When Elie Wiesel emerged from quintuple heart bypass surgery, still wired to monitors, he immediately started writing a book about the ordeal, “in my head.” In French.
A year later, as he recuperates from post-procedure fatigue and depression, “Open Heart” is about to be published in English. And the 84-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Holocaust activist is busy with his New York–based foundation, which also is recovering — from financial ruin by Bernard Madoff, who had invested the money funding its humanitarian efforts.
Madoff’s Ponzi scheme also wiped out Wiesel’s family investments.
About one-third of the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity’s $15 million in assets has been replaced through new contributions.
“Children sent us their pocket money, people we never heard of, Jews, non-Jews, young, old,” Wiesel says. “I was so touched by that.”
None of the donations went to him and his wife, who have had to watch their personal budget, rethinking travels and restaurant expenses, he says.
“But I’ve seen worse,” the Auschwitz survivor adds with a wry grin.
He pulls back his left jacket sleeve to reveal a Nazi death camp number tattooed on his forearm. “Usually I don’t show it,” he says.
One of the exceptions was during a 2009 visit to the Buchenwald death camp Wiesel survived, with President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
In a soft, intense voice, he recently shared his thoughts in his Manhattan office filled with books and memories. A group of young assistants scurried through the hallway taking care of business, from Israeli education centers for Ethiopian Jews rescued from persecution to an international ethics essay contest.
After the unexpected heart surgery last summer, Wiesel says his doctor asked him to cut back on his teaching load at Boston University. But he’s lecturing there this fall, and may add courses later. “I love teaching, it’s my passion,” he says.
Wiesel wrote “Open Heart” in French, the language that’s easiest for him; after the war, the Romanian-born survivor was placed in a youth home in Paris, where he settled and became a journalist. He moved to New York in 1956.
The new book was translated into English by his wife, Marion Wiesel, and is set for a Dec. 4 publication date. In addition to an account of the surgical drama, it’s an intimate assessment of his life in the face of possible death.
As he was wheeled away toward the operating room on a gurney, he recalls in an interview, “I saw my son and my wife, and all of a sudden, a question ran through me, ‘Maybe it’s the last time?’ ”
That moment reminded him of the day in Buchenwald when he saw his ill father for the last time, before he was beaten to death by a Nazi guard. His mother and sister perished earlier in the Auschwitz gas chambers.
Wiesel set his just-published latest novel, “Hostage,” in Brooklyn. A Holocaust survivor is held by two terrorists, one of Arab origin, the other Italian, in scenes that probe how humans negotiate their differences under duress.
Wiesel was himself targeted in 2007, attacked and dragged out of a San Francisco hotel elevator by a 24-year-old New Jersey man authorities said was a Holocaust denier.
Wiesel’s seminal work, “Night,” originally written in Yiddish and first published in Paris in 1956, is found on many required reading lists in U.S. schools.
It’s the book that ended Wiesel’s decade-long, self-imposed silence about the horror he left behind when he was liberated at 16 by the U.S. Army in April 1945.
Before he was freed, Wiesel responded to a questionnaire issued by the American military to every inmate asking, among other things, why he was arrested and imprisoned.
For “being a Jew,” was his response.
In “Night,” he describes his youthful disgust with humanity. “Here there are no fathers, no brothers, no friends,” a prisoner supervising others in exchange for survival tells the teenage Wiesel. “Everyone lives and dies for himself alone.”
And yet, in the end, Wiesel says he believes in human redemption, which he’ll explain in the next of his more than 50 books. He won’t reveal more details of the novel, titled “Redemption”; he never does until the work is done.
On most days, he writes for four hours, starting at about 5 a.m., when he rises after only four hours of sleep.
His goal “for the last 20 years of my life” has been to fight racism and hatred by organizing global gatherings with high-power participants.
Obama’s inauguration was “one of the most joyous days of my life, because my people, the American people, showed they could overcome a disease — hatred because of color.”
The two have shared private lunches at the White House, says Wiesel, who first met Obama when the president was an undergraduate at Occidental College in Los Angeles, where Wiesel gave a talk.
Someday, Wiesel says he believes his grandchildren will “applaud the first Jewish president in America.”
AP writer Randy Herschaft contributed to this report.