Humanizing the humanist

Humanizing the humanist

Elie Wiesel’s biographer reflects on the role of chance in a storied life

Joseph Berger
Joseph Berger

Joseph Berger, author of “Elie Wiesel: Confronting the Silence,” will be the keynote speaker when Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell commemorates Kristallnacht on Tuesday, November 7, at 8 p.m.

In the book, Mr. Berger does a deep dive into the life of Elie Wiesel. A 30-year veteran journalist for the New York Times, he has written five books, including his family memoir, “Displaced Persons: Growing Up American After the Holocaust”; it was published in 2001 and chosen as a notable book of the year by The New York Times.

Mr. Berger plans to “humanize the humanist” through his talk at the event. “His life took a very interesting trajectory,” he said from his apartment in Manhattan. “A young boy from a chasidic shtetl in Hungary ends up becoming not only a Nobel Prize winner but a spokesman for the survivors and victims of genocide throughout the world.

“A world-famous figure who meets with kings and queens and prime ministers and his voice is listened to for essentially what is right and wrong in various situations. So how did that happen? How did he go from this kid studying Talmud all day to this polished, eloquent torchbearer for human rights?”

The inspiration for this book came from an unexpected place. “I had written an advance obituary,” Mr. Berger said. “The Times has about 1,700 advance obituaries on prominent figures, and I had written Elie’s about 10 years before he actually died.” He began interviewing Mr. Wiesel’s family and friends and consulting with scholars. He also drew from Mr. Wiesel’s literary works.

“One thing that struck me is the role of chance in a life,” he said. For example: When Elie Wiesel came out of Buchenwald, nearly dead from starvation, having just seen his father die and hungry for some lard that a soldier threw at him, he had the good fortune of getting onto an orphan train that that took him to France. General De Gaulle had agreed to take 450 or so orphans into France as a humanitarian gesture. And so Wiesel wound up in an orphanage run by a Jewish agency outside of Paris. He was 16 years old — just a kid. And by the time he was 19, he was taking classes at the Sorbonne.

“Imagine what a change for somebody who grew up totally chasidic, in a village with very little exposure to secular culture and particular writers. Now suddenly he’s studying literature and philosophy at the Sorbonne! That is what made him into the rounded, erudite figure that we came to know as Elie Wiesel. His gift for language. His clear intelligence. Those were talents we can’t explain. But his exposure — all by chance really — is what was so important in who he became.”

Mr. Berger gave another example of the role of chance, explaining how Mr. Wiesel was lucky enough to meet Francis Mauriac, the Catholic French writer who had won the Nobel Prize for literature. Mr. Mauriac was so taken with Mr. Wiesel’s story that he suggested that the young man should write it down.

“Wiesel said, ‘I’ve already written it,’ and so Mauriac said, ‘Let’s see if we can get it published!’ That book was ‘Night,’” Mr. Berger said. “It only sold about 1,000 copies in the first year and another 1,000 the second year.

“But the ’67 war created a hunger for people who wanted to know more about Judaism and more about this seminal event in Jewish history, the Holocaust — and here was someone who’d written a memoir about the Holocaust in a very literary fashion.

“And so Elie Wiesel began getting attention. And people wanted him to come speak. And that resulted in ‘Night,’ along with the ‘Diary of Anne Frank,’ becoming two of the most central texts of the Holocaust.”

Mr. Berger’s own chance connection to Mr. Wiesel played a part in the creation of this book as well. “I’m a son of Holocaust survivors myself, and I went a few times to the annual commemoration of Holocaust survivors at Temple Emanuel in New York. And Elie inevitably spoke there. I knew he was an eloquent and stately figure. But when the New York Post sent me to cover the ’73 Yom Kippur War in Israel, he happened to be on the plane to Tel Aviv. He had his tie loosened and his shoes off and he and his friend, Sigmund Strochlitz, were singing Yiddish melodies to each other.

“I got a sense of this very warm, gentle person that I think most of the public did not know.”

Mr. Berger hadn’t met Wiesel before they were on the same flight, and he didn’t approach him that day either.

“But eventually I did interview him, for a profile the Times did on his winning the Nobel,” Mr. Berger said. “I had a dialogue with him once, at an event sponsored by the Times at its new building. I wrote a piece about him at 80 years old, interviewing him about the future and what he thought about his life’s achievements. So I had spent quite a bit of time with him before I even wrote his obituary.”

