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The Jewish Press of Tampa and the Jewish Press of Pinellas County are Independently- owned biweekly Jewish community newspapers published in cooperation with and supported by the Tampa JCC & Federation and the Jewish Federation of Pinellas & Pasco Counties, respectively. Copyright © 2009-2018 The Jewish Press Group of Tampa Bay, Inc., All Rights Reserved.


 

July 15, 2016  RSS feed
Front Page

Text: T T T

Elie Wiesel leaves lasting impression on Bay area

By BOB FRYER Jewish Press


Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel cuts the ribbon at the 1998 opening of the Florida Holocaust Museum’s downtown St. Petersburg location. Along with Wiesel are museum founders Walter and Edie Loebenberg and the then museum president, Amy Epstein, far right. Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel cuts the ribbon at the 1998 opening of the Florida Holocaust Museum’s downtown St. Petersburg location. Along with Wiesel are museum founders Walter and Edie Loebenberg and the then museum president, Amy Epstein, far right. Elie Wiesel, survivor of the Auschwitz Nazi death camp, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and a man admired globally for his efforts to teach the world to “never forget” man’s capacity for inhumanity to man, had a special connection to the local Jewish community.

Wiesel, died July 2 at his home in Massachusetts at age 87. What some may not know is that he was a parttime Bay area resident. For 23 years he served as a visiting professor at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, living here during the winter.. He taught hundreds of students throughout the years and occasionally rubbed shoulders with Jewish community members.

Wiesel served as honorary chairman of the Florida Holocaust Museum. In 1988, he helped cut the ribbon for the museum’s grand opening at its downtown St. Petersburg location after six years of sharing space at the JCC of Pinellas County in Madeira Beach.


Eli Wiesel addresses the crowd at the 2012 “To Life” Dinner in St. Petersburg. At that gathering, Wiesel asked, “Haven’t we learned anything? … Wherever you look, there is bloodshed … yet nothing is being done … And in Iran they seek nuclear weapons in order to destroy Israel – and the world does nothing. Where is the hope?” Eli Wiesel addresses the crowd at the 2012 “To Life” Dinner in St. Petersburg. At that gathering, Wiesel asked, “Haven’t we learned anything? … Wherever you look, there is bloodshed … yet nothing is being done … And in Iran they seek nuclear weapons in order to destroy Israel – and the world does nothing. Where is the hope?” In 2012 the museum honored him with its highest honor, the Loebenberg Humanitarian Award, as the museum celebrated its 20th anniversary during a gala “To Life” event at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg.

Sandy Memerlstein, daughter of Florida Holocaust Museum founders Walter and Edie Loebenberg, recalls that “To Life” dinner where Wiesel was honored.

“He was still recovering from open heart surgery and what stood out to me was that his wife, Marion, wanted to go out to meet the public,” but Wiesel, still in the company of his doctor, was too fatigued to do so. However, for those lucky enough to be at the dinner, Mermelstein said, Wiesel, “was just so warm. He seemed very mild-mannered; a humble man.”

In the early days of the Jewish Press, a Federation official started to introduce the paper’s owner, Jim Dawkins, to Wiesel at a Federation function. Dawkins said Wiesel interrupted the man and said, “I know who Jim is and he has a very fine paper. I read it every issue.” Dawkins added, “He made me feel like we were friends when I had only just met him, and I think he was that way with many people.”

Joel Goetz, owner of Jo-El’s Kosher Delicatessen and Marketplace in St. Petersburg, agreed that this was how Wiesel made you feel when you met him. When in town Wiesel and his wife stayed at the Don CeSar Resort, Goetz said, and an assistant would cook meals for the couple, with the food supplied by Jo-El’s.

Goetz said he had only brief encounters with Wiesel. However, Goetz and Wiesel apparently were friendly enough that the nobel laureate attended his son’s wedding.

Once Wiesel stopped into the deli and they shared a lunch.

“Of course I knew about him and his accomplishments,” Goetz said, “And I think he was a little surprised by my question when I asked, ‘Of all the things you have done, all the awards you have received, what would you say was the biggest disappointment?”’

Wiesel’s response: “That nothing has changed.”

That seemed to be a foremost worry for Wiesel, who spent his life trying to make sure the world would “never forget” the atrocities of the Holocaust. In his 2012 speech when he received the museum’s award, he asked, “Haven’t we learned anything? … Wherever you look, there is bloodshed … yet nothing is being done … And in Iran they seek nuclear weapons in order to destroy Israel – and the world does nothing. Where is the hope?”

Being around Wiesel was “like sitting in front of history… There is just something you felt in his presence,” Goetz said, adding that he was “a man bigger than life. He just pulled you in.”

Dr. Bruce and Amy Epstein of Pinellas Park were also pulled in by his presence.

Bruce recalled one day when Amy, who was the first president of the museum and played a large role in getting it moved to its current downtown location, called him at his office. She told him she had a suit she was going to bring by and that they were going out to dinner. He said he was tired and tried to beg off, but she told him, “This is a dinner you are not going to miss.”

It turned out to be at the home of then Eckerd College President Peter Armacost and his wife. The other dinner guests were Wiesel and his wife and author James Michener.

“I recall we discussed a lot of issues but can not recall what they were. I just recall it was a dinner with a Nobel prize winner and a Pulitzer Prize winner and little old me. It was one of the most memorable moments in my life.”

Another memory of Wiesel was at the museum’s ribbon cutting event. Epstein said Wiesel was so generous in his praise of the job that was done with the museum exhibits and especially the educational efforts of the museum, that he made him and his wife feel very proud.

Lisl Shick, a board member at the museum, said she is grateful for Wiesel’s impact in educating people about the Holocaust.

“As a Holocaust survivor, I speak to many school children and I often ask them what they already know about the Holocaust and I would say about 90 percent of them tell me they have read his book Night. I think that is so important. Holocaust education is mandatory in Florida and I am proud of what he and the museum have done to make people aware of the Holocaust,” Schick said.

Night – which has been translated into 30 languages and sold more than 10 million copies was required reading for the course Wiesel taught at Eckerd College. It documents his experiences as a young teen when he and his family were rounded up in Hungary and sent to the Auschwitz Nazi death camp. He had no comprehension of what was happening when he and his father were directed to one line and his mother and sister were sent to another line, which he later learned was when his mother and his younger sister were sent to “showers” where they were killed by poison gas, then cremated. He and his father endured hard labor and brutal conditions in the camp and at one point Wiesel witnessed infants being tossed into a burning pit.

As Russian forces advanced on Auschwitz, many prisoners, including Wiesel and his father, were sent on a forced march in freezing weather to be loaded into cattle cars and sent to Buchenwald, a death camp in Germany. His father was beaten by a German soldier and died of illness there, days before the camp was liberated.

Florida Holocaust Museum Executive Director Elizabeth Gelman issued a statement after Wiesel’s death, saying it left “a large vacuum at a time when his words and deeds are desperately needed. Her message closed with a quote from Wiesel – “Hope is like peace. It is not a gift from God. It is a gift only we can give one another.”


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