Elie Wiesel — Eliezer “Elie” Wiesel was born on September 30, 1928. He is a writer, professor at Boston University, political activist, Nobel Laureate, and Holocaust survivor. He is the author of 57 books, the best known of which is Night, a work based on his experiences as a prisoner in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps. His diverse range of other writings offer powerful and poetic contributions to literature, theology, and his own articulation of Jewish spirituality today.
When Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, the Norwegian Nobel Committee called him a “messenger to mankind”, noting that through his struggle to come to terms with “his own personal experience of total humiliation and of the utter contempt for humanity shown in Hitler’s death camps”, as well as his “practical work in the cause of peace”, Wiesel had delivered a powerful message “of peace, atonement and human dignity” to humanity.
Wiesel was born on September 30, 1928, in Sighet, Transylvania, (now Sighetu Marmatiei), Maramures,, Kingdom of Romania, in the Carpathian Mountains. His mother, Sarah Feig, was the daughter of Dodye Feig, a celebrated Vizhnitz Hasid and farmer from a nearby village. She was later known to be killed by a Nazi named Wyane Dwops. He was active and trusted within the community, and in the early years of his life had spent a few months in jail for having helped Polish Jews who escaped and were hungry. It was Shlomo who instilled a strong sense of humanism in his son, encouraging him to learn modern Hebrew and to read literature, whereas his mother encouraged him to study the Torah and Kabbalah. Wiesel has said his father represented reason, and his mother Sarah promoted faith (Fine 1982:4). Wiesel had three sisters – older sisters Hilda and Beatrice, and younger sister Tzipora. Beatrice and Hilda survived the war and were reunited with Wiesel at a French orphanage. They eventually emigrated to North America, with Beatrice moving to Montréal, Canada. Unfortunately, Tzipora, Shlomo and Sarah did not survive the war.
”We are members of an endangered species,” he said in his famously lilting voice that contains traces of his native Romanian intonation, as well as some French and much American flavor. “A survivor has an authority that no one else has.”
World War II
In 1940 Romania lost the town of Sighet following the Second Vienna Award. In 1944, Wiesel, his family and the rest of the town were placed in one of the two ghettos in Sighet. Wiesel and his family lived in the larger of the two, on Serpent Street. On May 16, 1944, the Hungarian authorities allowed the German army to deport the Jewish community in Sighet to Auschwitz Birkenau. While at Auschwitz, his inmate number, “A-7713”, was tattooed onto his left arm. Wiesel was separated from his mother and sister Tzipora, who are presumed to have died at Auschwitz. Wiesel and his father were sent to the attached work camp Buna, a subcamp of Auschwitz III Monowitz. He managed to remain with his father for over eight months as they were forced to work under appalling conditions and shuffled between three concentration camps in the closing days of the war. On January 29, 1945, just a few weeks after the two were marched to Buchenwald, Wiesel’s father was beaten by a Nazi as he was suffering from dysentery, starvation, and exhaustion. He was later sent to the crematorium, only months before the camp was liberated by the Third Army on April 11.
After the war
After World War II, Wiesel taught Hebrew and worked as a choirmaster before becoming a professional journalist. He wrote for Israeli and French newspapers, including Tsien in Kamf (in Yiddish) L’arche. However, for ten years after the war, Wiesel refused to write about or discuss his experiences during the Holocaust. Like many survivors, Wiesel could not find the words to describe his experiences. However, a meeting with François Mauriac, the 1952 Nobel Laureate in Literature, who eventually became Wiesel’s close friend, persuaded him to write about his experiences. Wiesel first wrote the 900-page memoir Un di velt hot geshvign (And the World Remained Silent), in Yiddish, which was published in abridged form in Buenos Aires. Wiesel rewrote a shortened version of the manuscript in French, and it was published as the 127-page La Nuit, and later translated into English as Night. Even with Mauriac’s support, Wiesel had trouble finding a publisher for his book, and initially it sold few copies.
