The Daily Heller: Poem for a Tortured Rabbi

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The Nobel Prize–winning Elie Wiesel (1928–2016) was, along with his entire family, deported to German concentration and extermination camps, where his parents and younger sister perished. Wiesel and his two older sisters survived. Liberated from Buchenwald in 1945 by advancing Allied troops, he was taken to Paris, where he studied at the Sorbonne and worked as a journalist. In 1958, he published the first of his many books, La Nuit (Night), a memoir of his experiences in the concentration camps.

Mark Podwal (born 1945), is a practicing medical doctor in New York, and veteran illustrator for The New York Times Op-Ed page, among others, alongside many books including Fallen Angels, in collaboration with Harold Bloom. His knowledge and passion for Jewish history and Kabbalah triggered various collaborations with Wiesel. The most recent is The Tale of a Niggun, a narrative poem written by Wiesel in the late 1970s—"a work of which I had been completely unaware," his son, Elisha Wiesel, writes in the elegantly moving foreword to this splendidly illustrated volume. He continues:

"It was brought to my attention by Mechael Pomeranz, a Jerusalem-based bookseller who came upon it as a chapter in an out-of-print collection of essays that had been published in 1978 in honor of the renowned Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, who had been a good friend of my father’s. Set during World War II and on the eve of the Purim holiday, the poem tells the haunting, heart-breaking story of a rabbi who wrestled with a decision about the fate of a ghetto’s Jews that no human being should ever have to confront. I did some research and discovered that my father had loosely based his story on actual, horrific events that had occurred during the war in European ghettos—most notably in two towns in central Poland, Zduńska Wola and Piotrków.

Wiesel's mission throughout his life was to bear witness to the horror of the holocaust. Podwal, born after the liberation, and educated in medicine, leads two lives; as an artist he is dedicated to keeping the symbolism, iconography and traditions of his Jewish ancestors alive through imagery.

Listen to an audio reading of the poem here, and for more related content, click here.