Elie Wiesel’s Only Son Steps Up to His Father’s Legacy

Elisha Wiesel at the March of the Living, an annual march that draws thousands of people who walk the two miles from the former site of Auschwitz I, the German Nazi concentration camp, to Auschwitz II, a concentration and extermination camp in Birkenau. Credit Piotr Malecki for The New York Times

New York Times – OSWIECIM, Poland — Back when all he wanted was to play baseball and tinker with his computer, Elisha Wiesel found himself touring Treblinka, evading KGB agents on the Moscow subway and watching his father accept the Nobel Peace Prize.

“I wanted a normal American childhood,” said Mr. Wiesel, 44, the affable and soft-spoken son of Elie Wiesel, the author, activist and Holocaust witness who died last year.

But now, after years of avoiding the spotlight to focus on his family and a 23-year career at Goldman Sachs, where he is chief information officer, the only child of the celebrated memoirist has decided it’s time to step forward and further his father’s work.

“I realize that my father’s death was a loss not just for me and my family, but for a lot of people,” Mr. Wiesel said. “When I was young, I’d think ‘Oh God, here comes another guy telling me how great my father was.’ Now, I’m trying to be more like my father was.”

Mr. Wiesel was led through the throngs at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, passing beneath the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Makes You Free) entrance gate to his marked spot at the front of the crowd.

The International March of the Living is an annual event drawing thousands of people who walk the two miles from the cramped former site of Auschwitz I, the German Nazi concentration camp, to the more sprawling Auschwitz II, a concentration and extermination camp in the suburb of Birkenau.

As many as 10,000 people, most of them young, waited patiently in the breezy cold the last Monday in April for the blare of the shofar to signal the start of the march. Mr. Wiesel was to light one of six torches at the climactic ceremony, a torch dedicated to his father’s memory, and to say a few words.

“His father was the greatest Jewish personality of his time,” said Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, head of the pro-Israeli World Values Network, who also marched. “And now, with his father’s death, he is the inheritor of his father’s legacy.”

“It is a reminder to all of us that we are the next generation,” said Eli Rubenstein, a Toronto religious leader who serves as education director for the March of the Living. “We must all pick up the torch.”

Elie Wiesel, with his wife, Marion, and son, Elisha, in New York after the announcement that he been awarded the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize. Credit Richard Drew/Associated Press

Mr. Wiesel made his first step onto the public stage in November, speaking at a memorial for his father at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Coverage of that event caught Rabbi Rubenstein’s eye.

“I approached him six months ago,” he said. The invitation was accepted.

“I am not seeking these things out,” Mr. Wiesel said. “But I’ll do them when it’s meaningful and the timing is right. I have a full-time job and I have a full-time family. But I recognize I am not the only one who misses my father.”

Elisha Wiesel grew up in Manhattan and suburban New Jersey. For a few months, when he was 6, the family lived in Israel, where many of their relatives had settled. He craved baseball, friends, normalcy.

“Meanwhile, my parents were schlepping me around the world,” he said. “Other kids were playing. I was missing school and being taken to concentration camps.”

He describes himself as a socially awkward young man who was most interested in programming computer games. His father, he said, was eager to give him the kind of normal, American upbringing that he craved, but sometimes it was a struggle.

“I had to teach him how to pitch so we could play catch together,” Mr. Wiesel said. “But he did it. Would he rather that I was studying the Talmud? Yes. Did he love it? No. But he did it for me.”

One time he was aghast to learn that his father was declining an invitation to throw out the first pitch at a 1986 World Series game between the Mets and the Red Sox. He had to push his father to do it, and it became one of the best memories of his childhood.

Mr. Wiesel drifted from programming in his teenage years. “I put down my computer and picked up an electric guitar,” is the way he describes it. “I got interested in girls and rock.”

His favorites were the big heavy metal bands of the period, like Iron Maiden and Metallica. But he also caught “the tail end of the Ramones,” he said, and fancied himself a bit of a punk rocker. His mother and father worried, but weathered the rebellious phase, even the time he came home with a purple mohawk.

He went to Yale with every intention of majoring in the humanities. But one day, working on an assignment in a computer lab, he noticed that the guy next to him seemed to be having more fun.

“He was programming,” Mr. Wiesel said.

So, he picked up his computer again and realized that he really missed it. He eventually changed his major, hoping for a career in video games. At first, he did not even intend to interview with Goldman Sachs recruiters.

Jewish youths with Israeli flags before the start of the March of the Living, an annual march between concentration camps. CreditPiotr Malecki for The New York Times

“I guess I had this image of dark, grim rooms full of guys wearing eyeshades,” he said.

In the end, he did the interview. No dark, grim room. No eyeshades. Instead, he said, he got the most interesting questions about things like algorithms for searching and sorting.

So, he went to Wall Street and got married. His father continued his very public work, but the son kept out of it. “My head was someplace else,” he said.

He prospered at Goldman Sachs and maintained his love of gaming. For three years, he ran Midnight Madness, an annual overnight Manhattan puzzle hunt popular among Wall Street professionals.

But he also found himself edging more deeply into his Jewish faith. He spent a few months shortly after Yale doing basic military training in Israel. There, he was reacquainted with Steve Jackson, a cousin and boyhood chum as well as a fervent Zionist. “He was the first religious Jew who I connected with personally,” he said.

Throughout his young life, Mr. Wiesel’s father made only one demand — that he marry in the Jewish faith, which he did. But as his father neared death, he made one more request, that his son say kaddish for him.

“I was what we call a three-day-a-year Jew,” Mr. Wiesel said. “But I decided that I really wanted to do it, and I wanted to do it correctly.”

So, he began to go to synagogue every day, sometimes twice a day.

“There was also this moment I remember when I watched my father hold my son during his circumcision,” Mr. Wiesel said. “It was a real sense of connection. My father was terrified of being the end of the line.”

Now, Mr. Wiesel’s son, Elijah, is 11. And his daughter, Shira, turned 9 on the day of the march.

The march poured through the gate of Birkenau, making its slow way to a stage erected between the ruins of two Nazi gas chambers. Mr. Wiesel sat in the first row, listening, as nearly every speaker mentioned his father. There was even a short film about his father, called “The Conscience of the World.”

Mr. Wiesel watched raptly, betraying no emotion.

Finally, when his name was called, he strode across the stage and gently lit the flame for his father.

“Are you a witness to the crimes that occurred here?” he asked the crowd. “Will you be silent while history is in danger of being rewritten, while voices in France are now denying the Vichy government’s enthusiasm for the rounding up of Jews? Or will you be a witness that history’s lessons are going unheeded, when many in both Europe and the United States want to turn away Muslim refugees fleeing chemical warfare in Syria?”

Mr. Wiesel had been determined to mention the refugees who had poured into Europe, often shunned by the region’s governments, including Poland’s.

Rabbi Boteach watched from stageside.

“This is the moment when Elisha found his voice,” the rabbi said. “When he found his own voice.”

Originally published by Rick Lyman in The New York Times.