Monday, September 17, 2007

Elie Wiesel and the U.S. Open tennis tournament

I recently experienced a fascinating demonstration of the old cliche that we do indeed live in "a small world." My son was invited to attend the U.S. Open tennis tournament in Flushing, N.Y. by the CEO of a corporation with whom his own company does business. When he arrived at his host's stadium suite, the CEO introduced him to the guest seated next to him.

The guest was the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor who has become a world-famed writer, lecturer, and a political activist on issues related to intolerance and ethnic and racial hatred. The CEO host was evidently a contributor to a foundation established by Wiesel to combat these evils, and the two men have become friends.

In 1976, when my son was a teen-ager, I wrote a profile about Wiesel that was published in Present Tense, a now-defunct Jewish literary and political magazine. The article was later included in a 1991 book entitled "Jewish Profiles: Great Jewish Personalities and Institutions of the 20th Century," edited by Murray Polner.

I had interviewed Wiesel in his Central Park West apartment and had sat in on a class on Hasidic literature that he was teaching at the City College of New York, where he was then on the faculty. (He is now the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University.)

After being introduced to Wiesel, my son said to him: "Perhaps you remember my father, Mort Reichek, who once wrote a magazine article about you."

Wiesel said that, of course, he remembered me. I have had no contact with him in the past 31 years, so perhaps he was just being polite. Two years after my article about him in Present Tense, however, we both had articles published in the same issue of the magazine.

Mine was a profile of the late Chaim Grade, a noted Yiddish author, who was Wiesel's friend and a fellow staff writer for the Forward, a Yiddish newspaper, many years earlier. My son had mentioned Grade's name to Wiesel, which may have triggered his recollection of me. I had talked to Wiesel at some length about Grade while preparing my article about him.

I was then an editor and writer for Business Week magazine. But I did free-lance writing on the side on subjects far removed from my day job.

My son had planned to call me on his cell phone after he arrived at the tennis matches. When he called, he put Wiesel on the phone to talk to me. I was in the middle of dinner and was stunned but very pleased to hear from him.

"I don't know what I'm doing here," Wiesel said jokingly. He had never seen a tennis game before, and he was bewildered by what was happening on the court. We conversed briefly and exchanged Jewish New Year greetings. The stadium's background noise discouraged us from having a longer conversation. But this was the first time that I had ever enjoyed being interrupted by a phone call during dinner.

My interviews with Wiesel were among the most interesting that I have ever conducted in my career as a journalist. I still remember his response when I phoned to tell him that I wanted to write a profile article about him. "I have a question that I am embarrassed to ask you," he said shyly. "Are you familiar with my work?"

I assured him that I was. I had read many of his books dealing with Judaism, the Holocaust, and the moral responsibility of all people to fight hatred, racism and genocide. He was not well known to the general public, however, until he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.

Wiesel has become a major force in American literature. Critics have compared him to Sartre, Camus and Malraux. His novels tend to be more theological parables than realistic fiction. His primary theme--seeking faith in a world so insane and absurd as to make faith difficult, if not impossible--has attracted the serious attention of Christian theologians, particularly those with an existentialist bent.

My interest in meeting Wiesel and writing about him had been stimulated by my son's reaction to "Night," Wiesel's first book. My son was 15 at the time, roughly the same age as Wiesel when he was shipped to Auschwitz from his home in Transylvania. In the book, Wiesel describes the horrors of the concentration camps--a pious boy surrounded by a mound of corpses, accusing
God of abandoning His creation.

I had encouraged my son to read the book, pointing out that if his great-grandparents had not fled Russia and Poland at the turn of the last century, the fate of the boy in "Night" might have been my own. The book had a stunning emotional impact on my son, whose normal reading diet leaned heavily to sports literature.

"While I read it," my son told me, "I tried to think it really didn't happen, that it was a story some one made up. But when I paused, I realized that it wasn't fiction. Is [Wiesel] a sane man now?"

Sanity, in fact, is a subject with which Wiesel is obsessed. As a student at the Sorbonne in Paris for almost three years, he specialized in clinical psychology. The New York Society of Clinical Psychology has honored him for his perceptive treatment of the insane in his writing.

It was an extraordinary coincidence that, three decades after reading Wiesel's book, my son met the author personally in the strange setting of the U.S. Open tennis tournament.

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Blogger Hoots said...

What a wonderful glimpse behind the scenes. Reading your first person narrative makes me know I'm in the presence of historic greatness. The word "awesome" is over-used, but in this case it applies. Thank you for this.

Monday, September 17, 2007 8:06:00 PM  
Anonymous Claude said...

Yes, what a totally unexpected place to meet him! Wiesel is quite a figure here in France too. He speaks perfect French with a slight accent and I have watched many an interview of him on French TV, that is in the days when French TV had interesting programmes! ;)

Tuesday, September 18, 2007 3:17:00 AM  
Blogger Chancy said...

Isn't it interesting how life has a way of surprising us along the way.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007 7:17:00 PM  
Blogger Peggy said...

I'm thinking that you know just about everybody!

Sunday, September 23, 2007 8:39:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is surprising how such horror could bring the world closer.

Monday, September 24, 2007 5:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Thanks a lot for sharing the information...

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Wednesday, August 10, 2011 12:41:00 PM  

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