08 July 2016

Elie Wiesel (1928-2016) - Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner

Eliezer Wiesel (1928-2016) was born in the small town of Sighet in northern Transylvania, and area long claimed by both Hungary and Romania. In the 20th century, it changed hands repeatedly, an experience my own parents-in-law endured in the Carpathian Mountains.

Elie Wiesel grew up in the town's close-knit Jewish community. While the family spoke Yiddish at home, they read newspapers and ran their small business in German, Hungarian, Romanian, Ukrainian and Russian. Elie began religious studies early, influenced by his mother’s Hassidic sect of Judaism. His father encouraged the boy to study the modern Hebrew language and concentrate on his secular studies. The first years of WW2 left Sighet mostly unscathed. Although the village changed hands from Romania to Hungary, the Wiesel family believed they were safe. Wrong!

When the Nazis in Sighet in 1944, the Jewish citizens were deported en masse to concentration camps in Poland. The 15-year-old boy was separated from his mother and younger sister immediately on arrival in Auschwitz. Mother and sister died, but Elie managed to remain with his father for the next year, despite being half starved and worked almost to death. In the last months of the war, Elie and his father were transferred to other Nazi camps and force marched to Buchenwald where his father died was beaten to death, shortly before the camp was liberated. Elie was freed from Buchenwald in 1945. Of his large extended family, only he and his 2 older sisters survived.

After the war, the teenage Wiesel found asylum in France. There he mastered the French language and studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, while supporting himself as a choir master and Hebrew teacher. He became a professional journalist, writing for newspapers in both France and Israel.

In 1955, encouraged by the Catholic writer Francois Mauriac, he set down his memories in Yiddish, in a 900-page work called And the World Kept Silent. The book was first published in Buenos Aires. Alas it took several years before he was able to find a publisher for the French or English versions of the work, and even then unsuccessfully.

Elie and Marion Wiesel
New York

In 1956, while he was in New York reporting on the United Nations, Elie Wiesel applied successfully for American citizenship. He remained in New York and became a feature writer for the Yiddish-language newspaper, The Jewish Daily Forward. And he continued to write books in French, including two semi-autobiographical novels. In one novel La Ville de la Chance/The Town Beyond the Wall, Wiesel imagined a return to his home town, a journey he did not actually do until after the book was published. He met Marion Rose, an Austrian Holocaust survivor, in New York, and they married in Jerusalem.

His 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. But then he moved forward, writing about the Jews of the Soviet Union (1965) and the Six Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbours (1968). In time, Wiesel spread his concern for all oppressed peoples and victims of genocide, from South Africa and Vietnam, to Biafra and Bangladesh.

As an American academic, Elie Wiesel blossomed. In 1976 he was named Andrew Mellon Professor of Humanities at Boston University, and became a visiting scholar at City University of New York and at Yale. In 1986 Wiesel was awarded the greatest honour of all, the Nobel Prize for Peace.

His plays, novels, essays and short stories were 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. 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 wrote his books in French; his wife Marion, who was fluent in five languages herself, often collaborated with him on the translations. 

Wiesel's memoir Night was first published in 1956
and translated into English in 1960.

How ironic that after a lifetime of opposing oppressors, Wiesel was attacked in a San Francisco hotel by a young Holocaust denier Eric Hunt in February 2007. Nonetheless Wiesel remained productive and did not die until this week, at home in Manhattan.

I am well aware that not all readers appreciated Elie Wiesel's absorption in Holocaust remembrance. On two grounds. Firstly consider his statements "to remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin of all” and “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented”. His opponents' argument was not that Wiesel over-stated the catastrophe of the Holocaust, but that he under-stated the catastrophe of other genocides. This seems incorrect to me.

Secondly Wiesel suggested that the Holocaust and Israel have replaced God and religious law as the touchstones of Jewish experience and identity. Under Wiesel, the Holocaust has become the Jewish deity. Corey Robin suggested Wiesel’s sacramentalising of the Holocaust seemed an unconscious borrowing of Christian theology. That one tragic event should be viewed as standing above history, and its uniqueness defended and proclaimed, is a different argument.

I am pleased that Lebanese-American writer Kahlil Gibran also wrote “The human heart cries out for help; the human soul implores us for deliverance; but we do not heed their cries, for we neither hear nor understand. But the man who hears and understands we call mad, and flee from him.” In his books, Elie Wiesel was simply repeating Kahlil Gibran's goals i.e attempting to hear and understand, and to diminish the suffering. To my in-laws, Wiesel made the task of  surviving the Holocaust a meaningful one.

Map of Romania
Surrounded by Ukraine to the north, Hungary to the NW, Serbia to the SW, Bulgaria to the south and Moldova to the east. Press to see Sighet and Satmar, on the borders with Ukraine and Hungary respectively


B'nei B'rith ADC said...

The Nobel Prize Committee said Elie Wiesel had “emerged as one of the most important spiritual leaders and guides in an age when violence, repression and racism continue to characterise the world”. He didn’t seek retribution and he rejected capital punishment. He urged reconciliation between young Germans and Jews, based on an acknowledgment of the crime.


Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, The heart-break in reading books like Night is profound. I hadn't realized that it had started out as such a longer tome. I don't think that I would have the psychological spirits to read the longer version, but pondering Wiesel's life and messages does make me a little self-conscious of any lightness in the lot of books I just ordered which will form my reading for the next year. The list does include The Hare with Amber Eyes, which you have recommended.

Hels said...


It is key that you mention Wiesel rejected capital punishment. I remember when Israel executed Adolphe Eichmann in 1962, it was such a shock. For a nation that lived by a high moral code, to execute a human would bring us down to the morality of the very Nazis we so despised.

In response to the immorality of capital punishment for Eichmann, the answer was always the same: "you weren't in the camps and the gas chambers. If you were, you too might have wanted revenge".

Well Wiesel WAS in the camps and the gas chambers, and I bet he would have wanted revenge. Yet instead of revenge, he called for reconciliation and dialogue.

Hels said...


I would definitely read The Hare With Amber Eyes. Edmund de Waal went on a journey of discovery, to discover his successful and tragic family history, and to investigate the importance of Uncle Ignace’s netsuke. The Belle Epoque in Paris and its equivalent in Vienna were creative, cultured times, but with the Anschluss in Vienna, the Ephrussi family went into exile or died.

Yes... Hare with Amber Eyes inevitably comes back to the Holocaust theme and shares the era with Night. But Amber Eyes is very pleasurable reading! Night is a brutal autobiographical account of Wiesel's survival as a teenager in a nation determined to exterminate his entire community!

Joseph said...

My father studied in Satmar, very close to Sighet. He knew both towns very well before 1939.

Hels said...


the religious and educational facilities of Satmar and Sighet seem to have been very close historically, as your father and Elie Wiesel would have understood. So I have added a map of Romania onto the blog. Note how close to the borders these towns were/are eg Satmar is still bi-lingual (Hungarian and Romanian) today.