Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning author who told the story of his Holocaust internment in his autobiographical novel “Night,” died July 2, 2016. “When I began to write, it was to tell other survivors to write,” he once said. “All we have is words.”
Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning author who told the story of his Holocaust internment in his autobiographical novel “Night,” died July 2, 2016. He was 87.
Born Sept. 30, 1928, to a Jewish family in Transylvania’s Carpathian Mountains, Wiesel was just a boy when World War II began. It was 1944 when the Nazis invaded his hometown of Sighet and placed Wiesel and his family – along with thousands of their neighbors – in ghettos. Within months, the Nazis moved those ghetto residents to the horrific Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.
The events that followed became well-known to the reading public eventually, as Wiesel dramatized them in “Night.” Wiesel and his father were separated from his mother and three sisters. For almost a year, Wiesel and his father suffered the inhuman conditions of three different concentration camps as Wiesel tried to care for his quickly declining father, who died just weeks before the liberation of their final camp, Buchenwald. He was reunited with two of his sisters after the war, but he never saw his third sister or his mother again – they died in their own concentration camp.
Wiesel didn’t spare readers from the sickening details of the Nazis’ treatment of Jews in the concentration camps and on the journeys between them. “Night” offered a stark portrayal of genocide. Amazingly, the deeply unsettling narrative was heavily edited, reduced from Wiesel’s original 862-page manuscript to a taut, terrifying 245 pages, published in 1958 in France and translated into English for U.S. readers in 1960. Wiesel called “Night” his “deposition,” noting that it was a true story, though parts of it were fictionalized.
“Night” wasn’t the first Holocaust memoir to reach U.S. shores – Anne Frank’s “The Diary of a Young Girl” had been published eight years earlier. But similarities between the two accounts are few. Wiesel told The New York Times, “Where Anne Frank’s book ends, mine begins.” As a victim of the concentration camps that Wiesel survived, Frank wasn’t able to write about her experiences as Wiesel did. Yet one trait unites the two authors: their essential optimism in the face of horror. Frank famously wrote, “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.” As for Wiesel, he told the Atlantic, “I still believe in humanity in spite of man. I still believe in humanity in spite of what humanity has done.”
With his unflinching descriptions of the realities of the Holocaust, Wiesel became a pioneer of a literary genre.
“In the beginning, survivors didn’t speak because people refused to listen,” he told the Atlantic. “When I began to write, it was to tell other survivors to write. All we have is words.” His example did indeed inspire other Holocaust survivors to tell their stories, from Felix Weinberg to Sarah Tuvel Bernstein to Primo Levi.
Though “Night” is Wiesel’s best-known work, it’s one of dozens of his literary works. “Night” was part of a trilogy, followed by “Dawn” and “Day.” “The Trial of God” was another of Wiesel’s works drawn from his Holocaust experience, a play based on an actual event he witnessed while in Auschwitz, as fellow prisoners staged a mock trial of God. Wiesel wrote additional novels including “The Oath” and “The Forgotten,” as well as biographies and other nonfiction, a second play, two cantatas and two children’s books. He wrote two volumes of memoirs: “All Rivers Run to the Sea” and “And the Sea Is Never Full.”
In addition to writing, Wiesel was a professor for many years at institutions including Boston University, City University of New York and Columbia University. He was also a respected speaker and activist who spoke out in support of Israel and condemned apartheid, in addition to lending his support to a wide variety of other human rights issues. He created the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, with a mission dedicated to “combat indifference, intolerance and injustice through international dialogue and youth-focused programs that promote acceptance, understanding and equality.”
In 1986, Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work against violence, repression and racism. It was one of a great number of honors he received, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, grand officer in the French Legion of Honor and an honorary knighthood in the United Kingdom. He is survived by his wife, Marion Wiesel.
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