In the 1980s, I had the chance to drive Elie Wiesel from a talk at the University of Michigan to a small college an hour away where he was also speaking. By then, I had been interviewing and writing about Holocaust survivors for a decade. The chance to have a private hour with Elie Wiesel was an enormous opportunity.
My car at that time was a white Honda wagon that had more rust than paint. It was not suitable for Elie Wiesel. It was barely suitable at all.
I called a girlfriend who had a large Mustang convertible. I thought that was a good choice. She let me borrow it for the occasion.
I met Elie at the rear door of the Rackham auditorium where he had spoken. I had been so nervous anticipating our ride that I had no memory of anything he said. But I had a supply of questions — deep, existential, quintessential questions — that I had been saving up after reading and rereading him for years. I thought I was ready.
I was not. He seemed to approve the car, which was good. But immediately after I turned the key, I lost all sense of direction. I had known the route well, but it vanished. I had no idea what road I should take to get to the highway to get to the small college.
Luckily, I still had the presence of mind to realize that if I kept making left turns we would not get entirely lost. And so left, left, left, left. I put us into orbit around the Rackham Building. After the fifth time we passed the same bus stop, Elie turned to me and smiled. He had the kindness not to ask if I was lost. The smile was query enough.
Summoning my remaining courage, I fired the retro rockets. We broke out of orbit, heading in a direction in which I had only wistful confidence. It seemed a better gamble than another circle to nowhere.
Whether reflecting luck or survival instinct, my guess was right. We were on the road that led to the highway that would lead to the small college–the name of which I had entirely forgotten beyond St. Something
I had also forgotten the deep, existential, quintessential questions that I had hoped to discuss during our drive. Fragments remained, but Elie seemed a bit tired — perhaps of my anxiety — and I realized that this was, indeed, his “down time.” It was not Ultimacy Hour.
And so I learned that Elie Wiesel was a funny, charming, far-from-always-ultimate kind of guy. We talked about weather and football and Michigan stuff (which was still exotic to me as a native New Yorker). We shared teaching stories. We relaxed. We schmoozed. He was no longer Night incarnate.
After what is now forty years of teaching and writing about survivors and the Holocaust, I tell this story to my students before survivors visit our class. Even the most outgoing among them tend to go quiet in the presence of an “actual survivor” — even a not-famous own.
Elie and I became something between acquaintances and friends — which is why I feel OK using his first name. But the more essential point is that survivors have always been our friends, brothers, sisters. Beyond the inevitable rhetoric in which we encase them — The Witness, The Legacy, The Trauma, The Memory — survivors are us. That, and the dead behind them who are also us, is what the rhetoric conceals.
Agi Rubin, a survivor-friend for more than thirty years, once exclaimed. “I am not a quote-unquote, capital S ‘Holocaust Survivor’. We have had enough of categories, of things. I am me!” As she often did with friends, she added playfully, “Whatever that means!”
Some argue that Elie himself contributed to the ritualized veneration of capital S “Holocaust Survivors.” I think there is some truth in that. Every survivor must negotiate with our expectations about who they are and what they have to retell. During the decades before they were celebrated, survivors were mostly ignored or, worse, dismissed as damaged goods—guilty, ghostly, and estranged. Survivors have responded to their more recent elevation variously, parlaying our assumptions in ways that seem to them most useful and, yes, personally gratifying.
Although I did not always agree with him, I believe Elie Wiesel made enormously helpful use of the veneration he inspired. He remained our teacher, even when we assumed that we had nothing new to learn. He remained our friend and our brother, a man and not a god, even when it was difficult for us to let him be. He once wrote, “Men cast aside the one who has known pure suffering unless they can make a god out of him.” Sanctification quarantines as effectively as asylums.
Different as our particular paths, we and Elie and all survivors share the same essential road, the same infinitely wondrous and infinitely horrifying world.