New York – Beginning in Sighet, and through his close friendship with Rabbi Menashe Klein, zt”l, Elie Wiesel claims that he is and always was, a chassid.
It was in the study halls of the orphanage in Ecouis when the boys from Buchenwald picked up the Gemara again. After the liberation, they were scared to return to their empty homes in Eastern Europe and were blocked from traveling to Palestine. So Charles de Gaulle of France extended his invitation to the young orphans of the Holocaust. France? All they knew of France was that it was the home of Rashi.
There, in an abandoned sanatorium that had been re-equipped to house 426 boys, a group fervently studied, blocking out the world around them. Journalists would come and try to take their picture and ask them questions. These skeletal teenagers were a story. But the boys stayed fixated on the pages, in intense concentration. Perhaps it was a distraction—or a consolation. “No matter how the world had changed, the Talmudic universe was still the same. No enemy could silence the disputes between Shammai and Hillel, Abayye and Rava,” writes Wiesel in All Rivers Run to the Sea.
Rabbi Menashe Klein, zt”l, the preeminent posek and rosh yeshiva who was niftar the day before erev Rosh Hashanah this year, was their leader and teacher. He was 20-years-old when he in- structed the officials at the orphanage to order sefarim for the boys—and when he passed away two weeks ago, he was considered by many to be the posek hador, the founder of the Ungvarer Bais Medrash and Yeshiva Bais Shearim on 16th Avenue in Boro Park, and of Kiryas Ungvar and Yeshivas Ungvar in Ramot.
Rabbi Yitzchak Frankfurter and I had the privilege of speaking to Nobel Prize Laureate Elie Wiesel in an exclusive interview for Ami Magazine last week—but when speaking of his close friend, Rabbi Menashe Klein, a different Wiesel was revealed. It was not the Wiesel of the headlines, political activist, 1986 Nobel Peace Prize winner, and author of 57 books. Rather, we met the boy from Sighet who looked to Rabbi Menashe Klein of Ungvar as his best friend and confidante—though it seems an unlikely match.
“I belong to Vizhnitz,” Wiesel told us resolutely. “I am a Vizhnitzer chassid and remain so to this day. And he [Rabbi Menashe Klein] was from Ungvar, from a rabbinic family. We were very, very, very close—we met in Auschwitz, and immediately became friends. He was a great rebbi, and had a way of giving meaning to all of us. I met very few who were as strong as he was,” Wiesel said.
When they entered the camps, Wiesel was 15 1⁄2 and Rabbi Klein was 19—and he became a leader of their group of young boys, encouraging mitzvah observance and teaching Torah. The youngest in their group was eight-year-old Yisrael Meir Lau, the future Chief Rabbi of Israel.
“In Auschwitz, there were a few of us who kept together. When we could, we davened together on Shabbos, and we all stood on line to share a pair of tefillin,” Wiesel said.
The boys had saved up many portions of bread and used them to bribe a non-Jew to smuggle that pair of tefillin into the camp. Every day they put them on and said, “Ahavah rabbah ahavtanu, chemlah gedolah viyteirah chamalta aleinu (You have loved us with abundant love. You have pitied us with exceedingly great pity).”
On January 18th, 1944, the inmates of Auschwitz needed to make a choice: they could stay and wait for the Soviet troops to liberate them. Or they could leave. Certain that the Germans would not want to leave any witnesses and would kill everyone left in the camp—they decided to leave and set out together on the most infamous of the death marches. “We went to Buchenwald together, and then we were liberated together,” said Wiesel. That happened on April 11th, 1945.
Rabbi Menashe Klein would quote to Wiesel a passage in Bereishis which describes this time in both their lives. “B’makli avarti et hayarden (I crossed the Jordan only with my cane).” Rabbi Klein explained, “When we came out of the camp, we had noth- ing, not even a cane. And yet, we must start again. Build a family. Have faith in society, the world around you.”
And so, when they arrived in Ecouis in June, with young Menashe’s encouragement, the boys resumed learning Gemara, just like they had in their youth—it had only been a year since de- portation, but that youth seemed like so much longer ago.
During that time in Wiesel’s life, after the culmination of his war experiences, Wiesel’s faith had wavered. In his books, he discusses his crisis of faith. It was during this time period that he shifted his feet, hopping from doubt to devotion. But now, learning with his friend Menashe, with the sefarim in front of them, he became very religious—just like he had been as a child. Wiesel credits the Torah with saving his sanity then.
