Leaders from around the world this month have given tributes to Holocaust survivor and global human-rights activist Elie Wiesel. I was privileged to call him a friend.
In 1986, upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, he was most aptly called a “messenger to mankind.” He led the mission to build the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. He was awarded both the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. As his list of accomplishments, accolades and awards grew longer, his spirit for activism never grew weary.
I had the opportunity to spend time with him on several occasions and to visit with him in New York City. My first encounter was a call to his office in 2005 requesting him to speak at the opening of a Holocaust exhibition at Centre College’s Norton Center for the Arts.
I visited Auschwitz and other concentration camps in Europe that year to gather information and pieces for the exhibition. In my mind, Wiesel was the only appropriate speaker for the opening. But, he declined the invitation and the compensation for the event. I just couldn’t accept no for an answer. So, I wrote him a letter — a lengthy letter.
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I told him I had walked where he walked, sat where he sat, but I never felt the fear, the hunger, the cold and the pain that he felt in those places. Nor had I experienced the loss of my entire family, friends and neighbors as he did, watching as they were led to the gas chambers. The letter expressed how important it is for the history of the Holocaust to be remembered and told to every generation. A week later, he accepted the invitation and requested no compensation.
I flew to Connecticut on a private jet provided to pick him up. I met his wife and she expressed her disappointment that he was leaving for the day. I assured her he would be returned safely and that he would love Kentucky.
When he spoke at the exhibit opening, the venue filled quickly with students and guests. It was Labor Day, 2005. He took to the stage and you could almost hear a pin drop in that 1,200-seat auditorium. He wasn’t a big man, but when he spoke he seemed 10 feet tall. Each word he said meant something profound, and each word left a lasting impression on those present that day.
He went home with lots of goodies from his visit — Kentucky bourbon, Kentucky chocolates, Lancaster’s Mom Blakeman candy, an honorary degree and a Kentucky Colonel commission. He loved everything, but he did tell me that he preferred Belgian dark chocolates. We laughed and hugged and parted as new friends at his front door.
I thought that would be the end of our time together. But it wasn’t.
I received a call the following week from a gentleman with a European accent. I thought it was a Russian ballet agent I had been talking with, so I asked him to hold. I went to another phone and finished talking to a garage about getting new tires and the oil changed in the car. My friend with the accent could hear me on the other phone.
When I returned to his call, I thanked him for holding and asked how I could help him. He said, “Debbie, this is Elie Wiesel. You put me on hold.”
As you might imagine, I cringed with embarrassment and begged for forgiveness. He laughed and said, “Don’t put me on hold again.” I assured him it would never happen again.
Elie and I talked for an hour or more as he recounted visits to the United Nations and projects he was working on. He said his visit to Kentucky was special, especially seeing the exhibition and all the students who attended his speech. His lifelong mission was to educate people about the atrocities of the Holocaust to ensure humanity never allowed them to be repeated.
His famous book, “Night,” tells the story of his family’s captivity in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps. His mother and younger sister were killed immediately after arriving at Auschwitz. Elie’s motivation to survive was knowing that his father was still alive. “I knew that if I died, he would die,” he wrote. His father only lived for eight months, dying just a few weeks before the camp was liberated.
Elie and I talked a few more times through the years by phone. I visited him twice at his office in New York. I had recently called his office to set up a visit with him later this summer. That visit will never happen now. My friend — and mankind’s messenger — Elie Wiesel died July 2.
Debra Hoskins of Lancaster is a performing arts and marketing consultant.