If there was a decisive moment in my life that shaped my future as a writer, it was the day Elie Wiesel shook my hand.
I was 17, and had just finished my proudest piece of writing — an English essay for my senior-year literature class, which included the phrase “Man’s Inhumanity to Man” in its long, lofty title, the entirety of which I can no longer remember.
I was the only non-Jewish student in my Holocaust literature class, and my teacher was so proud of my essay that she decided to take me to meet Wiesel, speaking at a synagogue in Toronto, where I grew up. Unbeknownst to me, Mrs. Soberman had sent him a copy of my essay.
It was 1982, and Wiesel was not yet a Nobel laureate.
He was a humanities professor at Boston University and lectured widely about the Holocaust. His first and most famous book, “Night,” the harrowing story of how the Nazis rounded up and shipped his family to Auschwitz, resonated deeply with me.
Wiesel’s mother and one of his sisters were killed at Auschwitz, and his father died just weeks before the camps were liberated.
Emaciated and sick, Wiesel was among the survivors liberated by American soldiers at Buchenwald in April 1945.
I’m not sure why Wiesel’s book became so important to me — a suburban Catholic kid whose biggest trauma was not getting a date to the prom at Sir Sandford Fleming secondary school, a public high school that was 95 percent Jewish.
Maybe it was because Wiesel was my age when he lived through the horror in “Night.”
Or maybe it was because it was the first time I recognized what good writing is all about — in Wiesel’s case, conveying horror through spare, economical prose, a device that rendered it all the more horrific to me.
“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed,” he writes in “Night.”
“Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.”
The phrase was important to me and I used it in my essay. But it wasn’t as important as that handshake.
The grip was firm and steadfast and warm, as he held my hand in an embrace that seemed to go on and on and on.
“Never forget about the murder of the 6 million,” he said. “Document evil wherever you find it.”
And I can still remember the smiling intensity in his eyes when he fixed me with his steady gaze and said: “I read your essay. Don’t ever stop writing.”
New York Post reporter Isabel Vincent is the author of several books, including the recently published “Dinner With Edward: the Story of an Unexpected Friendship.”
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