Eliezer “Elie” Wiesel was born on September 30, 1928; He was a Romanian-born American Jewish writer, professor, political activist, Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor. He was the author of 57 books, written mostly in French and English, including Night, a work based on his experiences as a prisoner in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps.
Elie Wiesel was born in Sighet (now Sighetu Marmației), Maramureș in the Carpathian Mountains in Romania. His parents were Sarah Feig and Shlomo Wiesel. At home, Wiesel’s family spoke Yiddish most of the time, but also German, Hungarian, and Romanian. Wiesel’s mother, Sarah, was the daughter of Dodye Feig, a celebrated Vizhnitz Hasid and farmer from a nearby village. Dodye was active and trusted within the community.
Wiesel’s father, Shlomo, instilled a strong sense of humanism in his son, encouraging him to learn Hebrew and to read literature, whereas his mother encouraged him to study the Torah. Wiesel has said his father represented reason while his mother Sarah promoted faith.
Wiesel had three siblings – older sisters Beatrice and Hilda, 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 Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Tzipora, Shlomo, and Sarah did not survive the Holocaust.
March 1944, Germany occupied Hungary which extended the Holocaust into that country. Wiesel was 15, and he with his family, along with the rest of the town’s Jewish population, were placed in one of the two confinement ghettos set up in Máramarossziget (Sighet), the town where he had been born and raised. In May 1944, the Hungarian authorities, under German pressure, began to deport the Jewish community to the Auschwitz concentration camp, where up to 90% of the people were exterminated on arrival.
After they were sent to Auschwitz, his mother and his younger sister were killed. Wiesel and his father were later deported to the concentration camp at Buchenwald. Until that transfer, he admitted to Oprah Winfrey, his primary motivation for trying to survive Auschwitz was knowing that his father was still alive: “I knew that if I died, he would die.” After they were taken to Buchenwald, however, his father only survived for eight months, dying just a few weeks before the camp was liberated. In Night, Wiesel recalled the shame he felt when he heard his father being beaten and was unable to help.
“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.” Elie Wiesel, excerpt from Night.
After World War II ended and Wiesel was freed, he went to Paris where he learned French and studied literature, philosophy and psychology at the Sorbonne. He heard lectures by philosopher Martin Buber and existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre and he spent his evenings reading works by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Franz Kafka, and Thomas Mann.
By the time he was 19, he had begun working as a journalist, writing in French, while also teaching Hebrew and working as a choirmaster. He wrote for Israeli and French newspapers, including Tsien in Kamf (in Yiddish).
For ten years after the war, Wiesel refused to write about or discuss his experiences during the Holocaust. He began to reconsider after a meeting with the French author François Mauriac, the 1952 Nobel Laureate in Literature who eventually became Wiesel’s close friend. Mauriac was a devout Christian who had been with the French Resistance during the war. He compared Wiesel to “Lazarus rising from the dead,” and saw from Wiesel’s tormented eyes, “the death of God in the soul of a child.” Mauriac persuaded him to begin writing about his harrowing 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, La Nuit, in 1955. It was translated into English as Night in 1960. The book sold few copies after its publication, but still attracted interest from reviewers, leading to television interviews with Wiesel and meetings with literary figures such as Saul Bellow.
After its increased popularity, Night was eventually translated into 30 languages with ten million copies sold in the United States. Film director Orson Welles at one point had wanted to make it into a feature film, but Wiesel refused, feeling that his memoir would lose its meaning if it were told without the silences in between his words. Oprah Winfrey made it a spotlight selection for her book club in 2006.
In 1955, Wiesel moved to New York as foreign correspondent for the Israel daily, Yediot Ahronot. In 1969, he married Marion Erster Rose, who was from Austria, who also translated many of his books. They had one son, Shlomo Elisha Wiesel, named after Wiesel’s father. Wiesel in 1987. In the U.S., he went on to write over 40 books, most of them non-fiction Holocaust literature, and novels. As an author, he has been awarded a number of literary prizes and is considered among the most important in describing the Holocaust from a highly personal level. As a result, some historians credited Wiesel with giving the term “Holocaust” its present meaning, although he did not feel that the word adequately described that historical event.
Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, at which time 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 had delivered a message “of peace, atonement and human dignity” to humanity. He was a founding board member of the New York Human Rights Foundation and remained active throughout his life
Wiesel died on the morning of July 2, 2016 at his home in Manhattan, aged 87