Eliezer "Elie" Wiesel was a noted Holocaust survivor and an award winning novelist, journalist, and human rights activist. He also won a Nobel
Prize laureate in World Peace.
Wiesel (born September 30, 1928) was born in Sighet, a Rumanian shtetl, to an Orthodox Jewish family. His parents, Shlomo and Sarah, owned a grocery store in the village. He had two older sisters, Hilda and
Bea, and a younger sister, Tsiporah. When he was three years old, Wiesel
began attending a Jewish school where he learned Hebrew, Bible,
and eventually Talmud.
His thinking was influenced by his maternal grandfather who was a prominent Hasid. He also spent time talking
with Moshe, a caretaker in his synagogue who told Wiesel about the Messiah and other mysteries of Judaism.
In 1940, the Nazis turned Sighet over to Hungary.
In 1942, the Hungarian government ruled that all Jews who could not
prove Hungarian citizenship would be transferred to Nazi-held Poland
and murdered. The only person from Sighet who was sent to Poland and escaped was Moshe, who returned to Sighet to tell his story. He
told of deportations and murder, but the people thought he was crazy
and life went on as usual. In 1942, Wiesel celebrated his bar
mitzvah. He continued studying the Bible and other Jewish books,
and became particularly attracted to Kabbalah,
Jewish mysticism. To further this study, he learned about astrology,
parapsychology, hypnotism and magic. He found a kabbalist in Sighet
to teach him.
In March 1944, German soldiers occupied Sighet. They
forced the Jews to wear yellow stars.
The Nazis closed Jewish stores, raided their houses and created two
ghettos. In May, deportations began. The Wiesels Christian maid,
Maria, invited them to hide in her hut in the mountains, but they turned
her down, preferring to stay with the Jewish community. In early June,
the Wiesels were among the last Jews to be loaded into a cattle car,
with eighty people in one car. Wiesel later wrote, "Life in the
cattle cars was the death of my adolescence."1
After four days, the train stopped at Auschwitz.
Wiesel, then 15, followed the instructions of a fellow prisoner and
told the waiting SS officer that he was eighteen, a farmer and in good
health. He and his father were sent to be slave laborers. His mother
and younger sister were taken to the gas chambers. Wiesel and his father
survived first Auschwitz and then the Buna labor camp for eight months,
enduring beatings, hunger, roll calls and other torture. Wiesel witnessed
hangings and once, a "trial" by three religious rabbis against
God. Yet he still prayed every day. Like other inmates, Wiesel was stripped
of his identity and became identified only by his number: A-7713.
In the winter of 1944-1945, Wiesels foot
swelled up. He went to a camp doctor who operated on him. Two days later,
on January 19, the SS forced
the inmates of Buna on a death march. For ten days, the prisoners were
forced to run and, at the end, were crammed into freight cars and sent
to Buchenwald. Of the 20,000 prisoners
who left Buna, 6,000 reached Buchenwald.
Upon arrival on January 29, Wiesels father, Shlomo, died of dysentery,
starvation and exhaustion.
Wiesel was sent to join 600 children in Block 66 of Buchenwald. As the end of the
war approached, on April 6, 1945, the guards told the prisoners they
would no longer be fed, and began evacuating the camp, killing 10,000
prisoners a day. On the morning of April 11, an underground movement
rose from within the camp and attacked the SS guards. In early evening,
the first American military units arrived and liberated the camp.
After liberation, Wiesel became sick with intestinal
problems and spent several days in a hospital. While hospitalized, he
wrote the outline for a book describing his experiences during the Holocaust.
He was not ready to publicize his experiences, however, and promised
himself to wait 10 years before writing them down in detail.
When Wiesel was released from the hospital, he had
no family to return to. He joined a group of 400 orphan children being
taken to France. Upon arrival, he tried to immigrate to Palestine but
was not allowed. From 1945 to 1947, he was in different homes in France found for him by a Jewish group called the Childrens Rescue Society.
He remained an Orthodox Jew in practice, but began to have questions
In 1947, he began to study French with a tutor. By
chance, Wiesels sister, Hilda, saw his picture in a newspaper
and got in touch with him. Months later, Wiesel was also reunited with
his sister Bea in Antwerp.
In France, Wiesel met a Jewish scholar who gave his
name simply as Shushani. Shushani was a brilliant yet mysterious man
who enchanted his audience with his insights in all areas of Jewish
and general knowledge, but did not reveal any information about his
personal life. Wiesel became his student and was deeply influenced by
him. Shushani taught Wiesel to question and made Wiesel realize how
little he actually knew.
In 1948, Wiesel enrolled in the Sorbonne University
where he studied literature, philosophy and psychology. He was extremely
poor and at times became depressed to the point of considering suicide.
In time, however, he became involved with the Irgun,
a Jewish militant organization in Palestine, and translated materials
from Hebrew to Yiddish for the Irguns newspaper. He began working
as a reporter and in 1949, traveled to Israel as a correspondent for
the French paper LArche. In Israel, he secured a job as
Paris correspondent for the Israeli paper Yediot Achronot and
in the 1950s he traveled around the world as a reporter. He also became
involved in the controversy over whether Israel should accept reparation
payments from West Germany.
