As Tidewater’s Lee and Bernard Jaffe* Family Jewish Book Festival was gearing up, the Lessans Family Annual Book Festival at the Bender JCC of Greater Washington was winding down.
For its closing program on Sunday, Nov. 13, Jennifer Smith, director of arts and culture and Lisa Del Sesto, cultural arts coordinator, decided to pay tribute to Elie Wiesel, a literary luminary lost this past summer, with a program honoring him as a storyteller. For Of Blessed Memory: Elie Wiesel Remembered, they assembled a panel of dignitaries who each had personal and business relationships with Professor Wiesel, and could tell stories about the man for those not so lucky to have been close to him.
Elena Barr Baum, director of UJFT’s Holocaust Commission, was asked to be the moderator for this program. Knowing that the 20th Elie Wiesel Writing Competition and 15th Elie Wiesel Visual Arts Competition were approaching, she took a dozen pieces of previous years’ student art to display at the event. As always happens at the annual student art show, people were amazed by the students’ talent when given the opportunity to contemplate the lessons of the Holocaust and express them through art. The art work beautifully set the stage for the panel discussion.
The atmosphere at the event was one of reverence and respect for Elie Wiesel, as well as appreciation for the panelists. Rabbi Joseph Polak is a child-survivor of Bergen-Belsen and was the longtime study partner of Wiesel. The Chief Rabbi of the Boston Beth Din, Polak was the resident rabbi of Boston University, where Wiesel lectured for more than three decades. While in college, Dr. Avraham Rosen was Wiesel’s Teaching Assistant at BU for eight years before he launched his own career in academia. He has written or edited four books on Wiesel’s writings, and remained close to Professor Wiesel throughout the rest of the Nobel Laureate’s life. Raye Farr is a documentary film expert and directed the creation of the permanent exhibit of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. She worked with Wiesel and his team on the design and production of the museum’s major exhibit areas.
Each brought stories of Wiesel’s humanity to the crowd of more than 100 guests. All discussed the fact that Elie Wiesel was the consummate teacher, even when he was not trying to teach. The voice of a generation, the voice of the victims as well as the survivors, Wiesel hated to be known as such. He was humble in his brilliance and his sensitivity. He was in many ways the conscience of the 20th century.
Many in Tidewater remember Wiesel’s visit for the 150th Anniversary of Beth El in 2000. None remember it better than that year’s winners of the Holocaust Commission’s Elie Wiesel Competitions, who received their awards that night from the amazing man for whom the competitions are named. Those who knew him and those who heard more about him at the panel from those who did, will long remember his messages for humanity. He will be sorely missed.
The 2017 Elie Wiesel Writing and Visual Arts Competitions are open now for submissions from all area middle and high school students. For more information, deadlines, and downloadable entry forms, visit www.jewishva. org/holocaust-elie–wiesel or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
*of blessed memory