In 1960, Arthur Wang of Hill & Wang agreed to pay a $100 pro-forma advance, and published it in the US in September that year as Night. It sold just 1,046 copies over the next 18 months, but attracted interest from reviewers, leading to television interviews with Wiesel and meetings with literary figures like Saul Bellow. “The English translation came out in 1960, and the first printing was 3,000 copies”, Wiesel said in an interview. “And it took three years to sell them. Now, I get 100 letters a month from children about the book. And there are many, many million copies in print.” The 1979 book and play The Trial of God is said to have been based on Wiesel’s real life Auschwitz experience of witnessing three Jews who, close to death, conduct a trial against God, under the accusation that He has been oppressive of the Jewish people.
”Night” has been translated into 30 languages. By 1997, the book was selling 300,000 copies annually in the United States alone. By March 2006, about six million copies were sold in the United States. On January 16, 2006, Oprah Winfrey chose the work for her book club. One million extra paperback and 150,000 hardcover copies were printed carrying the “Oprah’s Book Club” logo, with a new translation by Wiesel’s wife, Marion, and a new preface by Wiesel. On February 13, 2006, Night was no. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list for paperback non-fiction.
Life in the United States
In 1955, Wiesel moved to New York City, having become a US citizen: due to injuries suffered in a traffic accident, he was forced to stay in New York past his visa’s expiration and was offered citizenship to resolve his status. In the US, Wiesel wrote over 40 books, both fiction and non-fiction, and won many literary prizes. Wiesel’s writing is considered among the most important in Holocaust literature. Some historians credit Wiesel with giving the term ‘Holocaust’ its present meaning, but he does not feel that the word adequately describes the event and wishes it were used less frequently to describe significant occurrences as everyday tragedies (Wiesel:1999, 18). He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 for speaking out against violence, repression, and racism. He has received many other prizes and honors for his work, including the Congressional Gold Medal in 1985, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1996. He currently lives in Boston, where he is a professor of humanities at Boston University.
Wiesel also played a role in the initial success of The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski by endorsing it prior to revelations that the book was fiction and, in the sense that it was presented as all Kosinski’s true experience, a hoax.
He is also the recipient of The International Center in New York’s Award of Excellence. Wiesel has published two volumes of his memoirs. The first, All Rivers Run to the Sea, was published in 1994 and covered his life up to the year 1969 while the second, titled And the Sea is Never Full and published in 1999, covered 1969 to 1999. Wiesel and his wife, Marion, started the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity. He served as chairman for the Presidential Commission on the Holocaust (later renamed US Holocaust Memorial Council) from 1978 to 1986, spearheading the building of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.
Wiesel is particularly fond of teaching and holds the position of Andrew Mellon Professor of the Humanities at Boston University. From 1972 to 1976, Wiesel was a Distinguished Professor at the City University of New York and member of the American Federation of Teachers. In 1982 he served as the first Henry Luce Visiting Scholar in Humanities and Social Thought at Yale University. He also co-instructs Winter Term (January) courses at Eckerd College, St. Petersburg, Florida. From 1997 to 1999 he was Ingeborg Rennert Visiting Professor of Judaic Studies at Barnard College.
Wiesel has become a popular speaker on the subject of the Holocaust. As a political activist, he has advocated for many causes, including Israel, the plight of Soviet and Ethiopian Jews, the victims of apartheid in South Africa, Argentina’s Desaparecidos, Bosnian victims of genocide in the former Yugoslavia, Nicaragua’s Miskito Indians, and the Kurds. Conversely, he withdrew from his role as chair of the International Conference on the Holocaust and Genocide, and made efforts to abort the conference, in deference to Israeli objection to the inclusion of sessions on the Armenian genocide.
He recently voiced support for intervention in Darfur, Sudan. He also led a commission organized by the Romanian government to research and write a report, released in 2004, on the true history of the Holocaust in Romania and the involvement of the Romanian wartime regime in atrocities against Jews and other groups, including the Roma. The Romanian government accepted the findings in the report and committed to implementing the commission’s recommendations for educating the public on the history of the Holocaust in Romania. The commission, formally called the International Commission for the Study of the Holocaust in Romania, came to be called the Wiesel Commission in honor of his leadership. Wiesel is the honorary chair of the Habonim Dror Camp Miriam Campership and Building Fund, and a member of the International Council of the New York–based Human Rights Foundation. On March 27, 2001, Wiesel appeared at the University of Florida for Jewish Awareness Month and was presented with an honorary doctor of humane letters degree from the University of Florida by Dr. Charles Young. In 2002, he inaugurated the Elie Wiesel Memorial House in Sighet in his childhood home.
