Elie Wiesel Biography

Elie Wiesel ( / ˈ ɛ l i ˌ v iː ˈ z ɛ l / , born Eliezer Wiesel Hebrew: אֱלִיעֶזֶר וִיזֶל ʾÉlīʿezer Vīzel; [2] [3] September 30, 1928 – July 2, 2016) was a Romanian-born American writer, professor, political activist, Nobel laureate, and Holocaust survivor. He authored 57 books, written mostly in French and English, including Night, a work based on his experiences as a Jewish prisoner in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps. [4]

He was a professor of the humanities at Boston University, which created the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies in his honor. He was involved with Jewish causes and human rights causes and helped establish the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D. C. In his political activities, he also campaigned for victims of oppression in places like South Africa, Nicaragua, Kosovo, and Sudan. He publicly condemned the 1915 Armenian genocide and remained a strong defender of human rights during his lifetime. He was described as “the most important Jew in America” by the Los Angeles Times in 2003. [5]

Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. The Norwegian Nobel Committee called him a “messenger to mankind”, stating 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 delivered a message “of peace, atonement, and human dignity” to humanity. The Nobel Committee also stressed that Wiesel’s commitment originated in the sufferings of the Jewish people but that he expanded it to embrace all repressed peoples and races. [6] He was a founding board member of the New York Human Rights Foundation and remained active in it throughout his life. [7] [8]

Who was Elie Wiesel?

Elie Wiesel speaks at a conference

Elie Wiesel (1928 – 2016) was one of the most famous survivors of the Holocaust and a world-renowned author and champion of human rights. His first book, Night , recounts his suffering as a teenager at Auschwitz and has become a classic of Holocaust literature. In 1986, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Wiesel was born on September 30, 1928, in Sighet, Transylvania (Romania, from 1940–1945 part of Hungary). In 1944, he and his family were deported to Auschwitz. Only he and two of his three sisters survived the Holocaust.

After World War II, Wiesel became a journalist, prolific author, professor, and human rights activist. He was Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies at the City University of New York (1972–1976). In 1976, he became the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University, where he also held the title of University Professor. During the 1982 – 83 academic year, Wiesel was the first Henry Luce Visiting Scholar in the Humanities and Social Thought at Yale University.

Wiesel advocated tirelessly for remembering about and learning from the Holocaust. He was a driving force behind the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. His own experience of genocide drove him to speak out on behalf of oppressed people throughout the world. The Nobel Committee awarded him the peace prize “for being a messenger to mankind: his message is one of peace, atonement and dignity.”

Elie Wiesel died on July 2, 2016, at the age of 87.

Messenger to Mankind

Elie Wiesel was born in the small town of Sighet in Transylvania, where people of different languages and religions have lived side by side for centuries, sometimes peacefully, sometimes in bitter conflict. The region was long claimed by both Hungary and Romania. In the 20th century, it changed hands repeatedly, a hostage to the fortunes of war.

Elie Wiesel, age 15, shortly before deportation. (Courtesy of Elie Wiesel)

Elie Wiesel grew up in the close-knit Jewish community of Sighet. While the family spoke Yiddish at home, they read newspapers and conducted their grocery business in German, Hungarian or Romanian as the occasion demanded. Ukrainian, Russian and other languages were also widely spoken in the town. Elie began religious studies in classical Hebrew almost as soon as he could speak. The young boy’s life centered entirely on his religious studies. He loved the mystical tradition and folk tales of the Hassidic sect of Judaism, to which his mother’s family belonged. His father, though religious, encouraged the boy to study the modern Hebrew language and concentrate on his secular studies. The first years of World War II left Sighet relatively untouched. Although the village changed hands from Romania to Hungary, the Wiesel family believed they were safe from the persecutions suffered by Jews in Germany and Poland.

The secure world of Wiesel’s childhood ended abruptly with the arrival of the Nazis in Sighet in 1944. The Jewish inhabitants of the village were deported en masse to concentration camps in Poland. The 15-year-old boy was separated from his mother and sister immediately on arrival in Auschwitz. He never saw them again. He managed to remain with his father for the next year as they were worked almost to death, starved, beaten, and shuttled from camp to camp on foot, or in open cattle cars, in driving snow, without food, proper shoes, or clothing. In the last months of the war, Wiesel’s father succumbed to dysentery, starvation, exhaustion and exposure.

April 16, 1945. Victims of the Buchenwald concentration camp, liberated by the American troops of the 80th Division. Amongst them is Elie Wiesel (7th from the left on the middle bunk next to the vertical post) who went on to become an internationally acclaimed writer and recipient of the Nobel Prize for Peace. (H Miller/Getty Images)

After the war, the teenaged Wiesel found asylum in France, where he learned for the first time that his two older sisters had survived the war. Wiesel mastered the French language and studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, while supporting himself as a choir master and teacher of Hebrew. He became a professional journalist, writing for newspapers in both France and Israel.