A turning point in Wiesels life came in 1954
when Wiesel interviewed the Catholic writer Fancois Mauriac. During
the interview, everything Mauriac said seemed to relate to Jesus. Finally,
Wiesel burst out that while Christians love to talk about the suffering
of Jesus, "…ten years ago, not very far from here, I knew Jewish
children every one of whom suffered a thousand times more, six million
times more, than Christ on the cross. And we dont speak about
them."2 Wiesel ran from the room, but
Mauriac followed him, asked Wiesel about his experiences and advised
him to write them down.
Wiesel then spent a year drawing on the outline he
had written in the hospital to write an 862-page Yiddish manuscript
he called And the World Was Silent. He gave it to a publisher
in Argentina and it came back as a 245-page book called Night.
The book, published in France in 1958 and in the U.S. in 1960, was autobiographical
and told of his experiences from his youth in Sighet through his liberation
from Buchenwald. It is also
a personal account of his loss of religious faith.
In 1955, Wiesel moved to New York as foreign correspondent
for Yediot Ahronot. It was around this time that he decided to
stop attending synagogue, except on the High Holidays and to say yizkor,
as a protest against what he concluded was divine injustice.
One night in July 1956,
Wiesel was crossing a New York street when
a taxi hit him. He underwent a 10-hour operation.
Once he recovered, he began to concentrate
more on his writing. He dedicated four hours
every morning, from 6:00 a.m. until 10:00
a.m. to writing. After Night was
published, he wrote a second novel in 1961, Dawn,
about a concentration camp survivor. In
quick succession he wrote The
Accident (1961), about a survivor
hurt in a traffic accident, The
Town Beyond the Wall (1962), The
Gates of the Forest (1964), and Legends
of Our Time (1966), all novels chronicling Jewish suffering
during and after the Holocaust.
In 1965, he visited the Soviet Union and
wrote a book entitled The Jews of Silence (1966)
about the plight of Soviet
Jewry. After the 1967
war in Israel, he wrote A
Begger in Jerusalem (1968) about
Jews responding to the reunification of Jerusalem.
This book earned him the Prix Medicis,
one of Frances top literary rewards.
In these books, he portrays characters
in situations that are exclusively Jewish.
He perceives reality through the lens of Talmud, Kabbalah,
His books “mingle tales and legends with
testimony, recollection and lament.”3
In 1969, Wiesel married Marion Erster Rose, a divorced
woman from Austria. She translated all of Wiesels subsequent books.
In 1972, they had a son who they named Shlomo Elisha Wiesel, after Wiesels
Wiesel continued writing through the 1970s and 1980s.
His book The
Trial of God (1977) depicts a trial in which a man accuses
God of "hostility, cruelty and indifference."4 Wiesel, throughout his life, refused to completely abandon his belief
in God as caretaker of His people, while at the same time he questioned
Gods seeming indifference to Jewish suffering. His cantata Ani
Maamin (1973) presents a dialogue between the Jewish forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who have the
responsibility of directing Gods attention to Israels suffering
throughout the generations. Other books include One
Generation After (1972), Four
Hasidic Masters (1978), The
Testament (1980) and two volumes of his memoirs (1995 and 1999).
Wiesel was outspoken about
the suffering of all people, not only Jews.
In the 1970s, he protested against South
African apartheid. In 1980, he delivered
food to starving Cambodians. In 1986, he
received the Nobel
Peace Prize as “a messenger to
mankind,”5 and “a human being dedicated to humanity.”6 He explained his actions by saying the whole
world knew what was happening in the concentration
camps, but did
nothing. “That is why I swore never
to be silent whenever and wherever human
beings endure suffering and humiliation.”7
From 1972 to 1978, Wiesel was a Distinguished Professor
of Judaic Studies at the City University of New York. In 1978, he became
a Professor of Humanities at Boston University. In 1978, President Jimmy
Carter asked him to head the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, which
he did for six years. In 1985, Wiesel was awarded the Congressional
Gold Medal of Achievement. In 1988, he established his own humanitarian
foundation, the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, to explore the
problems of hatred and ethnic conflicts. In the early 1990s, he lobbied
the U.S. government on behalf of victims of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia.
Wiesel has received numerous awards and approximately 75 honorary doctorates.
In 1993, Wiesel spoke at
the dedication of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial
Museum in Washington, D.C. His words, which
echo his lifes work, are carved in
stone at the entrance to the museum: “For
the dead and the living, we must bear witness.”8
In 2011 Elie Wiesel's close friend and archivist Martha Hauptman happened upon an unfamiliar document among the thousands upon thousands of Wiesel's files at Boston University. Upon reading the manuscript she realized that it was a play, entitled “The Choice,” written by Wiesel in the 1960's that even he himself had forgotten that he had written. The play follows the internal struggle of a young Holocaust survivor in pre-state Israel who is told by his commander that he must execute a British officer who has been taken hostage. After the original document was translated from French to English, an eclectic assortment of readers gathered at Harvard University to perform the play for the first time in April 2015.
Wiesel died at his home in Manhattan, New York, on July 2, 2016.