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 has 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. He was a founding board member of the New York Human Rights Foundation and remained active throughout his life.
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 was instructed that his genealogy traced back to Rabbi Schlomo, son of Yitzhak, and was a descendant of Rabbi Yeshayahu ben Abraham Horovitz ha-Levi, an author.
Wiesel had three siblings--older sisters Beatrice and Hilda, and younger sister Tzipora. Beatrice and Hilda survived the war, and were re-united 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.
Imprisonment and orphaning during the Holocaust
Buchenwald concentration camp, photo taken April 16, 1945, five days after liberation of the camp. Wiesel is in the second row from the bottom, seventh from the left, next to the bunk post.
In March 1944, Germany occupied Hungary, thus extending the Holocaust into Northern Transylvania as well.[a] Wiesel was 15, and he, with his family, along with the rest of the town's Jewish population, was 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 percent of the people were killed on arrival.
Immediately after they were sent to Auschwitz, his mother and his younger sister were murdered. Wiesel and his father were selected to perform labor so long as they remained able-bodied, after which they were to be killed in the gas chambers. 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, his father died 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.
After World War II ended and Wiesel was freed, he joined a transport of 1,000 child survivors of Buchenwald to Ecouis, France, where the OEuvre de secours aux enfants (OSE) had established a rehabilitation center. Wiesel joined a smaller group of 90 to 100 boys from Orthodox homes who wanted kosher facilities and a higher level of religious observance; they were cared for in a home in Ambloy under the directorship of Judith Hemmendinger. This home was later moved to Taverny and operated until 1947.
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).
In 1946, after learning of the Irgun's bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, Wiesel made an unsuccessful attempt to join the underground Zionist movement. In 1948, he translated articles from Hebrew into Yiddish for Irgun periodicals, but never became a member of the organization. In 1949, he traveled to Israel as a correspondent for the French newspaper L'arche. He then was hired as Paris correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, subsequently becoming its roaming international correspondent.
Excerpt from Night
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.
For ten years after the war, Wiesel refused to write about or discuss his experiences during the Holocaust. He began to reconsider his decision 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 fought in 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 initial publication, but still attracted interest from reviewers, leading to television interviews with Wiesel and meetings with writers such as Saul Bellow.
As its profile rose, Night was eventually translated into 30 languages with ten million copies sold in the United States. At one point film director Orson Welles 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 eventually wrote over 40 books, most of them non-fiction Holocaust literature, and novels. As an author, he was awarded a number of literary prizes and is considered among the most important in describing the Holocaust from a highly personal perspective. 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. In 1975, he co-founded the magazine Moment with writer Leonard Fein.
The 1979 book and play The Trial of God are said to have been based on his 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. Regarding his personal beliefs, Wiesel called himself an agnostic.
Wiesel also played a role in the initial success of The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski by endorsing it before it became known the book was fiction and, in the sense that it was presented as all Kosinski's true experience, a hoax.
Wiesel published two volumes of memoirs. The first, All Rivers Run to the Sea, was published in 1994 and covered his life up to the year 1969. The second, titled And the Sea is Never Full and published in 1999, covered the years from 1969 to 1999.
We had a champion who carried our pain, our guilt and our responsibility on his shoulders for generations.
The Holocaust Memorial Museum gives the Elie Wiesel Award to "internationally prominent individuals whose actions have advanced the Museum's vision of a world where people confront hatred, prevent genocide, and promote human dignity". The Foundation had invested its endowment in money manager Bernard L. Madoff's investment Ponzi scheme, costing the Foundation $15 million and Wiesel and his wife much of their own personal savings.
Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 for speaking out against violence, repression, and racism. The Norwegian Nobel Committee described Wiesel as "one of the most important spiritual leaders and guides in an age when violence, repression, and racism continue to characterize the world". Wiesel explained his feelings during his acceptance speech:
Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant.
Wiesel co-founded Moment magazine with Leonard Fein in 1975. They founded the magazine to provide a voice for American Jews. He was also a member of the International Advisory Board of NGO Monitor.
In April 1999, Wiesel delivered the speech "The Perils of Indifference" in Washington D.C., criticizing the people and countries who chose to be indifferent while the Holocaust was happening. He defined indifference as being neutral between two sides, which, in this case, amounts to overlooking the victims of the Holocaust. Throughout the speech, he expressed the view that a little bit of attention, either positive or negative, is better than no attention at all.
