Elie Wiesel, Holocaust Survivor, Author, And Human Rights Advocate, Dies At 87
A man who survived great horrors to become a tireless witness for truth and advocate for human rights has passed away.
Elie Weisel, who as a child was sent with his family to a concentration camp and managed to survive to become one of the great witnesses to the ultimate act of man’s inhumanity to man, has died at the age of 87:
Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, the memory keeper for victims of Nazi persecution, and a Nobel laureate who used his moral authority to force attention on atrocities around the world, died July 2. He was 87.
His death was confirmed in a statement from Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Other details were not immediately available.
By the time of Mr. Wiesel’s death, millions had read “Night,” his account of the concentration camps where he watched his father die and where his mother and younger sister were gassed. Presidents summoned him to the White House to discuss human rights abuses in Bosnia, Iraq and elsewhere, and the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee called him a “messenger to mankind.”
But when he emerged, gaunt and near death, from Buchenwald concentration camp in 1945, there was little indication that he — or any survivor — would have such a presence in the world. Few survivors spoke openly about the war. Those who did often felt ignored. Decades before a Holocaust museum stood in downtown Washington and moviegoers watched Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” Mr. Wiesel helped force the public to confront the Holocaust.
“The voice of the person who can speak in the first-person singular — ‘This is my story; I was there’ — it will be gone when the last survivor dies,” Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt said in an interview with The Washington Post. “But in Elie Wiesel, we had that voice with a megaphone that wasn’t matched by anyone else.”
Mr. Wiesel was in his 20s when he wrote the first draft of “Night” after 10 years of silence about the war. Today, perhaps the only volume in Holocaust literature that eclipses the book in its popular reach is Anne Frank’s “The Diary of a Young Girl.”
Mr. Wiesel was less than nine months older than the aspiring writer who chronicled her existence in an Amsterdam hideaway, but “Night” is rarely characterized as the narrative of a young boy. While the diary ends days before Nazis arrest Anne and her family, “Night” puts readers in Auschwitz within the first 30 pages.
Short enough to be read in a single sitting, the volume captures all of the most salient images of the Holocaust: the teeming ghettos where many struggled to believe that the worst was yet to come, the cattle cars, the barracks, the smokestacks. The book also contains one of the most famous images in the vast theological debates surrounding the slaughter: the vision of God with a noose around his neck.
” ‘For God’s sake, where is God?’ ” Mr. Wiesel hears a man ask as they watch a boy hanged at Auschwitz.
“And from within me, I heard a voice answer,” he writes. ” ‘This is where — hanging here from this gallows.’ ”
At the encouragement of the French writer François Mauriac, whom he interviewed as a journalist in the 1950s, Mr. Wiesel submitted the manuscript for publication in France. Publisher after publisher turned him away. Les Éditions de Minuit published the manuscript in 1958, but the book found little commercial success.
Initially, it fared no better in the United States. One rejection note, from Scribner’s, called the work a “horrifying and extremely moving document” but cited “certain misgivings as to the size of the American market” for it, according to a New York Times account of the book’s publication. Critics wrote admiring reviews when Hill & Wang published it in 1960, but few people in the general public knew that “Night” existed.
As time passed, more survivors began to open up about the war. Among the most prominent of them was Mr. Wiesel, who in the 1960s, by then living in the United States, began a celebrated lecture series at the 92nd Street Y in New York City.
Mr. Wiesel, whose speeches routinely drew sell-out crowds, would remain highly sought-after as a lecturer for the rest of his life. More than lecture, he told stories, one flowing into the next in a way that recalled a passage from Ecclesiastes, the one that inspired the titles of his two-volume memoir: “All Rivers Run to the Sea” and “And the Sea Is Never Full.”
In 1978, President Jimmy Carter appointed Mr. Wiesel chairman of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust, which would call for the creation of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. It was an important recognition of his role in the Holocaust community.
Another turning point came in 1985, when Mr. Wiesel publicly confronted President Ronald Reagan about a coming trip to Germany, where the president planned to visit the Bitburg military cemetery. Mr. Wiesel and others opposed the trip after learning that the cemetery included the graves of several dozen members of the S.S., the elite Nazi force.
“That place, Mr. President, is not your place,” Mr. Wiesel said during a White House ceremony in which Reagan awarded him the Congressional Gold Medal, Congress’s highest civilian honor. “Your place is with the victims of the S.S.”
Several weeks later, amid controversy, Reagan made the trip to Bitburg.
It was not the last time Mr. Wiesel took on a head of state. In 1986, just after Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish year, he learned he had been selected for the Nobel Peace Prize. He said the honor did not make him a different person — “If the war did not change me, you think anything else will change me?” he commented upon winning the prize, the Times reported — but it did confer on him considerably greater authority.
Speaking at the dedication of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1993, Mr. Wiesel faced President Bill Clinton and said: “Mr. President, I must tell you something. I have been in the former Yugoslavia last fall. I cannot sleep since what I have seen. As a Jew I am saying that. We must do something to stop the bloodshed in that country.”
Clinton later told reporters that he accepted Mr. Wiesel’s challenge, The Washington Post reported. The president went on to lead NATO in two bombing campaigns in the Balkans, first in 1995 against Bosnian Serbs and four years later to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.
Later in Clinton’s administration, Mr. Wiesel challenged him about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
Mr. Wiesel compared apartheid to anti-Semitism and backed the Solidarity movement in Poland. He spoke out on behalf of Soviet Jews, Cambodians and the Kurds, among other populations. He declared his support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, maintaining that the United States has an obligation to intercede when evil comes to power.
