Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press
Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press
NEW YORK – When Elie Wiesel emerged from quintuple heart bypass surgery, still wired to monitors, he immediately started writing a book about the ordeal – “in my head.” In French.
A year later, as he recuperates from post-procedure fatigue and depression, Open Heart is being published, in English. And the 84-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Holocaust activist is busy in the Manhattan office of 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 The Associated Press.
“Children sent us their pocket money, people we never heard of, Jews, non-Jews, young, old,” Wiesel says. “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 says.
“But I’ve seen worse,” the Auschwitz survivor said with a wry grin.
He pulls back his left jacket sleeve to reveal a Nazi death camp number tattooed on his forearm as he sits comfortably in his Manhattan office for an interview.
“Usually I don’t show it,” he says.
One of the exceptions was a 2009 visit to the Buchenwald death camp Wiesel survived, with President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
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.
After the heart surgery last summer at Manhattan’s Lenox Hill Hospital – sudden and unexpected – Wiesel says his doctor asked him to cut back on teaching at Boston University. He’ll still deliver lectures there this fall, and may add courses later.
“I love teaching, it’s my passion,” he says. He also was to speak at New York’s 92nd Street Y in October on two topics: “Judaism and Peace” and “Ezekiel and his Frightening Visions.”
Wiesel wrote Open Heart in French, the language that’s easiest for him because after the war, he was a Romanian-born survivor 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 recalls 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 set his just-published latest novel, Hostage, in Brooklyn, the New York borough with the largest concentrations of Jews outside Israel. A Holocaust survivor is held by two terrorists, one of Arab origin, the other Italian, 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 says another Holocaust denier, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, should be arrested and charged with crimes against humanity. “Does anyone doubt that if he had a nuclear bomb, he would not use it?”
Ahmadinejad “is a dangerous man,” says Wiesel, and he should be put on trial at the International Criminal Court in the Hague for the deaths of thousands of Iranians and for helping make this “the most dangerous time since World War II.”
Wiesel has read the Koran, 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 says.
Wiesel’s seminal work, Night, originally written in Yiddish and first published in Paris in 1956, is found on many required reading lists in U.S. schools.
It’s the book that 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.”
And yet, in the end, Wiesel says 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, called Redemption; he never does, until it’s done.
On most days, he writes for four hours, starting at about 5 a.m., when he rises after only four hours of sleep.
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, says Wiesel, who first met Obama when the president was an undergraduate at California’s Occidental College, where Wiesel gave a talk.
Wiesel didn’t remember meeting Obama then, but says the president reminded him more recently of their first encounter.
Someday, Wiesel says he believes his grandchildren will “applaud the first Jewish president in America.”