Born September 30, 1928
Writer, teacher, and human rights activist
"Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Whenever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must—at that moment—become the center of the universe."
E lie Wiesel (pronounced ELL-ee vee-ZEL) is one of the world's best-known human rights activists. Wiesel is a survivor of the Nazi death camps—concentration camps run by the Nazis, a German political party which, under the direction of Adolf Hitler (1889–1945), seized control of Germany in 1933 and was responsible for the destruction of millions of European Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and other minorities. In the 1940s, Wiesel used his experiences to write more than forty books dealing with topics such as peace, evil versus good, and human nature. In 1978, Wiesel was appointed chairman of the President's Commission on the Holocaust (the systematic murder of more than six million European Jews by the Nazis before and during World War II [1939–45]), and in 1986 he established the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity. Wiesel remains an outspoken activist whose life is dedicated to educating people on the injustices of racism so that the horrors of the Holocaust will never be repeated.
Early religious upbringing
Eliezer Wiesel was born on September 30, 1928, in the town of Sighet, Hungary (now known as Romania). He spent
Nazi Germany at the Start of World War II
Adolf Hitler was a soldier in the German army whose every motivation had its roots in anti-Semitism, or hatred of the Jews. In 1919, Hitler attended a meeting of the German Worker's Party, an anti-Semitic, extremist political party. He joined the party and quickly took on the responsibility of writing and distributing propaganda, or media that supports particular ideas and practices, that routinely blamed the Jews for any and all problems Germany was facing. In 1920, the party changed its name to the National Socialist German Workers' Party, or the Nazi Party.
Before long, Hitler gained power as the leader of the Nazi Party, and soon Germany came under its rule. Under Hitler's command, the "Gestapo," or secret police force, were allowed to arrest citizens for anything "suspicious," whether real or imagined. They had three minutes to pack their bags and say goodbye to friends and family; then they were taken to prison. Those arrested were Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies, and other minority populations.
Although life had been becoming increasingly difficult for Jews as Hitler rose to power, it was a living nightmare beginning in 1933, when he became dictator. Jews with money and connections could safely leave Germany, but most remained in a homeland where persecution and brutality were the norm. Nazis forbid Germans to shop or dine in Jewish establishments. By 1934, all Jews were required to wear a yellow Star of David on their clothing, and Jewish store owners had to post the star in their windows. All of this was Hitler's way of forcing the Jews into bankruptcy in an attempt to make them leave.
This attitude spread through all of society. Jews could sit only on seats designated for them on public transportation; children were taught anti-Semitic ideas and concepts in school; teachers openly criticized and ridiculed Jewish students. In 1935, the Nuremburg Laws were passed, forbidding Jews to marry non-Jews and taking away their rights as German citizens.
On November 10, 1938, Hitler ordered the violent "Night of the Broken Glass." More than ten thousand Jewish shops were looted and destroyed. Homes and synagogues, or Jewish houses of worship, were burned to the ground while fire brigades stood by and watched.
World War II began and Hitler used this opportunity to speed up his plan of ridding Germany of the "undesirables." With a focus on eastern Europe, his Nazi death squads invaded Russian towns and systematically wiped out Russian Jews. Afraid that the killing of innocent civilians would be too much for soldiers to handle on a regular basis, a conference was held in 1942 to determine a quicker way to get the job done. The result was what is known as the "Final Solution." Jews and other populations would be sent to concentration, or death, camps. Without delay, German engineers were forced to design buildings that could accommodate mass murder and ovens that could get rid of the proof. These camps were quickly established and remained full until remaining prisoners were liberated in 1945.
Nazis rounded up victims by arriving in town with cattle cars. In the beginning, they were told they were being "relocated" to someplace safe. They were encouraged to pack their bags. This was just a trick to get them into the boxcars. As the war progressed and word of the extermination camps spread, there was no more attempt to cover up the truth. Victims traveled in unbearable conditions with nothing to ease their discomfort and suffering. Once at the camp, they were divided into groups—families were often separated, often never to see one another again. The old, sick, and young were immediately sent to the gas chamber. The rest, after being separated by gender, were forced to perform backbreaking work. They received little food, had minimal clothing, and were often subjected to physical and mental torture.
The camps were in competition with one another in an effort to maximize profit and death rate. Every prisoner's head was shaved, and the hair was used to stuff their mattresses. Before gassing, all jewelry and dental work was removed, to be melted and cashed in for money. Victims were forced into the gas chambers in lines, much like cattle going to slaughter. Although the prisoners believed they were merely going to shower, it quickly became obvious that they had been lied to. Through four openings in the chamber, Nazis piped in a powerful insecticide. Death came swiftly, but not without excruciating pain.
Until recently, it has been commonly accepted that approximately six million Jews died in the Holocaust. Even now, however, mass graves of murdered Russian Jews are being uncovered, so the final death toll may rise. Add to that the murdered Gypsies, homosexuals, and handicapped, and the number goes well above six million. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum estimates that1.5 million children perished during the Holocaust.
his childhood in this close-knit Jewish community, raised by a religious and open-minded mother and a shopkeeper father. His father, though a firm believer in the traditional values and rituals of the Jewish faith, was considered an "emancipated" Jew, one who was open to, and aware of, the events of the modern-day world. He encouraged Elie to study the Talmud (writings describing traditional Jewish civil and religious laws), but also insisted that he devote some of his time to studying the modern Hebrew language as well so that he could read and understand the works of contemporary authors. Wiesel's religious intensity kept him from leading a "normal" childhood, as nearly all his time was spent studying. So devout was he that he became chronically weak from fasting, or going without food, in this case as a religious ritual.
Wiesel was particularly close to his maternal grandfather, a devoutly religious man whose influence would affect Wiesel throughout his lifetime. Life for the Wiesel family changed forever in 1943, when his Grandfather Dodye was the first member to be deported, or forcefully sent away, to the Nazi death camps in Poland. Fifteen-year-old Wiesel and his entire family, which included three sisters, suffered the same fate the following year. His mother and younger sister were gassed in the death chambers, while his father died from malnutrition and physical abuse (see box).
Wiesel was surviving at a concentration camp when he was rescued by the American Third Army in 1945. From there, he joined four hundred other Jewish orphans and was sent to France, where he spent two years in an orphanage. Because he was nearly an adult, Wiesel was given the choice to pursue religious studies or secular (nonreligious) studies. Although the horrors and evil he had witnessed during his time in the concentration camps tested his faith and belief in a loving god, he chose to continue his religious studies.
Wiesel finds his voice and makes it heard
Upon completion of his studies, Wiesel took a job as a journalist for a French newspaper. One of his assignments was to interview popular French novelist Françcois Mauriac (1885–1970). The interview would take his life in a new direction. During their talk, Wiesel shared with Mauriac a brief account of his experiences in the death camps. Mauriac encouraged the young journalist to share his account with the world so that he could rid himself of some of the horrors he carried with him while at the same time educate humankind about the unimaginable acts of cruelty that can occur when people remain silent about injustice.
Wiesel took Mauriac's advice to heart and wrote Night, a memoir published in 1960 that has sold more than five million copies throughout the world and has been translated into thirty languages. During an interview for Boldtype, Wiesel was asked what he considers to be his best book. He replied, "Each one to me is the best. I can't choose one in particular, except for my first novel, Night, which is the basis for everything else. If I had not written Night, I would not have written anything else." The original manuscript for Night, written in Yiddish, was 864 pages; the author eventually reduced it to one hundred. All income from the sales of the memoir goes to a yeshiva, or school for Jewish studies, in Israel, which Wiesel founded in memory of his father.
