In 1994 I joined a group of high school students on a trip to Poland to commemorate the 60th memorial of the Warsaw uprising. The trip required each of us to fundraise a nominal sum. Having grown up as a sixth generation American in Forest Hills, Queens; I started with my neighbors. Forest Hills was home to legends Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, Helen Keller, Dale Carnegie and of course the West Side Tennis Club, original home of the US Open. Fleet Street was the home of less famous Holocaust survivors.
To the left of our home lived the Zbrowski family, founders of American Society of Yad Vashem, the organization that perpetuates the memory of the Holocaust. To our right lived the Horowitz family, anonymous Jewish philanthropists of Jewish schools and synagogues. My solicitation of Mr. Zbrowski was swift. He sent us a check. He conditioned it on a piece I was to write about the trip. Mrs. Horowitz stood at her door and remarked in her sweet Yidish. “Ich gib mein gelt zu di lebediker, nisht the toite” I give my money to living Jews not the dead. They both remained our loving neighbors.
This past Saturday we lost Elie Wiesel, the world’s conscious of Holocaust memory. Tomorrow we commemorate the 22nd anniversary of the death of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, known universally as the Rebbe.
Both of these men immigrated to the United States in the middle of the 20th century. Both survived the war.
Elie dedicated his life to the memory of the 6 million Jews murdered by Nazi Germany. His primary lifelong conviction was that indeed, Never Again! He reminded us that genocide is an illness perpetuated by and to people of every race, ethnicity and religious persuasion. He wrote and lectured globally to fight this disease. He did so with passion and a deep obsession. He was our witness. He was our voice. He was the world’s conscience.
The Rebbe dedicated his life to the living 6 million Jews of his new home, America. His principle message was that only through education and practice were we to ensure that the memory of our murdered brethren was not in vain. Under his leadership The Chabad Lubavitch movement became a household name for its thousands of educational, humanitarian and social outreach centers that now span the globe. The Rebbe was our teacher. He was our leader. He was a global moral compass.
In the late 1960s these two men formed a deep bond. Through lengthy late night conversations and subsequent written correspondence they deliberated the conundrum of a G-d that allowed a Holocaust. For Elie, the Rebbe was a breathing link to his childhood Hassidic household decimated in the war. For the Rebbe, Elie was a voice of all people committed to justice in the new frontier.
In one conversation the Rebbe argued that one can-not possibly comprehend the ways of G-d, though Wiesel maintained that he nevertheless wanted to understand. This classic dialogue between the skeptic and the believer kept them up at night. In response to Wiesel’s question, “what indebtedness a Jew has to the memory of those slain” the Rebbe replied, “therefore be Jewish.”
“The dialogue with the Rebbe was a turning point in my life,“ Wiesel once said. “When I’m at a crossroad and I need to make a decision right or left I see the face of my mother or father OBM, when it comes to spiritual matters I see the Rebbe’s countenance. Thanks to the Rebbe a Jew becomes a better Jew thus becoming a better human being, thus making his fellow human beings more human, more hospitable, open to a greater sense of generosity. What we learn from him is to continue to see in each other not enemies not even adversaries, surely not competitors but sojourners.”
After a lengthy philosophical discussion the Rebbe asks of Wiesel a rather simple but practical question, “and by the way when are you getting married?” Wiesel later commented that the Rebbe nudged him on this topic and sent him the most beautiful bouquet of flowers in celebration of his marriage. Wiesel wrote books and gave talks that riveted the world from the local synagogues and churches to the halls of the United nations and the Oval office . He found solace and comfort in a Rabbi that believed all of his sacred work must be translated into the simple act of rebuilding a Jewish family, one person at a time.
I am reminded of a line from The Plague by Albert Camus: “Thus too they came to know the incorrigible sorrow of all prisoners and exiles, which is to live in company with a memory that serves no purpose.”
Elie Wiesel personified the collective memory of the destruction of European Jewry. He sought purpose . He found that purpose in the rebuilding of a strong Jewish People inspired by leaders such as the Rebbe. Only a strong Jewish nation would deny Hitler of his ultimate final solution. Jewish continuity would help ensure that genocide would never again occur to any people in this world we share. The Jewish nation, like every nation, begins and ends with individuals. When we remember one, protect one and help one, we begin to save all. It begins with you and me.
Shmully Hecht is a co-founder and Rabbi of Shabtai, The Jewish Society at Yale.