He has achieved legendary status around the world as a Jewish Holocaust survivor who was able to emerge from the darkest horrors and turn his life into a beacon of meaningful activity as a human rights advocate.
Yet at age 84, Elie Wiesel still has personal and professional mountains to climb – he recently underwent quintuple heart bypass surgery, and while still in the beginning stage of recuperation, he began writing a new book about his latest harrowing experience.
As he celebrates the publication of Open Heart, the 84-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate and prolific author contemplates his auspicious past and still-evolving present in the Manhattan office of his foundation, which is itself recovering from the financial devastation wrought by infamous swindler Bernard Madoff, who had invested the money financing its humanitarian ventures. Wiesel’s personal investments were similarly ruined by Madoff’s Ponzi scheme.
Fortunately for the Holocaust chronicler, approximately one-third of the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity’s $15 million assets has been compensated through donations by caring outsiders. “Children sent us their pocket money, people we never heard of, Jews, non-Jews, young, old,” Wiesel marvels. “I was so touched by that.” While he and his wife have been forced to live on a tight budget since falling prey to Madoff’s wiles, the survivor of Auschwitz wryly notes that he has seen worse, and suddenly pulls up his left jacket sleeve to display the Nazi death camp number that was branded on his arm during the Holocaust.
“Usually I don’t show it,” he comments, though he made a notable exception in 2009, when he accompanied President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to the Buchenwald death camp that he was forced to endure. Wiesel’s visible reminder of his dark years as a youth in Europe contrasts sharply with the bubbling activity going on around him in the Madison Avenue office of his foundation, which touches on concerns ranging from Israeli education centers for Ethiopian Jews who have been saved from persecution to an international ethics essay contest.
In the aftermath of the heart surgery that he was suddenly required to undergo last summer at Manhattan’s Lenox Hill Hospital, Wiesel’s physician recommended that his world-renowned client reduce his teaching schedule at Boston University. Nevertheless, he will deliver lectures at the college in the fall. “I love teaching, it’s my passion,” he enthuses. Wiesel has likewise managed to uphold his commitments to speak at the 92nd Street Y on topics of classical Jewish interest.
Wiesel wrote Open Heart in French, his most natural language due to his immediate post-World War II placement in a youth home in Paris, where he settled and found success as a journalist before ultimately moving to New York in 1956. His wife Marion translated “Open Heart” into English, and the new book – one of more than fifty Wiesel has authored – will be published on December 4.
Besides vividly describing his surgical experience, the book features an intimate assessment of Wiesel’s life as he faced the possibility of its ending. Lying on a gurney on the way to the operating room, the man who cheated death in his younger years recalls, “I saw my son and my wife, and all of a sudden, a question ran through me, ‘Maybe it’s the last time?’ ”
Wiesel found the moment reminiscent of the day in Buchenwald when he last saw his father, who was later beaten to death by a Nazi guard. The young man’s mother and sister had previously been murdered in the Auschwitz gas chambers.
Touching on current events, Wiesel says that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad deserves to be arrested and charged with crimes against humanity. “Does anyone doubt that if he had a nuclear bomb, he would not use it?” he asks rhetorically. “Ahmadinejad is a dangerous man, and he should be made to stand trial at the International Criminal Court in the Hague for the killings of thousands of Iranians.” Wiesel sums up the Iranian leader’s guilt by stating that his actions have contributed to making this “the most dangerous time since World War II.”
Wiesel’s most famous literary product, Night, published in 1956, is a required read for numerous students in American public schools. Night was the Holocaust survivor’s first public recounting of his horrific wartime trauma since he was liberated at age 16 by the United States Army in April 1945.
At the time of his liberation, Wiesel filled out a questionnaire distributed by the American military to every prisoner of the Nazis asking, among other things, why he believed he was arrested and held captive. He answered simply, “For being a Jew.”
The eloquent survivor used Night to express his anger at humanity. “Here there are no fathers, no brothers, no friends,” he quoted a prisoner telling him. “Everyone lives and dies for himself alone.”
Despite all he went through and witnessed, Wiesel says he still believes in human redemption, an article of faith he says he will explain in his next book, a novel appropriately titled “Redemption.” His goal “for the last twenty years of my life” has been to combat the twin evils of racism and hatred by organizing global gatherings with influential participants. The inauguration of President Obama was “one of the most joyous days of my life, because my people, the American people, showed they could overcome a disease – hatred because of color.” The two have had informal private meetings at the White House, he says. “Someday,” Wiesel concludes, “my grandchildren will applaud the first Jewish president in America.”