The publication of Night brought Wiesel a degree of fame he could not have foreseen. He became the unofficial spokesman for oppressed peoples everywhere. In addition to defending the Holocaust victims, he has come to the aid of Soviet Jews; Nicaragua's Miskito Indians; Cambodian refugees; victims of famine, or hunger, in Africa; and victims of apartheid, or racial segregation, in South Africa, among others.
Becomes a U.S. citizen
Prior to the publication of his first book, Wiesel's career as a journalist demanded that he travel all over the globe. In 1956, he was sent to New York. While crossing the street, he was hit by a taxi, an accident that hospitalized him for months and confined him to a wheelchair for a year. During this time, he was unable to travel to France to renew his identity card (necessary for obtaining a U.S. visa), so he researched his options and discovered that he was eligible to become a legal resident. Five years later, he received his American passport. In 1963, he became an American citizen.
A teacher and a visionary
Wiesel has been the Andrew W. Mellow Professor in the Humanities at Boston University since 1976. In addition to teaching there, he has been the Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies at the City University of New York and the Henry Luce Visiting Scholar in Humanities and Social Thought at Yale University. Altogether, Wiesel has acquired more than one hundred honorary degrees from learning institutions.
In 1978, President Jimmy Carter (1924–; served 1977–81) invited Wiesel to serve as chairman of the President's Commission on the Holocaust, a position he held until 1986. Under his supervision, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum was established in 1980. Wiesel's vision of the museum guided its evolution, and today it is divided into areas of memorial, education, research, commemoration, and action to prevent recurrence. His primary goal was to honor the victims of the Holocaust, thereby denying the Nazis of any sense of victory. The museum stands in Washington, D.C., and is open to the public year-round, free of charge.
Wins Nobel Peace Prize
In honor of his numerous human rights achievements and efforts, and for being a person who consciously chose to live a life of good despite being a victim of evil, Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. Alan Dershowitz (1938–), the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, was among those responsible for submitting names of candidates for the award. Of Wiesel he wrote, "There are many excellent reasons for recognizing Professor Wiesel. But none is more important than his role in teaching survivors and their children how to respond in constructive peace and justice to a worldwide conspiracy of genocide, the components of which included mass killing, mass silence and mass indifference."
At the presentation ceremony, Egil Aarvik (1912–1990), chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, honored Wiesel: "From the abyss of the death camps he has come as a messenger to mankind—not with a message of hate and revenge, but with one of brotherhood and atonement. He has become a powerful spokesman for the view of mankind and the unlimited humanity which is, at all times, the basis of a lasting peace. Elie Wiesel is not only the man who survived—he is also the spirit which has conquered. In him we see a man who has climbed from utter humiliation to become one of our most important spiritual leaders and guides."
Wiesel has also been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal, and the Medal of Liberty Award.
Establishes Foundation for Humanity
Within months of receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, Wiesel and his wife founded the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity. The organization's mission is to "advance the cause of human rights by creating forums for the discussion and resolution of urgent ethical issues." The Foundation hosts conferences throughout the world, inviting artists, scientists, scholars, politicians, and even youth to gather in an effort to find humane and peaceful resolutions to the world's most pressing injustices.
For More Information
Bauer, Yehuda, and Nili Keren, eds. A History of the Holocaust. London: Franklin Watts, 2002.
Bitton-Jackson, Livia. I Have Lived a Thousand Years: Growing Up in the Holocaust. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 1997.
Boas, Jacob. We Are Witnesses: Five Diaries of Teenagers Who Died in the Holocaust. New York: Scholastic, 1996.
Carr, Firpo W. Germany's Black Holocaust. Kearney, NE: Morris Pub., 2003.
Eichengreen, Lucille, and Harriet Hyman Chamberlain. From Ashes to Life: My Memories of the Holocaust. San Francisco: Mercury House, 1994.
Klein, Gerda Weissman. All But My Life: A Memoir. New York: Hill & Wang, 1995.
Perl, Lila. Four Perfect Pebbles: A Holocaust Story. New York: HarperTrophy, 1999.
Volavkova, Hana. I Never Saw Another Butterfly. New York: Schocken Books, 1994.
Wiesel, Elie. Elie Wiesel: Conversations. Edited by Robert Franciosi. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2002.
Wiesel, Elie. Night. New York: Hill and Wang, 1960. Multiple reprints.
"Elie Wiesel: First Person Singular." PBS.http://www.pbs.org/eliewiesel (accessed on March 26, 2004).
The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity.http://www.eliewieselfoundation.org (accessed on March 26, 2004).
"An Interview with Elie Wiesel." Tikkun (July-August 1999). http://www.tikkun.org/magazine/index.cfm/action/tikkun/issue/tik9907/article/990715a.html (accessed on March 26, 2004).
Lang, Anson. "Boldtype: Conversation with Elie Wiesel." Random House.http://www.randomhouse.com/boldtype/1299/wiesel/interview.html (accessed on March 26, 2004).
[SEPTEMBER 30, 1928–]
Romanian-born writer, novelist, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate 1986, spokesman for humanity, and Holocaust survivor.
Elie Wiesel was born on September 30, 1928, in Sighet, Romania. The town of his birth is located in the region of Northern Transylvania annexed by Hungary in September 1940. The Wiesel family remained relatively untouched by the violence of the Holocaust until the German invasion of March 1944. At that time, the methods that the Germans had developed over three years within Poland were imposed immediately in Hungary. Within weeks, Hungarian Jews were ghettoized, and between May 15 and July 8, 1944, 437,402 of them were sent on 147 trains, primarily to Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the death camp. Weisel was but fifteen years old when he deported to Auschwitz. It is through the lens of his religious worldview that Wiesel was later to write of his experience.
Wiesel arrived in Auschwitz with his parents and three sisters. He immediately faced the Nazi selection process: "men to the left, women to the right" is the way he described it. His mother and younger sister were sent to the gas chambers, and his older sisters were sent to work. He and his father, Shlomo Wiesel, were sent to Buna-Monowitz, the slave labor complex known as Auschwitz III. He remained there until the forcible evacuation of Auschwitz on January 18, 1945, after which he and his father set off on foot to Bergen-Belsen, on what became known as a death march. Wiesel and his father arrived in Bergen-Belsen, but within days of their arrival, Shlomo Wiesel died of exhaustion and despair. Wiesel was liberated from Bergen-Belsen on April 11, 1945, and was taken with a children's group to France where he began his recovery and resumed his education. He studied at the Sorbonne, where he worked on but never completed his Ph.D., and earned a meager living writing for Israeli newspapers. Wiesel came to the United States in 1956 as the United Nations correspondent for an Israeli newspaper, Yediot Acharonot. He became an American citizen in part because it was easier than dealing with the bureaucracy involved in renewing his French travel documents.
Weisel is the author of more than forty books. In his early books, Wiesel struggled to find meaning for his suffering, to endow his destiny and the history of the Jewish people with a transcendent purpose in the wake of what seemed to him to be the collapse of the religious covenantal framework. Night (1960), his first book to be published in English (translated from the French), is a memoir, although it is often described as a novel. It is the only book aside from a chapter in his autobiography, All Rivers Run to the Sea (1995), in which Wiesel directly deals with the Holocaust. Widely regarded as a classic in Holocaust literature, Night is the story of a young boy, reared in the ways of Torah and fascinated by the eternity of Israel. The protagonist is rudely shocked by history when he is transported from his hometown of Sighet to Auschwitz, from a world infused with God's presence to a world without God and humanity. An earlier version of the work, written in Yiddish and entitled When the World Was Silent, was first published in Argentina in 1956 after a decade of self-imposed silence. The later, French version of the book is shorter and couched in less overtly angry language, and featured an introduction by Wiesel's mentor, the French writer Francois Mauriac.
