INTIMATE CONVERSATIONS WITH ELIE WIESEL: Chicago Tribune writer Howard Reich, the son of Holocaust survivors, came to understand his parents and himself after spending many hours over four years talking with the famed moral voice

Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel.

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

To have come away with a deeper perspective on not only the Holocaust, but modern life itself would have been a slam-dunk for Howard Reich in all his kibitzing and deeper conversations with Elie Wiesel between 2012 and 2016.

And yet the greatest impact the late Nobel Peace Prize winner made on Reich was as part of a transformative process after the latter’s mother Sonia broke down with visions of Nazi pursuers 57 years after the fact, in 2001.

“The Art of Inventing Hope: Intimate Conversations With Elie Wiesel,” Reich’s new book by Chicago Review Press, is in essence part two of his own journey as a child of Holocaust survivors. He advanced the ball in his own life beyond what he chronicled in “Prisoner of Her Past,” both a book and a PBS documentary on his mother, still alive at 88.

“Working on my mother’s story was a revelation to me,” said Reich, arts critic for the Chicago Tribune. “I estimate that between my sister and myself my mother told us three sentences about what happened to her.  We knew she was a Holocaust survivor and almost nothing else.”

Sonia Reich used to stay up at night looking out her Skokie living-room window guarding against jackbooted ghosts when her children were young.  Husband Robert Reich, interred in several concentration camps and freed by the U.S. Army from Buchenwald on April 11, 1945, would awake from dreams pleased he had mowed down rows of Nazis. He took swigs from a bottle of booze attempting to get a good night’s sleep.

Their son was nearly 20 years into his Tribune career when Sonia Reich suddenly packed two shopping bags late one night and began wandering her community’s streets.  The chain-reaction of her PTSD prompted Reich’s examination of her tormented life and his complicated status as a child of survivors.

Howard Reich (photo by Pam Becker).

But that process was only the equivalent of a bachelor’s in the subject. Sitting down with Wiesel, starting with a Reich-hosted and Tribune-sponsored program at Orchestra Hall in the fall of 2012, provided essentially a PhD to Reich, whose real undergrad and graduate work was in piano performance at Northwestern.

“My conversations with Wiesel were about trying to understand what I now know about my mother’s and father’s past,” Reich said. “He answered questions I did not know I had.

“It’s very difficult for a child of survivors to ask his or her parents about what happened. It’s just so big, it’s just so untouchable. When you’re 10 or 15, it’s just too much. It’s often easier to ask either a grandfather or in this case, someone who is a step removed. He became that person for me. I didn’t anticipate it or plan it. But that is what happened.”

Wiesel’s post-graduate course in humanity changed Reich in a way his parents could not have done.

“It made me feel that I am not alone,” he said. “All the doubts and feelings and guilt and remorse over what my parents couldn’t tell me and what I couldn’t ask them about were allayed by talking to Wiesel. When someone suffers, you feel  a kind of empathy and you wish you could do something. And then you realize that they are still suffering and you did not do anything to help.

“But Elie argued to me that I did do something to help. He feels the children of survivors, just by being there, have helped their parents.  I did not (at first) realize that. To think that I did help is quite comforting and to think that even  Elie Wiesel, at that late date, having studied this for 60 years or so, was still wrestling with the same fundamental questions: Why did this happen? Why do they hate us?

“The fact he was still searching for answers made me again feel not alone. That if he struggles with it, then it’s OK for me to struggle with it. There are no pat answers.

“What started out as a newspaper assignment interviewing Elie Wiesel became something much deeper and more profoundly affecting.  He has always said in his writings that the children of survivors were very important to him.  When he found out about my mother very early in our conversations, that opened the door. When you meet someone face-to-face, you either click or you don’t immediately. “

Connections to both of Reich’s parents cemented Wiesel’s relationship. Wiesel was freed from Buchenwald on the same day as Robert Reich, but did not know him in the camp.

The rapport between Reich and Wiesel was so immediate that within minutes of their first formal interview session for the book, Wiesel produced his own personal diary in Hebrew via a tiny, “four inches by two inches,”  old tablet.  He had begun making entries, on “reflections on mysticism in our prayers,” as a 13-year-old in 1941 Romania.

“He told me he had shown this to no one on the outside – surely to no journalist,” Reich said. “In retrospect, we were already on this intimate footing. I just didn’t realize it at the time.”

Reich had interviewed world-famous musicians and composers, who in the modern, media-inundated and social media-afflicted era, began to keep a distance from inquisitive newshounds. Ditto with politicians, Hollywood celebrities and athletes. But Wiesel dropped any defenses with Reich.

“Here’s a world figure, a historical figure,” he said. “There’s a wall where celebrities want to control everything. But (Wiesel), in my opinion, had more stature than anyone I’ve interviewed before that.  And yet he was the most open with me of anyone I had interviewed.  That was totally unexpected to me.

“It turned out to be the last four years of his life.  That was another thing I didn’t expect. I always presumed when this book came out, he would be here for that.  When I would have an appointment with him for an hour, he would add another hour. When I had an appointment with him in the morning, he’d say come back in the afternoon.  I was stunned and overwhelmed. It just became a profound personal relationship.”

Eventually over four years and in three different cities, Reich accumulated “two thick Manhattan phone book-sized loose-leaf notebooks of transcriptions” from his recordings.

