Elie Wiesel looks at his life in the face of possible death

Associated PressOctober 20, 2012 

  • Nonfiction Open Heart Elie Wiesel Knopf, 96 pages

— When Elie Wiesel emerged from quintuple heart bypass surgery, he immediately started writing a book about the ordeal – “in my head.” In French.

A year later, “Open Heart” is being published, in English. And the 84-year-old Nobel laureate and Holocaust activist is busy with his foundation, which also is recovering – from financial ruin by Bernard Madoff, who had invested the money funding its humanitarian efforts.

Madoff’s Ponzi scheme also wiped out Wiesel’s family investments.

About one-third of the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity’s $15 million assets have been replaced through new contributions, according to tax documents obtained by AP.

“Children sent us their pocket money, people we never heard of, Jews, non-Jews, young, old,” Wiesel said. “I was so touched by that.”

None of the donations went to him and his wife, who have had to watch their personal budget, rethinking travels and restaurant expenses, he said. “But I’ve seen worse,” the Auschwitz survivor added with a wry grin.

In a soft, intense voice, he recently shared his thoughts in his office 20 floors above Madison Avenue, filled with books and memories. A group of young assistants scurried through the hallway taking care of business – from Israeli education centers for Ethiopian Jews rescued from persecution to an international ethics essay contest.

Holocaust memories

Wiesel wrote “Open Heart” in French, the language that’s easiest for him because after the war, he was placed in a youth home in Paris, where he settled and became a journalist. He moved to New York in 1956.

The new book was translated into English by his wife, Marion Wiesel, and is set for a Dec. 4 publication date. In addition to an account of the surgical drama, it’s an intimate assessment of his life in the face of possible death.

As he was wheeled away toward the operating room on a gurney, he recalled in an interview, “I saw my son and my wife, and all of a sudden, a question ran through me, ‘Maybe it’s the last time?’ ”

That moment reminded him of the day in Buchenwald when he saw his ill father for the last time, before he was beaten to death by a Nazi guard. His mother and sister perished earlier in the Auschwitz gas chambers.

Wiesel’s latest novel, “Hostage,” is set in Brooklyn, the New York borough with the largest concentrations of Jews outside Israel. A Holocaust survivor is held by two terrorists, in scenes that probe how humans negotiate their differences under duress.

Wiesel was himself targeted in 2007, attacked and dragged out of a San Francisco hotel elevator by a 24-year-old New Jersey man authorities said was a Holocaust denier.

Wiesel has read the Quran, which he notes has been used by terrorists and suicide bombers as “an appeal to violence.”

“But it can also have marvelous things said about humanity and morality; it depends how it is being used,” he said.

His seminal work, “Night,” first published in Paris in 1956, is found on many required reading lists in U.S. schools. The book ended Wiesel’s decade-long, self-imposed silence about the horror he left behind when he was liberated at 16 by the U.S. Army in April 1945.

Before he was freed, Wiesel responded to a questionnaire issued by the American military to every inmate asking, among other things, why he was arrested and imprisoned. For “being a Jew” was his response, like so many others.

In “Night,” he describes his youthful disgust with humanity.

“Here there are no fathers, no brothers, no friends,” a prisoner supervising others in exchange for survival tells the teenage Wiesel. “Everyone lives and dies for himself alone.”

Human redemption

And yet, in the end, Wiesel said he believes in human redemption, to be explained in the next of his more than 50 books. He won’t reveal more details of the novel, titled “Redemption”; he never does, till it’s done.

His goal “for the last 20 years of my life” has been to fight racism and hatred by organizing global gatherings with high-power participants.

Obama’s inauguration was “one of the most joyous days of my life, because my people, the American people, showed they could overcome a disease – hatred because of color.”

The two have shared private lunches at the White House, said Wiesel, who first met Obama when the president was a student at California’s Occidental College, where Wiesel gave a talk. Someday, Wiesel said, he believes his grandchildren will “applaud the first Jewish president in America.”

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