Photo collage: Tablet. Original image: Tom Simpson / Flickr
Photo collage: Tablet. Original image: Tom Simpson / Flickr
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Elie Wiesel Visits Disneyland

The late Holocaust survivor’s underappreciated journalistic work for ‘The Forverts,’ unearthed—including a dispatch from The Happiest Place on Earth

Menachem Butler
June 27, 2016
Photo collage: Tablet. Original image: Tom Simpson / Flickr
Photo collage: Tablet. Original image: Tom Simpson / Flickr

Twelve years after his liberation from Buchenwald, Elie Wiesel found himself in “the happiest place on earth.” At the time, he was a struggling journalist in New York and worked as the foreign correspondent at the United Nations for the Tel-Aviv-based newspaper Yediot Aharonot. To earn some extra money, Wiesel wrote Yiddish articles in Der Morgen Journal, submitted a 26-chapter serialized novel to Der Amerikaner, and contributed a regular Yiddish column to The Forverts.

But in early 1957, Wiesel was slowly recovering from his injuries after being hit by a car in Manhattan’s Times Square. In an effort to raise his spirits, Wiesel’s editor from Yediot Aharonot Dov Yudkovsky and wife Leah came to America for a visit and as Wiesel would later describe in All Rivers Run to the Sea (1995):

We went to concerts, restaurants. By now I was walking with a cane, which I thought made me look distinguished, but I tired easily. They rented a car and invited me to join them on a six-week cross-country trip, from New York to Los Angeles. Since Dov was my boss I didn’t have to worry about work, so I went. We discovered an America unknown to us, totally different from New York or Washington, which were the only places I knew. Interminable highways disappeared into a blue horizon ringing tall mountains embedded in skies of shifting colors. There were cascading rivers and peaceful brooks, green valleys and yellow hills, violent storms and dramatic sunsets. Never before had I been so close to nature. From the hills of San Francisco we gazed upon small towns floating in the fog as in a dream. In the Rocky Mountains the clouds seemed to wear a crown of snow, to touch it you would have to climb to God’s throne. Enchanting mirages, they are so disconcerting you cannot tell which is close and which is far, which is real and which is not. You have a sense of being present at a re-creation of the world.

Wiesel goes on to describe three stops from his six-week trip: the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, and at an American Indian reservation in Arizona, where he met a Holocaust survivor “who made his living as an Indian by day while remaining a Jew by night,” and made a note in his diary: “America is truly a wonderland. Even the Indians speak Yiddish.”

After reading his account, I was intrigued with where else Elie Wiesel might have gone on that six-week-long American road-trip. Upon further research, I was surprised that there wasn’t any further mention of this trip within the vast literature and scholarly discussion that has emerged over the past half-century surrounding Elie Wiesel. While there have been several bibliographies and collections of Wiesel’s articles published over the years, one scholar was honest enough to state that “no attempt was made to list the [Forverts] articles written while Mr. Wiesel was a correspondent.” Nearly all of the scholars who have studied the work of Elie Wiesel over the past half-century have ignored his Yiddish newspaper articles.

The headline from Elie Wiesel’s dispatch from Disneyland in ‘The Forverts,’ 1957. (The Forverts/courtesy YIVO)
The headline from Elie Wiesel’s dispatch from Disneyland in ‘The Forverts,’ 1957. (The Forverts/courtesy YIVO)

Wiesel’s articles in The Forverts are not digitized online and so my first stop was to the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research at the Center for Jewish History in New York, where the librarians and staff were of great assistance. After several hours of research, I found all of Wiesel’s articles from his 1957 road-trip. More than a year later and after many dozens of hours spent going through every page of Forverts from the mid-1950s until 1970, I have identified nearly one thousand articles that Wiesel wrote that ranged from works of Jewish literature and new books on the Holocaust, to a look at the religious and cultural events around New York, and meetings with Jewish dignitaries and visiting Israeli politicians. I also found “A Visit to the Wonderful Disneyland.”

Wiesel begins by observing:

I don’t know if a Garden of Eden awaits adults in the hereafter. I do know, though, that there is a Garden of Eden for children here in this life. I know because I myself visited this paradise. I have just returned from there, just passed through its gates, just left the magical kingdom known as Disneyland. And as I bid that kingdom farewell, I understood for the first time the true meaning of the French saying ‘to leave is to die a little’ [partir, c’est mourir un peu]

As the article continues, it reads (as one would expect) like a tourist would describe visiting any new location: “Disneyland is located in California, 30 miles from Los Angeles. And despite the fact that its name does not appear on any official map of California, and certainly not on a map of America, you can go to any travel agency, be it in New York or Paris, in Tel Aviv or Tokyo, in Berlin or Johannesburg, and buy a plane ticket to Disneyland.”

