Words of wisdom from Elie Wiesel: Author who interviewed him to speak

Elie Wiesel, renowned novelist, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and professor of Judaic studies, gave so much to the world prior to his death in 2016 – like his novel, “Night,” his infamous book on the Holocaust. 

Posthumously, he’s given one more thing: final words of wisdom immortalized in the book, “The Art of Inventing Hope: Intimate Conversations with Elie Wiesel,” whose author is set to visit Milwaukee.

The author, journalist Howard Reich, is the son of two Holocaust survivors. He has previously visited Milwaukee for the release of his book and subsequent film “Prisoner of her Past,” about his mother’s traumatic memories of the Holocaust. 

When Reich’s editor at the Chicago Tribune asked him to interview Wiesel, he assumed the first phone interview would be his only opportunity to hear Wiesel’s wisdom. Unbeknownst to Reich, one phone interview would turn into so much more. 

How to go:
What: Conversation between Howard Reich and his Wisconsin cousin, Nancy Kennedy Barnett, about Reich’s book, “The Art of Inventing Hope: Intimate Conversations with Elie Wiesel.”
When: Sunday, Aug. 11, 2 p.m.
Where: Daniel M. Soref Community Hall at the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center, 6255 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Whitefish Bay.
Cost: Free and open to the public.

Reich cherished the opportunity to pose his life-long questions as the son of two Holocaust survivors to one of the most prolific and revered voices on the subject.

“It was comforting for me to know that Professor Wiesel struggled with some of the same questions I have struggled with. And that for some questions there are no answers, for some questions there are only more questions,” Reich said.

Following his first few conversations with Wiesel, Reich recognized the immense value their discussions could have for others.

Reich told Wiesel, “I think there’s a book in our conversations … it should not just be for us.” Wiesel agreed. From there, Reich would frequently visit Wiesel in Florida, New York and Chicago.

Though the book is confined to the Holocaust and its ramifications, the pair would discuss “everything under the sun”: world politics, culture, music. Over four years, Wiesel became Reich’s “very close friend and that’s one of the most unexpected developments of my entire life.”

Wiesel’s words are “tragically timely.” As the swastika-touting protester on the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee campus and the recent synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh and San Diego demonstrate, antisemitism remains a grave issue in the United States. Even 75 years after concentration camps, antisemitism remains – as Wiesel terms it – “the oldest hatred.”

A Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Wiesel’s interest was not only in Jews, but in humanity. He “wanted the world to simply learn the lesson of the Holocaust,” and “to not let the story be forgotten,” Reich said.

Wiesel advises that the best way to honor the legacy of Holocaust survivors is to “be a witness,” according to the book. Speaking, writing, listening and telling their stories creates witnesses who allow their experiences to remain.

In an effort to create more witnesses, Reich’s visit to Milwaukee will share his own family’s story, further expanding on their experiences in a new light. The event will be a conversation between Reich and his cousin, Nancy Kennedy Barnett, who is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, echoing Reich’s own topics of conversation with Wiesel. Barnett was stunned as she read the book and found Reich’s words resonated with her.

Howard Reich

“We may not even know that we wonder about some of the things that Howard talks about, but when he so eloquently puts into words what we cannot, all we can do is nod and say, ‘Yes.’ Yes to the truth, yes to the journey, yes to our future!” Barnett said.

The event is free and open to the public, and will be held on Sunday, Aug. 11 at 2 p.m. in the Daniel M. Soref Community Hall at the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center. The event is a partnership program of the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center of Milwaukee Jewish Federation, Boswell Book Company and the JCC.