Elie Wiesel transcends his status as survivor

"We never celebrated birthdays at home," Wiesel says of his childhood growing up in the Romanian town of Sighet near the Carpathian mountains.

Sighet was also home to the Ba'al Shem Tov, the father of Chassidism.

Tantalized by Chassidic tales his grandfather told, Wiesel says his happiest childhood memories are punctuated with Shabbat songs, eating chocolates and studying a page of Talmud under a tree while others played ball.

Yet he rarely celebrates his birthday, because "to me every minute is a victory."

As 68, Wiesel marks 40 years since the publication of the best-selling "Night" and almost a decade since being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. His "Memoirs: All Rivers Run to the Sea" (432 pages, Knopf, $30) was just published.

Wiesel has been described as a modern prophet, a brilliant writer and teacher. He is best known as a survivor of Nazi horrors, and has become a Shoah spokesman of sorts. Yet to label Wiesel as a survivor diminishes his life and accomplishments. Wiesel has not merely survived, he has triumphed. And if he would pause long enough to consider it, he might even say he is happy.

Wiesel credits his sanity to his family and friends. "I read, I listen to music, I speak with friends. My life is full. The main thing is not to waste time."

After the war, Wiesel studied in Paris. He became the Paris

correspondent for the Israel daily Yediot Achronot, earning $30 a month. His big break came when he moved to New York and the Yiddish Forward, earning $175 a month as a copy editor, writer and translator.

"I remember when he lived on 103rd Street," says Dr. David Weiss Halivni, childhood friend. "He had only a small room, narrow, dark — you could see the poverty. I remember him sitting on the floor surrounded by records of Bach. At that time he was practically starving."

In 1956, Wiesel stepped off a curb in Times Square and was struck by a speeding taxi. Following the accident, which left him hospitalized for seven months, Wiesel desperately needed money and tried covering the United Nations for Yediot on crutches.

Golda Meir, then Israel's foreign minister, took pity on the young journalist and would invite him back to her hotel suite, where she would prepare omelettes and tea and brief him on the day's events. In 1967, his books, which were commercial failures, began to sell, and he could leave daily journalism to concentrate on book writing.

Even today, "sometimes I think that I too am insane," Wiesel says. "I was always in the minority, like the madman. When I began to talk about trying to teach the Shoah, how many others were there? When I began for Russian Jewry, how many others were there then?"

Rabbi Menashe Klein, a friend from Auschwitz, considers what keeps Wiesel sane. "We sing together, eat together, daven together, walk together. He comes here before every holiday. Mostly we meet, we talk."

Klein says that Wiesel, who sang in a choir as a child, still loves to sing Chassidic melodies. "He would begin singing Friday at 5:30 p.m. and wouldn't stop until after 2 a.m."

Wiesel says his daily study of Jewish texts is essential for him. "I love to study. It gives you a good sense of proportion. After all, what Rambam says maybe is more important than the article I wrote for The New York Times."

Wiesel's preoccupation with books began early, while he was a boy. When others were hoarding food and valuables, he carried books onto the cramped cattle car to Auschwitz.

Books are everywhere at Wiesel's home on the 26th floor of a nondescript Upper East Side Manhattan apartment house. Thousands in Hebrew, Yiddish, French and English cover nearly every inch between floor and ceiling of the living room. One upper shelf is filled with 30 titles with Wiesel's name.

Halivni and Wiesel always speak Hebrew to each other, and Halivni is one of the few who really makes Wiesel laugh.

Is Wiesel happy? "We never think in those terms," says Halivni, adding that Chassidic spirituality gives Wiesel a second liberation, and Wiesel "needs the joy of Chassidut [Chassidism] because he cannot always live in the shadow of the Holocaust."

Wiesel responds traditionally. "We don't speak about happiness in our faith, we speak about simcha vesasson [joy and gladness]. What do we ask for? Shalom, yes. We mainly ask for yirat shamayim [fear of heaven], for study, for chaim shel Torah [life of Torah]. What is Torah? Meaning. My life has been the pursuit of meaning, not joy."

For Wiesel, no Jewish context means no enjoyment. When asked about simcha vesasson in his life, he pauses and then his words flow in his soft Romanian accent.

"Nineteen forty-eight, when Israel was born. I remember that Shabbat in Paris. I felt joy. Then the '67 war. Shichrur Yerushalayim [the liberation of Jerusalem] — that remains with me. And Simchat Torah in Moscow with young people."

Yet now, "there is something missing, and when something is missing, happiness can't be present because happiness means nothing is missing. What is missing?"

The Boston University professor pauses and then answers his question. "Certainty. The haunting idea that the century is ending, you have the feeling that it is trying to purge itself of its demons, of its nightmares with the pursuit of violence of bloodshed, of hatred.

"In this generation, the pursuit of pleasure is at the expense of happiness. Pleasure is instant pleasure. Everything we are obtaining is instant. Instant meaning, instant love, instant truth.

"The Gaon of Vilna said that the hardest mitzvah to accomplish is `v'samachta bechagecha' (rejoice in your holidays). `Do not steal', `do not kill', everything is easy. `V'samachta bechagecha!' To make sure that you rejoice," Wiesel says.

Wiesel's voice becomes barely audible, his downward gaze steady. His consciousness seems to have been transported to another time.

"Another kind of joy, even deeper than that, and more personal, was the birth of my son…even more, the brit of my son. To me in my life, it has the importance of the birth of Israel, the reunification of Jerusalem. I felt it in my body, in every cell of my body…"

A phone rings, and Wiesel goes to his executive-size mahogany desk to answer it. On it sit two photographs: One of him with his wife and their son Shlomo-Elisha, and one a close-up of their son, both taken at least 15 years ago.

Wiesel named his son after his father, who was in the camps with him and died only weeks before Wiesel's liberation.

"I was sixteen years old when my father died," writes Wiesel in his memoirs. "My father was dead and the pain was gone. I no longer felt anything. Someone had died inside me, and that someone was me.

"My father had no official position in the community, he was a kind of intercessor in the community, he was a grocery store owner.

"Somehow, I don't know how, he always defended the Jews with the authorities. Therefore, when something would happen, they would come to my father."

Wiesel himself has no official position in the Jewish community yet he has served as an intercessor with heads of state, including President Reagan prior to his trip to Bitburg and President Clinton, to ask him to do more to help the Bosnians.

"The need to help Jews, I think I am following in my father's footsteps and I think he would have wanted it that way," says Wiesel.