficult thing to achieve, but if we can eliminate hate we can live with each other. We don’t have to love each other to live with each other, but if we hate each other we can’t live with each other.”
Mr. Wiesel was a prime example of “the power of one,” Mr. Foxman said. “Elie is a prime example of what an individual can do. He moved mountains.”
Mr. Wiesel’s funeral, at the Fifth Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan, was private, Mr. Foxman said. The guests — including him — were “family and friends, not celebrities,” and that was exactly as it should have been, for a man who was very public but whose core was deeply private. “I think it was dignified and appropriate.
“This is a terrible, terrible, terrible loss, from all perspectives,” Mr. Foxman said.