Elie Wiesel: Jewish, Literary, and Moral Perspectives

By Steven T. Katz; Alan Rosen | Go to book overview

12
DREAMS AND DIALOGUES
WIESEL’S HOLOCAUST MEMORIES

ELLEN S. FINE

I WILL BEGIN MY reflections about Wiesel’s memories by recounting some early memories of him. A few summers ago I had an interview with an extraordinary eighty-fiveyear-old woman, Gaby Cohen, a French woman of Alsatian origin who lives in Paris.1 We see each other every year when I go to Paris. She is a close friend of Wiesel’s and has become a dear friend of mine as well. She was known to Wiesel right after the war as Niny Wolf. Niny was what was called an éducatrice, an educator and counselor in charge of the boys at the maisons d’enfants, homes or orphanages in France to which surviving children from the camps as well as hidden children who had lost their parents were sent in June 1945. These homes were set up by l’Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants (l’OSE), a Jewish rescue organization originally founded in Russia, and established in France in the 1930s to help refugees and specifically children.

Wiesel was one of the 426 boys from Buchenwald, ranging in age from eight to sixteen years old, who came to France under the auspices of l’OSE. He was sent to various homes—first to Ecouis in Normandy, then to Ambloy, when the group was divided between the observant and nonobservant Jews, then on to the homes of Versailles and Taverny.2

I asked Niny about her first impressions of the sixteen-year-old Wiesel, who called himself “Leiser” at that time. She said that on one hand, he was very curious about things and aware of what was going on around him. On the other hand, he had a sad and dreamy look (un regard triste et rêveur). Niny watched him stare into space or look up to the clouds. He seemed to be elsewhere. She felt from the beginning that he was someone special and stood apart. The other boys listened to Wiesel; he helped the younger ones with their religious studies. He attended study circles and sat in on lectures by Jewish intellectuals. Seriously committed to his own education, he hoped eventually to attend a university.

Niny was like une grande soeur (a big sister) to the boys, emotionally replacing their mothers, sisters, and entire families. She admired the rare human quality they

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