Elie Wiesel’s kindness matched his vast intellect

Elie Wiesel gives a commencement address in May 2011 at Washington University in St. Louis. Photo: Joe Angeles/Washington University

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Holocaust survivor and author who died over the weekend at the age of 87, was a towering intellect who became “the conscience of the world,” in the words of President Barack Obama. He also was a true tzaddik, a righteous person and a real mensch, a kind, considerate and thoughtful person.

I had the honor of covering dozens of Wiesel speeches and conducting numerous face-to-face interviews with him over the past four decades. Not only was he by far the most riveting speaker and writer on the Holocaust, he also was consistently friendly, considerate and appreciative of the role of the journalist. In fact, he had a career as a journalist, covering various events for French publications, a background that no doubt contributed to his empathy with journalists.

My most recent interview with Wiesel was on May 20, 2011, after his compelling commencement address at the Washington University main campus graduation ceremony.

By coincidence, I was there in cap and gown as part of the Washington U. Class of 1961, which was celebrating its 50th reunion. We had the honor of marching in with the graduates and sitting on the speaker’s platform for the ceremony. I was sitting just a few feet away from Wiesel.

After the ceremony, I broke out of the recessional to interview Wiesel in one of the campus buildings.

“Mr. Cohn, you are still attending Washington University?” he asked with a gentle smile. 

“No, Dr. Wiesel. This is my 50th Washington University Reunion, and we get to wear the cap and gown on this occasion.”

During his stirring address to the 2,719 graduates at the university’s 150th commencement, Wiesel said, in his distinctive, soft-spoken voice, that his Jewish identity remained central to him, despite all that he had gone through during the Holocaust. 

“We should protect the identity of who we are,” he said, adding that one of the tasks of a Holocaust survivor is to “remember and don’t forget, and to remember not to forget.

“After all I have gone through, I still have faith in humanity.”

Wiesel also stressed that his experiences have underscored to him the importance of following the biblical commandment: “Thou shalt not stand idly by while thy neighbor bleeds.” 

He added that despite having survived the Holocaust, “I still have faith in God, although I quarrel with Him from time to time. I don’t know if God is annoyed by this or not.”

Wiesel reminded the graduates that they were going out into a world that is so violent. 

“Remember what your teachers taught you at this great university,” he said. “We see so much death, but despite all of it, we dedicate and celebrate life.”

Wiesel spoke in St. Louis on numerous occasions over the years, including at several events sponsored by the Jewish Federation of St. Louis. In 1978, he spoke to an audience that gave him rapt attention about his return visit to his childhood home in Sighet, Romania. When he saw a crucifix hanging on the same nail that previously held up a photo of a great rebbe, he abruptly left the house.

Later, he met a humble man who was the last shochet, or kosher slaughterer and butcher, in Sighet. Wiesel said he asked the man why he continued on with his chores for such a tiny remnant of Jews then living in the city.

“When the Messiah comes, I want him to find me worthy of the World to Come,” the shochet told Wiesel.

“The last shochet in Sighet is worried that he won’t be found worthy,” Wiesel said. “Will we?” 

After each interview, I would mail a copy of my article to Wiesel at his Boston University address, where he was on the faculty. On each occasion, he wrote back a handwritten thank-you note. 

“How can I thank you for your words?” he asked in one such letter. 

I thought to myself, “How could we ever thank Elie Wiesel for his powerful and stirring torrent of words through the years?”

While in St. Louis in 2011, Wiesel stayed in the home of Washington U. Chancellor Mark Wrighton and his wife, Risa Zwerling Wrighton. 

“Here I was, face-to-face with this brilliant humanitarian, author and survivor,” Risa Wrighton told me at the time. “I was a bit awestruck, but he immediately put me at ease. He is extremely kind and is a very warm and gracious person.”

Indeed he was. It is said that if one dies on Shabbat, he is a tzaddik, and Wiesel died this past Saturday. But in addition to being a tzaddik, Wiesel was a mensch, perhaps the greatest accolade that can be bestowed on any Jew, or on any human being.