Wiesel the journalist provides the history of Disneyland, as well as some of the (then) contemporary statistics of its daily operation:

Walt Disney officially announced the opening of Disneyland as a children’s world in 1955. The work lasted just over a year: a year and a day. And when you consider the huge undertaking that was completed in the course of such a short span of time, you start to believe that the Master of the Universe could in fact have created the world in just six days. … It’s true that He had no collaborators, but He is still God! Speaking of God, it’s not yet clear to me whether we must thank Him for creating the world and mankind, but I am certain that all children who visit Walt Disney’s paradise will thank Him endlessly for having built Disneyland. Anyway, let us descend once again below God’s heavens and return to our little kingdom. About a thousand people are employed there, taking on various—and rather remarkable—positions as carriage drivers, captains of ships, and pilots of moonplanes. Disneyland has: an orchestra that gives 1,460 concerts a year; 24 restaurants that can serve 8,000 people an hour and sell a million hotdogs a year; its own trains, ships, rivers, police, and fire brigade. A kingdom unto itself—quite literally. A kingdom all of whose citizens are happy; a kingdom that relates, not only to man, but to animals as well, humanely. For instance: Any horse that works in Disneyland may not work more than four hours a day or more than six days a week. In many, many countries, people would die for such working conditions.

From the $1 entrance-fee to Disneyland—in contrast, Disney announced several months a ago that a single-day ticket is now $99—Wiesel takes his reader on a tour around the park, where “before your astonished eyes unfolds a magical realm, where daily worries and troubles have no place.” From Main Street, U.S.A. and Frontierland “as [the Western City] would have looked years ago,” with its “colorful tramways, pulled by horses [that] traverse the main streets; outmoded taxis; affable, smiling policemen turn around, seemingly having just jumped out of a very old film; and just over there is a store where they sell everything from ‘revolvers’ to bags of gold, gifts, and cowboy hats.” He then boards the train “through a desert where skeletons and Indians look at you with their dead stares” before disembarking to get his ticket for the Mark Twain Riverboat and travel down the giant Mississippi River, remarking “the ship is terrific, the river formidable.”

Wiesel finishes his travels through America’s past and heads now to “take a stroll through the land of the future, which is also a province of Disneyland” and describes the (now-closed) House of the Future shortly after it opened in the Summer of 1957: “Futuristic man will live such a wonderful life! Everything will come to him so, so easily! If someone knocks at the door, you won’t have to go to see who it is: He will appear on the screen of your television. If the telephone rings, you’ll be able to see the person you’re speaking with and not just hear his voice. And a thousand other such conveniences will turn your house into a royal palace and transform you yourself into a lazy, fat, lonely king.”

Several times in the article, Wiesel reflects on his appreciation of Walt Disney—“the person who created this land, this universe, must be a genius, a rare genius”—and then shares the anecdote that he was told of how Walt Disney often walks around Disneyland in disguise. Wiesel understands why: “If one wants to calm his nerves and forget the bitter realities of daily life, there is no better-suited place to do so than Disneyland. In Disneyland, the land of children’s dreams, everything is simple, beautiful, good. There, no one screams at his fellow, no one is exploited by his fellow, no one’s fortune derives from his fellow’s misfortune. If children had the right to vote, they would vote Disney their president. And the whole world would look different.”

Wiesel concludes his description of visiting Disneyland with a story from four years earlier, when he was a journalist covering the Cannes Film Festival on the French Riviera and had the opportunity to interview Walt Disney in person after the latter had been awarded the French Légion d’Honneur in honor of his cinematographic contributions. (Wiesel would himself later receive this same award in 1984, two years before he won the Nobel Peace Prize.)

At a ceremony that was flowing with champagne, surrounded by screenwriters, producers, and film personalities from around the world, Elie Wiesel approached Walt Disney and asked: “The whole world loves you; your children’s films have brought you honor, renown, and anything one could wish for. I want to ask you: What is your goal? What do you want—what would you want—to achieve with your film work?”

Wiesel then writes:

“Disney thought for a bit, fixing his large eyes on a far off, invisible point in space, and answered:

‘Childhood. The goal of my work has always been to awaken a sense of youth in men, in adults. Because—the best part of man’s life is his childhood.’ ”

Wiesel’s ending places the Holocaust survivor next to Mickey Mouse, in a way that feels at once jarring and profound and that Walt Disney would certainly have appreciated:

“Difficult as it is to admit, I did not understand his words at the time. I do understand them better now, however, having been to Disneyland.

“Today, I visited not only Disneyland, but also—and especially—my childhood.”

Menachem Butler, an associate editor at Tablet Magazine, is the program fellow for Jewish Law Projects at the Julis-Rabinowitz Program on Jewish and Israeli Law at the Harvard Law School, and a co-editor at the Seforim blog. Follow him on Twitter @MyShtender.