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Mara Koven-Gelman: Soft-spoken Wiesel will forever be remembered

I received a text about the passing of Elie Wiesel. I screamed in the hair salon, “Oh, no! Elie Wiesel died!” The stylist said, “Oh, that’s sad. Was he your friend?”

There is so much to unpack in that reaction. Does it mean that Wiesel has less relevance to today’s 30-somethings, even in New York State where teaching of the Holocaust and genocide is mandated? And no, I can’t claim him as a friend, but he was my teacher and the subject of several of my articles.

In 1989, I took a class with Wiesel, which is how I came to be the lone Jew, along with 25 Christian divinity students, enrolled in “The Book of Job” at Boston University.

At the first class, Wiesel entered humbly through a large oak door. He wore a three-piece gray suit and sported his signature wispy, unkempt hair that framed those sad, piercing eyes. In that classroom he wasn’t a Holocaust survivor, author of “Night and Dawn” and 38 other books, or Nobel Laureate. He was our professor.

Wiesel asked us to introduce ourselves. During my turn he smiled, “Mara, Mara, don’t your parents like you?” He explained to the class that “Mara” is pronounced Marah in Hebrew, meaning “bitter.” At his core, he was a Torah Chacham (Torah scholar). Embarrassed, I asked, “Can you help me with that professor Wiesel?”

“Well it is true that there are bitter waters of Marah in the Torah. But G-d put a tree in those waters and made them sweet. So today, they are sweet. Does that help?”

Later, he was asked to make the connection between the downtrodden Bible character “Job” and Holocaust survivors. Wiesel was soft-spoken but stern. “This is not a course on the Holocaust. I will say only one statement in connection to the relationship of “Job” to the Shoah (Hebrew for the Holocaust.)

“I understand religious Jews who went through the Shoah and emerged non-believers. I also understand secular, atheist Jews who survived and became religious. And I have seen both. But I do not believe anyone can go through that terror and not be completely affected, completely transformed,” said Wiesel. And with that, we never heard him utter another word about the Holocaust in the course.

I had other interactions with Wiesel during my decade in Boston. In preparation for covering a peace conference he initiated with Carl Sagan, I sent him an article with a request for an interview. The article chronicled my 1983 visit to communist Russia and Soviet Jews (who were forbidden to leave). He sent this note: “Dear Mara. I envy you for spending the Pessach [Passover] with our Russian Jews. They are magnificent aren’t they? So – have faith in their future; I do. … Let us help them more. And more. Be well, Mara. Elie Wiesel”

During the interview, my mini-recorder failed to capture his classic sotto voce. Thankfully I took notes. Two quotes have stayed with me: “In a strange way I am much more afraid for the future of humankind, than for the Jewish people … What else can they do to the Jews?”

I asked if another Holocaust could ever happen. “The Holocaust will always be connected to the atrocities Hitler did to the Jews. There will be other genocides, but remember, there is only one Holocaust.” He added prophetically, “I fear the next world evil will come from the Middle East.” This was in 1986, before Rwanda, Darfur, Sudan, 9/11, al-Qaida and ISIS.

Many have written about Wiesel’s impact on our generation’s moral compass. George Clooney, the actor and activist, said it best, “Now he’s gone. … So I guess it’s up to us now. To fight for the disenfranchised. To speak truth to power and to never forget how cruel man can be to man.”

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