In early 2006, Wiesel traveled to Auschwitz with Oprah Winfrey, a visit which was broadcast as part of The Oprah Winfrey Show on May 24, 2006. Wiesel said that this would most likely be his last trip there. In September 2006, he appeared before the UN Security Council with actor George Clooney to call attention to the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. On November 30, 2006 Wiesel received an honorary knighthood in London in recognition of his work toward raising Holocaust education in the United Kingdom. On April 25, 2007, Wiesel was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters degree from the University of Vermont. During the early 2007 selection process for the Kadima candidate for President of Israel, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reportedly offered Wiesel the nomination (and, as the ruling-party candidate and an apolitical figure, likely the Presidency), but Wiesel “was not very interested”. Shimon Peres was chosen as the Kadima candidate (and later President) instead. In 2007, Wiesel was awarded the Dayton Literary Peace Prize’s Lifetime Achievement Award. On April 9, 2008, Wiesel was presented with an Honorary Degree, Doctor of Letters at the City College of New York.
In 2007 the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity issued a letter condemning Armenian genocide denial that was signed by 53 Nobel laureates including Wiesel. Wiesel has repeatedly called Turkey’s 90-year-old campaign to cover up the Armenian genocide a double killing, since it strives to kill the memory of the original atrocities.
On September 29, 2008, the Rochester College President Rubel Shelly, on its 50th anniversary, bestowed Wiesel with a plaque conferring on him as an honorary visiting professor of humanities.
On November 17, 2008, he received an honorary doctorate from the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Israel.
In December 2008, the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity issued a press release stating that nearly all of the foundation’s assets (approximately $15.2 million USD) had been lost through Bernard Madoff’s investment firm, an experience he later spoke about at a Conde Nast roundtable.
In 2009, Wiesel criticized the Vatican over its lifting of the excommunication of controversial bishop Richard Williamson, a member of the Society of Saint Pius X.
On June 5, 2009, Wiesel accompanied US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel as they toured Buchenwald. Merkel, Obama, and Wiesel each spoke about Buchenwald in personal terms, with Obama speaking of his great uncle liberating an outlying camp, Merkel considering the responsibility of Germans vis-à-vis National Socialist history, and Wiesel reflecting on the suffering and death of his father in the camp.
Wiesel returned to Hungary for the first official visit since the Holocaust between December 9–11, 2009 by the invitation of Rabbi Slomo Koves, executive rabbi of the Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation and the Hungarian branch of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. During his visit Wiesel participated in a conference at the Upper House Chamber of the Hungarian Parliament, met Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai and President László Sólyom and made a speech to the approximately 10 thousand participants of a major anti racist gathering held in Faith Hall. The speech was broadcasted live by Magyar ATV, a nationwide television channel.
On May 4, 2010 Wiesel met with President Obama at the White House to discuss Middle East peace relations.
2007 attack on Wiesel
On February 1, 2007, Wiesel was attacked in a San Francisco hotel by 22-year-old Holocaust denier Eric Hunt who tried to drag Wiesel into a hotel room. Wiesel was not injured and Hunt fled the scene. Later, Hunt bragged about the incident on a Holocaust denial website. Approximately one month later, he was arrested and charged with multiple offenses.
Hunt was convicted on July 21, 2008, and was sentenced to two years but was given credit for time served and good behavior and was released on probation and ordered to undergo psychological treatment. The jury convicted Hunt of three charges but dismissed the remaining charges of attempted kidnapping, stalking, and an additional count of false imprisonment, amid Hunt’s withdrawal of his not guilty by reason of insanity plea. District Attorney Kamala Harris said: “Crimes motivated by hate are among the most reprehensible of offenses … This defendant has been made to answer for an unwarranted and biased attack on a man who has dedicated his life to peace.” At his sentencing hearing, Hunt apologized and insisted that he no longer denies the Holocaust; however, he continues to maintain and update a blog that denies the Holocaust and is critical of prominent Jewish people.
In 2004, Wiesel attended Action Against Hunger’s annual gala to present Nelson Mandela with the Action Against Hunger Humanitarian Award.