Behind the once electrically-secured barbed crematorium of Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar, Germany, where young Elie Wiesel was imprisoned by the Nazi regime. (Unkel/ullstein picture via Getty Images)

For ten years, he observed a self-imposed vow of silence and wrote nothing about his wartime experience. In 1955, at the urging of the Catholic writer Francois Mauriac, he set down his memories in Yiddish, in a 900-page work entitled Un die welt hot geshvign (And the world kept silent). The book was first published in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Wiesel compressed the work into a 127-page French adaptation, La Nuit (Night), but several years passed before he was able to find a publisher for the French or English versions of the work. Even after Wiesel found publishers for the French and English translations, the book sold few copies.

President Carter observes a Day of Remembrance with Elie Wiesel at the U.S. Capitol. Memorial candles are lit to commemorate the 11 million who died in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. (UPI/Corbis-Bettman)

In 1956, while he was in New York reporting on the United Nations, Elie Wiesel was struck by a taxi cab. His injuries confined him to a wheelchair for almost a year. Unable to renew the French document which had allowed him to travel as a “stateless” person, Wiesel applied successfully for American citizenship. Once he recovered, he remained in New York and became a feature writer for the Yiddish-language newspaper, The Jewish Daily Forward (Der forverts). Wiesel continued to write books in French, including the semi-autobiographical novels L’Aube (Dawn), and Le Jour (translated as The Accident). In his novel La Ville de la Chance (translated as The Town Beyond the Wall ), Wiesel imagined a return to his home town, a journey he did not undertake in life until after the book was published.

April 22, 1993: President Bill Clinton lights the eternal flame at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum with help from Council Chairman Harvey Meyerhoff and Founding Chairman Elie Wiesel. The eternal flame stands in memory of six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust. (Diana Walker/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

As these and other books brought Wiesel to the attention of readers and critics, translations of Night found an audience at last, and Wiesel became an unofficial spokesman for the survivors of the Holocaust. At the same time, he took an increasing interest in the plight of persecuted Jews in the Soviet Union. He first traveled to the USSR in 1965 and reported on his travels in The Jews of Silence. His 1968 account of the Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors appeared in English as A Beggar in Jerusalem. In time, Wiesel was able to use his fame to plead for justice for oppressed peoples in the Soviet Union, South Africa, Vietnam, Biafra and Bangladesh. In 1976, Elie Wiesel was named Andrew Mellon Professor of Humanities at Boston University. He also taught at the City University of New York and was a visiting scholar at Yale University. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter appointed Elie Wiesel Chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. Wiesel was a driving force behind the establishment of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. His words, “For the dead and the living, we must bear witness,” are engraved in stone at the entrance to the museum. In 1985 he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, and in 1986, the Nobel Prize for Peace. “Wise men remember best,” Mr. Wiesel said in his Nobel lecture. “And yet, it is surely human to forget, even to want to forget…Only God and God alone can and must remember everything.” In 1992, President George H.W. Bush presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award of the United States.

Elie Wiesel with his wife, Marion, at the opening of the Academie Universelle des Cultures in Paris, France, 1993.

In the midst of his activities as a human rights activist, Wiesel continued his career as a literary artist. He wrote plays including Zalmen or the Madness of God and The Trial of God (Le Proces de Shamgorod). His other novels include The Gates of the Forest, The Oath, The Testament, and The Fifth Son. His essays and short stories have been collected in the volumes Legends of Our Time, One Generation After, and A Jew Today. The English translation of his memoirs was published in 1995 as All Rivers Run to the Sea. A second volume of memoirs, And the Sea Is Never Full, appeared in 2000.

A deeply moving appearance by Elie Wiesel, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, during a symposium session at the 2007 International Achievement Summit in Washington, D.C. Speaking in hushed tones, Wiesel held the delegates spellbound as he described how the murder of his family, and his own experience in the concentration camps of World War II, inspired him to travel the world as an author and witness — exposing injustice wherever it arises.

As his international fame grew, Wiesel spoke out on behalf of the victims of genocide and oppression all over the world, from Bosnia to Darfur. Although he became known to millions for his human rights activism, he by no means abandoned the art of fiction. His later novels included A Mad Desire to Dance (2009) and The Sonderberg Case (2010), a tale set in contemporary New York City, with a cast of characters including Holocaust survivors, Germans, American emigrants to Israel and New York literati. Elie Wiesel and his wife, Marion, made their home in New York City. His wife, the former Marion Erster Rose, was a Holocaust survivor; they married in 1969. Since Wiesel wrote his books in French, Marion Wiesel often collaborated with him on their English translations. He died at home in Manhattan, at the age of 87.

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