Arts, Culture & Media

Elie Wiesel's only child reflects on his father's life and legacy

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Elisha Wiesel and his father, Elie Wiesel, who passed away in July 2016. 

Credit:

Courtesy of Elisha Wiesel.

It's been a little over a year since Auschwitz survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel died.

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He was celebrated around the globe as an activist and a writer, and for his lifelong efforts to keep the world from forgetting the horrors of the Holocaust.

But for his only child, Elisha Wiesel, coming to terms with who his father was and what he represented was a difficult road.

In a conversation with PRI's The World, Elisha touched on some of the major themes he's struggled with since his father died.

On what it was like to grow up with Elie Wiesel as a father

Elisha Wiesel: It was a difficult road. I think earlier in my life I probably underappreciated just how amazing a father I had, and what he meant to the world. You have to understand, I went to a Jewish day school as a teenager and my entire life I felt was being defined in terms of being his son. So there were definitely some difficulties.

There were also some amazing experiences that I was able to receive, like traveling the world with my father.

I think particularly now that my father has gone, though, and I spend a lot of the time hearing from people whom he's touched, what's interesting to me is how much my father not only touched people on the world stage, but really as a private individual. I can tell you the number of stories I hear from people who say what an incredibly respectful and empathic person he was. He was always interested in hearing someone's story — didn't matter from what walk in life or what status they had. He was always interested in hearing a story and connecting as a human being.

On coming to terms with his father's’ expectations

My father felt an incredible mission ... to keep Jewish learning alive and to keep Jewish identity alive across generations. And he has been very clear with me — certainly when I was younger — that he saw me as a continuation of that. And we had many long, often painful discussions about what his expectations were of me — particularly when I was younger, that high school age, college age and very much seeking to explore the world and not feel tied down to the culture that had raised me.

I remember some very tense arguments ... in my 20s, probably while I was in college. I remember us having raised voices with each other and me saying, "Please don't burden me with the thinking of thousands of years ago. I want the freedom to go where I want to go in life and what it means to be alive and to have choices." And so I remember some very intense discussions along those lines.

Now I think I've realized that one doesn't have to stop living in modernity or embracing the incredible avenues of thought and expression that are available to us today — with the internet at our fingertips, with so many cultures that are available for us to study and interact with. And that doesn't have to be in conflict with being very rooted in where one comes from. I think that one of the things that made my father an amazing individual in ways that I've appreciated more and more recently is that he did not feel that the messages he had acquired throughout his life experience were for the Jewish community only, or that they belonged to the Jewish community only. He saw himself as a human being on a planet and that wherever those people were ... he wanted to engage. And whomever he met — it didn't matter who they were and where they came from.

He wanted to engage with them on the individual level, as well as on the social activist level.

On how he carries on his father’s legacy

I don't think I can continue his legacy in a social activist sense, necessarily. He was a profoundly unique individual because of his life experiences, his approach to it. The way he made a decision to stand for something — no one will ever be able to replace that.

It certainly seems to me in my travels that there are a lot of folks who are missing him and his voice and his presence just as much as I am or maybe in different ways. And now, when I'm asked to do certain things, to play a role in remembering him and sharing his voice where I can, I've been trying to do so. For example, I spoke at the March of the Living this year

And then when I think about continuing his legacy, I very much think of it on a personal level. I think about how am I raising my kids and what messages I might be sending them and what values I'm imparting to them. Because my father was a real family man, and he believed very much in the transmission of a personal legacy as well. So I'd say I'm 90 percent consumed with how I think of his personal legacy as a father and what that means for how I am raising my kids, and much less about how I'm thinking about continuing my father's legacy on a global scale.