Obituary: Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate

Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate who wrote of his experiences of Auschwitz. Picture: AP
Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate who wrote of his experiences of Auschwitz. Picture: AP
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Born: 30 September, 1928 in Sighet, Romania. Died: 2 July, 2016 in Manhattan, New York, aged 87.

Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, the Romanian-born Holocaust survivor whose classic book Night became a landmark testament to the Nazis’ crimes and launched Wiesel’s long career as one of the world’s foremost witnesses and humanitarians, has died.

The short, sad-eyed Wiesel, his face an ongoing reminder of one man’s endurance of a shattering past, summed up his mission in 1986 when accepting the Nobel Peace Prize: “Whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation, take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

President Barack Obama said on Saturday of Wiesel: “As a writer, a speaker, an activist, and a thinker, he was one of those people who changed the world more as a citizen of the world than those who hold office or traditional positions of power. His life, and the power of his example, urges us to be better.”

Wiesel’s wife, Marion, described her husband as “a fighter” in a statement.

“He fought for the memory of the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust, and he fought for Israel,” she said. “He waged countless battles for innocent victims regardless of ethnicity or creed.”

For more than half a century, Wiesel voiced his passionate beliefs to world leaders, celebrities and general audiences in the name of victims of violence and oppression. He wrote more than 40 books, but his most influential was Night, a classic ranked with Anne Frank’s diary as standard reading about the Holocaust.

Wiesel began working on Night just a decade after the end of the Second World War, when memories were too raw for many survivors to even try telling their stories. Wiesel’s book was among the first popular accounts written by a witness to the very worst.

Night was so bleak that publishers doubted it would appeal to readers. In a 2002 interview with the Chicago Tribune, Wiesel recalled that the book attracted little notice at first. “The English translation came out in 1960, and the first printing was 3,000 copies. And it took three years to sell them. Now, I get 100 letters a month from children about the book. And there are many, many million copies in print.”

In one especially haunting passage, Wiesel sums up his feelings upon arrival in Auschwitz.

He wrote: “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 these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”

Night was based directly on his experiences, but structured like a novel, leading to an ongoing debate over how to categorise it.

Wiesel’s prolific stream of speeches, essays and books, including two sequels to Night and more than 40 books overall, fiction and non-fiction, emerged from the helplessness of a teenager deported from Hungary, which had annexed his native Romanian town of Sighet, to Auschwitz. Tattooed with the number A-7713, he was freed in 1945. But his mother, father and one sister all died in Nazi camps. Two other sisters survived.

After the liberation of Buchenwald in April 1945, Wiesel spent a few years in a French orphanage, then landed in Paris. He studied literature and philosophy at the Sorbonne, and then became a journalist, writing for the French newspaper L’Arche and Israel’s Yediot Ahronot.

French author Francois Mauriac, winner of the 1952 Nobel in literature, encouraged Wiesel to break his vowed silence about the concentration camps and start sharing his experiences.

In 1956, Wiesel travelled on a journalistic assignment to New York to cover the United Nations. While there, he was struck by a car and confined to a wheelchair for a year. He became a lifetime New Yorker, continuing in journalism writing for the Yiddish-language newspaper, the Forward. His contact with the city’s many Holocaust survivors shored up Wiesel’s resolve to keep telling their stories.

Wiesel became a US citizen in 1963. Six years later, he married Marion Rose, a fellow Holocaust survivor who translated some of his books into English. They had a son, Shlomo. Based in New York, Wiesel commuted to Boston University for almost three decades, teaching philosophy, literature and Judaic studies and giving a popular lecture series in the autumn. Wiesel also taught at Yale and the City University of New York.

In 1978, he was chosen by Jimmy Carter to head the President’s Commission on the Holocaust, and plan an American memorial museum to Holocaust victims. Wiesel wrote in a report to the president that the museum must include denying the Nazis a posthumous victory, honouring the victims’ last wishes to tell their stories. He said that although all the victims of the Holocaust were not Jewish, all Jews were victims. Wiesel advocated that the museum emphasise the annihilation of the Jews, while still remembering the others.

Wiesel also spoke at the dedication of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC in 1993. His words are now carved in stone at its entrance of the building: “For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.”

Wiesel defended Soviet Jews, Nicaragua’s Miskito Indians, Cambodian refugees, the Kurds, victims of African famine and victims of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. Wiesel was also a long-time supporter of Israel although he was criticised at times for his closeness to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanhayu.

Despite Wiesel’s mission to remind the world of past mistakes, the greatest disappointment of his life was that “nothing changed,” he said in an interview.

“Human nature remained what it was. Society remained what it was. Too much indifference in the world, to the Other, his pain, and anguish, and hope.”

But personally, he never gave up – as reflected in his novel The Town Beyond the Wall.

Wiesel’s Jewish protagonist, Michael, returns to his native town in now-communist Hungary to find out why his neighbours had given him up to the Nazis. Suspected as a Western spy, he lands in prison along with a young man whose insanity has left him catatonic.

The protagonist takes on the challenge of “awakening” the youth by any means, from talking to forcing his mouth open – a task as wrenching as Wiesel’s humanitarian missions.

“The day when the boy suddenly began sketching arabesques in the air was one of the happiest of Michael’s life. … Now he talked more, as if wishing to store ideas and values in the boy for his moments of awakening. Michael compared himself to a farmer: months separated the planting from the harvest. For the moment, he was planting.”