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Wiesel’s influence on KU grad still has impact today

Wendy Rosenthal met Elie Wiesel in 1988 in Lawrence, Kansas.

(Editor’s note: This was written July 3 and posted on Facebook, the day following Elie Wiesel’s death on July 2.)


I don’t know why I bothered to put on makeup today; my face has been wet with tears all morning, and the streams just keep flowing down my cheeks. Yesterday my mom called to tell me that Elie Wiesel had died. My emotions have been reeling ever since. It’s been a while since I’ve felt so deeply saddened. His lack of presence here strikes some chords.

This Holocaust survivor, scholar and teacher extraordinaire had a great influence on me, and I had the pleasure and honor of corresponding with him from my late teens into my early 20s. Perhaps one of the greatest days of my life to date was when I got to meet and spend time with him in 1988, when he came to the University of Kansas where I was a J-school student. As Aaron Rittmaster shared in his recent post, Daveen Litwin, the KU Hillel director at the time, arranged a small lunch at the KU Hillel House, where a handful or so of us enjoyed visiting with Mr. Wiesel before he spoke on campus that evening. 

Daveen thoughtfully arranged for me to have private time with Mr. Wiesel. That time, and our conversation, was so precious to me that the cassettes on which I taped our conversation are in a safe deposit box (along with the recorder) for my children and their children to listen to and pass on. I got to talk with him about his influence on me, my gratefulness, and some “coincidences” I had while at Yad Vashem (http://www.yadvashem.org) in Jerusalem when I was 16, and while wandering through Treblinka in Warsaw when I was 17. 

I first “met” Elie Wiesel when I read his book “Night” at 13. Like many of you, probably, I read it in one sitting because I couldn’t put the book down; I also couldn’t sleep that night. I sobbed the whole night through at the horror he and millions of others lived through at the hands of other “human beings.” I wrote Mr. Weisel, and he wrote back. This continued for some time.

When I was 17, I was selected to go on what was called “Mission to Poland” — the first of a trip similar to today’s “March of the Living.” My parents and I were thrilled and honored that I was chosen as one of 35 people around the world to go, but I would be the youngest person and I wasn’t sure if I could handle standing in Auschwitz, walking around Treblinka, going to a cemetery where surely I had family. My parents helped me gain the courage to go, and I’m so glad I did. 

During the week I was in Poland to learn about the Holocaust, I barely spoke. It was all so overwhelming. The day I got home, my mom said I talked “non-stop for hours” as I poured out my experiences while we sat in my bedroom. Then, I wrote Elie Wiesel and, again, he wrote back.

I wrote again after Mr. Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, and perhaps a couple more times afterward. Every time, he wrote back. What a mensch he was — a soft-spoken, thoroughly kind man with time and compassion for many. With his departure from this life, I urge you to remember his big, important message: “Whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation, take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” (From The Associated Press obituary)

Rest in peace, dear one. What a gift you were/are to this world!

Wendy Rosenthal, a 1990 graduate of the University of Kansas, is a former staff writer at The Chronicle. She currently resides in Salinas, California, and her activities include teaching religious school and working with PJ Library.