Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Day I Drove Elie Wiesel Across Los Angeles County

This is my most recent Huffington Post Article which can be found at:
 On Sunday, March 29, 1998, Elie Wiesel spoke in Bridges Auditorium
at the Claremont Colleges in Claremont, California. Days before
Wiesel’s scheduled address Rabbi Leslie Bergson, Hillel Director and
Chaplain for the colleges, with profound generosity asked if my
daughter, Jesse, and I would like to drive Mr. Wiesel to his next
speaking engagement. We immediately accepted her invitation.
The Rabbi would also accompany us.
Claremont, California, is at the far eastern edge of Los Angeles County.
Mr. Wiesel’s next speaking engagement was on the far northwestern
border of Los Angeles County. Under normal circumstances the drive
could take up to two hours. Normal circumstances could not possibly
have applied to this day in 1998. I felt an all-consuming terror filled
with what ifs. What if I made a mistake? What if another driver made
a mistake? What if the Jeep broke down or had a flat tire? What if
he didn’t like riding in a Jeep Cherokee?
What if he preferred riding in a vehicle with automatic transmission
instead of one with standard transmission? What if? What if?
What if?
My vehicle then and now is a 1996 Jeep Cherokee. There’s nothing
fancy about that Jeep. I doubted if it was ‘good enough’ for Mr. Wiesel.
Surely he deserved the very best mode of transportation I could provide.
I considered renting a Lincoln Town Car or some other worthy
automobile. And then the night before his scheduled speech I read
the weather forecast. Rain. Lots of rain. I decided that we would all
be safer if I drove a vehicle with which I was familiar.
That Sunday morning I went to the car wash. It was, of course, closed.
Car washes generally do close when it rains. So Jesse and I cleaned
up the Jeep as best as we could. Then off we went to Claremont.
When we pulled into the Bridges Auditorium parking lot I informed the
security guard that I would be driving Elie Wiesel to his next
speaking engagement. The guard, although appropriately doubtful,
told me where to park.
Once inside the auditorium my daughter and I first located Rabbi Bergson
who pointed us to the man in the front row.
“Hello,” I said to him. “I’m your driver.”
Elie Wiesel took my hand and thanked me. He hoped driving him
was not too terrible an inconvenience. I mumbled something incoherent
and then sat down.
A security guard approached me with instructions.
“Go backstage when he’s finished. I will guide you out the door to
your vehicle. It will be cordoned off by security. No one will be able
to approach.”
Mr. Wiesel’s address was amazing. In it he movingly spoke of years after the
liberation placing his hands on the same cement balustrade as Hitler. He
reminded us that history often lacks justice but frequently contains irony.
His speech ended and we followed security to the parking lot. My Jeep
was, indeed, cordoned off. Even though his address had ended just
moments before, a crowd had already gathered in the rain.
A man shouted out, “Elie, you taught me to play chess in the camps!”
Mr. Wiesel stopped and in the rain asked the man if he still played. The man
said that he did. Mr. Wiesel encouraged him to keep playing.
And then we were in the Jeep. I assured Mr. Wiesel that my research had
indicated that he was safest in back of me. He replied that he felt safe
regardless of where he sat. Headlights and wipers on, we left Claremont
with Rabbi Bergson in front with me and Jesse in back with Elie Wiesel. I
drove with white knuckles and depended on my passengers to make
conversation. He and Rabbi Bergson shared the latest news from
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. My daughter pointed
out sights such as the Rose Bowl. They chatted. Jesse confided to him that
she felt challenged by her math class. He confided to her that he had also
been challenged by math. They formed a bond born of common challenge.
Later my daughter shared that she felt fascinated by his hands and all that
they had touched including Hitler’s balustrade.
I did not speak until we arrived at his next engagement.
We got out of the car and in the rain I said, “Mr. Wiesel, I would love to take
a picture of you. I hate to do it out here in the rain but I’m afraid they won’t
let us take pictures inside.”
This incredibly humble man said the only thing that hinted of his awareness
of his place in the world.
“Mary,” he said. “They will let you take my picture wherever I want you
to take it.”
Once inside and out of the rain, Elie Wiesel put his arms around Rabbi
Bergson and my daughter and I took the picture. I then told him that I was
reading his book “Night” to my sixth grade religions school class.
His reply was, “Never stop reading and never stop remembering.
He then thanked me for the ride, hugged us all, and went off to speak
My friend Carole later asked me how it felt to drive a world treasure and
have his life in my hands.
I thought a moment and then told her that it felt a lot like driving my daughter
and having her life in my hands because they were both world treasures.
My friend agreed with my reasoning. I suspect so, too, would the very humble
and very real man I drove across Los Angeles County on that rainy
March day.
We are blessed by the life and memory of Elie Wiesel. I am blessed to
have been his driver.

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