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Interview Excerpt: Elie Wiesel Book Discussion (Part 1)

In observance of the 75th anniversary of Notre Dame Press, we want to take the opportunity to celebrate some of our most impactful and historic publications.

Today, we share the first of three excerpts from a recent video discussion moderated by Postdoctoral Fellow Jacob Kildoo (full interview here). Jacob had the opportunity to sit down with Ariel Burger and Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, the introduction-writers for UNDP’s new editions of Elie Wiesel’s Five Biblical Portraits and Four Hasidic Masters. Both of these authors had close personal relationships with Wiesel and were willing to share their insights about his life and work. Check out this snippet of the conversation for a fascinating glimpse into the life of Nobel Prize-winner, Elie Wiesel!

JK: I was wondering if you could talk a bit about how you came to know Elie Wiesel and what your relationship with him looked like.

IG: In 1961, in my previous existence, I was an historian of American intellectual history, planning to do an academic career. In 1961, I won a Fulbright to teach at Tel Aviv University and stumbled into the Holocaust, which I was sort of vaguely aware of, but hadn’t really affected my life. That particular experience was overwhelming. It shattered a lot of my previous religious understanding and I spent the rest of the year, 95% of the time, just reading feverishly at Yad Vashem.

Sometime near the end of that year—sometime I think in early 1962—I came across this book called Night by Elie Wiesel, and I was of course very moved by it, but I had no idea who he was or where he was. I decided to get the book. I couldn’t get a copy in Israel and I came back and I went looking in New York and couldn’t find a copy. I finally found a used bookstore copy with a torn cover. I thought the book was out of print, but of course, many years later Elie’s agent George Borchardt [told me] it was never out of print, it just wasn’t distributed because the publisher was not a very competent or important publisher.

Some years later, 1964 or ’65, a friend told me that the author of that memoir, which had left this really indelible impression on me, was living in New York. And I didn’t know that he was alive, let alone living in New York, and so I finally tracked him down and went to visit him.

When I came into the room, he was gaunt—he seemed like he was starving; he was haunted. And he was a journalist: he wrote for Yedioth, a Hebrew newspaper, and as a stringer for French and Yiddish newspapers. And from all three he made not much of a living. He was all but unknown because no one at the time wanted to hear about the Holocaust. He amazingly persisted—steadfastly. And when I came and visited with him, when he spoke about it, it was mesmerizing. It was so gripping because you felt you were hearing a voice almost still in that world, which made it so powerful and so present. I must say, I fell in love with him at that point and I probably never quite got over it because, if nothing else, I thought of the heroism: he came out of the war as a 17 year-old without a family, without contacts—his whole community had been wiped out. Yet he came to this inner, burning mission to testify and to witness to the world what had happened. And [the fact] that he was able to do this— I mean, if there’s anything that would break your heart as any kind of a person: you have a dream, you have an ideal, and you’re passionate about it, but no one wants to hear or people listen and walk away. The fact that he had the courage and the strength to persist in his witness to an indifferent world— it’s just overwhelming.

At the end of the conversation, I was trying to think, What can I say to cheer him up? He came across as a little sad, so I said to him, “You know, if I ever have a chance, I’m going to get you a job.” It was a silly statement—I was a rabbi. I had no academic power. Well in 1972 I was offered the chairmanship of the Jewish Studies department at City College—they were creating a new department—and the first appointment, I went to administration to get him a distinguished professorship, not a professorship. And by the way that was the first full-time job he ever had that he could make a living from. And he many times thanked me for that. Well of course, he came to City College and we worked together for four or five years. Our offices were next door to each other—we talked a lot.

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