by Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA)
“Permit me to tell you a story.”
These are the words Elie Wiesel often used to begin an evening’s lecture or one of his “college encounters”.
Why am I using these words? Because they tell best how it happened that I was destined to write a story about this man who has become the prophet of his generation, which is also mine.
A long time ago when I was a little girl pushing a doll carriage along the sidewalk of my Berlin street, a young boy my age sat listening to stories in the House of Study of his hometown in the heart of Central Europe. We were far apart in location, background, and upbringing, yet, without our knowing it, a common experience was being prepared for us which would affect both his future and mine. We did not sense the coming of this experience, because we were both still living in the world of childhood, where all bad stories have happy endings.
Then the whirlwind came. Nothing remained the same.
Destiny was kind to me. I was permitted to live and to grow up in the United States. There, more than two decades later, I picked up a booklet containing a number of stories by a writer named Elie Wiesel.
At some moments in life one knows one has just been struck a by a flash of truth. Everything comes together at that point: something happens, a new insight is born. Such a moment is not easily forgotten.. I was aware of my particular moment when I read “Face in the Window,” a passage its author called “a legend of our time.” With powerful graphic words it describes a man who watches without comment the deportation of the Jews of his town. He says nothing, he does nothing He only observes. He is the symbol of a person, a nation, a world’s inertia in the face of evil: the “I don’t want to get involved” syndrome.
The piece touched me deeply. I knew nothing of Elie Wiesel. Not who he was, nor where he came from. But I felt instant kinship with him. He felt what I felt, and he knew how to express his feelings. He had the gift, the power, and the strong urge to make the words come out. And he spoke to me.
I heard Elie Wiesel speak at public lectures. I saw him on television, knew his face from the covers of his many books.
He was famous.
When my publisher asked whether I would write a book about Wiesel for young people, I said yes, not because I am an expert on Wiesel, but because we both lived through the same unusual time and he expressed so many feelings which I could share.
On a bright January day I traveled to New York for my first face-to-face meeting with Elie Wiesel. My appointment with him was in a mid-Manhattan office suite where an organization had lent him space. In a prior telephone conversation, he had given me explicit directions how to reach his office. I was impressed with his concern that I should not get lost.
I was properly nervous for this interview with a celebrity. The dark-eyed slender man in the trim gray business suit welcomed me with a sweet smile and did not act like a celebrity at all. With old-world courtesy he ushered me into the room where we would talk.
We sat in the small office and he spoke to me of his childhood, especially of his parents. I had brought along fragments of my manuscript-to-be, and he was particularly interested in seeing that I had the right “tone” in my opening pages. In his own writing, he told me, he must feel the words “sing” before he is sure he is on the right track and continue with the story.
Sitting on a hard chair facing me, Wiesel answered my many questions patiently. I had the feeling I had known this man all of my life: I was seeing a friend.I felt united to him by the fact that, as children, our lives were altered by the Holocaust.
After the interview was over, I wandered through the lunch-hour crowd on East 42nd Street. Originally, I had planned to spend the afternoon with friends in New York. Now, I found I no longer wanted to keep the date.
I had just experienced a homecoming. Those who have heard Wiesel speak at an “encounter” know the sensation: it is a feeling of understanding completely, and of being completely understood. For me, it was an experience I needed to hug to myself, to enfold and digest in private, before talking about it and sharing it with others. I took the next train back to Philadelphia.
“Make this book your own,” he said to me when shaking my hand in farewell that day.”Tell the story the way you feel it.”
My aim then was to tell the story of a victim traveling through hell and emerging as a victor. Perhaps you too, will turn to the stories of Elie Wiesel and understand just a little more clearly why the things he had to say concern you, too.
Born in Germany, Ellen Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for young adult readers, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, and Elie Wiesel. Her most recent publication is The French Physician’s Boy, a novel about Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic.