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.)]
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