Mr. Berger began researching for the biography, certain there would be a wealth of information about this larger-than-life figure. “And sure enough, there were many things that surprised me that I didn’t know,” he said.

Mr. Berger knew Mr. Wiesel as a teacher, writer, and speaker, but he didn’t realize that he also had been a journalist. Working mainly as a New York correspondent for an Israeli paper, covering a wide range of topics, Wiesel had a 25-year-long career, writing and filing stories on deadline, just as Mr. Berger did.

Mr. Berger also will discuss how Wiesel’s “Night” spurred many conversations about the Holocaust that hadn’t happened before.

“Before the Six-Day War and the Eichmann trial, there was a silence about the Holocaust,” Mr. Berger said. “Survivors didn’t want to talk about it because they were still so traumatized, and they felt non-survivors couldn’t fully understand what they had gone through.

“And American Jews didn’t want to talk about it, because they felt a certain sense of guilt because they hadn’t been able to do more to pressure Congress and the president to take more people in before the war, during, and after the Holocaust. So you had very little written about it.

“I went to a yeshiva in Manhattan in the early 1950s and we never talked about the Holocaust — in a yeshiva!” Mr. Berger said.

There are several stories in the book about Mr. Wiesel’s influence on world leaders, including the time he urged President Reagan not to lay a wreath at a cemetery in Bitburg, Germany, where many SS soldiers were buried. Mr. Berger hopes readers will take away Mr. Wiesel’s message that silence benefits the perpetrator. He will talk about Mr. Wiesel’s influence on world leaders, warning them that discrimination and persecution can lead to Auschwitz overnight — a message that is frighteningly relevant today.

“Elie was almost paraphrased by President Biden the other day when he said, ‘Silence doesn’t help. Silence almost always helps the aggressor. It doesn’t help the victims.’ People have to speak up about what Hamas is and why Israel felt the need to retaliate to this extent.

“The massacre that took place on Oct. 7 was so reminiscent — people were killed because they were Jewish.”

Referring to a videotape that the IDF was able to get from a Hamas terrorist boasting of killing 10 Jews with his bare hands, Mr. Berger said, “These echoes are all there. People need to know about what went into the creation of the State of Israel and how the Holocaust influenced that. And they ought to know that in 1948 after the U.N. presented a partition plan, the Arab countries rejected it and a war broke out. That was not Israel’s fault. They fought three armies, maybe more. Different armies. And they secured Israel for the Jews as a Jewish homeland. All that needs to be known because it explains why Gaza exists the way it does. Also in 2005, when the Israelis turned Gaza over to the Palestinians with the hope that they would develop this strip of land into fertile fields and gardens as the Jewish settlements had done, the response from the Palestinians was rocket fire into Israel.

“So this goes back a long way, and all the history has to be known.

“It’s a shame that Elie Wiesel isn’t alive today because his voice would’ve been very influential in making people understand the background to this awful event. It’s awful that Israel has to bomb Gaza and that civilians are being killed there. But there is a background to all of that.”

Elie Wiesel died on July 2, 2016. He was 87. “I was taken by the reaction to his death,” Mr. Berger said. “The New York Times put the obituary on the front page, right at the top. Elie was clearly a world class figure. But he was a very human person. He wasn’t just this gossamer icon that you couldn’t understand. He was funny. He was smart. He was streetwise. He loved to sing and loved to joke. And I saw all this.”

What does Mr. Berger think Mr. Wiesel would think about the biography? “I hope he would think it was a fair and lively and humane portrait of him and a very rich life,” Mr. Berger said. “The book really is an overwhelming tribute to him, because he deserved it. He had his flaws and his missteps in his career, and I go into those in the book. Though I tried not to turn this into a hagiography as they say, I think he would feel this was a true portrait.

“He was a writer, so he understood what writers go through in sketching portraits.”

Readers are encouraged to buy the book, “Elie Wiesel: Confronting the Silence” by Joseph Berger, on Amazon before the November 7 launch. There will be no books for sale at the launch, but the author will be available to sign previously purchased copies.

To register for the talk, go to or call (973) 226-3600.

read more: