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Heresy II: Hustling Elie Wiesel in his apartment

An extract from A Rough Guide to the Dark Side

As Wiesel himself once put it:

“Do not turn your back on the past. Integrate it into your life and you will flourish. Forget it and you are doomed.”

*****

A scene from New York in 2003

By Daniel Simpson

The man we were awaiting lived off Lexington, a few blocks east of Central Park. He was the author of fifty books, almost all of them on the theme of not forgetting.

Once upon a time, he wished he could, like others who’d survived Nazi death camps. The first tome took him ten years to write. But half a century later, there were other concerns. After winning the Nobel Peace Prize for his work, he’d set up a Foundation for Humanity, to counter criticism that he sought ‘to keep the wounds of Auschwitz open by repeatedly pouring the salt of new literary reconstructions upon them.’

The Norwegian Nobel Committee saw things differently. They called Elie Wiesel ‘a witness for truth and justice’, and said that his ‘commitment, which originated in the sufferings of the Jewish people, has been widened to embrace all repressed peoples,’ in an expression of ‘limitless solidarity.’

Perhaps it had. But that wasn’t the message I heard from him myself. A few weeks after joining The New York Times, I’d been asked to ‘bear witness’ to speeches he gave in Romania, and what I witnessed again and again were Holocaust lectures. Wiesel had opened a museum in his boyhood home, from which he and his family were deported in 1944.

‘It is the first time he’s been back in a long time,’ I’d been told by the foreign editor, who’d apparently been told to lay on proper coverage, ‘so please think in terms of going there a couple of days before. I’ll provide some Wiesel contact numbers.’

A three-­day road trip ensued, escorted by the U.S. ambassador, Wiesel’s wife, two advisers, a historian, and a screenwriter, plus a retinue of businessmen. We dined with the Romanian prime minister, and flew with the president to Sighet, Wiesel’s home in Transylvania. He urged both leaders to denounce a wartime forebear, the fascist Ion Antonescu, who put a quarter of a million Jews and gypsies to death. Theoretically, the government disowned him, but his portrait still hung in their building, which had set back Romania’s efforts to join NATO, and host American military bases.

‘It was impossible to contain the emotions,’ Wiesel had told me, after telling young Romanians to grill their grandparents.

‘Ask them if they shed a tear, if they cried, if they slept well,’ he’d urged. ‘And then you children, when you grow up, tell your children that you have seen a Jew in Sighet telling his story.’

When the Times printed my write-­up of that story, at greater length than anything else I’d filed, Wiesel called to thank me.

‘You captured it perfectly,’ he said. ‘Please keep in touch.’ So I took him at his word and phoned his office.

His foundation’s aim was ‘to combat indifference, intolerance and injustice, through international dialogue and youth-­focused programs’; in other words, through projects like our festival. An appointment was scheduled to meet Wiesel at home.

I wondered at first if we’d come to the wrong address. It was badly in need of a paint job, and there were none of the brocaded doormen from Park Avenue. But a concierge had ushered us upstairs, where a familiar face stood waiting in a doorway. He looked like Woody Allen, minus wisecracks; unless you counted wrinkles in his brow.

‘Come in, come in,’ Wiesel said. I followed meekly, both my partners at my heel.

The apartment was effectively a study. Its walls were lined with little but Judaica, in books and rolls of parchment by the thousand. Turning his back on his desk, Wiesel showed us to seats at a knee‑high table. I introduced the others, and our goal: G was a Serb, J was Croat, and we were working together on reconciliation.

Our host looked solemn. ‘So you’re leaving the Times?’ he said, recalling what I’d told him.

‘Yes.’

He paused dramatically. ‘A shame,’ he said. ‘What happened?’

‘It’s a long story.’

‘Go on.’

‘They’re obsessed with the past in the Balkans, and their coverage of the present is alarming. They won’t admit it shapes the future. I mean look at Iraq.’

Wiesel’s voice had a gentle tone. ‘This war,’ he said, encouragingly, ‘it’s disturbing.’

I had to agree. That morning, NBC had fired a reporter, for suggesting there might be grounds to criticize America. Not that this encumbered the invasion, but it broke the unwritten rules of media conduct, and was therefore insupportably un-­American.

‘What I don’t understand,’ Wiesel said, ‘is why they don’t just get Hussein and then get out again.’

G’s face scrunched up. ‘Like how you mean?’

Wiesel’s arms flailed up at his face as he spoke. ‘Why don’t they send in James Bond?’ he said.

I stared at him blankly.

‘What about your British S.A.S.?’ he continued. ‘Or Israeli commandos in American uniforms?’

None of us knew where to look.

‘I’m really not so sure it’s that simple,’ I said.

According to Wiesel’s foundation, ‘when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant’. Did this mean that someone else should invade America, or dispatch coalitions of the willing to occupied Palestine? I didn’t ask. In any case, our host changed the subject.

‘Tell me,’ he said to my partners, ‘what’s new in the Balkans? Do people still think Karadzic a hero?’

‘Sir,’ G’s head was wobbling off his neck, ‘I think that all those criminals should be in a jail. Problem is that jail was where they met. That is where Serb Republic was born. The Karadzic start by stealing construction materials.’

Wiesel’s forehead was now so puckered it looked like imploding. ‘But are people any more ready to face the past?’ he said. ‘What hope is there of new leadership in Serbia?’

‘Myself, I don’t see leaders to excite me,’ G said. ‘We don’t need any more stories that we victims. People there should think more for themselves. Politicians made hard consensus on issue of Kosovo, but they didn’t make any on crime, on education, or on health system, anti-­corruption, and everything else what means like life.’

J nodded assent. ‘We can’t change the past,’ he said. ‘We have to get on.’

I saw my opening. ‘My friends are planning a special event this summer,’ I said. ‘They aim to unite young Serbs with their neighbors. There’ll be several hundred thousand, all being well.

Their aim is to change how Balkan people think.’

‘This sounds important,’ Wiesel said.

I opened my bag, and gave him one of our brochures. ‘We have to build something different in that region,’ I said. ‘If we don’t, they’ll all stay trapped in vicious circles.’

‘But what can I do?’ Wiesel practically implored me.

The moment of truth had arrived. ‘We were hoping,’ I said, ‘that you’d help us raise some money. We urgently need to find a million dollars.’ Wiesel fell back in his chair with a hand to his mouth. He was alone in his New York townhouse with three stoners. And they appeared to be shaking him down for wealthy Jews. We were lucky he didn’t have snipers down the hallway, or a Mossad hotline hidden in a lampshade. Or maybe he did, and was merely playing for time.

‘You know,’ he said slowly, ‘surely Gates can do something.’ He appeared to mean the richest man on Earth.

‘Yes,’ he sighed, regaining his composure, ‘or maybe Wolfensohn, at the World Bank. I can ask.’

He flashed us a smile of dubious sincerity. ‘Yes, yes, I can ask.’

‘That’s very good of you,’ I said. ‘When do you think you might have an answer?’

‘Give me two, three weeks,’ Wiesel said. ‘Believe me, I will ask.’ Though we called him again and again, we never heard back.

For further heresies, see “Inventing front-page quotes in the New York Times.”

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