By Mordechai Avigdor
A proud piece of Jewish history has passed.
Elie Wiesel z”l was a worldwide spokesman about the horrors of the Holocaust. He held an enormously important position, decrying the ills of modern day despots and tyrants wishing death and destruction to their fellow man. His cause was the defense of people of all faiths, nationalities, and countries against oppressors.
Elie Wiesel held a particularly close relationship with my family throughout his life. He davened in the shul of my zaida, Rabbi Yaakov Avigdor z”l, in Buchenwald, Germany. This was not your average shtiebel. This one had barbed wire, dogs, and soldiers guarding the prisoners there. The inmates had lost parents, children, and family members; and some lost all they had.
Many lost faith in mankind, but not in their Father Above who they believed would somehow get them through the horrible events they were enduring. Beyond belief, they sought to express their prayers with a clandestine minyan: my Zaida’s minyan. Mr. Yossel Friedenson z”l (the late editor of Dos Yiddishe Vort) once told me how he too davened at my Zaida’s minyan in Buchenwald. There were no siddurim so my grandfather prayed out loud, very slowly, so that the mispallelim would be able to repeat his words. Mr. Friedenson recalled that as they approached the reading of the Torah he was sure they would skip it and go straight to the Musaf. There were no chumashim and certainly no sifrei Torah. That, however, did not stop the minyan. My grandfather “lained” the Parsha by heart.
It was a chizuk for a lifetime. Elie Wiesel, Zaida, Buchenwald, and the Minyan. From that moment, our family had a connection with him. We were all kinsman, landsleit.
My father, Rabbi Yitzchok Chaim Avigdor z”l, and Mr. Wiesel kept in touch through the years. Mr. Wiesel would call before a Yom Tov and always sent a card before the Yomim Noraim. In one letter, he referred to my father as “a true friend – for you are a man of truth” and he almost always would sign his letters as “Eliezer ben Sara”, a reminder, perhaps, that my father should remember him in his prayers.
My father never threw out a letter from him and our family has donated more than sixty of these letters for preservation and posterity to the Amud Aish Memorial Museum in Brooklyn, an institution dedicated to telling the full story of the Orthodox Jewish experience during the Holocaust.
My father would write about the war and his own personal salvation. Books, articles and speeches on the Holocaust were his life, as it was with Mr. Wiesel. My father sent him every article he wrote. Each one was answered with a thank-you note and the encouragement to write more. Mr. Wiesel wanted the stories and lessons of the Holocaust to be remembered through as many voices as possible.
With Mr. Wiesel’s good wishes, my father went on to write several books on the Holocaust. Upon completion of one encompassing volume, he asked Mr. Wiesel to come to Hartford for a book review and to celebrate its publication. He agreed to come and the event was held in the auditorium of the University of Hartford where hundreds of people gathered. When Mr. Wiesel entered, the crowd applauded and he began speaking softly and slowly. His story was sad and told with emotion. He transported the audience back to the horrors he endured and witnessed during the war. He ended his remarks by saying that those who forget history have a tendency to relive it. He acknowledged my father’s literary work with a wish that it serve as one more reminder of the cruel world that was. He then left to thundering and enthusiastic applause.
Mr. Wiesel’s mission was to give a voice to those who no longer had one. He spoke to world leaders about the lessons of brutality that he saw so clearly through the horrors of World War II. He campaigned against all despots and dictators who were creating their own particular evil.
When he spoke, the world listened. He made a difference and lived a life of Kiddush Hashem.
Yehi zichro Boruch.
Mordechai Avigdor, Esq. is an attorney in private practice and a candidate for Civil Court judge in South Brooklyn. His grandfather, Rabbi Yaakov Chaim Avigdor z”l, was a Holocaust survivor. Before the war, he was Chief Rabbi of Drohobych and Boryslav; later he became Chief Rabbi of Mexico. His father, Rabbi Yitzchok Chaim Avigdor z”l was also a Holocaust survivor, prolific writer, and spiritual leader of the United Synagogues of Greater Hartford.