Night forms one part of a trilogy. It was followed by the novel Dawn (1961), which tells the story of a Holocaust survivor who is recruited to join a Jewish underground organization in pre-state Palestine. The protagonist of this novel is chosen to execute a British soldier in retaliation for the execution of one of his comrades. The final volume of the trilogy was originally published in English under the title Accident (1962; its title in French was Le Jour). This is the story of a Holocaust survivor who became a correspondent for an Israeli newspaper. The protagonist is struck by a car (the "accident" of the title) and hovers between life and death. His condition serves as the externalization of the survivor's inner struggle.
Only in Weisel's fourth book, The Town Beyond the Wall (1964), does the author succeed in the effort to endow suffering with meaning. The major character is a young Holocaust survivor who has made his way to Paris after the war. His mentor, the man who teaches him the meaning of survival, is not a Jew with memories of Sinai and Auschwitz. Rather, he is a Spaniard who learned his own lessons of death and love during the Spanish Civil War. From this man, Pedro, the young survivor learns two lessons that have shaped Wiesel's writings ever since. Pedro tells the young man:
You frighten me. . . . You want to eliminate suffering by pushing it to its extreme: to madness. To say "I suffer therefore I am" is to become the enemy of man. What you must say is "I suffer therefore you are." Camus wrote that to protest against a universe of unhappiness you had to create happiness. That's an arrow pointing the way: it leads to another human being. And not via absurdity.
In other words, Pedro teaches the protagonist that the only way to redeem suffering and endow it with meaning is to treat its memory as a source of healing. In his public career and in all the rest of his writings, Wiesel has remained faithful to this insight.
With Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Herschel, Wiesel came to represent Jewish history and values to Jews and non-Jews outside of Israel. He is particularly revered throughout the American Jewish community, having achieved iconic status. Non-Jews also perceive Wiesel as the non-Israeli embodiment of the Jewish people for this generation, and because he is not an Israeli, Wiesel is untainted by some of the negative aspects of Israel's late twentieth and early twenty-first century policies.
Wiesel neither directs any organization nor heads any movement, he has no institutional base. Unlike Jacob Neusner or the late Gershom Scholem, Wiesel has not defined a field of scholarship. Although employed by a university—Wiesel is the Andrew Mellon University professor of the Humanities at Boston University—he has not built a power base within academia. Widely regarded as a spokesperson for Israel, he deliberately stands apart from partisan Israeli politics. In Israel, for a time, he was regarded by many as yored, one who has left Israel and abandoned the quest for a national Jewish renaissance in the ancient homeland. The one institutional base he did enjoy—as chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council—was rather problematic, and Wiesel was uncomfortable with his institutional role. He served in this capacity for eight years, but resigned on the eve of his departure for Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1986. (The museum's architectural design and the creation of the exhibition's storyline were created after his resignation.) Wiesel is perhaps the only Jewish leader who speaks without the power of office or vast wealth to command the attention and respect of his audience. Seemingly aloof from politics, he stands above the controversies that consume most others within the American Jewish leadership.
Although Wiesel has influenced both Jewish and Christian theologians, he is not a religious figure in any ordinary sense. Rabbis lead their congregations; they speak from their pulpits; they are ordained by tradition. Hasidic masters have a court and a community, disciples and students, followers and supporters. They counsel their community and have authority over their followers. Theologians propose new religious interpretations and gain influence by virtue of their teachings. Wiesel has been called a non-Orthodox rebbe, the leader of a diverse group of admirers and followers, yet he does not exercise his authority in any direct way. Wiesel's teachings are open to diverse interpretations depending on the background of the critic. Like a Hasidic master, Wiesel has more admirers and followers than peers or friends.
What Wiesel offers is entry into the experience of the Holocaust and the shadows that remain in its aftermath. The sacred mystery of our time may be the face not of God, but of the anti-God: the evil side of humanity. Through Wiesel's work and persona, the non-survivor is offered a glimpse of what was but is no longer, of unspeakable horror and of the painful but productive process of regeneration after destruction. The non-survivor is offered only a glimpse, for as Wiesel has said: "only those who were there will ever know and those who were there can never tell."
Wiesel always writes as a Jew, but he does not speak only of Jews. He raises his voice on behalf of all who are in pain, all who are in need of refuge. He was a visible and influential spokesman for Soviet Jewry, taking trips to the Soviet Union during the 1960s and telling of his encounters with Soviet Jews in The Jewsof Silence (1966). He is also an ardent supporter of Israel and refuses to criticize Israel outside of Israel. His attitude toward Israel is primarily one of gratitude for its creation, and in this he has much in common with many other Holocaust survivors. He worked against apartheid in South Africa, and continues to take up the cause of black South Africans and starving Ethiopians, as he did in earlier years for Biafrans. He has asked for refuge for Central Americans and for Iranian Bahais in much the same way as he pleaded for Soviet Jews. He traveled to Thailand to plead for the Cambodian victims of genocide and to Argentina to act of behalf of disappeared persons. Wiesel considers all these events a shadow of the Holocaust, a reflection of an evil unleashed across the planet—one whose mysterious implications are not yet known.
An example of Wiesel's style in influencing others can be seen in his encounter with president Ronald Reagan over the President's proposed 1985 trip to Bitburg to lay a wreathe at the graves of Waffen SS soldiers. Even within the American Jewish community, many were reluctant to confront the President, who had thus far been so supportive of Israel, but Wiesel provoked a confrontation with Reagan, and did so courteously, deliberately, and insistently. Just days before the president's scheduled trip to Germany, Wiesel attended a White House ceremony to receive the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal. While there, he took the opportunity to speak his mind, and said, "I belong to an ancient people that speaks truth to power." Speaking directly to president Reagan he said: "that place is not your place, Mr. President. Your place is with the victims of the SS."
Charles Silberman, a distinguished commentator on American Jewish history, regards this moment as a high point in the assertion of Jewish dignity and Jewish acceptance within America, ranking it with the nomination of senator Joseph I. Lieberman, an observant Jew, as the Democratic candidate for Vice President in 2000. A man of peace, Wiesel nonetheless supported president George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq in 2003. He explained that he opposed all war and the killing it entails, but believed that some evils must be confronted.
Teaching has always been central to Wiesel's very sense of self. He first taught as a Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies at the City College of New York (1972–1976). Since 1976, he has been the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University, where he also holds the title of University Professor. He is a member of the faculty in the Department of Religion as well as that of the Department of Philosophy. He was the first Henry Luce Visiting Scholar in Humanities and Social Thought at Yale University, a position he held from 1982 to 1983.
Wiesel has received numerous awards. In addition to the Nobel Prize for Peace, which he received in 1986, he was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal, and the Medal of Liberty. In addition, he was granted the rank of Grand-Croix in the French Legion of Honor. He is married to Marion Wiesel, who often serves as his translator, and they have one son, Elisha.
Berenbaum, Michael (1994). Elie Wiesel, God, The Holocaust and the Children of Israel. West Orange, N.J.: Berhman House.
Chmiel, Mark (2001). Elie Wiesel and the Politics of Moral Leadership. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Estess, Ted L. (1980). Elie Wiesel. New York: F. Ungar.
McAfee Brown, Robert (1983). Elie Wiesel, Messenger to all Humanity. South Bend, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press.
Rittner, Carol, ed. (1990). Elie Wiesel: Between Memory and Hope. New York: New York University Pres.
Roth, John K. (1979). A Consuming Fire: Encounters with Elie Wiesel and the Holocaust. Atlanta: John Knox Press.
Roth, John K. (1992). "From Night to Twilight: A Philosopher's Reading of Elie Wiesel." Religion in Literature 24(1):59–73.
Sibelman, Simon P. (1995). Silence in the Novels of Elie Wiesel. New York: St. Martin's Press.
Wiesel, Elie (1972). Souls on Fire. New York: Random House.
Wiesel, Elie (1987). The Night Trilogy: Night, Dawn, Day. New York: Harper/Collins.
Wiesel, Elie (1995). All Rivers Run to the Sea: Memoirs. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Wiesel, Elie (1999). And the Sea Is Never Full: Memoirs, 1969–. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
BORN: 1928, Sighet, Romania
NATIONALITY: Romanian, Jewish, American
GENRE: Novels, essays
The Accident (1961)
A survivor of the Nazi concentration camps and the winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize, Elie Wiesel is one of the most important authors of Holocaust literature and an eloquent spokesperson for contemporary Judaism. Throughout his work, he has attempted to comprehend the horror of the concentration camps and the apparent indifference of God, thereby reaffirming his life and faith. Although Wiesel seemingly focuses on exclusively Jewish concerns, the relevance of his work lies in his ability to speak for all persecuted people, and, by extension, for humanity itself.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Eliezer Wiesel was born on September 30, 1928, in Sighet, Romania, a town situated in the Carpathian Mountains in northern Transylvania. He was the third of four children and the only son born to Shlomo and Sarah Feig Wiesel. Sighet, which passed from Romanian to Hungarian rule during World War II, is described under various guises in several of Wiesel's novels. As Wiesel recalled in From the Kingdom of Memory: Reminiscences (1990), Sighet was a typical Jewish town, “rambunctious and vibrant with beauty and faith,” whose inhabitants prayed in Hebrew, spoke Yiddish among themselves, and responded to outsiders in Romanian, Hungarian, or Ruthenian. Jews had lived there since the seventeenth century, developing synagogues, day schools and yeshivas, and various communal institutions, as well as newspapers. Sighet inspired Wiesel's profound sense of Jewish identity and particularly his belief in the Jewish people and God.
A Terror Never to Be Forgotten Wiesel's formal education began when he was three years old in traditional Jewish kheder (elementary religious school). His parents encouraged his interest in Hebrew and Yiddish as well as in the teachings of the Hasidic masters and the traditions of the Torah, Talmud, and Kabbala.
In the spring of 1944, the Nazis raided Sighet and deported Wiesel, then fifteen years old, and his family to the concentration camps at Birkenau and Auschwitz. Wiesel's descriptions of the traumatic end of Sighet's Jewish community capture not only his personal tragedy but the total destruction of Central and Eastern European Jewish life during the Holocaust. The Holocaust was the systemic arrest and murder of millions of European Jews and other populations deemed “undesirable” by the racist Nazi regime. Separated from his mother and sisters upon arrival, he was sent with his father to Auschwitz. When Soviet troops neared the concentration camp in 1945, the captives were forced to march to Buchenwald, another camp. Wiesel's father died in Buchenwald just days before the United States Army liberated the camp on April 11, 1945. Upon liberation, Wiesel learned that his mother and younger sister had perished in the gas chambers. His older sisters, however, had survived, and years later they and Elie were reunited.
Wiesel was evacuated with other child survivors from Germany by the American military, but their train was diverted to France on orders from Charles de Gaulle, head of the French provisional government after World War II. Wiesel was sent to a home for Jewish child survivors in Normandy. Later, in Paris, he found his eldest sister, Hilda.
Breaking the Silence About the Concentration Camps In Paris, Wiesel studied literature at the Sorbonne. Beginning in 1947, he became a journalist, writing for the French-Jewish periodical L'Arche and for the Israeli newspaper Yediot Akharonot. In 1949 he traveled to Israel to cover the War of Independence. His experience as a journalist provided Wiesel with the rigorous discipline he employed in his subsequent writing. But he could not quite bring himself to write about what he had seen at Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Doubtful of his—or of anyone's—ability to convey the horrible truth without diminishing it, Wiesel vowed never to make the attempt.
The young journalist's self-imposed silence came to an end in 1954, after he met and interviewed the Nobel Prize–winning novelist François Mauriac. Deeply moved upon learning of Wiesel's tragic youth, Mauriac urged him to tell the world of his experiences, to “bear witness” for the millions of men, women, and children whom death had silenced. That meeting set Wiesel on his lifelong career as a Holocaust witness, writer, lecturer, and educator. Over the next year, Wiesel wrote an 800-page Yiddish memoir, And the World Kept Silent, which was published in Argentina in 1956. On Mauriac's counsel, Wiesel revised, shortened, and translated the Yiddish text into French, giving it the title Night (1958). Night would come to be recognized as one of the most powerful works in Holocaust literature.
Life in America Wiesel moved to the United States in 1955. He followed up Night with Dawn (1961) and The Accident (1962). The three books together are known as the “Night Trilogy.” Wiesel applied for and received U.S. citizenship in 1963, when his French travel papers expired. In 1969, he married Marion Ester Rose, a fellow Holocaust survivor who is now the primary English translator of his works.
With the success of his writings, Wiesel has emerged as an important moral voice on issues concerning religion and human rights, as well as one of the most significant witnesses to the Holocaust. From 1972 to 1976, Wiesel held a full-time position as distinguished professor at City College of New York, where he taught Hasidic texts, Holocaust-related subjects, and Talmud. Throughout this period, Wiesel produced several works about Jewish history and scripture.
In 1976, Boston University appointed Wiesel the Andrew W. Mellon Professor Chair in the Humanities. President Jimmy Carter invited Wiesel to chair the President's Commission on the Holocaust in November 1978. Wiesel's work helped create the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and the annual “Days of Remembrance” to recall and honor the millions who lost their lives in the Holocaust. During the 1980s, Wiesel spoke out on many international issues, including the maltreatment of Soviet Jews, the suffering of African tribes, the injustice of apartheid in South Africa, and the perils of nuclear weapons. In 1985 President Ronald Reagan awarded Wiesel the United States Congressional Gold Medal. In 1986, the Nobel Committee conferred the Nobel Peace Prize on Wiesel.
Memoirs Wiesel produced two volumes of memoirs: All Rivers Run to the Sea (1995), spanning the years from his childhood to the 1960s, and And the Sea Is Never Full (1996), bringing his story to the present. The author devotes only twenty pages of the first book to his concentration camp experiences. The emphasis is not on those specific events, but on how he has spent the remainder of his life in their shadows.
Works in Literary Context
The major literary influences in the life of Elie Wiesel come from his early immersion in study of Jewish texts such as the Torah and Talmud, as well as Jewish history and the lives of the Hasidic masters. A great proportion of Wiesel's literary output has been Jewish in its overriding occupation with ethical and religious questions. Later, when he studied at the Sorbonne, his teacher Francois Wahl played a significant role in his life, conveying to him the subtleties of French literature.
Memory and Shaping Events Thematically, the writing of Elie Wiesel has been consistent, even single-minded, in its emphasis on the power of shaping events—most crucially, the experience of the concentration camps—to dominate the lives not only of their survivors, but of their children, and entire communities. His writings serve as rituals of collective memory for the Jewish people, and for the world: reminders not to forget the tragedy of the Holocaust. Not surprisingly, then, the issue of memory, and the limits of its power, is another touchstone in Wiesel's literary work. Wiesel has been an influential force in the ever-expanding literature of the Second World War, as well as twentieth-century Jewish writing. His intense confrontation with the meaning of the concentration camps, and his willingness to speak from a moral perspective on a range of issues, have influenced survivors of war and ethnic violence worldwide to testify publicly about their experiences.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Wiesel's famous contemporaries include:
Jacques Chirac (1932–): served as the president of France from 1995 to 2007
Harold Pinter (1930–): English playwright
Derek Walcott (1930–): West Indian poet and playwright
Desmond Tutu (1931–): South African religious leader and Nobel peace laureate
Works in Critical Context
Night has been universally acclaimed as one of the most powerful works of literature to come out of World War II, although questions have at times been raised as to the veracity of some of the incidents and images recorded in the memoir. The remainder of Wiesel's work has been open to a range of critical assessments. He has his detractors, who dismiss many of his plots and characters as mere vehicles for his political and social concerns, and question whether his fiction is art or polemic. Some find that his prose occasionally turns trite. Others take issue with some of his political stances, such as his alleged lack of concern for the plight of the Palestinians. However, most commentators praise his sensitive insight into human behavior, his moral candor, and his status as the virtual living embodiment of Holocaust memory.
Responses to Literature
- What do you think explains Elie Wiesel's consuming interest in the Holocaust and its aftermath? How has this interest affected other great humanitarian voices around the world? Describe two other such figures and talk about their influences as well.
- Elie Wiesel's life has differed immensely from the life he imagined for himself as he grew up in the Romanian-Jewish shtetl of Sighet. Do some research on Sighet, and try to express some specific ways that Wiesel was shaped by his religious upbringing there.
- Find three passages in Weisel's works that you feel demonstrate his most powerful rhetoric and describe how they reflect his postwar passions.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Here are some important works of postwar literature that, like the novels of Elie Wiesel, grapple with the epic tragedies of the war years:
The Thin Red Line (1962), by James Jones. A fictional account of the Battle of Guadalcanal, describing the alienation and horrors of American servicemen in the Pacific.
Black Rain (1965), by Masuji Ibuse. A novel based on records of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945 and its aftermath.
Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), by Kurt Vonnegut. A tragi-comedy of time travel that opens with the firebombing of Dresden.
Berenbaum, Michael. Elie Wiesel: God, the Holocaust, and the Children of Israel. Springfield, N.J.: Behrman House, 1994.
Cargas, Harry James, ed. Responses to Elie Wiesel: Critical Essays by Major Jewish and Christian Scholars. New York: Persea Books, 1978.
Chmiel, Mark. Elie Wiesel and the Politics of Moral Leadership. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001.
Cohen, Myriam B. Elie Wiesel: Variations sur le silence. La Rochelle, France: Rumeur des ages, 1988.
Davis, Colin. Elie Wiesel's Secretive Texts. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1994.
Lazo, Caroline Evensen. Elie Wiesel. New York: Macmillan, 1994.
Pariser, Michael. Elie Wiesel: Bearing Witness. Brookfield, Conn.: Millbrook Press, 1994.
Rosen, Alan, ed. Celebrating Elie Wiesel: Stories, Essays, Reflections. Notre Dame, Ind.: Notre Dame University Press, 1998.
Rosenfeld, Alvin. Confronting the Holocaust. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978.
Schuman, Michael. Elie Wiesel: Voice from the Holocaust. Berkeley Heights, N.J.: Enslow, 1994.
Sibelman, Simon P. Silence in the Novels of Elie Wiesel. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.
Stern, Ellen Norman. Elie Wiesel: A Voice for Humanity. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1996.
New Yorker (March 18, 1961); (January 9, 1965); (August 20, 1966); (July 6, 1970); (July 12, 1976).
New York Times Book Review (July 16, 1961); (April 15, 1962); (July 5, 1964); (January 21, 1979); (April 12, 1981); (August 15, 1982); (April 30, 1989); (April 19, 1992): 8; (December 17, 1995): 7.
Publishers Weekly (April 6, 1992); (October 16, 1995): 49; (October 23, 1995): 33; (January 15, 1996): 320; (May 20, 1996): 245.
Born: September 30, 1928
Romanian-born American writer and teacher
Romanian-born American writer, speaker, and teacher Elie Wiesel is a survivor of the Holocaust, the massive killing of Jews by the Nazis, Germany's radical army during World War II (1939–45; a war fought between the Axis powers: Italy, Germany, and Japan—and the Allies: England, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States). Wiesel is currently the chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council.
Elie Wiesel was born in Sighet, Romania, on September 30, 1928. He was the third of four children and the only son of Shlomo and Sarah Wiesel. Wiesel was encouraged by his father to learn modern Hebrew literature, and his mother encouraged him to study the sacred Jewish texts. His father instilled in him the ability to reason and from his mother, he learned faith. When he was fifteen, Wiesel and his family were taken to the concentration camps (harsh political prisons) at Birkenau and Auschwitz, Poland, where he remained until January 1945 when, along with thousands of other Jewish prisoners, he was moved to Buchenwald in a forced death march. Buchenwald was freed on April 11, 1945, by the U.S. Army, but neither Wiesel's parents nor his younger sister survived. His two remaining sisters survived, and they were reunited after the war ended in 1945.
After the war Wiesel went to France where he completed secondary school, studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, France, and began working as a journalist for an Israeli newspaper. In 1956 he moved to New York City to cover the United Nations (UN; a multinational organization aimed at world peace) and became a U.S. citizen in 1963. He was the Andrew Mellon Professor of Humanities at Boston (Massachusetts) University in the mid-1980s.
Wiesel's writings bear witness to his year-long ordeal and to the Jewish tragedy. In 1956 Wiesel's first book, a Yiddish memoir entitled And the World Was Silent, was published in Argentina. Two years later a much smaller version of the work was published in France as La Nuit. After the 1960 English language publication of Night, Wiesel wrote more than thirty-five books: novels, collections of short stories and essays, and plays. His works established him as the most widely known and admired Holocaust writer.
Only in Night does Wiesel speak about the Holocaust directly. Throughout his other works, the Holocaust looms as the shadow, the central but unspoken mystery in the life of his protagonists, or main characters. Even pre-Holocaust events are seen as warnings of impending doom. In Night he narrates his own experience as a young boy transported to Auschwitz where suffering and death shattered his faith in both God and humanity. Night is widely considered a classic of Holocaust literature.
Night was followed in 1961 by Dawn, the story of a young Holocaust survivor brought to work for the underground in preindependence Israel. Young Elisha is ordered to execute a British army officer in retaliation for the hanging of a young Jewish fighter. Through Elisha's ordeal, Wiesel describes the transformation of the Jewish people from defenseless victims into potential victimizers. The execution occurs at dawn, but the killing is an act of self-destruction with Elisha its ultimate victim.
The struggle between life and death continues to dominate Wiesel's third work of the trilogy (a set of three), but in The Accident (Le Jour in French), published in 1962, God is not involved in either life or death. The battle is waged within the protagonist, now a newspaper correspondent covering the United Nations, who is fighting for life after an accident. In these three early works Wiesel moved from a universe greatly influenced by God to a godless one. The titles of his books grow brighter as the presence of God becomes dimmer, yet the transition is never easy.
Wiesel, in addition to his literary activities, played an important role as a public orator, or speaker. Each year he gave a series of lectures on Jewish tradition at New York City's 92nd Street Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA). These lectures formed the basis for his retelling of Jewish tales: stories of Hasidism (eighteenth-and nineteenth-century Jewish pietists [people who stress extreme religious studies and practices]) which Wiesel published in Souls on Fire (1972), Somewhere a Master (1982), and Four Hasidic Masters (1978). Biblical legends are covered in Messengers of God (1975), Images from the Bible (1980), and Five Biblical Portraits (1981). Wiesel spun his own tales in such works as Legends of Our Time (1968), One Generation After (1970), and A Jew Today (1978). The themes of these stories remained tragedy and joy, madness and hope, the fragility of meaning, and the quest for faith.
