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Interview with Chicago Tribune journalist Howard Reich
Interview with Chicago Tribune journalist Howard Reich
Award-winning journalist Howard Reich on life, hope, and his friendship with Elie Wiesel, the subject of his new book The Art of Inventing Hope
By Jessica Leving for Spertus Institute
One night in 2001, Howard Reich’s mother, then 69, ran out of her house in Skokie insisting someone was trying to kill her. No intruder was to blame—the culprit was late-onset PTSD. She was reliving her childhood memories from the Holocaust.
That experience prompted Reich, an award-winning journalist, to investigate his mother’s story. His search for answers took him around the globe. His reporting became a Chicago Tribune story, a highly-acclaimed book, and an internationally distributed film tracing her experiences.
Then, on assignment, he met world-renowned Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Elie Wiesel. Soon, an incredible friendship emerged. In his new book, The Art of Inventing Hope, Reich shares his intimate conversations with Wiesel about life, family, and the importance of telling our stories.
“My previous book was about figuring out what happened to my parents,” said Reich, whose father was also a Holocaust survivor. “This book is about trying to understand it.”
Below, Reich shares some sneak peeks and behind-the-scenes insight in advance of his upcoming talk at Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership on December 15.
Spertus: Let’s start with the obvious question: What was it like to meet Elie Wiesel?
Reich: I was definitely awestruck. I had no idea what to expect. All I knew was in all my years as a journalist, I had never had an interview experience like the one I was about to have.
Spertus: You weren’t the only child of survivors that Wiesel met and spoke with. What made your relationship different?
Reich: We became friends after about four minutes. We just struck this rapport immediately. I think a big part of it was timing; it was the right time, for him and for me. He was in his eighties, a time in life when people start to look back and reflect. I was looking for answers to all the questions I couldn’t ask my parents, and he was ready to give me those answers.
Sometimes I still can’t believe it. Our connection was such a profound privilege.
Spertus: Before your mother’s health issues prompted your interest, you describe being almost “allergic” to engaging with Holocaust issues. What advice would you give to children and grandchildren of survivors who share the hesitation you had toward exploring your parents’ stories?
Reich: I spent the first 40-some years of my life trying to avoid the Holocaust. The situation with my mother forced me to confront it. And it was terrifying.
I had nightmares before I went to Eastern Europe to find out my mom’s story. I had red splotches all over my body from stress when I wrote the story—that’s how visceral the experience was for me. But at least afterward, I knew. I had facts that I could write down. There’s something powerful about writing things down.
Once I got the story out, my head was finally in a different place. I got to be in a different place in my life. And now, a subject that I wouldn’t even whisper about, is something I go around the world talking about. This whole experience has transformed my life.
Spertus: The book talks about the lack of media coverage, or lack of audience interest, in the Holocaust while it was happening and immediately after. Do you think we’re experiencing something similar today with “compassion fatigue” in the news?
Reich: For sure. The news has gotten so bitter and divisive and ugly. All of us can only take so much. We have a duty to know what’s happening in the world, but we do need a respite from it.
For me, I find escape in music. For others, it might be sports or painting or another hobby. We can’t just be dark all the time. It’s urgent to know what’s happening so that these horrible things don’t happen again—but you also have to breathe.
Spertus: What does it mean to tell the story of the Holocaust today, as survivors are dwindling? How do we tell the story in a way that matters?
Reich: Elie Wiesel himself said he was a pessimist. He said “people read me, but they don’t listen to me.” But, he called himself an active pessimist—which means you don’t give up. Our job is to constantly speak about these subjects of concern to us wherever and whenever. If people aren’t listening, you talk more. If you don’t protest, who will?
There’s no place I visit where someone doesn’t share an anecdote about the time when they once heard Elie Wiesel speak. He was constantly out there talking to people around the world. And the focus was often students. What we do by speaking is teach. When I can speak to classes… that is one of the most precious audiences. That is where we can make the biggest impact. Speak to students so they won’t just have read a book, but will have heard a speaker. That’s what they’ll remember.
Spertus: I love the part of the book where you and Wiesel discuss the title principle: the art of inventing hope. Can you share a little more about that?
Reich: This is not a book about the Holocaust—it’s a book about finding hope where there isn’t, whether that’s the Holocaust, the pain of losing a child, or the suffering that comes from an illness. Wiesel felt that it is our duty as Jews to seek out hope no matter what.
People have said they feel peaceful after reading Wiesel’s words in this book. There is a measure of peace you get from hearing this great, brilliant man sharing what he learned through such a hard-fought life. And it transcends far beyond the Holocaust—he’s speaking to us about how we live.
Above all, Wiesel was a humanist. He had great love for humanity in spite of what humanity has done to him and to the Jewish people. And if he could hold on to hope after all he has been through, and seen, and lost… we can, too.
Hear more at on Sunday, December 15, when Howard Reich will be interviewed on stage by Alison Pure-Slovin, Midwest Director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. A book signing will follow this Jewish Book Month program. Tickets are $8 for students and Spertus alumni, $10 for Spertus members, and $18 for general public. Purchase tickets online to reserve your spot >
This is the 2019 Norman Asher Memorial Program.