Elisha Wiesel is the son, the only child, of the most illustrious voice of Holocaust remembrance, yet on a visit to Montreal he insisted on memorializing another survivor few have heard of.
His Aunt Batia, Elie Wiesel’s sister, lived quietly for many years in Montreal after the war, settling in the suburb of Côte St. Luc where she and her husband, Dr. Leonard Jackson, raised two children.
She died in 1974, at just 49, from cancer. The family moved soon after to Israel, where her children Steve and Sara still live today.
Last week, Elisha was joined by Côte St. Luc officials, Rabbi Reuben Poupko, survivors and others for the dedication of a plaque for Batia in Elie Wiesel Park. The green space at the corner of Kildare Road and Cavendish Boulevard was created in 2017, a year after Wiesel died.
The new plaque affixed to the central bench reads: Beatrice Wiesel Jackson z”l 1925-1974/May her memory be a blessing.”
Elisha Wiesel, who turns 50 next month, is too young to remember his aunt. But her kindness was never forgotten in the family.
“Her home was always overflowing with people who had nowhere to go. Refugees were welcome for a Shabbat dinner, a change of clothes,” he said.
Mayor Mitchell Brownstein, 61, does have a vivid memory of Batia Jackson. The family lived on the same street as his, Borden Avenue, and he was close friends with Steve.
The Jackson door indeed was always open – for the neighbourhood kids to come and go, even raid the refrigerator. “She was a nice lady…We were at her house all the time,” said Brownstein.
He distinctly remembers Elie at the house for the shivah.
Elie Wiesel had three sisters. They, along with their parents, were deported in May 1944 to Auschwitz, where his mother and younger sister immediately perished in the gas chambers. Elie and his father, who died during the Holocaust, were sent to the Buchenwald camp.
Beatrice and Hilda, the eldest daughter, were selected for forced labour and both survived.
Elisha was in Montreal to speak at a fundraiser for the Foundation for Genocide Education, held at Rabbi Poupko’s synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel Beth Aaron, where Elie spoke more than once.
In late 2019 he left a successful 25-year Wall Street career with Goldman Sachs to devote himself more fully to carrying out his father’s legacy, and chair the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity.
It’s not a mantle he assumed easily; he found following in his famous father’s footsteps daunting for a long time.
“I wanted to get as far as possible from the topic (of the Holocaust),” he said in conversation with Rabbi Poupko. “I wanted nothing more than to not live my life with tragedy hanging over me, informing everything I did.”
He first visited Auschwitz with his father and cousin Steve in 1995. He admits that he did not find that as traumatic as visiting his father’s birthplace of Sighet, Romania. The home of over 10,000 Jews before the Second World War, the town held only their “ghosts,” he said.
“It was the first time I saw my father as a vulnerable young person.”
The elder Wiesel believed a good Jew was both well versed in Judaism and grounded in the universal. His son reads a little Talmud every day and speaks out against injustice to other people. He has notably been critical of the treatment of the Uyghur people by the Chinese regime.
Uyghur representatives, he said, told him they wanted to learn from Jews how to preserve their threatened culture. “One leader said to me the odds are China will extinguish our people, either (physically) or by assimilation. We have a great admiration for Jews, he said, who were exiled for 2,000 years, but kept their culture alive.”
Elisha revealed what kept his father going. “My father had what you might call a quaint, or profound, belief in the coming of Mashiach and the redemptive age when there would be no war,” Wiesel said. He was optimistic by nature, but did not rely on hope alone.
Aspiration, he believed, had to go hand in hand with activism. “He was there for any oppressed community that he could be of use to.”
Wiesel speaks at colleges and is enraged by how “social justice causes are getting lumped together” to target Israel.
“Lies are being spread, the more simple and provocative the lie the easier it is swallowed on U.S. campuses, and I hope it doesn’t come to Canada: the Jews are white, the Palestinians are black. This is the big lie.”
The Foundation for Genocide Education, is led by another child of survivors, Heidi Berger, who is the driving force behind the development of Quebec’s first high school teachers’ guide to teaching about genocide. Launched last month by the education ministry, this optional pedagogical package was written by university researchers in collaboration with communities affected by the nine 20th-century genocides dealt with in the guide.
The evening, the foundation’s first major benefit, raised over $300,000, said board member Dean Mendel, which goes toward the video materials in the package. Another board member, Irwin Cotler commended the “indefatigable” Berger, whose goal is to have genocide included the curriculum of all high schools in Canada.