Photo Credit:
Photo of liberation of Buchenwald taken by photographer Margaret Bourke-White. Rabbi Yaakov Avigdor is sixth from the left (face partially obscured).

To the Nazis, he was A-7713, the number burned into his arm in a concentration camp. However, to the rest of the world, Elie Wiesel was an unwavering voice for the six million Jews who were slaughtered in the Holocaust. Half a century ago, before Holocaust education became commonplace, Mr. Wiesel began publishing his searing accounts and, by extension, urged the world to stand up and prevent genocide and torture against all people. He was a man of conviction, encapsulated in his own words: “We must always take sides.”

Elie Wiesel with Rabbi Yitzchok Avigdor

He spoke to world leaders about the lessons of brutality he had personally endured. He campaigned against modern-day despots and decried terrorists. His cause was the defense of people of all faiths, nationalities, and countries against oppressors.


A Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, he was a friend to presidents and prime ministers, yet his conscience always came first. He was not swayed by the winds of contemporary politics and warned the West of the growing danger of Iranian aggression and the need to halt its quest for nuclear weapons.

His most famous moment came when President Ronald Reagan scheduled a visit to Bitburg, a German military cemetery where some SS troops were buried. Mr. Wiesel confronted the president during a 1985 White House ceremony conducted in his honor. “I belong to a people that speaks truth to power,” Mr. Wiesel said. “That place, Mr. President, is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS.”

But there was another side to Mr. Wiesel, a more personal aspect to this man who did so much to change the world. Mordechai Avigdor, whose family shared close ties with Mr. Wiesel, shared his recollection of the time he davened at the Fifth Avenue Synagogue on Selichos night. After the chazan had finished and people headed for the door, Mordechai made his way over to Mr. Wiesel, a longtime family friend. However, he had to wait – Mr. Wiesel was still praying, slowly and carefully.

But, Mordechai adds, Elie Wiesel’s shul membership had an incredible history. More than seventy years ago, a few Jews secretly gathered to form a minyan in the midst of the horror that was the Buchenwald concentration camp. Broken in body but maintaining their spirits, they risked their lives to gather one Shabbos and daven. The ba’al tefillah was Mordechai’s grandfather, Rav Yaakov Avigdor, chief rabbi of Drohobycz, Poland in pre-war Europe. Amongst the congregants were Elie Wiesel and Yossel Friedenson, the late editor of Dos Yiddish Vort. Undeterred by the lack of siddurim, Rav Yaakov enunciated each word of the tefillos clearly to allow the mispallelim to recite the prayers along with him. After the minyan concluded Shacharis, those assembled assumed that Rav Yaakov would begin Mussaf immediately as the obvious absence of a Sefer Torah or even a Chumash would preclude any form of krias haTorah.

Letters from Elie Wiesel to Rabbi Yitzchok Avigdor. The one in Yiddish is written to congratulate Rabbi Avigdor on his 50th wedding anniversary. (Avigdor Collection, Amud Aish Archives)


However, that was not to be. To the amazement of the bedraggled group of prisoners, Rav Yaakov proceeded to recite the entire parsha from memory. In Mordechai Avigdor’s words, “It was a chizuk for a lifetime. Elie Wiesel, my grandfather, Buchenwald, and the minyan. From that moment, our family had a connection with him. We were all kinsmen, landsleit.”


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Rabbi Dovid Reidel is the Collections Currator and Historical Archivist at the Kleinman Family Holocaust Education Center (KFHEC) located in Brooklyn, New York. To learn more or to donate artifacts, please visit You can also contact the center at [email protected] or at 718-759-6200.