Elie Wiesel became an eloquent witness for the 6 million Jews slaughtered in World War II, driving home the enormity of what happened through several dozen books.
Elie Wiesel, the Nazi concentration-camp survivor who became an eloquent witness for the 6 million Jews slaughtered in World War II and who, more than anyone, seared the memory of the Holocaust on the world’s conscience, died Saturday at home in Manhattan. He was 87.
Menachem Rosensaft, a longtime friend and founding chairman of the International Network of Children of Jewish Survivors, confirmed the death.
Mr. Wiesel was the author of several dozen books and was a charismatic lecturer and humanities professor. In 1986, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But he was defined not so much by the work he did as by the void he filled.
In the aftermath of the Germans’ systematic massacre of Jews and others, no voice had emerged to drive home the enormity of what had happened and how it had changed humankind’s conception of itself and of God. For almost two decades, both the traumatized survivors and American Jews, guilt-ridden that they had not done more to rescue their brethren, seemed frozen in silence.
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By the sheer force of his personality and his gift for the haunting phrase, Mr. Wiesel, who had been liberated from Buchenwald as a 16-year-old with the tattoo A-7713 on his arm, gradually exhumed the Holocaust from the burial ground of the history books.
It was this speaking out against forgetfulness and violence that the Nobel committee recognized when it awarded him the peace prize in 1986. “Wiesel is a messenger to mankind,” the Nobel citation said. “His message is one of peace, atonement and human dignity.”
His seminal work, “Night,” is regarded as one of the most powerful achievements in Holocaust literature. For a decade, he had remained silent about the horrors he witnessed after being transported by train to Auschwitz with his parents and three sisters when he was 15.
After a year, he was liberated at the end of World War II with other prisoners from the German camp Buchenwald to which he had been transferred — and soon learned his mother and younger sister had been murdered in the gas chambers. He already had seen his captive father die.
“Night,” first penned in Yiddish, the harrowing yet unsentimental account based on Mr. Wiesel’s year in the death camps, was published in French in 1958 and eventually printed in more than 30 languages.
“Elie Wiesel opened the eyes of the world to the Holocaust with his penetrating books,” Rabbi Marvin Hier, who founded the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, told the Los Angeles Times in 2004.
Empathy for the oppressed
The first version of “Night” — originally called “And the World Remained Silent” — ran 800 pages, but it had been drastically shortened by the time it debuted in the U.S. in 1960 to positive reviews and lukewarm sales.
The Nation called it “the single most powerful literary relic of the Holocaust,” while The New York Times said it was “a slim volume of terrifying power.” It also was recognized as one of the first books to raise a haunting question for people of faith: Where was God at Auschwitz?
Mr. Wiesel later theorized that the public wasn’t ready for such a graphic account of the Holocaust. “The Diary of Anne Frank” had sold well when it was published in the U.S. in 1952, but the diary of the Jewish teenager’s life in hiding from the Nazis did not extend to concentration camps.
When Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann went on trial in 1961, it brought the Holocaust renewed attention and heightened the visibility of Mr. Wiesel and other survivors who were writing their stories. His books were largely well-reviewed, but over time, some critics questioned his role as a self-appointed witness to history.
In 1985, he received one of the highest U.S. civilian honors, the Congressional Gold Medal. The controversy caused by his acceptance speech inadvertently brought greater attention to “Night,” he later said. The speech urged President Reagan to forgo a trip to West Germany that included Bitburg Military Cemetery, where many Nazi SS soldiers who deported Jews and ran concentration camps are buried.
“That place is not your place, Mr. President,” Mr. Wiesel said. “Your place is with the victims of the SS. The issue here is not politics, but good and evil. And we must never confuse them.” Reagan went to Bitburg but added a stop at a concentration camp.
By the 1990s, “Night” was a standard high-school and college text, selling an estimated 400,000 copies a year. When Oprah Winfrey selected an updated version of the book for her television book club in 2006, it became a best-seller but reignited a debate over whether it was a novelized memoir. Mr. Wiesel maintained that it was a true account.
Using his personal story as a testimonial and departure point for his writing, he earned a reputation as the leading spiritual archivist of the Nazi persecution of the Jews. He never put to rest a question that had haunted him since the war: Why did those who knew about the Nazis’ effort to exterminate the Jews not do more to prevent it? “The free world, including Jewish leaders in America and Palestine, had known since 1942, but we knew nothing,” he wrote in his 1995 memoir, “All Rivers Run to the Sea.” “Why didn’t they warn us?”
On a humanitarian trip to a Cambodian refugee camp in 1980, he explained his empathy for the oppressed: “I came here because nobody came when I was there. One thing that is worse for the victim than hunger, fear, torture, even humiliation, is the feeling of abandonment, that nobody cares, the feeling that you don’t count.”
Eliezer Wiesel was born Sept. 30, 1928, in Sighet in what is now Romania, a farming community where his father, Shlomo Wiesel, was a grocer. Many relatives of his mother, Sarah, were rabbis, and he was raised an Orthodox Jew in the Hasidic tradition.
He had planned a career writing about religion and “the great eternal subjects: love and happiness.” Instead, he and his family were packed in a cattle car and taken to Auschwitz.
Within hours of arriving in Poland at Auschwitz, Mr. Wiesel and his father were transferred to Buna in Germany, where they spent most of their imprisonment. “Logically, I shouldn’t have survived,” Mr. Wiesel wrote in his 1995 memoir. “Sickly, timid, fearful, and lacking all resourcefulness, I never did anything to stay alive.”
In January 1945, he and his father were forced to undergo a 10-day “death march” with other prisoners from Buna to Buchenwald in Germany. Upon arriving, his father died of dysentery, starvation and exhaustion.
Three months later, the Nazis fled the camp as Allied Forces were about to break through the gates. Among 400 children taken to a Normandy youth home, Mr. Wiesel soon was reunited with his two older sisters, Hilda and Batya.
“It was a miracle,” he told UPI in 1987. Hilda had seen his picture with a newspaper article about child survivors.
From 1948 to 1951, he studied literature and philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris. Fluent in French, he worked as a journalist in France for Yiddish and French publications, which led to an interview with novelist François Mauriac, who encouraged him to write about his experiences and helped him find a French publisher.
Mr. Wiesel married Marion Erster Rose in 1969. A Vienna native, she was a survivor of death camps and had a daughter, Jennifer, from a previous marriage. The couple had one son, Shlomo Elisha, and two grandchildren.
His wife was also his translator, turning most of his books from their original French — the language in which he usually wrote — to English. They included 2012’s “Open Heart,” a reflection on his heart surgery and life in the face of death.
He joined the faculty of City University of New York in 1972 and taught Jewish studies. Four years later, he moved to the humanities department at Boston University, commuting from his home in Manhattan. He had been a U.S. citizen since 1963.
In 1978, President Carter appointed him to a commission that eventually created the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.
Mr. Wiesel realized his childhood goal to write about religion beginning in the 1970s and co-authored several books with religious and world leaders, including “A Journey of Faith” with New York Cardinal John O’Connor and “Memoir in Two Voices” with former French President François Mitterrand.
The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity — established with his Nobel Prize money — announced in 2008 that it had lost more than $15 million through investments with Wall Street financier Bernard Madoff, whose Ponzi scheme defrauded thousands of individuals and charities of billions.
Mr. Wiesel and his wife lost their life savings. “This was a personal tragedy where we discovered all of a sudden what we had done in 40 years — my books, my lectures, everything — was gone,” he said in a public discussion of the Madoff case. He called Madoff a “sociopath” and “scoundrel” but told The Associated Press, with a wry grin: “I’ve seen worse.”