“I spoke to him 10 times, 20 times more than appears in the book,” he said. “We’d have our sit-down sessions. But then we’d have dinner or talk on the phone, which were not recorded. Anything that came up in our informal conversations, I could bring up later. I made lists and lists of questions. After three years, I ran out of questions.”

Howard Reich’s mother, Sonia, a Holocaust survivor and subject of his book and documentary, “Prisoner of her Past.”

Communicating memories is the most difficult task for many survivors. The instant of liberation snapped many haunted survivors out of their psychological hell. But the events before the liberators arrived, and some afterward, were battled in the minds of survivors by the only defense mechanism available: suppression.  Eventually, as in the case of Sonia Reich, the dam broke and the nightmares came flooding out.

All the pent-up horrors, the descent and return from a real-life Dante’s Inferno, was misdiagnosed by psychiatrists for decades.  The experiences prompted huge pangs of guilt in the survivors’ children.  How do they handle their parents, turning their relationship on its side? The children developed into caregivers decades ahead of schedule. But Wiesel, at once an all-time sage and a pragmatist, said one-size-fits-all was the wrong tactic for Howard Reich’s generation.

“It is not easy to have such an existence,” Wiesel told Reich in “The Art of Inventing Hope. “ “Some children don’t know what to do with it. Should they ask their parents? Should they not say anything? What is good for the parents? They don’t know.

“Where do you begin?” Wiesel said to Reich. “Is it before the ghetto. Is it in the ghetto?  And where does it end? Does it end really at liberation day? The topic to this day, so many years, so many decades later, it is still kind of a mystery, a mystery of mysteries. And you don’t know how to touch it. The tragedy is the realization that really only those who were there know what it meant to be there. Nobody else. Thank G-d.”

Wiesel said a second generation of tragedy was not unheard-of. He told Reich of a son of a survivor who tried to tell his parents’ story.  He finally “went into the ocean with the typewriter around his neck and drowned,” Wiesel said.  Such, he said, “is the despair of the children.”

Perhaps the clicking of chroniclers of life and culture in Reich and Wiesel was pre-destined. What other child of Holocaust survivors with such a literary background would have had the perspective to ask the right questions of Wiesel? In the end, Wiesel approved Reich’s manuscript without a word of criticism.

Reich’s background in high culture no doubt also touched Wiesel. Reich, now 65, first wrote for the Tribune as a part-timer in 1978. He finally latched onto the staff in 1983 after some nifty lobbying by legendary movie critic Gene Siskel, perhaps the Tribune’s most prominent-ever Jewish writer. Over the decades, the newspaper has backed Reich’s outside projects, with Wiesel perhaps being the topper.

Author of six books overall, Reich wrote with William Gaines “Jelly’s Blues: The Life, Music and Redemption of Jelly Roll Morton,” based on a cache of previously unknown letters the jazz composer penned a few years before his death.

Reich found the correspondence buried in a New Orleans archive and, with Gaines, proved that Morton had been swindled by his Chicago music publishers and by ASCAP. The Los Angeles Times called the book “a fascinating new view of a still underrated and misunderstood titan.” Studs Terkel called it “the definitive” biography of Morton.

Reich’s Tribune writings have been published in two collections: “Portraits in Jazz” and “Let Freedom Swing.”

Reich is currently in post-production on his third documentary film, “Left-Handed Pianist,” based on his Tribune stories about a man wounded by his father in childhood who launched his concert career at age 78.

He has served on the jury for the Pulitzer Prize in Music four times, including the first time a jazz work won: Wynton Marsalis’ “Blood on the Fields” (1997). In addition to winning an Emmy Award for his documentary  “Kenwood’s Journey,” based on his Chicago Tribune series, Reich has won two Deems Taylor Awards from ASCAP, an Alumni Merit Award from Northwestern University’s Alumni Association, a Bravo Award from Dominican University, and eight Peter Lisagor Awards from the Society of Professional Journalists. The Chicago Journalists Association named him Chicago Journalist of the Year in 2011.

Reich is now writing in an era that would have alarmed Wiesel. Even with Wiesel’s caution lights always blinking yellow, he could have never conceived of a dozen dead Jews in two unprecedented U.S. synagogue shootings six months apart to the day in 2018 and 2019.

So should writers like Reich still be analyzing the Holocaust, given that current events are seemingly overtaking 75-year-old history?  His response is that today’s news cycle is part of a continuum, just as World War II was really in effect a resumption of World War I after an armistice, regime change for the very worse in Germany and Russia, appeasement in Western Europe and isolationism in a hide-bound United States.

“I fervently believe we must continue to study the Holocaust,” Reich said. “This was the ultimate unprecedented event. Everything that happens afterward must be understood in light of the Holocaust and as part of anti-Semitism’s long history. None of today’s events occurs in isolation. They are part of a long sequence of heinous acts that I view as a tragic whole.”

Wiesel’s words through “The Art of Inventing Hope” might be viewed as coming from the grave. But as Reich presented him, he is living and breathing, and just as relevant now as when he spoke them into Reich’s tape recorder:

“Once I was in Prague at a conference, an international conference with 50 or 60 intellectuals from all over the world, famous names  (and with not just one anti-Semitic comment said to his face).

“Hey, wait a second – you really believe that we Jews control the media, we control Wall Street, we control everything?” Wiesel told the intelligentsia. “You know what? Give the world to us for one generation. Not more. I promise you – we’ll give it back to you, it won’t be worse. But it isn’t so!”

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