What were vacations like in the Elie Wiesel family?
“Many of my friends would be going off to Palm Beach with their parents for their winter break. I was going off to Poland to visit the death camps,” said Elisha Wiesel, son of the Holocaust survivor icon..”That’s what childhood was like for me.”
For most of Elisha Wiesel’s life, he has been known as the son of Elie Wiesel, Jewish author, philosopher and human rights conscience.
“I think almost everybody saw me through the lens of being Elie Wiesel’s son. And, in many ways, that was very difficult,” Wiesel, 48, a retired Wall Street executive, said in an interview Monday.
After his father’s voice was stilled by death in 2016, Wiesel began to speak up — at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, where he spoke about the importance of LGBTQ protection; about the urgency of upholding DACA in a piece in the Financial Times; and at Auschwitz on the plight of Syrian refugees.
“I think as I’ve grown older, I realized the amazing person that my father was. This is much more of a privilege than it is a burden, even if it felt differently early on,” Wiesel said.
On Sunday, Wiesel spoke at the annual Yom HaShoah Commemoration, sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington. During the livestream event, Wiesel was joined by Holocaust survivors and their families, who lit candles and said prayers.
Wiesel read a few lines from his father’s canonical Holocaust memoir, “Night,” recalling his liberation from Buchenwald by American soldiers:
“I will never forget the American soldiers and the horror that could be read in their faces. I will especially remember one black sergeant, a muscled giant, who wept tears of impotent rage and shame, shame for the human species, when he saw us. He spewed curses that on his lips became holy words.”
Elisha Wiesel focused on the idea of gratitude, saying it was his father’s defining characteristic. He recalled an argument he had with his father about the Supreme Court decision that flag burning was protected speech.
“I told him that the right to burn the flag was a truer expression of American principles than the flag could ever be,” Wiesel said. “It was one of the only times I can remember my father ever getting angry at me.
“‘Do you know,’ he asked me, ‘what this flag means to the men who fought under it? Do you know what it means to the men who fought to liberate me? Do you know what this flag means to me?’
“The Supreme Court agreed with me by a 5-4 vote. But I had failed a test, in my father’s eyes, of understanding gratitude.”
Despite growing up surrounded by his parents’ Holocaust survivor friends, Wiesel says his father tried not to burden him with Holocaust memories.
“I think he did everything he could do to allow me to lead a normal life, despite the heaviness of our history and what had happened to our family. And despite the fact that his travels took him and, therefore, me along with him all around the world on Holocaust related-work. Nonetheless, he really tried to carve out time,” Wiesel says.
“There are those who will tell us that these things — America, Israel, the concept of a Jewish people, the intricacies of Jewish practice — that they are all deeply flawed to the point of having no value. I am grateful to live in a world where we can disagree civilly about these things. And I am grateful to know they are wrong.”