Elie Wiesel: A yahrzeit cloud and portrait of love
Elie Wiesel: A yahrzeit cloud and portrait of love

I have always felt that at the time around a yahrzeit of our beloved ones, a certain special cloud is formed in the air around us. Our reflections and memories hover around and wrap us in thoughts. And, hopefully, something else, another kind of substance that we cannot describe is present there.

This is period of  Elie Wiesel’s second yahrzeit, on July 2, although the Hebrew date has passed, and a gentle and special yahrzeit cloud is here.  

On the first yahrzeit, there was a lot of pain and bewilderment among those who loved him. When this kind of person  leaves our world, we all feel orphaned. This year, on the second yahrzeit, the cloud for Elie is of a lighter colour, and I can see more sun rays transpiring from behind it. But still, a cloud is a cloud.

The only way to try to feel Elie next to us it is to return to his books once again. So, there are two of us, my husband and I, with our beloved friend Elie’s books in our hands, on our tables, in the garden, his  books are scattered around and covering our living space these days.

My husband says: “I have a strong sensation of hearing Elie’s voice while re-reading these pages. So palpable is his love, so tangible are his emotions. He would have been a great Rabbi, Elie, if not for the war”. Michael re-reads Elie’s Hassidic stories which, in fact, are a narrative of love.

I am re-reading the Elie’s last novel, A Mad Desire to Dance, and it is as if I hear his voice. We can reconstruct his incredible smile without turning to videos. It is as if it never left us.. If I were able to include an item in the World Heritage UN Register, I would claim Elie Wiesel’s Smile, among very few things, along with Leonard Cohen’s smile. Those are my treasures.

If I were able to include an item in the World Heritage UN Register, I would claim Elie Wiesel’s Smile, among very few things, along with Leonard Cohen’s smile. Those are my treasures.
There is no doubt in my mind that in the unspeakable horror of the Shoah, or Churban, as Elie preferred to call the Holocaust - and as the vast majority of  Yiddish-speaking Jewry did call it well into the 1950s,- Elie survived to tell us about it. I will never forget how, with that remarkable smile, he would say when people were amazed by the openness of his narrative: “But if not to tell the truth, why to start to write, in the first place?..”

Elie was anything but naive, he knew that most writers have many other reasons for expression than conveying the truth. His question was, actually, a self-examination.  For him, there was no alternative: if he started to write - to talk, basically, - and he did it after a decade of complete silence on the Holocaust and the WWII in general, - then it would be truth telling. As simple as that. As impossible as that. As torturing as that.

But he sustained it all. And it is to the huge degree thanks to Elie’s stand, his inner strength, that the world has a semblance of a conscience, its compassion and its love, - after the wide, deep and multi-faced process of dehumanisation which did not stop on May 8th, 1945, not at all. Leonard Cohen called it ‘the mutilation of (an angel’s) wings’.   

I always wondered: how Elie found the strength to live after his ordeal which, as a matter of fact, he never overcame. And how could he? A man is unable to overcome  witnessing his mother’s murder in front of him, his young and helpless sisters thrown into the flames, literally, his father’s excruciating death while he is kept a few meters from him, forcing him to witness his father’s agony on purpose (and those were not Germans, but Poles and Ukrainians). This is to mention only his immediate family, without all the other personal horrors that piled on the head of the16-year old Elie was at the end of the war. The loss of his grandparents, his relatives, his friends; the crimes that he witnessed in the camps; the world of his people being devastated and destroyed.

So many of our friends and acquaintances live lives marked by the Holocaust in so many different ways, always painfully, always unique, always the same. The businesswoman in Australia who never knew what a family celebration means, because excepting her and her parents, there was no immediate family to celebrate. The writer in England, who being a school girl was always escaping school special events because she had no family members to join her there. The engineer in Austria who had nobody to invite to his and his wife daughter’s chuppah, because their entire families were exterminated. The student in Israel who had serious difficulties in getting married, himself being an orphaned Holocaust survivor. The musician in London who does not know the concept of an aunt and an uncle, because her mother was the sole survivor of an entire family.  My grandmother who had no place to come to the grave of her beloved sister, aunt and uncle, were all murdered by the Nazis and their Ukrainian collaborators. My husband’s grandmother who similarly had no place to come to see the grave of her oldest daughter with her two children and husband, all murdered by war criminals in Ukraine.

Elie Wiesel talked for all of them. To all of us, himself torn to pieces by the tragedy of his family and his people, the tragedy which never left him. How did he find the source of strength and ability to live again?

I have researched all his writings, his memoirs, and his life in detail. I have spoken with his close friends. I did not dare to ask him personally this particular question because I did not want to cause him extra pain. It is my guess, of course, but I think, I know the answer.

The Sources of Life: The Rebbe, the Family and Soviet Jewry

How do you explain the torturous death of innocent children? Later on, Elie Wiesel, faithful grandson of the prominent Vizhnitz Rebbe, would come to a laconically formulated position: “There is no explanation for that”. I accept it. But in his young adulthood, shortly after the end of the WWII, he was still in spiritual turmoil. And it was torturing him. He could not get married - because he could not get married. Period. His life was in the balance.

The blessed breakthrough came with his meeting with Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The Rebber knew the pain caused by WWII and the Holocaust personally, too. His father, who served for 39 years as the Chief Rabbi of Jekaterinoslav-Dnepropetrovsk in Ukraine, had been arrested there by the NKVD shortly before the WWII and sent to exile in Kazakhstan where he and his wife died of hunger and sickness in 1944. His brother Dov Ber was left alone in Ukraine, and was murdered in October 1941 along with all the other patients of the mental clinic in a suburb of the city by the bestial Ukrainian Nazi collaborators.

Orphaned young writer Elie, when coming to live and work in New York, started to visit the Rebbe in the early 1960s, regularly. One should see the footage of those meetings. The Rebbe, who knew about Elie’s grandfather, took a special interest in the young man. He looked at him and he talked to him as with a close relative, with compassion, understanding, interest and love, without any distance at all. And Elie was very responsive to the Rebbe’s attitude. The way Wiesel talked to the Rebbe, and later on, about the Rebbe, can be seen in his eyes, and in the smile of an introvert child who had been occasionally happy for a moment, and was grateful for that forever.

It was Rebbe Schneerson who convinced Elie, against all odds, to get married and to start a family at the age of 41. That was a milestone in the Wiesel’s life. And so much of it was about the special connection between the Rebbe and Wiesel. The Rebbe did care enough to send a very special bouquet to Elie and Marion all the way to Jerusalem on their wedding day in 1969, and Elie was absolutely convinced, to his last days, that it was the most beautiful bouquet he saw in his entire life.

Anyone who was privileged to know Elie Wiesel well can tell that  his family of Marion and Elisha, their son, and later on, his two grandchildren, was the world in which he was re-born. As a sign of a special grace from Above, his only son looks very similar to the Elie’s beloved father Shlomo.

Approximately at the same period of time, Elie was transformed from an orphan haunted by the Holocaust, into the person on whom the other people were relying, who was active and needed, who was respected - and much, much loved. Loved sincerely and unconditionally. Loved by many. Those many were Soviet Jews, his brothers, those who would become known in history as the Jews of Silence because of the term coined by Wiesel.

The first time Wiesel went to Moscow in 1965, the 37-year old writer saw people so very close to him, stoic, modest, aspiring in their hearts, avid readers and thinkers, people living under constant pressure. They understood each other instantly; the Eastern and Central European Jewish mentality was the same, and many of the Soviet Jews were Yiddish speakers, as Elie was. One would never imagine that usually melancholic Elie would be laughing so happily and dancing so energetically, as he always did when among the Jews of the Soviet Union.


Ending the imprisonment of Soviet Jewry became Wiesel’s perpetual priority, and he tackled it tirelessly and successfully. His impact on the eventual liberation of Soviet Jewry should not be underestimated.  His mission was active for 30 years, and his last visit to the Soviet Union was in 1989.

It is his sense of mission, its success, so many acts of saving, supporting, helping others that  transformed Elie Wiesel into a future Nobel Peace laureate, so deservingly; into the man of action and authority. His life had come back.

Elie’s Super-mitzvah

Elie was perceived as a family member by millions, all around the globe. Those he cared about in the former Soviet Union, those he was teaching in the United States, those he met regularly during his annual visits to Israel, those who read his books, and saw his impact on international development. Elie was loved not only by Jewish people. He was deeply respected by so many others, and in this universalism he also did an invaluable service to the Jewish people.

When one of us is perceived and heard by so many as the universal authority on humanity, this is a unique mitzvah with an important and long-lasting impact on an entire nation, on the entity. Our sages teach us in the Talmud about that, and if anyone of our contemporaries knew and understood Talmud and other original sources of Jewish wisdom well, it was Wiesel.  

What was Elie’s key to so many minds and hearts all over the planet? What was the secret of his universal popularity - wrong word - the love towards him? I think that the twofold traits of modesty and honesty are the key.  He knew so much - and always had more and more questions. He wrote so well - and kept his writings sincere in more than 40 books, in every written word, actually. This is the most difficult thing for a writer, to be honest. He felt before his reader as before the Creator, bare of anything that colours, alters or hides the truth. “Otherwise, why start to write?..”- he smiled with that disarming smile, and you knew that Good does exist in this world.

Several years ago, my husband was commissioned to do a painting for the Vilnius Public Jewish Library, the first Jewish library opened in Lithuania after WWII. According to the plans of the Library’s leadership, that painting is the only oil painting in the entire Library,. hat work’s name is Yiddishe Zun, Yiddish Son. And it is about Elie.

On his second yahrzeit, we are preparing a special new dedication plaque to be placed in the kind of place that Elie loved, a library with soul and spirit. The new plaque with its dedication ‘In honor and in memory of Elie Wiesel, the beloved son of his people’ will be placed next to the Yiddish Son painting on July 2, 2018, a secular date of our dearest friend and mentor’s passing.   

Dr Inna Rogatchi is a writer, scholar and film-maker. She is the co-founder and President of The Rogatchi Foundation ( www.rogatchifoundation.org) and the author of the internationally recognised cultural and educational multi-disciplined Outreach to Humanity projects.