Dr.Gerstenfeld’s interview with Ted Comet on his lifelong friendship with Elie Wiesel first appeared in INN, and republished here with the author’s consent.
Exclusive: Memories from a lifelong friendship with Elie Wiesel
Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld , כ’ בכסלו תשע”ט, 11/28/2018
This is the first time 94-year-old Ted Comet has agreed to be interviewed about his lifelong friend.
“At the age of sixteen Elie Wiesel came to France with 400 children from Buchenwald. I met him in Versailles in the home to which I was assigned as a student volunteer for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (Joint). We became lifelong friends and when he first settled in New York he came to our home for Shabbat meals. I will never forget the ethereal quality of his singing Shabbat songs. I felt transported to another realm.
“Elie was born in 1926 in Sighet, Transylvania, the only boy in a family of four children. He studied in a traditional yeshiva but also learned to play the violin, chess and studied modern Hebrew. He was first imprisoned in a ghetto and then deported to Auschwitz where his mother and younger sister perished, and later also his father.”
Ted Comet was the director of the American Zionist Youth Federation from 1956-1968. He was the founder and chairman of the Celebrate Israel Parade in New York. Comet was a key official of the Council of Jewish Federations and of the Joint.
“Elie was offered French citizenship. As he did not understand French, the question of whether he wanted this went unanswered. He remained stateless until he became an American citizen a decade later. Elie studied French literature and philosophy, intrigued by its focus on moral dilemma, and saw France as the place where he rebuilt his life in freedom.
“At a time when we lack heroic models Elie Wiesel was a man who did not permit his experience in the hell of Auschwitz to leave him embittered, cynical, disengaged or immobilized. On the contrary, he discovered the profound secret of life – how to transmit trauma into creative energy and action, to assuage one’s own pain by assuaging the pain of others, to heal oneself by healing others.
If we had known then what we know now, that you knew and did not act, then we would not have been able to survive.’
“Most American Jewish leaders had a power base: an important organization, institution, political position, philanthropy. He was not associated with any theological or historical doctrine. So how did he do it? Through the power of his message, his eloquence and his charisma.
“In 1970, I arranged for him to be the featured speaker at the General Assembly of Federations. The part that stands out in my memory over four decades later was his statement: ‘How were we able to survive? Furthermore, why would we even want to survive? We were impelled by the need to tell the story, for we felt that if you knew, you would act. If we had known then what we know now, that you knew and did not act, then we would not have been able to survive.’
“Elie was the person most responsible for mainstreaming the Holocaust into many levels of American culture and society. One way in which he did this was with his more than sixty books, the best known of which was Night. His primary message was “Zachor,” sustaining the memory of the Holocaust and most importantly, transmuting the memory into moral action. This was dramatically illustrated in his confrontation with three American presidents.
“President Jimmy Carter wanted the U.S. Holocaust Museum to focus on all those who suffered under the Nazis. Elie’s position was that they all merited being remembered yet the Holocaust was a unique form of human destruction of the Jews that had to be recognized. He won that battle. The museum is primarily about the Holocaust but also has a special section for others who suffered in the Holocaust.
“As the Museum’s chairman Elie made it not a monument, but something monumental. It involves learning, teaching and research as well as bringing scholars over from all over the world. Twenty five million people have visited the Museum so far.
“His second confrontation was with President Ronald Reagan. German Prime Minister Helmut Kohl wanted Germany to become a full part of the West and invited Reagan to visit. When it became known that the projected visit included laying a wreath at the Bitburg cemetery which included the graves of Nazi soldiers, Elie admonished Reagan at a public ceremony where he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.
He said: ‘The Talmud commands us to confront power with truth and the truth is that your place should be with the victims and not their perpetrators.’ Thereupon the President’s visit to Bitburg was limited to ten minutes and the location of the former concentration camp Bergen-Belsen was added to the itinerary. Since then American government officials became more sensitive in dealing with Nazi related matters.
“The third encounter was with President Bill Clinton. After a visit to Bosnia, Elie reported on the bloodshed and the need to take action. His pressure helped the eventuation of the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords.
“Elie Wiesel received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. In his lecture he said, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim, encourages the tormentor, never the tormented… Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion or political views, that place must become the center of the universe. There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, there must never be a time when we fail to protest against injustice.”
Elie Wiesel died in 2016. Obituaries included those from the American president and world leaders.