Elie Wiesel – In Memoriam
September 30, 1928-July 2, 2016
We must always take sides.
Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.
Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.
As I entered the religion department at Trinity College, Hartford, CT, I was curious about the roots of Christianity and made what would be an important decision: Jesus was Jewish, I reasoned, so I took Introduction to Judaism taught by adjunct professor, Rabbi Stanley Kessler. One of the first books we read was Night, by Elie Wiesel. Having grown up with a father who had done counter intelligence in WWII and spent time in Europe rounding up Nazi war criminals, the book gave existential reality to the evil and dangers my father had faced. My life was changed.
I became a religion and Judaic Studies major. My senior year thesis was on the works of Elie Wiesel up to 1971. No one on the religion department faculty really knew who he was, so it was arranged that a graduate student, Bernice Saltzman would be my advisor which was the beginning of a lifetime friendship. Bernice guided me and mentored me and arranged for me to see Wiesel speak on several occasions where in turn I was able to speak with him, and she eventually sent him a copy of my paper. He sent a kind and encouraging note through Bernice.
In 1980 I went to seminary in NYC, the Wiesel’s home city. I would travel up to the 92nd Street Y every year to listen to his lectures on Biblical characters, Talmud and the Holocaust. At the end of each evening we would talk, and he invited me to call his secretary and arrange for us to get together. It would be three years later when we finally got our respective calendars in sync.
It was between graduation and my ordination. I went to his apartment in NYC. We sat in his study, side by side. I was, of course, in awe, and was looking at floor to ceiling bookshelves loaded with books, and stacks of books on the floor in front of the bookshelves, some two or three rows deep and three or four feet high! He asked me about my teachers in college and seminary. From time to time the phone would ring. He would answer and take a message. After about the fourth call he looked up at me and said, “Now you know the real Elie Wiesel – I am Marion Wiesel’s social secretary!” After all he had been through in the camps and afterwards there was still a sparkle in his eye and a sense of humor. A lesson in there for us all.
I told him that I had studied with Rabbi Kessler. He knew Stanley. I told him that while in college I had approached the rabbi to explore conversion to Judaism, which at the time seemed more direct, less encumbered with doctrine – and maybe I was just ashamed at being part of a Christian community that largely stood by and said and did nothing in those years of The Final Solution. I told him that Rabbi Kessler had encouraged me to embrace my Christian tradition, that it was a fine and sacred tradition, that we all worshipped the same God, and that the world did not need another Jew, but rather some Christians who liked and respected Judaism. Wiesel took a long pause to take that in. He did that from time to time in our conversation. It was almost as if he were Elijah ascending in a chariot of fire, or the Silver Surfer cruising the universe for a shred of meaning in a world that is so often on the brink of madness. “Stanley was right,” he said after the long silence. “You would not have made a good Jew!” Whew, I thought, I am still on the right track. Then he said something that still shakes me to my very core. “You know, Kirk, I could not do what you are doing. I could never become a rabbi. I don’t believe I could take on the kind of responsibility for a community of people as you are about to do.”
It now felt like I was surfing the cosmos. The floor had fallen out from under me. We were both just suspended in time and space. Elie Wiesel – not a rabbi? And if he could not do what I am setting out to do what makes me think that I can? My mind was awash with these and other thoughts. A short time later he ushered me out the apartment door to the elevator and we said goodbye. Before the elevator arrived he opened the door one more time and said, “Didn’t you have a coat when you came.” Sure enough, I the starry eyed student had floated out of the master’s home without my coat, without my wits, but with a fresh and honest appreciation for what my ordained life was to be like. That was spring 1983.
The year that President Ronald Reagan was “tricked” into visiting and honoring the SS dead in a German cemetery I was home visiting my parents. Wiesel had been to the White House to receive the Congressional Gold Medal. He took time that evening to tell the president just how wrong that was. My father respected him for that and turned to me and said, “Our politicians are just not as sophisticated as those in Europe. That’s why the Kubiceks left to come here to get away from all of that!”
We kept in touch throughout the years. At each parish I served I began a yearly Yom Ha Shoah Service and invited survivors and liberators to come speak to my congregations. I participated in Jewish-Christian dialogues in several settings. I never lost my passion for bridging our two communities, and now the third Abrahamic tradition, Islam. One thought has sustained me throughout my years in parish ministry and six years teaching in an international girl’s boarding school: a telegram he sent me the day I was ordained a priest in December of 1983. It read, in part, “Dear Kirk Alan Kubicek, May this day mark the beginning of a mission that will bring many people closer to each other, closer to God and closer to themselves...” For this and for his witness to Speak Truth to Power throughout all of his 87 years I give thanks as he enters the realm of becoming something like one of the Hasidic masters he wrote so much about for me and for anyone who has taken the time to read even one of his books, attend one of his lectures, or simply ponder what sort of human integrity it took for a teen-aged boy from a ghetto in Sighet, Maramures, Romania, to have survived the Holocaust and become one of its first witnesses and chroniclers. Eliezar Wiesel now becomes one with the cosmos he has so often traveled searching for answers to questions that should never have to be asked in the first place. Elie Wiesel who once said, “God created humans because he loves telling stories and asking questions.” Shabbat Shalom! And thank you.