As the world recalled the lifetime achievements of Elie Wiesel, I looked back on one very special day with the educator, writer, activist and Holocaust survivor.
It was a beautiful day in September 2005. Prof. Wiesel – that was how I addressed him – was to be the guest speaker at the Jewish Federation of Ottawa Annual Campaign kickoff that evening, and I had the enviable job of being his chauffeur for the day.
As Jack Silverstein and I waited for him to clear customs, I was nervous. What did one say to a personal hero who was the most famous chronicler of the Nazi genocide as well as a tireless champion for human rights?
Would he be pleasant? Or arrogant, remote or rude? Fame and intellect do not guarantee kindness, or even good manners.
But my nerves vanished within seconds of meeting Prof. Wiesel, who was gracious and engaging.
He was slight, with a weathered face and a shock of grey hair that had resisted any attempt to tame it.
And then there were the eyes. Deep brown and penetrating, they paired ineffable sadness with genuine warmth.
I had first read his book, “Night,” 30 years earlier – an experience that changed my life in more ways than one.
Although I was not yet Jewish in 1975, I knew a fair amount about the Shoah and the atrocities committed by the Nazis. But “Night” was such a personal, painful and excruciatingly detailed story of a father-son journey through the horrors of Auschwitz and Buchenwald that it eclipsed anything I had previously learned.
And the book was to be my key to understanding a close family member’s history. I had known that my Hungarian-born Jewish aunt, Eva Lessard (née Kramer), had been in a concentration camp with her mother, Renée.
But she had never talked to me about the details – and it was clear in our family dynamic that I was not to ask – until I mentioned that I had just finished reading “Night.”
To my astonishment, she started to talk about what she and her mother had gone through as prisoners in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
I remember only fragments of the actual details. But it was a story of mother and daughter looking out for each other, hiding the other’s illness or weakness before the regular selections, giving each other the will to survive the unspeakable.
It was so much like the story of young Eliezer Wiesel and his father, Shlomo.
But, while Eva’s story had a happy ending – she and her mother found new lives in Montreal, and her mother lived another 50 years after liberation – Eliezer’s father became weak, was beaten and deprived of food by other inmates and was killed by a guard less than three months before Buchenwald was liberated.
That lovely afternoon in 2005, however, invoked only memories of happier times. Prof. Wiesel and I went for tea at the home of renowned cantor and Holocaust survivor Moshe Kraus and his wife, Rivka.
Cantor Kraus had been young Eliezer’s choirmaster in the Transylvanian town of Sighet before the Nazi invasion, and it had been many years since their paths had crossed.
As we sipped tea on a balcony overlooking the Rideau River, the two great men reminisced about simpler times, when their lives revolved around music, religious studies and the mystical tales of Chassidic Judaism.
They sang snippets of the old songs, and the years melted away as they reveled in each other’s company and anecdotes. It was a gift to bear witness to this touching reunion.
That evening, Prof. Wiesel addressed an audience of 1,200 people. I have never heard an audience so quiet or so thoroughly engaged.
I remember little of the speech’s specific content – I hope that a video or transcript exists – but I remember the ovations and the lineup of people eager to share a moment with him.
I remember the quiet signal he gave me when he was ready to slip away. And I recall that I barely slept that night.
When I heard of Prof. Wiesel’s death earlier this month, I thought of everything he had suffered and everything he had accomplished. I thought of the bravery of my beloved aunt, Eva, who died in December 2014.
But my lasting memory will be of that sunny September afternoon, when the sadness in his eyes gave way to delight at seeing an old friend, and when the great Elie Wiesel relived the innocence and happiness of the young Eliezer.