Critics accused Mr. Wiesel of having a blind spot where Israel was involved. When talk show host Oprah Winfrey asked him in an interview whether he had any regrets, he responded: “I wish I had done more for the Palestinian refugees. I regret that.”
Speaking about the Holocaust, he often emphasized his conviction that it was an unparalleled event in history.
“I have learned that the Holocaust was a unique and uniquely Jewish event, albeit with universal implications,” he said at the White House speech in which he prevailed on Reagan not to visit the Bitburg cemetery. “Not all victims were Jews, but all Jews were victims.”
Eliezer Wiesel was born Sept. 30, 1928, in Sighet, a town in modern-day Romania that he would later describe as a “Chagall-style Jewish city” in the Carpathian Mountains.
Mr. Wiesel grew up in a tightknit, observantly Jewish family, the only son of a grocer, Shlomo, and his wife, Sarah. So great was the boy’s religious fervor, instilled in him by his Hasidic grandfather, that he wept in prayer at the synagogue. He became a rapt student of the Jewish mystics, who taught that meaning could be deciphered from numbers.
Mr. Wiesel was 15 years old, a new arrival to Block 17 at Auschwitz after being swept up in the last transport from the Sighet ghetto, when the number A-7713 was tattooed on his left arm. He said that when he turned 18, he wasn’t really 18, the camps having turned him prematurely into an old man.
After his liberation from Buchenwald, Mr. Wiesel found himself on a train of orphans that ended up in France. Unbeknownst to him, his two older sisters had survived. The siblings were reunited after one of the girls, also living in France, spotted her brother’s face in a newspaper.
In his Nobel lecture, Mr. Wiesel recalled those early years after his liberation:
“The time: After the war. The place: Paris. A young man struggles to readjust to life. . . . He is alone. On the verge of despair. And yet he does not give up. On the contrary, he strives to find a place among the living. He acquires a new language. He makes a few friends who, like himself, believe that the memory of evil will serve as a shield against evil; that the memory of death will serve as a shield against death. This he must believe in order to go on.”
Mr. Wiesel’s new language, and the one in which he would do much of his writing for the rest of his life, was French. He absorbed the existentialist works of Sartre and Camus and supported himself as a choir director while studying at the Sorbonne. Mr. Wiesel was later hired as a foreign correspondent for an Israeli newspaper; the job proved pivotal when it led him to Mauriac.
In 1956, he immigrated to the United States, becoming an American citizen and working for what was then called the Jewish Daily Forward. Journalism would remain his livelihood for years after the war, but he would ultimately pursue a life of teaching and writing books. He once wryly summed up the nature of reporting:
“I realized that I spent my entire life using maybe 400 or 500 words,” he told Salon in 2000. “All I had to do was change the names. Sometimes this person said, sometimes another person said. But the word ‘said’ remained. And I said I don’t want to live like that.”
Mr. Wiesel taught for more than 30 years at Boston University, where his classes were blockbusters. At Yale University, where he was a visiting professor in 1982, 350 students signed up for 65 spots in his course on literature and memory.
“I had a feeling he was talking mysticism to me,” Mr. Wiesel was said to have remarked, referring to the baseball commissioner.
Mr. Wiesel declined, telling the commissioner that the game took place on the Sabbath and that the next one fell on a holy day. The commissioner cleverly took the matter to some rabbis, who said that after sunset Mr. Wiesel would be permitted to participate. So Mr. Wiesel finally agreed, but only after consulting his then-teenage son, a baseball fan.
Mr. Wiesel often said that he found hope in the young, in both his students and his own child.
“When Marion, my wife, told me she was pregnant, my first feeling was fear,” he told the Times. “The world is not worthy of children. I was frantic. But the next wave was joy. Will it be a boy or a girl? Whose name will it have — my mother’s or my father’s?”
His son Shlomo Elisha Wiesel survives him, as does his wife, the former Marion Erster Rose, a Holocaust survivor whom he married in 1969. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.
There’s very little that can be said about a man like Wiesel that can’t be better expressed by his own words, and in that regard I can highly recommend at least reading “Night,” his account of being taken with his family to, and surviving, the Auschwitz-Buchenwald concentration camps. It is a chilling, emotional tale of one of the most horrifying times in human history through the eyes of a young boy and, along with all of the other accounts from survivors that have been cataloged since the end of World War Two, it stands as a reminder of what the Holocaust was and why it can never be forgotten or minimized, something that becomes even more important as old age takes the last of the survivor’s generation from us. After everything that happened, it would be tragic if history ever came to forget, or to minimize what Wiesel and his fellow survivors endured, and we owe it to them to never forget, and to make sure it never happens again.
What was perhaps most remarkable about Wiesel was the fact that, despite what he went through, he did not emerge from the hell on earth of the Holocaust resentful or bitter. Instead, he came across in public as determined to share the story of the Holocaust and to be a witness and advocate for human rights around the world. Even during those times when he was being critical, such a when he attempted to publicly persuade President Reagan not to visit a German military cemetery that included the graves of members of the Waffen SS, he did so in a manner that didn’t come across as angry or resentful, something that made his words all the more powerful. And the fact that that he used the moral authority that being a witness to and survivor of horror gave him to advocate for others, whether in South Africa, Bosnia, or Rwanda, only increased his prominence.
For all he endured, Wiesel ended up giving back to a world that once turned its back on his people and for that he deserves to be lauded. Elie Wiesel suffered through unspeakable evil and emerged to become a witness for truth and human rights, there’s really not much better one can ask out of one life.