In 2005, he gave a speech at the opening ceremony of the new building of Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust History Museum:
I know what people say - it is so easy. Those that were there won't agree with that statement. The statement is: it was man's inhumanity to man. NO! It was man's inhumanity to Jews! Jews were not killed because they were human beings. In the eyes of the killers they were not human beings! They were Jews!
In early 2006, Wiesel accompanied Oprah Winfrey as she visited Auschwitz, a visit which was broadcast as part of The Oprah Winfrey Show. On November 30, 2006, Wiesel received a knighthood in London in recognition of his work toward raising Holocaust education in the United Kingdom.
In September 2006, he appeared before the UN Security Council with actor George Clooney to call attention to the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. When Wiesel died, Clooney wrote, "We had a champion who carried our pain, our guilt, and our responsibility on his shoulders for generations."
In July 2009, Wiesel announced his support to the minority Tamils in Sri Lanka. He said that, "Wherever minorities are being persecuted, we must raise our voices to protest ... The Tamil people are being disenfranchised and victimized by the Sri Lanka authorities. This injustice must stop. The Tamil people must be allowed to live in peace and flourish in their homeland."
Wiesel was active in trying to prevent Iran from making nuclear weapons, stating that, "The words and actions of the leadership of Iran leave no doubt as to their intentions". He also condemned Hamas for the "use of children as human shields" during the 2014 Israel-Gaza Conflict by running an ad in several large newspapers.The Times refused to run the advertisement, saying, "The opinion being expressed is too strong, and too forcefully made, and will cause concern amongst a significant number of Times readers."
Wiesel often emphasized the Jewish connection to Jerusalem, and criticized the Obama administration for pressuring Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to halt East Jerusalem Israeli settlement construction. He stated that "Jerusalem is above politics. It is mentioned more than six hundred times in Scripture--and not a single time in the Koran ... It belongs to the Jewish people and is much more than a city..."
Wiesel was attacked in a San Francisco hotel by 22-year-old Holocaust denier Eric Hunt in February 2007, but was not injured. Hunt was arrested the following month and charged with multiple offenses.
Utah senator Orrin Hatch paid tribute to Wiesel in a speech on the Senate floor the following week, in which he said that, "With Elie's passing, we have lost a beacon of humanity and hope. We have lost a hero of human rights and a luminary of Holocaust literature."
In 2018, antisemitic graffiti was found on the house where Wiesel was born.
Awards and honors
Prix de l'Université de la Langue Française (Prix Rivarol) for The Town Beyond the Wall, 1963.
^Wiesel, Elie; Franciosi, Robert (2002). Elie Wiesel: Conversations. University Press of Mississippi. p. 81. ISBN9781578065035. Interviewer: Why after the war did you not go on to Palestine from France? Wiesel: I had no certificate. In 1946 when the Irgun blew up the King David Hotel, I decided I would like to join the underground. Very naively I went to the Jewish Agency in Paris. I got no further than the janitor who asked: "What do you want?" I said, "I would like to join the underground." He threw me out. About 1948 I was a journalist and helped one of the Yiddish underground papers with articles, but I was never a member of the underground.
^Wiesel, Elie (2000). And the Sea Is Never Full: Memoirs, 1969-. Random House Digital, Inc. ISBN978-0-8052-1029-3. Some of the questions: God? 'I'm an agnostic.' A strange agnostic, fascinated by mysticism.
Rota, Olivier. Choisir le français pour exprimer l'indicible. Elie Wiesel, in Mythe et mondialisation. L'exil dans les littératures francophones, Actes du colloque organisé dans le cadre du projet bilatéral franco-roumain « Mythes et stratégies de la francophonie en Europe, en Roumanie et dans les Balkans », programme Brâcu?i des 8-9 septembre 2005, Editura Universitii Suceava, 2006, pp. 47-55. Re-published in Sens, dec. 2007, pp. 659-668.
"Free At Last: Elie Wiesel, Plainclothes Nuns, and Breakthroughs - Or Witnessing a Witness of History", pp. 19-21 in 'Spirit of America, Vol. 39: Simple Gifts', La Crosse, WI: DigiCOPY, 2017, Essay by David Joseph Marcou about his meeting Mr. Wiesel and being official Viterbo U. Photographer for Elie Wiesel Day at Viterbo U., 9-26-06, in Book by DJ Marcou on Missouri J-School Library Web-page of David Joseph Marcou's works