Elie Wiesel keynotes Chabad of Solon opening gala
By: ELLEN HARRIS Contributing Writer 

Nobel Peace Prize-winner Elie Wiesel has engaged in dialogues with heads of state, the pope, and international leaders of all stripes.

Arguably the world's most famous Holocaust survivor, Wiesel has taken the podium the world over to champion human rights and justice.

But on Oct. 17, the affable scholar took on a persona of "just folks" when he came to Cleveland and greeted nearly 700 local supporters of Chabad of Solon who were celebrating the opening of their new synagogue. The dinner event, held at the InterContinental Hotel, also paid tribute to Gary and Diane Waxman, who made the lead gift for the $3 million facility.

Unlike many keynoters who remain out of sight until they take the lectern, Wiesel seated himself at a prominent table in front of the ballroom as guests came streaming in and immediately began chatting with well-wishers. One after another, they stood in line to talk to Wiesel, sometimes joining him in a lively and prolonged discussion.

Holocaust survivor Stanley Bernath greeted Wiesel and related some of his own experiences at Mauthausen and then as a U.S. soldier after the war.

James and Susan Zubin thanked Wiesel for responding to a classroom letter their nephew had helped write about the Holocaust when he was a student at Rocky River High School.

Vanessa Dvorin-Fremont, a recent graduate of Case, told Wiesel how much his commencement speech on her campus "moved my soul."

Although most of the guests at the dinner event were Clevelanders, Abby Weiner came from Westchester, N.Y., to hear his old friend speak. Both natives of Sighet, Romania. they were deported to Auschwitz at the same time and were tattooed with numbers just a few digits apart. Throughout the years, they have stayed in touch. During their Cleveland visit, they discussed Weiner's recent trip to their former concentration camp. "I can look in your eyes and see where you've been," Wiesel told his friend.

During his speech, Wiesel eschewed world affairs to reflect on his longtime association with Chabad. The Hasidic movement has played an enormous role in bringing joy back to Judaism through its prayers, music and humorous stories, Wiesel noted. Its leaders have "opened our life to beauty," teaching followers to appreciate the wonders of nature "even when they were in fear of being attacked in the streets."

Wiesel enjoyed a unique relationship with the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Schneerson, that lasted for years, he told his audience. "He had beauty on his face ... his eyes penetrated your face without hurting.

"I had a ritual with him," Wiesel explained. Each time they met, Wiesel would humorously remind the Rebbe, "I am not yours (a Hasid)." On one memorable, rainy Simchat Torah, Wiesel visited Lubavitcher headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y. Out of hundreds of visitors thronging the building, the Rebbe recognized Wiesel, wearing a damp trench coat. ("I looked like James Bond," Wiesel quipped.)

Schneerson's young associates literally swept Wiesel off his feet as they all but carried him to the Rebbe's side. To celebrate the holiday, Schneerson insisted that his friend first down one glass of vodka, then a second and a third. He also blessed him, praying with Wiesel for a "new beginning."

Although Wiesel admitted his memory of that night is a bit foggy because of the vodka, the Rebbe's prayer for a new beginning was one that the Nobel Prize winner cherished throughout the years.

In the past few years, "a kind of anxiety has set in" for Jews around the world, Wiesel declared. "Antisemitism is on the rise; one doesn't even dare to speculate about what's happening in Europe. If I had been told (in earlier years) that we would have to fight against antisemitism again, I would not have believed it."

Turning his attention to the Mideast, Wiesel observed, "I wonder how people in Israel cannot have a (collective) nervous breakdown. There is no way of disarming suicide bombers ... they have developed a cult of death." Even so, he added, "We must not let it plant an irrepressible doubt about our existence as Jews."

The Hasidic movement brings comfort to Jews who might otherwise despair by emphasizing the importance of waiting and hoping for a better day, Wiesel declared.

After his speech, guests flocked to Wiesel's table, much as they had done before his talk. "Elie Wiesel is so heimish (warm and unassuming). He's more humble than most people we've ever met," observed Sharon and Marvin Rotblatt. "This has been an unforgettable night."