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July 3, 2016 3:30 pm

A Few Personal Parting Words to My Friend and Colleague, Elie Wiesel

avatar by Simon Jacobson

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Chairman of The Algemeiner Journal's Advisory Board, the late Professor Elie Wiesel with Algemeiner publisher Simon Jacobson. Photo: Sarah Rogers / Algemeiner.

Chairman of The Algemeiner Journal’s Advisory Board, the late Professor Elie Wiesel with Algemeiner publisher Simon Jacobson. Photo: Sarah Rogers / Algemeiner.

We would meet every few months in his book-lined office on Madison Avenue. Despite his being almost twice my age, he would always greet me graciously at the door and lead me in to the room where we would speak for hours on end.

“Intimate” would be the word that best describes our encounters. With unusual warmth and concern, he would discuss with me – primarily in his poetic Yiddish – world events, personal challenges, the trajectory of history – always infused with a sense of urgency and deliberate purpose.

Survivors of hell have an acute focus on the objective. They have little time for pettiness and time-wasting. As Elie told me a number of times, “I cannot take my life for granted. My father, mother and sister died in the camps. Too many people died, and I could have been one of them. The fact that I am here is for a reason, and I never, ever forget that.”

Yes, our conversations were serious, very serious.

But we also laughed together. He would often recall his longstanding and unique friendship with my father, Gershon. How they both were fledgling journalists working out of the UN in the late 1950’s. How, due to their meager means, they both would groom themselves in the washrooms at the UN, and take some extra tissues with them for later use.

Elie shared with me how in 1960, when he went off to publish his book, Night, he asked my father to replace him as correspondent for the Israeli daily, Yediot Ahronot. My father would remain in that position until 1972, when he founded The Algemeiner Journal.

There are so many fascinating details to share about the deep friendship that developed between Elie and my father. The time will come for that. But for now, allow me to note a few lesser-known, yet major, milestones.

In one particularly moving conversation, Elie shared with me how he had basically given up on life after the war and the atrocities and losses he witnessed. Even after meeting French author François Mauriac, who persuaded him to serve as a witness and chronicle his experiences, he still felt dead inside and could not bring himself to personally commit to any life-affirming activities. But then things changed. Wiesel told me, “I credit your father as being one of the first people who altered my view and attitude to life. Though he himself had suffered under Soviet oppression, losing his parents at a young age, your father was a shining example of positivity and celebrating life and its possibilities.”

Elie paused, took a deep breath and continued: “And then, in the mid-60’s, your father introduced me to the Lubavitcher Rebbe. You father persuaded me to go see him, which I ultimately did. After hours of dialogue and subsequent correspondence, the rebbe was the one who finally convinced me to marry and build a family. His most compelling argument – which I could not refute – was that the only and ultimate response to Nazi destruction was to build a family and perpetuate the memory of those they wished to obliterate.

“This changed my life, forever. In the single-most important decision of my life, I married Marion in 1969, and then, in 1972, we had our son – our pride and joy – Shlomo Elisha, named after my father, who perished in Buchenwald.”

Clearly very emotional, Elie walked me over to the photos on his desk. Pointing to pictures of his son and his grandchildren, he simply said: “Everything is worth this.”

Another thing that stood out in our conversations was Elie’s love for teaching. He would often say – especially when I would provoke him to respond to some recent controversy – “You know, Reb Simon,” a smile breaking out on his deeply lined face, “I am nothing but a simple melamed, a teacher. My love and my life work is teaching my students.“

Indeed, Elie leaves thousands of students who attended his classes, first at New York’s City College, then at Boston University and Eckerd College, and most recently also at Chapman University. Many more came to listen to his memorable lectures at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan.

Elie understood that the power of eternity lies in words, teachings, students. And the power of eternal friendships that withstand, transcend the impermanent vicissitudes of life.

No wonder, then, that when my father died 11 years ago, the first person I called (outside of immediate family) was Elie. He immediately made his way from his home in Greenwich to the funeral in Brooklyn. Though our custom is not to eulogize, I asked Elie to share a few words, which he did – touching words from the heart of a friend bidding farewell to a friend.

And then, during the shiva for my father, Elie was unequivocal in telling me: “The Algemeiner must go on. Your father’s legacy and my legacy – Elie was a regular columnist in The Algemeiner – will live on.

True to his word, Elie threw his support behind the perpetuation of The Algemeiner, personally, financially and in every which way. He lent his name to chair our distinguished Tribute Committee.

And he told me not once: “I will help you in any way I can. I will never say no to you.” And again, true to his promise, he never said no. It is not an exaggeration to say that due to his support, presence and memorable lectures at our events, The Algemeiner exists and thrives today, as a powerful warrior for truth (in Elie’s words).

I once asked Elie whether it is true that marching into the gas chambers, Jews would sing Ani Ma’amin [I believe], a heart-stirring melody expressing one’s complete and unwavering faith in the coming of the Messiah, who will usher in a new world order of peace. Elie replied that the barracks where the Jews were held was a distance from the death chambers. But very often he did hear the whimpering prayers of the Jews near him. The cry of the Shema, the reciting of Kaddish, the Shabbat or holiday prayers, and also, the singing of Ani Ma’amin.

“If I may ask,” I continued, “How do you explain this devotion? In the face of utter abandonment, of a God that was totally concealed, allowing His people, His children, to be decimated, the Jews had the total right to be angry at God. How do you explain the fact that instead they thanked and prayed to Him, sang His praises and declared their absolute belief that He would redeem them?!”

Elie’s response captures his essence:

“Things really don’t make sense. Life is mostly absurd. We have seen man at his worst. But for the Jew, insanity is not abnormal. I can’t tell you what was going on in the minds, hearts and souls of the Jews who walked to their deaths. But I can tell you that every single one of these sacred people knew one thing. And they declared it with their prayers and their songs:

“You can take our bodies, but you can’t take our souls. You can take our lives but not our faith. We will prevail. If not today, tomorrow. If not tomorrow, the next day. If not us, our children. If not our children, our grandchildren. But we will prevail.

“Ani Maamin… I believe with complete faith…”

My friend, the dear and beloved friend of my father, Gershon, you have made your mark. You have served as a child of your father’s and mother’s, and of so many fathers and mothers. You have brought into this world a son and grandchildren – and millions of students, considered to be children as well.

You have prevailed, as has the Jewish people.

We will live to see the world as promised to us.

And if not today, tomorrow.

It was an honor to know you. Please say hello to my father.

Simon Jacobson is the publisher of The Algemeiner.

The opinions presented by Algemeiner bloggers are solely theirs and do not represent those of The Algemeiner, its publishers or editors. If you would like to share your views with a blog post on The Algemeiner, please be in touch through our Contact page.

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  • Charisse Smoller

    May his memory be for a blessing. Moving, very teary eyed. They say a righteous person continues to do even more after their death, surely he is storming Hashem in the next world for the peace that is needed in this world. Thank You for sharing and yes, you are blessed to have had such an intimate relationship with such a neshoma.
    With Blessings

  • A Wachtel

    Beautiful, Rabbi Jacobson. Thank you. Elie Wiesel will live on through so many of us, B”H. A continued aliyahs neshama to your beloved Father.

  • Linda

    Blessings on your name and family. I read Night as a teenager and it forever changed my thoughts and life.

  • Geraldine Bass

    There are no words beautiful enough to express the tenderness, warmth and love which you, Mr. Jacobson, expressed in this commentary.

    May G-d bless you and may the memory of Elie Wiesel, your father and all righteous people be a forever blessing.

  • Thank you so much for sharing these beautiful words for Elie. Though I never met him personally, I know he had a beautiful Spirit. I hope to carry on, in my own personal way, a mode of reaching out to others and sharing the Truth. Truth is a Light that dispels evil. He gave me such hope-to continue-to endure. I would also like to say how much the Algemeiner has enlightened and comforted me. Best wishes, Mary Free

  • Thank you so much for sharing these wonderful times of Elie. I feel not even his bodily death will stop him from wanting justice for those who deserve it. Though I never met him personally, I know he had a strong, beautiful spirit. Best wishes, Mary Free

  • fRED kAHN

    Fred Kahn Freddy Lejeune i was acquainted with Elie Wiesel ,of blessed memory , and often exchanged letters in french with him. Singularly. I had known . at liberation from hiding in Southeast Belgium, the chaplain , Robert Marcus in September 1944 who the following year in June 5 1945, accompanied about 500 orphans, including Elie Wiesel then 16 years old, from the Buchenwald concentration camp to Paris, France. Elie Wiesel supported the listserv/group Remember_The_Holocaust I manage on the internet.

  • racy

    With your simple words you said it all. Ellie Wiesel was one of the great men of this century; maybe the greatest of men. A great teacher who influenced millions, a lover of peace and his fellow man even though his eyes witnessed the worse in man and the worse in times. A supporter of the Jewish state, a mentor, an astute advisor, spoke gently and quietly, a humble man, a brilliant man.
    I feel like I lost a member of my family. RIP Ellie.
    You’ve contributed volumes to mankind. You’ve earned your place in Gan Eden.

  • The world and the Jewish people were indeed blessed to have such wonderful leaders as Elie Wiesel and Gershon Jacobson. Unfortunately as Jews again face resurgent vile anti semitism, we must unify, better ourselves, and take on our enemies thru prayer, the pen and protests.

    Am Yisroel Chai

  • Thank you

  • May he rest in peace , and may his memory be a blessing to his family , to our community , and the world.
    My wife interviewed her on two occasions , and published it in the Shofar magazine of the Iranian American Jewish Federation of greater Los Angeles . She met him on few occasions and she always talked about his humbleness and his interest in the lives of Jews who left Iran after the revolution .
    The title of her article for the first interview was ” Our second meeting ” . The reason for that title was that during the interview Elie acted so kindly that my wife told him ” I feel have known you for a long time ” . And Elie stated ” this is our second meeting ” . And when she asked why do you call it the second meeting . He stated ” we all meet at Sinai for the first time ” !
    The world and our community would miss him .

  • Rita Crespi

    I cried through this entire beautifully written farewell. I was fortunate enough to not lose any family to the Nazis. My mother’s family left Russia around 1918 and my father’s side was expelled from Spain and he grew up in Turkey. But we had neighbor’s and friends who lost their loved ones. I started reading books about the Holocaust when I was about 10. It has left a mark on my soul. I wish I had had the privilege of going to one of Mr. Wiesel’s lectures. I have always been a great admirer and the world has lost not just a great man, but possibly one who might have showed us the way to peace. May his name and his memory be a blessing forever.
    May Hashem keep him in his arms.

  • Yoel Nitzarim

    This tribute has deeply moved me. Thank you, Reb Simon, thank you very much.

  • Dear Rabbi Jacobson,

    thank you very much for this warm, thoughtful, graceful and elegant article on such key event in our all’ lives. I found it the one of the very best, most eloquent, reflections on the passing of Elie. The one which corresponds to his, to an author of eulogies, style, spirit and presence, the most. The only one among many stories appeared which mentions the Elie’s meeting with the Rebbe which really has become the crucial point in his life. Written on such somber matter, your article is filled with light which is the source of our ability to resist the dark of the darkness. Thank you very much for that.