Elie Wiesel survives wipeout from Madoff, heart bypass

Verena Dobnik / The Associated Press /

“Open Heart” by Elie Wiesel (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, $20)

NEW YORK — When Elie Wiesel emerged from quintuple heart bypass surgery, still wired to monitors, he immediately started writing a book about the ordeal — “in my head.” In French.

A year later, as he recuperates from post-procedure fatigue and depression, “Open Heart” is being published, in English. And the 84-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Holocaust activist is busy in the Manhattan office of his foundation, which also is recovering — from financial ruin by Bernard Madoff, who had invested the money funding its humanitarian efforts.

Madoff’s Ponzi scheme also wiped out Wiesel’s family investments.

About one-third of the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity’s $15 million assets have been replaced through new contributions, according to tax documents obtained by The Associated Press.

“Children sent us their pocket money, people we never heard of, Jews, non-Jews, young, old,” Wiesel says. “I was so touched by that.”

None of the donations went to him and his wife, who have had to watch their personal budget, rethinking travels and restaurant expenses, he says.

“But I’ve seen worse,” the Auschwitz survivor adds with a wry grin.

He pulls back his left jacket sleeve to reveal a Nazi death camp number tattooed on his forearm as he sits comfortably in his Manhattan office for an interview.

“Usually I don’t show it,” he says.

One of the exceptions was a 2009 visit to the Buchenwald death camp Wiesel survived, with President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

In a soft, intense voice, he recently shared his thoughts in his office 20 floors above Madison Avenue, filled with books and memories.

After the heart surgery last summer at Manhattan’s Lenox Hill Hospital — sudden and unexpected — Wiesel says his doctor asked him to cut back on teaching at Boston University. He’ll still deliver lectures there this fall, and may add courses later.

“I love teaching, it’s my passion,” he says. He also was to speak at New York’s 92nd Street Y in October on two topics: “Judaism and Peace” and “Ezekiel and his Frightening Visions.”

Wiesel wrote “Open Heart” in French, the language that’s easiest for him because after the war, he was a Romanian-born survivor placed in a youth home in Paris, where he settled and became a journalist. He moved to New York in 1956.

The new book was translated into English by his wife, Marion Wiesel, and is set for a Dec. 4 publication date.

In addition to an account of the surgical drama, it’s an intimate assessment of his life in the face of possible death.

As he was wheeled away toward the operating room on a gurney, he recalls in an interview, “I saw my son and my wife, and all of a sudden, a question ran through me, ‘Maybe it’s the last time?’”

That moment reminded him of the day in Buchenwald when he saw his ill father for the last time, before he was beaten to death by a Nazi guard. His mother and sister perished earlier in the Auschwitz gas chambers.

Wiesel’s seminal work, “Night,” originally written in Yiddish and first published in Paris in 1956, is found on many required reading lists in U.S. schools.

It’s the book that ended Wiesel’s decade-long, self-imposed silence about the horror he left behind when he was liberated at 16 by the U.S. Army in April 1945.

Before he was freed, Wiesel responded to a questionnaire issued by the American military to every inmate asking, among other things, why he was arrested and imprisoned.

For “being a Jew” was his response, like so many others.

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