St. Louisans reflect on Wiesel’s impact, legacy

Elie Wiesel in Paris after being awarded the French literature Medicis prize for his novel ‘Le Mendiant de Jerusalem,’ Nov. 26, 1968. Photo: AFP/Getty Images. 

By Hannah Snidman, Staff writer

Elie Wiesel wanted no one to forget the atrocities of the Holocaust, during which six millions Jews were slaughtered, including his own parents and younger sister. As a survivor, a human activist and Nobel laureate, Wiesel spoke and wrote eloquently about his own experiences as well as against genocide worldwide. 

In the wake of his death Saturday at the age of 87, Wiesel is being remembered by several Jewish St. Louisans who say he made an indelible impression on them and that his memory will forever be a blessing because he truly worked to create a more peaceful, understanding world.

Rabbi Jim Bennett, senior rabbi of Congregation Shaare Emeth, remembered meeting Wiesel around 1979 at Indiana University where Bennett was one of a small group of Jewish studies students invited to help host his visit. 

“Years later I met him again, in the late 1990s, when he visited Charlotte, N.C. to speak, and once again, I had the privilege of meeting with him in a more intimate setting,” added Bennett.  “His humility and humanity were powerful messages that transcended his celebrity.”

Rabbi James Stone Goodman of Congregation Neve Shalom also had an opportunity to meet Wiesel in person. A college professor of Goodman invited him to dinner along with Wiesel, who was visiting the university to give a lecture.

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“Elie Wiesel was an enchanting conversationalist. He spoke a master session of stories long into the night,” Goodman said. “I was witnessing the art of narration, and I realized that night and many nights since, how rare this art-story spoken form is, the pure lost art of the story.”

In addition to speaking engagements worldwide, Wiesel’s fame stemmed from his several dozen literary works. His most well-known, “Night,” described Wiesel’s time with his father as prisoners in the Buchenwald and Auschwitz concentration camps and the horrors he witnessed there as a teenage boy.

“Elie Wiesel’s life experience coupled with his intellectual and literary brilliance granted him the role of ‘conscience of humanity’ and a voice against intolerance, prejudice and the greatest evil of all, indifference,” said Dan Reich, curator and director of education for the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center. “The 1955 publication of Wiesel’s ‘Night’ was a landmark event in the course of Holocaust remembrance. Countless readers of all ethnic backgrounds and faith traditions found the reading of Wiesel’s memoir to be a life-changing experience.”

Reich said Wiesel sent a congratulatory letter to the museum on its 20th anniversary last year, which is mounted and now part of its permanent collection.

At Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School, middle school language arts teacher Aura Kavadlo had her students read “Night” and send letters to Wiesel. He responded to every student and answered all of his or her questions.

“I can guarantee that when [those students] heard of his passing, their thoughts went straight to the letter they received from him, and (they) will forever have a strong personal connection to him and to their experience at Mirowitz,” Kavadlo said. “It is now time for the next generation to step up — he has passed the baton to us to go forward. We inherited his legacy.”

Wiesel encouraged audiences to speak out and protest against intolerance of any kind. He put the obligation on people who read his books and heard his stories to continue to act as witnesses of the tragedies during the Holocaust and other acts of genocide.

“His death is yet another reminder that a generation is passing, and that it will be the responsibility of all of us, and future generations, to carry on the work of those who came before us, and to testify to the universally compelling message of the Holocaust that speaks to all humankind,” Bennett said. “Elie Wiesel put a human face on the painful story of the Holocaust and allowed all people to access the obligation to transcend hatred and prejudice and violence and to build a better world.”

Wiesel touched many readers with his novels that allowed a first-hand narrative of the Holocaust. For many, Wiesel was the first or only Holocaust survivor that people ever encountered.

“His books, most notably“Night”, made the Shoah an understandable, personal, emotional experience for every single person who read them,” said Rabbi Amy Feder of Congregation Temple Israel. “You couldn’t read it and not, at least in some small way, understand the horrors in a way that can’t be learned from a movie or textbook.”

That’s why Kavadlo says her eighth-grade students will continue to read “Night.” Even after his death, she believes they can find strength in his powerful words and perhaps aspire to carry on his legacy. 

“Since we cannot communicate with Elie Wiesel directly this time, his death will push us to become activists in some other way,” Kavadlo said. “We will use his death as catalyst for making an impact in a new way.”