The Bochur from Sighet
The yeshiva bochur from Sighet is still deep within Wiesel. His roots lie in the shadow of the Carpathian mountains, where Vizhnitz dynasty established its center. Wiesel’s childhood as a chassidishe boy was a happy time for him—he enjoyed learning Gemara and singing chassidishe melodies. He was a pensive child and preferred studying to playing ball.
As an adult, his time spent with Rabbi Menashe Klein was like a homecoming—even though they hailed from different towns. When he was with him, Wiesel felt safe. He could enjoy the religious delights of his youth without self-consciousness. When they got together, they would sing those chassidishe melodies all Shabbos evening, for hours and hours. They would have their meals together, go daven together, and talk. “Even when we were in different countries, we would speak at least every week on erev Shabbos,” Wiesel told us. Perhaps it is that friendship and that acceptance that kept Wiesel proud and emotionally connected to his roots.
The Mysterious Man
Despite their connection, the pair would soon go in different directions after leaving the orphanages.
“We met a great mysterious man who was our teacher. His name was Chouchani. We studied under him, but then Menashe wanted to go to Brooklyn. I remained in France.” Later, when Wiesel, too, came to America, they would get together again.
The subject of this man Chouchani is an enigma. “He was a strange man,” Wiesel told us. “No one even knew where he came from…a strange man but a great man.”
Rabbi Klein was fearful that Chouchani was out to weaken the tenets of their belief. As for Wiesel, though, “I was his talmid muvhak,” he said.
For two years, they would study together several times a week, for several hours at a time. Chouchani would simply show up at Wiesel’s apartment whenever he felt like it.
Then, one day, this mysterious man, whose origins and whereabouts were shrouded in mystery—disappeared. He had left for Israel, without telling his pupil.
In Brooklyn, Rabbi Klein continued to stay completely immersed in Torah, initially in the Klausenberger Yeshiva immediately upon his arrival in the United States. And when Wiesel was later writing books, Rabbi Klein, too, was prolific, authoring Mishnah Halachos, a 17-volume collection of his responsa, and 25 other sefarim. He daughter was married to the son of the Gerrer Rebbe, the Pnei Menachem.
In France, after Chouchani disappeared, Wiesel enrolled in the Sorbonne in 1948. He admits that the study of philosophy and theology at that point in his life invaded his thinking and led to doubts and questions. His faith had already been shaken from his experiences during the war.
Rabbi Klein kept him grounded. “There were very few people who were as close to me as Menashe. I dedicated his yeshiva in Ramot in my father’s name. And I believe in the eitzos (advice) of a chavrusa (learning partner). Often, I would ask him advice of certain things and I would come to see him very frequently.”
During one episode in his book, And the Sea is Never Full, Wiesel is in Cambodia to participate in a human rights march, and needs to find a minyan so he can say Kaddish for his father’s yahrzeit: “I wish I could ask my fellow inmate from the camps, Reb Menashe Klein, what one does in a case like this. Does one have a right to postpone a prayer? Surely he would say: ‘What are you doing so far away on a day when you need to be in a synagogue?’ For Reb Menashe, Jewish prayer or a page of Mishna takes precedence over all else.”
Both Elie Wiesel and Rabbi Klein were extremely close to the Lubavitcher Rebbe. “The scope of his endeavors, especially in chinuch, what he has done, I don’t think anyone has done. I was very close to him in a different way. Menashe was my friend. The Lubavitcher was, in a way, my rebbe, al- though each time we met, and we would meet often, always in yechidus (alone), I would always say, ‘Rebbe, I am a Vizhnitzer,’” Wiesel told us. “I would repeat it always and I remain a Vizhnitzer, as the Ahavas Yisrael was my foremost Rebbe. Indeed, when I met with the Belzer Rebbe, I said, ‘I am from Vizhnitz. I claim my chassidus.’”
When Elie Wiesel learned that his friend, Reb Menashe, was sick, he called. Wiesel was in New York; Rav Klein was in Israel. He had made aliyah two years ago. “But it was too late. He was no longer here. I told Menashe’s son, ‘The world is no longer the same world.’”
The above article appeared in the special Succot edition of Ami Magazine.