When I was 15, I was given the opportunity to go to Israel. It’s a thing young Jews are encouraged to do in order to learn more about who they are (and give their parents a few summer weeks off). The year before I turned 15, United Synagogue Youth began offering a somewhat controversial program for select youth: One week in Poland to learn about the Holocaust followed by five weeks in Israel.

I immediately knew I wanted to do this. I knew it wouldn’t be pleasant, but I knew it was important. I had learned about the Holocaust in both high school and Hebrew School, but it was all statistics and history. I needed more.

When I told my parents I wanted to go on this program, they reacted with measured support. When I told my youth group advisor I wanted to go on this program, she acted with even more measured support.

I had to not only apply for the program, but also go through psychological screening, write an essay as to why I wanted to visit places like Auschwitz and Trebklinka, and go to an extensive orientation with a man called Elie Wiesel.

I had to not only apply for the program, but also go through psychological screening, write an essay as to why I wanted to visit places like Auschwitz and Trebklinka, and go to an extensive orientation with a man called Elie Wiesel.

Before I could meet Elie, I had to read Night, his memoir about his experience during the Holocaust. I remember it being a tough read for a 15 year-old, but I read it with a hunger for knowledge I hadn’t yet felt. As an upper-middle-class kid growing up in Southern California, it gave me a perspective I carry with me to this day.

So there I was, sitting with Elie Wiesel in an office at a synagogue in Los Angeles. It was just me and him and a dog-eared copy of Night. He asked me how I was. I said I was doing great, and that I was looking forward to the trip. He asked me how old I was.

He then told me that he was 15 when he was sent to Auschwitz.

I sat in silence. There I was, wearing a Ralph Lauren jacket sitting in a leather chair in Southern California in the United States of America. There he was, just 57, already looking old to me, having experienced one of the worst things man has ever had to endure, sitting at a desk, interviewing me like a school counselor.

He broke the silence.

“Why would you want to go there?”

I knew he would ask me this. I had practiced the answer twenty times on the drive up. It suddenly eluded me under the pressure. I had nothing. Blank.

A year of Debate Team (yeah I’m a nerd) taught me to not say anything until you were sure. So I thought. I started from the beginning. He waited patiently. There was silence.

“I need to go,” was how I ended it. I couldn’t think of anything else.

Elie’s face widened into a smiled. He then said he understood.

We talked for another five, maybe ten minutes. I don’t remember about what – probably some very important things about keeping faith in humanity and maintain a spiritual side despite all the horrible things going on in the world. I’m sure it was very deep. I think we talked about dogs. I think he was getting over a cold.

But most of all I remember his smile.

And that he could possibly smile after seeing his father wither away in front of him as he described in Night. That he could possibly smile after being through such a state of utter social and physical destruction. That he could emerge from the dark, into the light, and smile at a 15 year-old who probably looked a lot like he did then.

He recommended me for the program. I went. I learned. I changed.

So as we remember Elie, let’s smile. Let’s emerge from the night.

RIP, Elie. And thanks.