A great man has left us.
Last Saturday, I was working to put out the next day’s paper when a news alert made me gasp: Elie Wiesel was dead at age 87.
This world-renowned man of peace, this Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate held strong ties to Charlotte through the Echo Foundation, the organization he inspired to promote his message of guarding against indifference in a still-suffering world.
Beyond that, I felt an intense personal connection to Wiesel, a fellow Jew. Immediately my thoughts turned to a day in September 2010 when I met him. And to my grandmother.
The great man was in Charlotte for the foundation, and made time to speak with a handful of reporters and editors at the Observer’s office.
I prepared for the informal discussion for days, reading or re-reading several of his books, including of course, “Night.” It was as a boy in Hebrew school when I first encountered Wiesel’s classic account of his time in Nazi concentration camps.
How did he find the strength to make sense of horror beyond reason? To write of that first night in Auschwitz, of the flames that consumed his faith, of the silence, of the “small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.”
He vowed never to forget. Never. Even as he struggled to comprehend why he survived while so many others did not, he wrote of his moral obligation to prevent the crimes from being erased from memory.
Back in our office conference room, I felt nervous, something I hardly ever experience no matter who I’m covering. But this was different.
A torrent of emotions came over me. How does one express the pride, trepidation and honor of being in the same room with Wiesel? In person, he was humble, eloquent, soft-spoken, even a little humorous, and quickly put a roomful of reporters at ease.
We were talking to a fellow writer, a seeker of truth. I raised several questions during our all-too-brief session, and asked why he thought “Night” has endured for so long. He didn’t know, he said. Perhaps because it’s so short.
The bond I felt with Wiesel also covered other ground. We even shared a birthday, Sept. 30.
Speaking after the session, I thanked him. I thanked him for a lifetime of bearing witness on behalf of the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust. I thanked him, I said, on behalf of my grandmother.
My grandmom was such a warm, loving presence in my life for so many years. She lived to be 95, attended my wedding and got to watch my kids, whom she adored, grow up.
Her mother emigrated from a small Hungarian town called Huszt. When I mentioned the name to Wiesel, a smile slowly crossed his face. This, he said, was a name he had not heard for a long time, and told me he had gone there as a boy to visit his cousins.
Knowing how much my grandmother enriched my life made it hurt all the more when she’d say her biggest regret was never getting to meet her own grandparents.
A cousin who survived the Holocaust had long ago relayed what happened to the others from Huszt. Most of her family, our family, perished in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, including all of my grandmom’s grandparents. A pregnant cousin was bayoneted by a Nazi in the stomach.
They died alongside Wiesel’s parents, younger sister and so many others. Another bond we shared.
So it was imperative I thanked Wiesel, for a lifetime of speaking up, of speaking out, to ensure that humanity never forgets the Shoah and other acts of genocide.
I am but one Jew, one voice. Yet Elie Wiesel showed us all how one voice can make a difference, even, or perhaps more to the point, especially, when millions were silenced.
A great man has left us. But his presence, and his message, endures.
Adam Bell is a reporter and editor at The Observer.