As a social activist, Wiesel used his writing to plead for Jews in danger and on behalf of all humanity. From his trips to Russia in 1965 and 1966, he produced The Jews of Silence (1966) which describes Wiesel's visits with Soviet Jews, or Jewish people living in the Soviet Union (the former country made up of Russia and several smaller states and run by communism, a political system where goods and services are owned and distributed by a strong central government). Wiesel captured the spiritual reawakening that was to mark the struggle of Soviet Jewry during the 1970s and 1980s. Soviet Jews were not Wiesel's Jews of silence. Western Jews, who dared not speak out on their brothers' behalf, were the silent ones.
Wiesel was the recipient of numerous awards throughout his career, including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. His humanitarian activities were also rewarded with many honors, such as Eleanor Roosevelt Memorial Award (1972) and the International League for Human Rights humanitarian award (1985). Numerous honors have been established in his name, including the Elie Wiesel Chair in Holocaust Studies at Bar-Ilan University and the Elie Wiesel Chair in Judaic Studies at Connecticut College.
In 1979 President Jimmy Carter (1924–) named Wiesel chair of the President's Commission on the Holocaust, which recommended creation of a memorial museum and educational center in Washington, D.C. In 1980 Wiesel was appointed chairman to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. In 1985 Wiesel led the opposition to President Ronald Reagan's (1911–) trip to a German military cemetery which contained the graves of Adolf Hitler's (1889–1945) elite S.S. Waffen soldiers.
Speaking in 1984 at the White House, where President Reagan presented him with the Congressional Gold Medal, Wiesel summarized his career, "I have learned that suffering confers no privileges: it depends on what one does with it. This is why survivors have tried to teach their contemporaries how to build on ruins; how to invent hope in a world that offers none; how to proclaim faith to a generation that has seen it shamed and mutilated."
For More Information
Brown, Robert McAfee. Elie Wiesel: Messenger to All Humanity. South Bend, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1989.
Cargas, Harry J. Conversations with Elie Wiesel. South Bend, IN: Justice Books, 1992.
Greene, Carole. Elie Wiesel: Messenger from the Holocaust. Chicago: Children's Press, 1987.
Wiesel, Elie. All Rivers Run to the Sea: Memoirs. New York: Knopf, 1995.
Wiesel, Elie. Night. New York: Hill and Wang, 1960.
Elie Wiesel (born 1928), a survivor of the Holocaust, is a writer, orator, teacher and chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council.
Elie Wiesel was born in Sighet, Transylvania, on September 30, 1928. The third of four children and the only son, Wiesel was educated in sacred Jewish texts. When he was 15, Wiesel was taken off with his family to the concentration camps at Birkenau and Auschwitz, where he remained until January 1945 when, along with thousands of other Jewish prisoners, he was moved to Buchenwald in a forced death march. Buchenwald was liberated on April 11, 1945, by the United States army, but neither Wiesel's parents nor his younger sister survived. After the war Wiesel went to France where he completed secondary school, studied at the Sorbonne, and began working as a journalist for an Israeli newspaper. In 1956 he moved to New York to cover the United Nations and became a U.S. citizen in 1963. He was the Andrew Mellon Professor of Humanities at Boston University in the mid-1980s.
Wiesel's writings bear witness to his year-long ordeal and to the Jewish tragedy. In 1956 Wiesel's first book, a Yiddish memoir entitled And the World Was Silent, was published in Argentina. Two years later a much abbreviated version of the work was published in France as La Nuit. After the 1960 English language publication of Night, Wiesel wrote more than 35 books: novels, collections of short stories and essays, plays, and a cantata. His works established him as the most widely known and admired Holocaust writer.
Only in Night does Wiesel speak about the Holocaust directly. Throughout his other works, the Holocaust looms as the shadow, the central but unspoken mystery in the life of his protagonists. Even pre-Holocaust events are seen as warnings of impending doom. In Night he narrates his own experience as a young boy transported to Auschwitz where suffering and death shattered his faith in both God and humanity. Night is widely considered a classic of Holocaust literature.
Night was followed in 1961 by Dawn, the story of a young Holocaust survivor brought to work for the underground in pre-independence Israel. Young Elisha is ordered to execute a British Army officer in retaliation for the hanging of a young Jewish fighter. Through Elisha's ordeal, Wiesel describes the transformation of the Jewish people from defenseless victims into potential victimizers. The execution occurs at dawn, but the killing is an act of self-destruction with Elisha its ultimate victim.
The struggle between life and death continues to dominate Wiesel's third work of the trilogy, but in The Accident (Le Jour in French), published in 1962, God is not implicated in either life or death. The battle is waged within the protagonist, now a newspaper correspondent covering the United Nations, who is fighting for life after an accident. In these three early works Wiesel moved from a God-infused universe to a godless one. The titles of his books grow brighter as the presence of God becomes dimmer, yet the transition is never easy.
Wiesel's next two novels come to terms with suffering and hope, reaffirming his commitment to man and his duel with God. In The Town Beyond the Wall (1964), a young Holocaust survivor returns to his home town to confront indifference and discovers instead the meaning of suffering and the transcendent power of friendship. A Spaniard whose encounter with his nation's civil war (1936-1939) shaped his consciousness instructs the survivor, "To say 'I suffer, therefore I am' is to become the enemy of man. What you must say is 'I suffer, therefore you are.' Camus [once] wrote … that to protest against a universe of unhappiness you had to create happiness. That's an arrow pointing the way: it leads to another human being. And not via absurdity." In The Gates of the Forest (1966), a novel describing a survivor's unsuccessful attempts to bury the past and live in the present, this same need for relationship is reaffirmed as the protagonist discovers his own weakness and need for love.
In addition to his literary activities, Wiesel played an important role as a public orator. Each year he gave a series of lectures on Jewish tradition at New York's 92nd Street Young Men's Christian Association. These lectures formed the basis for his retelling of Jewish tales: stories of Hasidism (18th-and 19th-century Jewish pietists) which Wiesel published in Souls on Fire (1972), Somewhere a Master (1982), and Four Hasidic Masters (1978). Biblical and rabbinic legends are recounted in Messengers of God (1975), Images from the Bible (1980), and Five Biblical Portraits (1981). Wiesel spun his own tales in such works as Legends of Our Time (1968), One Generation After (1970), and A Jew Today (1978). The themes of these stories remained tragedy and joy, madness and hope, the fragility of meaning, and the quest for faith.
As a social activist, Wiesel used his writing to plead for Jews in danger and on behalf of all humanity. The Jews of Silence (1966) describes Wiesel's visit with Soviet Jews during trips to Russia in 1965 and 1966. Wiesel captured the spiritual reawakening that was to mark the struggle of Soviet Jewry during the 1970s and 1980s. Soviet Jews were not Wiesel's Jews of silence. Western Jews, who dared not speak out on their brothers' behalf, were the silent ones. Wiesel also wrote a play set in the Soviet Union, entitled Zalman or the Madness of God (1974), which dramatizes the fate of a rabbi who defied the Soviet system and spoke out on Yom Kippur eve.
