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Lest We Forget, Elie Wiesel Remembers : Holocaust Survivor Speaks Out Against Arms Race 'Suicide'

May 13, 1987|GARY LIBMAN

As author Elie Wiesel crossed a plaza after speaking Monday at UC Santa Barbara, a woman with long dark hair ran after him calling his name.

"You do affect me," Santa Barbara interior decorator Judi Weisbart said, her voice trembling with excitement. "I just wanted to shake your hand and let you know that. I didn't shake your hand last time you were here, but I had to this time."

Later, after the Nobel Peace Prize winner had lunch with about 20 Jewish students in a small dining room, a graduate student stuck her head into his car as he was leaving the campus.

An Inspiration

"I wanted you to know," she said, shaking his hand, "that when you spoke here last time what you said inspired me more than anything I've heard."

Comments of this type followed Wiesel repeatedly during a 48-hour visit to Southern California, Sunday through Tuesday. While here, the death-camp survivor whose writing is fused to the Holocaust also revealed that he would speak in the Reichstag in Berlin next Nov. 10.

The speech will occur on the anniversary of Kristallnacht , the night in 1938 when German and Austrian Nazis destroyed hundreds of synagogues and Jewish shops and homes in their most violent anti-Jewish actions to that time.

The talk will also mark the creation of a museum at the villa in Wannsee, a Berlin suburb, where in 1942 the Nazis adopted the "Final Solution" to exterminate European Jews.

Wiesel said that making the address from the site of many of Adolf Hitler's speeches provides "great symbolism," but he was still deciding what the symbolism was.

But Wiesel came to Southern California not to discuss his trip to Germany but to talk about the Holocaust and its implications for the nuclear arms race. During nine lectures and meetings in two days, the soft-spoken New York resident kept the rapt attention of large and small audiences alike.

In a lecture to more than 1,000 people at Sinai Temple in West Los Angeles on Monday night, Wiesel argued that if the world forgets the Holocaust, it could destroy itself.

With Archbishop Roger M. Mahony of the Los Angeles Roman Catholic Archdiocese participating, Wiesel said that the best way to prevent destruction is to fight indifference.

"What if we decide," he said, "that no senator or congressman gets elected unless he decides to make nuclear disarmament the No. 1 issue." He urged the establishment of organizations for that purpose.

"I don't believe in unilateral disarmament, because then the Soviet Union takes over everything," he added. "I believe in bilateral reduction."

Later, he recommended that Jews write a thousand letters a week to Soviet premier Mikhail S. Gorbachev urging the freedom of Soviet Jewry.

"I would be happy to have one of those letters be mine," Mahony said. "Mr. Wiesel, if we sent 500 telegrams a week to the Vatican, all kinds of things would happen."

Earlier, members of the Second Generation Children of Holocaust Survivors had leaned forward in their chairs and listened intently as Wiesel talked in a Beverly Hills hotel coffee shop, and 100 University of Judaism students sat absorbed as he discussed black-Jewish relationships in a meeting with Los Angeles black clergy.

Authentic Personality

Rabbi Jack Schechter, who has arranged four Los Angeles visits by Wiesel, said that the author appeals to audiences in ways that they may not realize.

"They look upon him as an authentic personality, a spiritual guide and mentor, a sage," said Schechter, the dean of continuing education at the University of Judaism.

" . . . The calmness and the way he talks lends authority. But it has to do with substance. He is a man of deep learning. He studies deeply and daily in the classic biblical and rabbinic sources. He's a genuine Jewish scholar in the traditional sense."

Wiesel, who teaches humanities one day a week at Boston University, said he writes four hours a day and studies for three or four hours. He watches little television, has no interest in sports and little social life. "I never stop studying," he said. "That's what keeps me going."

"He has an extraordinary talent to use the right word," said Fred Diament, a ladies clothing manufacturer from Studio City who survived the Auschwitz death camp with Wiesel.

"Some of his words have so much meaning that one word is a whole paragraph. He has the word to express his deepest feelings."

"He's a man who really cares about human beings," said David Lieber, president of the University of Judaism who has known Wiesel for 20 years. "After what he's been through one would understand if he were very embittered, but he isn't."

Wiesel, whose 30th book, a novel entitled "The Twilight at a Distance," will be published in the United States in January, uses his knowledge in little-known ways. In Southern California, he made three 40- to 50-minute addresses on the Holocaust and its implications for the arms race, but groups at Sinai Temple, Valley Beth Shalom synagogue in Encino and UC Santa Barbara heard three different talks.

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