What is it like to grow up as the son of arguably the most famous Holocaust survivor in the world?
That was the question put at AJR’s next generations conference by Stephen Smith, now UNESCO Chair on Genocide Education and Executive Director of the USC Shoah Foundation. Dr Smith, founder of the UK Holocaust Centre in England and cofounder of the Aegis Trust for the prevention of crimes against humanity and genocide, was in conversation with Elisha Wiesel, son of the writer and Nobel prize-winner Elie Wiesel, who died in 2016.
In fact, as Elisha Wiesel made clear in their conversation, he is the son of two Holocaust survivors, but with very different attitudes towards their wartime experiences.
His mother, Marion, “wanted to put the war behind her and not talk about it ever again”, he said. But to mark his mother’s 90th birthday in 2020, he had managed to get a film crew to record her talking about her family’s departure from Vienna after the Anschluss, their subsequent moves to Belgium, France and then Switzerland, where she remained for the rest of the war.
Elie Wiesel, by contrast, wrote 60-70 books, many detailing aspects of his survival, and not all of which, his son admitted, he had read.
“He actually sheltered me quite a bit from knowledge of the Shoah”, Elisha Wiesel said. “But one picks things up in an ambient fashion. When my friends [in New York] were going to Palm Beach for sumner camps, I would be going to death camps in Poland”.
Overall he characterised his father as “an incredible listener.…he loved to engage with people and hear their stories”.
For a long time, from about age 14 onwards, Elisha wanted “nothing to do with the old world. I resented being known as the son of Elie Wiesel, and I led a very rebellious teenage life, only interested in my guitar and meeting girls”.
Today, however, aged 49, things are very different. Almost to his own surprise he studies a page of Talmud every day and says since he married and had children, he has “joy” in passing on knowledge and faith. In his family, he says, he “talks much less about the Shoah and much more about what it means to be Jewish”. But he admitted, with a grin, to Stephen Smith that he still plays the guitar.
Elie Wiesel had only two “red lines” for his son, which he hopes to pass on to his own children. “He insisted that I had to marry someone Jewish, and he asked me to say kaddish for him”. Now, says Elisha, he has “made peace” with being the son of Elie Wiesel, and makes himself available to speak about his father and bearing witness in the Second Generation wherever he can.
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