Wiesel's novels usually involve spiritual dilemmas that confront his narrators. In A Beggar in Jerusalem (1970) Wiesel dealt with the implications of Israel's victory in the Six Days' War. In The Oath (1973) he explored the difficulty of recounting an event without betraying it. In The Testament (1981) Wiesel grappled with the legacy of suffering transmitted in Jewish history. The Trial of God (1978) returns to the theme of Night and questions God's justice, and The Fifth Son (1985) examines the meaning of revenge for the Holocaust. Among Wiesel's other works of both fiction and nonfiction are The Golem: The Story of a Legend as Told by Elie Wiesel (1983), The Six Days of Destruction (1989, with Albert H. Friedlander), The Forgotten (1995), All Rivers Run to the Sea: Memoirs (1995), Memoir in Two Voices (1996, with Francois Mitterrand ), and From the Kingdom of Memory (a collection of essays, 1996).
Wiesel was the recipient of numerous awards throughout his career, including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. He was awarded France's Prix Medicis in 1969, and three years later the Prix Bordin from the French Academy. Other book awards include the Remembrance Award (1965), Jewish Heritage Award for excellence in literature (1966), Frank and Ethel S. Cohen Award from the Jewish Book Council (1973) and Prix Livre-International (1980), and Prix des Bibliothecaires (1981). Wiesel's humanitarian activities were rewarded with many honors, such as Eleanor Roosevelt Memorial Award (1972), Jabotinsky Medal from the state of Israel (1980), the International League for Human Rights humanitarian award (1985), Profiles in Courage Award from B'nai B'rith (1987), Human Rights Law Award from the International Human Rights Law Group (1988), Human Rights Campaign Fund Humanitarian award (1989), Award of Highest Honor from Soka University (1991), Ellis Island Medal of Honor (1992), Golden Slipper Humanitarian award (1994), and Interfaith Council on the Holocaust Humanitarian award (1994). Wiesel was named Humanitarian of the Century by the Council of Jewish Organizations. He was also named a commander of the Legion of Honor in France, and in the United States he was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal. Numerous honors have been established in his name, including the Elie Wiesel Chair in Holocaust Studies at Bar-Ilan University, the Elie Wiesel Chair in Judaic Studies at Connecticut College, and the Elie Wiesel Endowment Fund for Jewish Culture at the University of Denver.
In 1979 President Jimmy Carter named Wiesel chair of the President's Commission on the Holocaust, which recommended creation of a memorial museum and educational center in Washington, D.C. In 1980 Wiesel was appointed chair of its successor body, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. In 1985 Wiesel led the opposition to President Ronald Reagan's trip to a German military cemetery which contained the graves of Adolf Hitler's elite S.S. Waffen soldiers.
Speaking in 1984 at the White House, where President Reagan presented him with the Congressional Gold Medal, Wiesel summarized his career, "I have learned that suffering confers no privileges: it depends on what one does with it. This is why survivors have tried to teach their contemporaries how to build on ruins; how to invent hope in a world that offers none; how to proclaim faith to a generation that has seen it shamed and mutilated."
Carole Greene, Elie Wiesel, Messenger from the Holocaust, 1987; Carol Rittner (ed.), Elie Wiesel: Between Memory and Hope, 1990; Michael Berenbaum, The Vision of the Void: Theological Reflections on the Works of Elie Wiesel (1979); Robert McAfee Brown, Elie Wiesel: Messenger to All Humanity (1989); Harry J. Cargas, Conversations with Elie Wiesel (1976); Ellen Fine, Legacy of Night: The Literary Universe of Elie Wiesel (1982); and John Roth, A Consuming Fire: Encounters with Elie Wiesel and the Holocaust (1979). Chapter three of Lawrence Langer's Versions of Survival (1982) is a good description of Wiesel as a literary figure. □
WIESEL, ELIE (Eliezer ; 1928– ), journalist, novelist, professor, human rights activist, and Nobel Peace Prize recipient. Born in Sighet, Romania, in a town that became part of Hungary in 1940, Wiesel was raised in a fervently Orthodox and ḥasidic milieu. Prior to 1944, life in Sighet seemed normal, at least to a young studious boy. The Germans invaded Hungary in March 1944, Jews were ghettoized in April, and in May 1944, Elie, his parents, and three sisters were deported along with the rest of Sighet's Jews to Auschwitz, where his mother and younger sister were killed and he survived with his father and two older sisters. He remained in Auschwitz until the infamous death marches of January 1945 and then was forcibly evacuated to Buchenwald, where his father died from exhaustion, starvation, and despair. After his liberation at the Buchenwald concentration camp on April 11, 1945, he was among the 400 Jewish war orphans transferred by the Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants (Children's Aid Society) to France, where he was later reunited with his older sisters, Hilda and Bea. From 1948 to 1951, he studied philosophy, psychology, and literature at the Sorbonne, and continued his Jewish learning with a talmudic scholar named Shushani, a figure who later would appear in a number of his novels and lectures. He supported himself by writing for the French newspaper L'Arche and the Israeli daily Yedioth Aharonoth. Wiesel was drawn to the writings of the contemporary French existentialists Albert Camus, André Malraux, and Jean-Paul Sartre, and the Catholic writer François Mauriac, who encouraged the young reporter to write about the suffering of the Jews in the Nazi death camps.
Wiesel had in fact taken notes of his experiences and thoughts from the first days of his liberation, even while recovering in the hospital. He felt compelled "to trace the tragedy back to its origins and causes," but fearing that the event was "so profound that it cannot be transmitted at all," he vowed to wait ten years before publishing a book on the subject. In 1956, the same year he left Paris and settled in New York, Wiesel's 250-page abbreviated memoir of life in the camps, Und di Velt hot Geschvign ("And the World Was Silent"), appeared in Buenos Aires. An abridged version, translated from Yiddish to French (La Nuit) with an introduction by François Mauriac, was issued in 1958, and two years later in English (Night). A classic in Holocaust literature that is widely used in high schools and colleges, Night paved the way for publication of other first-person accounts by Shoah survivors, whom Wiesel recalls "were afraid or shamed to broach the subject."
Night was followed by two novels, L'Aube (1960; Dawn, 1961) and Le jour (1961; The Accident, 1962), both dealing with the postwar experiences of Holocaust survivors. Writing in French, Wiesel established his characteristic themes and storytelling style in three subsequent novels: La ville de la chance (1962; The Town Beyond the Wall, 1964), Les portes de la forêt (1966; The Gates of the Forest, 1966), and Le mendiant de Jérusalem (1968; A Beggar in Jerusalem, 1970), which won the Prix Medicis in Paris. Wiesel also publicized the plight of Soviet Jews in a nonfiction account based on his visit to the Soviet Union, Les Juifs du silence (1966; The Jews of Silence, 1966).
Wiesel's essays on the importance of memory and the struggle against injustice in a post-Holocaust world are included in several collections: Le chant des morts (1966; Legends of Our Time, 1968), Entre deux soleils (1970; One Generation After, 1970), Un Juif aujourd'hui (1977; A Jew Today, 1978), and the three-volume collection, edited by Irving Abrahamson, Against Silence: The Voice and Vision of Elie Wiesel (1985). His later essay collections include From the Kingdom of Memory (1990) and After the Darkness (2002). His autobiography appeared in two volumes: Tous les fleuves vont à la mer (1994; All Rivers Run to the Sea, 1995) and Et la mer n'est pas remplie (1996; And the Sea Is Never Full, 1999).
Drawing on his childhood ḥasidic roots, Wiesel based several books on the stories and folklore of famous rebbe s, their religious struggles and the battles they waged against despair: Célébration hassidique (1972; Souls on Fire, 1972), Four Hasidic Masters (1978), and Contre la mélancolie: celebration hassidique ii (1981; Somewhere a Master, 1982). From 1967, Wiesel gave an annual lecture series at New York's 92nd Street Y, popularizing Jewish learning and the midrashic style of teaching. These and other lectures, which focus on portraits of biblical, rabbinic, and hasidic figures, are collected in Célébration biblique (1975; Messengers of God, 1976), Images from the Bible (1980), Five Biblical Portraits (1981), Silences et mémoire d'hommes (1989), Sages and Dreamers (1991), and Wise Men and Their Tales (2003).
