Wiesel was born in Sighet, a Romanian shtetl, to an Orthodox Jewish family on September 30, 1928. 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 Wiesel’s 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, and back-breaking work. Like other inmates, Wiesel was stripped of his identity and became identified only by his number: A-7713.
In the winter of 1944-1945, Wiesel’s 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, Wiesel’s 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 did not think any of his family had survived the war. He joined a group of 400 orphan children 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 Children’s Rescue Society. He remained an Orthodox Jew in practice, but began to have questions about God.
In 1947, he began to study French with a tutor. By chance, Wiesel’s 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. Wiesel became his student and was deeply influenced by him.
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 Irgun’s newspaper. He began working as a reporter and in 1949, traveled to Israel as a correspondent for the French paper L’Arche. In Israel, he secured a job as Paris correspondent for the Israeli paper Yediot Achronot and, in the 1950s, 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 Wiesel’s 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 don’t 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 retitled 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 France’s top literary rewards. In these books, he portrays characters in situations that are exclusively Jewish. He perceives reality through the lens of Talmud, Kabbalah, and Hasidism. 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 Wiesel’s subsequent books. In 1972, they had a son who they named Shlomo Elisha Wiesel, after Wiesel’s father.
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 God’s 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 God’s attention to Israel’s 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 life’s 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 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 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.
Sources: David Aikman, Great Souls, (Nashville: Word Publishing, 1998);
Dan Cohn-Sherbok, Fifty Key Jewish Thinkers, (New York: Routledge, 1997);
Elie Wiesel, CD-ROM Edition, Judaica Multimedia (Israel) Ltd;
Michael Pariser, Elie Wiesel, (Brookfield: The Millbrook Press, 1994);
Elie Wiesel, All Rivers Run to the Sea: Memoirs, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995);
The World Book Encyclopedia. Elie Wiesel, Vol. 21, 1988 Edition;
Haaretz “Lost Elie Wiesel play ‘The Choice’ receives belated premiere,” (April 16, 2015).
1Aikman, p. 326.
2Aikman, p. 342.
5Pariser, p. 40.
6Aikman, p. 354.
7Pariser, p. 40.
8Pariser, p. 43.