2016-08-31 / Voice at the Shore

Shore residents memorialize Wiesel, “this generation’s pre-eminent survivor”

By ELLEN WEISMAN STRENGER
Voice shore editor


Elie Wiesel with longtime friend and author Ellen Norman Stern. Stern spoke at the remembrance event for Wiesel on August 9, along with noted Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum. Elie Wiesel with longtime friend and author Ellen Norman Stern. Stern spoke at the remembrance event for Wiesel on August 9, along with noted Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum. The Jersey shore Jewish community came out in force on August 9 to honor the memory of Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner who famously gave voice to the survivor’s experience and used it to challenge the world’s indifference to human atrocities around the globe.

The 350 people who packed into the JCC auditorium were there not just to remember Wiesel, who died on July 2 at the age of 87, but also to honor “the survivors in our own community whom he represents,” said Leo Schoffer, board member of Stockton University’s Sara and Sam Schoffer Holocaust Resource Center, which jointly offered the event along with Stockton’s Sam Azeez Museum of Woodbine Heritage. Many local survivors were present, as was Stockton President Harvey Kesselman, Azeez Museum director Jane Stark, and many other Stockton faculty members.

“Elie’s passing represents the end of an era. Survivors won’t be with us much longer,” said Professor Michael Berenbaum, a renowned Holocaust scholar, author and filmmaker who has served as a scholar-in-residence at Stockton as well as a leader of the Stockton Holocaust Center’s European study tours.

“He was this generation’s pre-eminent survivor who used the moral authority of his own experience to plead for others, to arouse compassion, to rally against indifference,” said Berenbaum.

Berenbaum spoke at the gathering along with Ellen Norman Stern, an author who wrote a biography of Wiesel, “Elie Wiesel: A Voice for Humanity.” Stern developed an enduring friendship with Wiesel while writing the biography.

With a quavering voice, the small elderly woman recalled her first meeting with Wiesel, describing him as “dark-eyed and slender in a business suit. He did not act like a celebrity at all,” she noted, but rather was “full of old-world courtesy.”

The two writers shared stories about the Holocaust. Wiesel, who was born on the border of Romania and Hungary, was deported in 1944, at the age of 15, to Auschwitz- Birkenau, where most of his family perished. Stern escaped Nazi Germany at the age of 10 with her mother in 1939, after her father was deported to Buchenwald.

After her first meeting with Wiesel, said Stern, “I felt completely understood, and in turn understood him.”

Wiesel told Stern she reminded him of his late mother whom he adored, and relayed to Stern a story of how his mother had taken him to a renowned local rebbe when he was 8 years old. His mother cried for days afterward, and years later Wiesel learned the rebbe had told her, “‘your son will become a great man in Israel, but neither you or I will be around to see that happen.’” After Wiesel won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, Stern sent him a telegram saying, “The prophecy has been fulfilled.”

At Wiesel’s funeral, his son, Elisha, compared his father to Moses, who had led the children of Israel out of Egypt but died before entering the Promised Land, said Stern.

Similarly, Wiesel led by example, giving Holocaust survivors a path out of meaninglessness and despair.

“More than any human being I know, he was responsible for changing the status of Holocaust survivors from victims and refugees to witnesses with a moral mission, not only to remember the past but transform the future,” said Berenbaum.

Through his powerful and eloquent voice, Wiesel also led the world on a journey into and out of the horrors of the Holocaust, which he called “incomprehensible and inexplicable,” said Berenbaum. He traveled the world speaking to audiences that included both world leaders and ordinary citizens about the Holocaust. His message was simple, said Berenbaum: “Remember the Holocaust. Remembrance…has the capacity to transform the future.”

Wiesel himself transformed the world by revealing the horrors of his own experience— most famously in his book “Night,” a memoir of his experience in Auschwitz, which is now one of the most widely read books on the Holocaust. He went on to write many more books on the Holocaust, as well as to become an outspoken human rights activist, speaking out on injustices ranging from the plight of Soviet Jewry to the genocide in Cambodia in 1979. His refusal to allow the world to remain indifferent in the face of evil earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.

Indifference was Wiesel’s greatest enemy, noted Berenbaum, who quoted Wiesel as famously saying (in response to atrocities committed in the former Yugoslav republics): “When evil shows its face…you must intervene.”

Wiesel’s death leaves a void that is impossible to fill, noted Berenbaum.

“He left the world bereft because while he remained faithful to his mission and succeeded in great measure, the world he leaves behind is in ever more desperate need of his voice,” said Berenbaum. “Others will have to pick up the slack but they will lack his authority.” s

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