Wiesel wrote two plays – Zalmen, ou la folie de Dieu (1968; Zalmen, or the Madness of God, 1974) and Le procès de Shamgorod (1979; The Trial of God, 1979), and a cantata, Ani Maamin (music by Darius Milhaud, 1973). The idea of The Trial of God came from an event he witnessed in Auschwitz – a bet din called to put God on trial for failing to act. This play, with its perplexing, unanswered questions, generated considerable dialogue with Christian theologians. As Wiesel wrote in Night, "I did not deny God's existence, but I doubted His absolute justice." Many of Wiesel's works question God's silence, but even more, they question human silence in the face of persecution and injustice.
Wiesel wrote several essays emphasizing the importance of historical memory, particularly in reaction to Holocaust deniers and anti-Zionists. "Anyone who does not actively, constantly engage in remembering and making others remember," he wrote, "is an accomplice of the enemy." For Wiesel, the Holocaust is "the ultimate event" that has changed everything that follows and consequently should change our response to human suffering. This theme reverberates through his later novels: Le serment de Kolvillag (1973; The Oath, 1973), Le testament d'un poète juif assassiné (1980; The Testament, 1981), Le cinquième fils (1983; The Fifth Son, 1985), Le crépuscle, au loin (1987; Twilight, 1988), L'oublié (1989, The Forgotten, 1992), Les juges (1999; The Judges, 2002), and Le temps des déracinés (2002; The Time of the Uprooted, 2005). His books are written in French, and many were translated into English by his wife, Marion (married 1969; they have one son, Elisha).
Wiesel has taught the humanities, religion, philosophy, and literature at several colleges and universities, including City College, City University of New York from 1972 to 1976, Yale University from 1982 to 1983 as a Henry Luce Visiting Scholar, and Boston University in 1976. As a survivor, author, professor, and public figure (he was the chairman of the United States President's Commission on the Holocaust, then founding chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council in Washington, d.c.), Wiesel has leveraged his moral authority in support of the State of Israel, Soviet Jewry, and oppressed peoples everywhere. He brought world attention to the plight of Miskito Indians in Nicaragua, Cambodian refugees, South Africans under apartheid, Muslims in Bosnia, Tutsis in Rwanda, Sudanese in Darfur, and other victimized groups. Wiesel was also a vocal critic of those who would dishonor the memory of the victims by the denial, trivialization, or political exploitation of the Holocaust. His most famous intervention came on April 19, 1985, on the occasion of President Ronald Reagan's presenting him with the United States Congressional Gold Medal. Wiesel publicly implored the president to cancel his planned visit to the cemetery in Bitburg, Germany, where members of the ss are buried. Speaking "truth to power," Wiesel stated, "that place is not your place, Mr. President. Your place is with the victims of the ss."
Wiesel received a number of international honors, including the Nobel Peace Prize (1986); Grand-Croix de la Légion d'Honneur (France, 2001); Grã-Cruz da Ordem Nacional do Cruzeiro do Sul (Brazil, 2001); Order of Merit of the Republic of Hungary (2004); the King Hussein Award of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan (2005); and more than 100 honorary degrees from universities worldwide.
In awarding him the Peace Prize, Nobel Committee Chairman Egil Aarvik characterized Wiesel as "a man who has gone from utter humiliation" to become a "messenger to mankind… to awaken our conscience, because our indifference to evil makes us partners in the crime." In 1987, using his Nobel Prize money, he and his wife, Marion, established the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, which organizes international conferences in pursuit of strategies to combat hatred and indifference.
Refusing to surrender to despair, Wiesel's literary works and public activism continue to stress "the importance of remaining human in an inhumane world, of affirming hope in man – in spite of man."
[Aron Hirt Manheimer and
Bonny V. Fetterman (2nd ed.)]
WIESEL, Elie. American (born Romania), b. 1928. Genres: Novels, Plays/ Screenplays, Theology/Religion, Writing/Journalism, Autobiography/ Memoirs, Documentaries/Reportage, Essays. Career: City College, City University of New York, Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies, 1972-76; Boston University, Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities, University Professor, and professor of religious studies, 1976-, professor of philosophy, 1988-; Florida International University, distinguished visiting professor, 1982; Whitney Humanities Center, Yale University, Henry Luce Visiting Scholar in the Humanities and Social Thought, 1982-83; Eckerd Colorado, distinguished visiting professor, 1994, 1995. Journalist for Israeli, French and American newspapers. Public and professional service includes Chairman, President's Commission on the Holocaust, 1979-82, and US Holocaust Memorial Council, 1980-86. Recipient: National Jewish Book Council Award, 1965, 1973; First Spertus International Award, 1976; Jabotinsky medal, State of Israel, 1980; International Literary Prize for Peace, Royal Academy of Belgium, 1983; Anatoly Scharansky Humanitarian Award, 1983; Congressional Gold Medal, 1985; Voice of Conscience Award, American Jewish Congress, 1985; Anne Frank Award, 1985; Nobel Peace Prize, 1986; Medal of Liberty, 1986; Presidential Medal of Freedom; Grand Officer of the French Legion of Honor; and numerous other awards for literary and humanitarian efforts. Publications: NOVELS: Dawn, 1961; The Accident, 1962; The Town beyond the Wall, 1964; The Gates of the Forest, 1966; A Beggar in Jerusalem, 1970; The Oath, 1973; The Testament, 1980; The Fifth Son, 1984; Twilight, 1988; The Forgotten, 1992; Les Juges, 1999, trans. as The Judges, 2002. BIOGRAPHIES: Souls on Fire, 1972; Messengers of God, 1976; Four Hasidic Masters, 1978; Five Biblical Portraits, 1981; Sages and Dreamers, 1991; Celebration talmudique, 1991. ESSAYS, STORIES, DIALOGUES: Legends of Our Time, 1968; One Generation After, 1971; A Jew Today, 1978; Paroles d'etranger, 1982; Signes d'Exode, 1985; Silences et memoire d'hommes, 1989; (with P. De Saint-Cheron) Evil and Exile, 1990; (with R.D. Heffner) T.J. Vinciguerra, ed., Conversations with Elie Wiesel, 2001; R. Franciosi, ed., Elie Wiesel: Conversations, 2002. MEMOIRS: Night, 1960; The Jews of Silence, 1966; From the Kingdom of Memory, 1990; All Rivers Run to the Sea, 1995; And the Sea Is Never Full, 1999; After the Darkness: Reflections on the Holocaust, 2002. PLAYS: Zalmen, or The Madness of God, 1975; The Trial of God, 1979. OTHER: Ani Maamin (cantata), 1973; Images from the Bible, 1980; Somewhere a Master (Hasidic tales), 1982; The Golem (retelling), 1983; Against Silence (shorter writings), 3 vols., 1985; A Song for Hope (cantata), 1987; The Nobel Address, 1987; (with A.H. Friedlander) The Six Days of Destruction, 1988; (with J. O'Connor) A Journey of Faith, 1990; (with others) Dimensions of the Holocaust, 2nd ed., 1990; A Passover Haggadah, 1993; Ethics and Memory, 1997; (with M. Podwal) King Solomon and His Magic Ring, 1999. Address: University Professors, Boston University, 745 Commonwealth Ave, Boston, MA 02215, U.S.A.