If my mother (daughter of the revered Pittsburgher Rebbe) hadn’t made her way to the back of a bus in Florida in 1946 and defiantly plunked herself down in the “colored section” causing a brouhaha of epic proportions; and if my father (great-grandson of the holy Sanzer Rebbe) hadn’t stolen across Europe during the War and boarded a rickety vessel to Palestine, where, immediately upon disembarking he had sought out the nearest Irgun enclave and signed up as a member; if my parents hadn’t been such dissonant outliers to begin with (but still clinging to the Hassidic dress of their forebears), well maybe then I could blame my complete radicalization upon Elie Wiesel.

But the truth is, long before I even knew his name, there were seeds.

Before I read Elie Wiesel at the age of 15 – first “Jews of Silence” and then “Night,” – I was largely unaware of the tremendous suffering of our people. It was still a time when people could not or would not speak. Despite my father’s heart-rending screams during his frequent nightmares, by day a thick silence reigned in our home. “Night” was the first book to actually transport me to Auschwitz, where invisible numbers were tattooed on my arm and permanent scars were branded into my essence in a way that no prior book had ever achieved. When I would close the covers of the other books that I read about the Holocaust, I quickly – and safely – returned to Brooklyn. But Elie Wiesel took me to Auschwitz and left me there, a permanent prisoner of the “kingdom of the night.” In a certain way, I never came back.

Three million Jews were being held captive in the Soviet Union, stripped of all religious rights. Why was no one doing anything about it?

“Jews of Silence” stunned me with its revelations. There were three million Jews held captive in the Soviet Union – stripped of all religious rights? How could it be? How was it possible that no one was doing anything about it? When I asked my principal if I could start a Soviet Jewry club in our high school, he waved me away with a dismissive gesture. “Let the adults take care of this,” he replied. “What could you possibly achieve?”

My grandfather, Rabbi Yosef Leifer, the founder of the Pittsburgher dynasty

I may very well have remained a typical, mainstream hassidic girl were it not for this principal’s cavalier response and the searing message of “Night”: that of the trinity that comprised the Holocaust construct – the victim, the victimizer, and the silent spectator – it was the apathetic onlooker who was the most contemptible of all. Silence and indifference as a response to any atrocity was a heinous sin – a message that galvanized my two friends and me to hop a subway to Manhattan and, with beating hearts, wend our way to the offices of The SSSJ (Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry). There, the specter of three long-skirted Bais Yaakov girls was an incongruous sight to be sure (the movement largely attracted more “modern orthodox” types, as well as secular idealists) but we were warmly welcomed.

For us, joining SSSJ was a momentous act; we had stood at a crossroads trembling and taken the path less traveled by (at least for girls of our background). Few of our cohorts in Boro Park participated in demonstrations then; silent diplomacy was considered the better course. But after reading Wiesel, we could not be silent. That would put us in the league of those who had watched babies being torn from their mother’s arms and said nothing; those who witnessed their Jewish neighbors being herded into cattle cars and said nothing; those who observed Jews being beaten, mauled by dogs, shot in cold blood and said nothing. We did not want Elie Wiesel’s blistering indictment, or God’s, or our own.

My father, Rabbi Laizer Halberstam, and me in matching shtreimels.

While my classmates dedicated themselves to visiting the sick, tutoring the disabled, grocery shopping for inbound seniors and myriad other philanthropic acts (no one performs as much chesed – acts of kindness – as ultra-Orthodox Jews), I continued my involvement with Soviet Jewry (never once speaking to the boys as that was strictly forbidden, and continuing to be adhere to halacha stringently).

I became labeled “an activist” (not a compliment). But my parents supported me completely and were proud.

I did not keep my views to myself and soon I became labeled “an activist” (not a compliment). My parents, however, supported me completely, and were proud. I participated in myriad Soviet Jewry rallies which at that time drew throngs, and later on I enlisted in the JDL in its early halcyon years before it turned aggressive. One night, I joined 800 others in sitting down in front of the Soviet Mission (considered a legal offense) and was carted away by a paddy wagon to a police station where I was photographed and fingerprinted (I was 19). When I called my father and told him that I had been arrested, he paused for a heartbeat and then said, “Did they give you something to eat at least?”

The next day, the judge offered to rip up the records of those under 21, if we promised never to participate in these types of protests again. Seven hundred eighty kids stepped forward and made their vows. I was one of 20 who said, “No, we could not promise that.” I guess we had all read Elie Wiesel.

Now that I am a doddering grandmother, I look back upon those years of activism with only pride, no regrets. And being a true wimp at heart, I know that much of my uncharacteristic bold determination to speak up for oppressed Jews and other minorities was galvanized by the power of Elie Wiesel’s unforgettable words. The flame he ignited within me was for many decades strong and resolute; now age has made it more feeble and at the last anti-CNN rally I attended I actually had to bring along a beach chair (I knew I wouldn’t be able to stand so long). The fact that my fire burned for so long was due to the tremendous influence he wielded upon me.

Reading Elie Wiesel made me more religious than ever before. I felt a deep sense of responsibility to the millions who had evaporated into smoke to continue their legacy. How could I allow their apocalyptic suffering to be in vain? Resurrecting the Jewish sparks was the only sane response to the insanity that had robbed us of them. The more I read Elie Wiesel, the deeper I wished to go with my Judaism.

When Rebbetzin Sara Freifeld told me that I was accepted to her seminary in Far Rockaway, I felt I had to come clean to this pure, noble woman. “Rebbetzin Freifeld, maybe you won’t want to accept me once you hear my background?”

“Yes?” she said with a bright smile that never wavered.

“I was a member of the SSSJ and participated in rallies.”

“Yes?” she continued to smile encouragingly, as if I had performed an inconsequential act, when both of us knew how anomalous it was.

“I also joined the JDL in its early years, and was arrested for sitting down in front of the Soviet Mission.” I lowered my head, waiting for the ax to fall.

Instead she stepped forward and gave me a huge embrace. “What a zechut (merit),” she said, “to have such an Ohev Yisroel (lover of Jews) in my class! Please start tomorrow.”

“I must have been allowed to survive for some reason,” Elie Wiesel often told reporters. “What I must do is witness and speak out like no one spoke for us.”

Thank you for giving me the strength to fight my own apathy and for giving me the impetus to leave my comfort zone.

Mr. Wiesel, you were a veritable Jewish Atlas, constantly blowing the shofar for peace and justice, champion of Jewish and non-Jewish causes alike, ever vigilant in heeding the call of the suffering and still, the gentlest of warriors. How deeply you cared, and how much moral weight you carried! There must have been times when you felt so irrevocably alone, but know that some of us were swept up in your tidal wave and you carried us along with you. You endowed an entire generation with the gift of their own authentic voice in the aftermath of an era when no voices were raised. But let me not speak for others, let me speak for myself: I thank you for giving me the strength to fight my own apathy and for giving me the impetus to leave my comfort zone while holding onto my yiddishkeit. You changed my world, as you most assuredly did for countless others.

My husband Mordechai Mandelbaum, founder of MASBIA soup kitchens, and my two sons Yossi and Eliezer

Mr. Wiesel, I know that there were many lessons you taught your readers, and the urgent need to stand up and speak out was only one them. But for me, this was the quintessence of what I came away with from your books: Own your voice, and never be afraid.