Categorized | Jewish History, Lurie_J_Zel

Elie Wiesel and the Hadassah Magazine 

By J Zel Lurie

J. Zel Lurie

J. Zel Lurie

DEL RAY BEACH, Florida — Sometimes my doing good caused lots of trouble.

Around 1967, 11 years after his arrival in the United States. Elie Wiesel was well on his way to fame and fortune as a defender of human rights all over the world. He paid one of his frequent visits to the office of Hadassah Magazine to check the page proofs of one of his articles.  He was a prodigious worker, and we published over a score of his essays.

He noticed that we were publishing a moving account by a Hadassah doctor of his visits with the “Jews of Silence”, as Wiesel called them in his bestselling book. I had attended a press conference for the doctor in New York City where I was handed the full story of his visit with the refuseniks.  Obviously his sponsors wished to educate not me, but my half million readers.  I decided to comply with their wishes.

Boy, what a mess that caused.

Unaware of American public relation practices, the Hadassah doctor had also submitted his account to Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary Magazine. Podhoretz had consulted with Elie and decided to buy the story. Wiesel knew that the story was already in page proofs at Hadassah. He also knew that the prestigious Commentary Magazine would not like to be associated with the lowly Hadassah Magazine in sharing a story.

The aftermath was unpleasant. Podhoretz phoned me and called me a robber.  The Hadassah doctor in Jerusalem lost Commentary’s fee, and soon wrote one of the angriest letters ever written in the English language, demanding Hadassah’s president to fire me.

A year later, I contacted the doctor on another matter, not mentioning his earlier letter. But he remembered it well, and wrote an abject apology.

THE BACKGROUND OF ELIE WIESEL IN AMERICA

In 1956, I was the Editor of the Hadassah Newsletter, the forerunner of the Hadassah Magazine. I was also the part time correspondent of the Jerusalem Post.  I would spend my mornings at the United Nations and send a cable by noon, which was 7:00 pm in Jerusalem, and my deadline.  After lunch, I would travel to the Manhattan office of Hadassah.

That year, the press corps at the UN was joined by a strange looking newcomer from Israel. He was Elie Wiesel, who had arrived representing Yediot Ahronot, Israel’s largest newspaper. Most foreigners who arrived in the United States were strange looking and accepted as such.  Elie’s outstanding strangeness was that he never smiled.

His command of English was sparse, so at the United Nations press conferences, he sat next to me and I whispered a Hebrew translation of what was going on. We developed a friendship of sorts.  His English developed very quickly. (Years later he wrote a letter castigating me for an unjustified criticism of his attempts at fiction.  He used a dozen adjectives to tell me what a low life I was.  He was right, a dozen times.)

I have two overpowering regrets in my relationship with Elie. During his youth in Paris, he came under the influence of a charismatic Hasidic rabbi who had immigrated to Paraguay. He wanted to visit the rabbi and write about him, and he asked that Hadassah buy his ticket. I regret that I was too miserly to agree.

The second came in 1990, when I traveled with him and the organization of survivors, headed by Yossele Rozensaft, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen camp. The general of the British regiment that had liberated the camp was the guest of honor.

In the camp, we passed sign after sign telling us where many thousands of Jewish victims of starvation were buried. I could see the Nazi atrocities etched on Elie’s face. He begged me not to take his picture. I regret that I didn’t.

Elie was a prolific writer.   He wrote and published 57 books by his count.  He became a writer in Paris, under the tutelage of Francois Maurioc, a Catholic Nobel Laureate for literature. Elie wrote 900 pages in Yiddish, his native language.  With Maurioc’s help, it was slimmed down to less than 200 French pages. Under the title Night, it contained the most powerful and devastating descriptions of life and death in the camps.

The book did not sell.   Readers were not interested in stories of the war they had just gone through. In 1958 and ‘59 an English version was turned down by 15 American publishers.  It was finally published by Hill and Wang, a small publisher. It began to take off in 1961 with the help of the publicity of the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem.  The book has since sold over 10 million copies, 3 million of which have been purchased since Oprah Winfrey chose it for her book club and traveled to Auschwitz with Elie.

All those years, Elie was writing and publishing articles and books, almost all of them somehow connected to his own experiences. The Hadassah Magazine was the main outlet for his articles.  I may be the only living person who remembers one of his first stories about “The Watch.”  He wrote that he had buried his watch in the garden of his home in Sighet when he and his father, mother, and three sisters lived before being taken to Auschwitz. The watch was found after the war.

One of his first attempts at fiction was “The Accident,”now out of print. He was hit by a taxi not long after his arrival in New York, and he wrote about spending months in a body cast.   I remember him with a broken leg, not in a body cast, but this is fiction.  It is a love story that never quite makes it.

A PARADOXICAL LIFE

Elie lived a paradoxical life. He always had a goal: to make the uninformed Jews of the United States and the rest of the world aware of the Holocaust, and to protest violations of human rights all over the world.  He made many tours abroad, including to the death camps in Cambodia and Darfur.

One notable trip was to Argentina where Jocobo Timerman, a Zionist editor, was interred for his journalistic criticism of the junta government. Timerman had been tortured by the Argentine junta. Elie succeeded in getting him freed. He wrote a bestselling book about his torture called, Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number.  

Timerman tried living his Zionist dream in Israel and was greatly disappointed. Israel was fighting the second Lebanese war, a war which should never have happened. He came to New York to see Elie Wiesel. I don’t know what he proposed, but Elie angered him by turning him down.

Timerman told me that fascist tendencies were dominating the Israeli government, and he was returning to Argentina.

Elie Wiesel’s treatment of Timerman was typical of his relations with me and other members of the UN press corps who had welcomed him to the United States. He was our friend, but he would never do anything to deviate from his path upward to the arms of the casino king Sheldon Adelson and his Israeli wife Miriam, who support the right wing in Israel and the Republican Party in the United States with millions of dollars every year.

The Adelsons took out a full page ad in the New York Times for an obituary to Wiesel.

Through the years Elie had responded to my articles in the Jewish Journal with hand written notes of praise for the Jewish-Arab village and school. But he had never visited the village which he could clearly see at the top of the Latrun Hill from the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem expressway.

One of his notes says, “You must continue your work for Neve Shalom, which is now more important than ever.”

None of the above, neither the Hadassah Magazine, nor Jocobo Timerman, are mentioned in Elie Wiesel’s obituary on the front page of the New York Times on Saturday, July 3. He was 87 years old.  The obituary says that he was a survivor who never let the world forget what the Nazis had done and is now being repeated by others in various parts of the world. But he never, but never, castigated Israel for its repression of the Palestinians. That is what attracted the Adelsons in the final years of his life.

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Lurie, a centenarian living in retirement in Florida, is a long time member of the Jewish press corps. San Diego Jewish World’s eulogy series is sponsored by Marc and Margaret Cohen in memory of Molly Cohen, and by Inland Industries Group LP in memory of long-time San Diego Jewish community leader Marie (Mrs. Gabriel) Berg.  Comments intended for publication in the space below MUST be accompanied by the letter writer’s first and last name and by his/ her city and state of residence (city and country for those outside the United States.)

 

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