Elie Wiesel, an Auschwitz survivor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate who became an outspoken champion for human rights and Israel, died Saturday in Manhattan at the age of 87.
Born to Sarah and Shlomo Wiesel on September 30, 1928, Eliezer “Elie” Wiesel grew up in the town of Sighet, Transylvania, part of modern-day Romania. After Germany occupied Hungary in March 1944, the Wiesel family and some 14,000 Jews from Sighet and surrounding villages were forced to move into a ghetto. In May 1944, with Hungary’s agreement, Sighet’s Jews were deported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Most of the deportees were killed in the gas chambers on arrival.
Now fifteen, Wiesel and his father were made to work in a sub-camp of Auschwitz III-Monowitz for eight months before being moved to a series of other concentration camps. Shlomo Wiesel died at the Buchenwald camp on January 29, 1945 after being beaten by a German solder. Wiesel’s mother Sarah and his young sister Tzipora also died over the course of the Holocaust, losses he recounted in his 1955 memoir 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,” he wrote in the book, one of the first published accounts of the Holocaust written by a survivor, which has since been translated into over 30 languages and credited with introducing generations to the horrors of the Nazi genocide. “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.”
After the liberation of Buchenwald, Wiesel was sent by a French Jewish humanitarian organization to live for several years at a French orphanage, where he was reunited with his older sisters Beatrice and Hilda, his only surviving immediate family members.
In 1948, after working as a Hebrew teacher and in a number of other odd jobs, Wiesel became a journalist, with his articles appearing in both French and Israeli publications. He translated Hebrew articles into Yiddish on behalf of the Irgun, Israel’s pre-state militia, and visited the newly-established State of Israel the following year. He was subsequently hired as the Paris correspondent of the Israeli paper Yedioth Ahronoth, and later went on to work with the New York-based Yiddish newspaper The Forward. He applied for permanent residency and became a U.S. citizen in 1963.
Six years later, in Jerusalem, Wiesel married Austrian Holocaust survivor Marion Rose, who served as the English translator for his subsequent works. The couple had one son, Shlomo Elisha Wiesel.
Wiesel received over 100 honorary doctorates and multiple awards throughout his lifetime, including the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom and Israel’s President’s Medal of Distinction.
“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation,” he said while accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 for his efforts to fight racism and violence. “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
Wiesel was also appointed by President Jimmy Carter to help establish the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., saying at its 1993 dedication: “For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.”
During his life, Wiesel was a devoted champion of human rights, defending the cause of Kurds, Cambodian refugees, Nicaragua’s Miskito Indians, Argentine Desaparecidos, and Soviet Jews, as well as victims of African famine and genocide, the Syrian civil war, the war in the former Yugoslavia, the Armenian genocide, and apartheid in South Africa. He was also a staunch supporter of Israel, seeing its security as being inextricably tied to the welfare of global Jewry.
“How can it be explained that a Jew like myself, attached to the destiny of Israel with all the fiber of his being, has chosen to write, teach, work, found a family, and to live far away in a social and cultural environment that is far too generalized for that of our ancestors?” he asked in 1998. “Is there a satisfactory response? If there is, I don’t know it. … For the moment, this is all I can say: as a Jew, I need Israel. More precisely: I can live as a Jew outside Israel but not without Israel.”
He repeated these sentiments in an interview with Israeli media in 2010, saying: “When a Jew visits Jerusalem for the first time, it is not the first time; it is a homecoming.”
In the past, he questioned the possibility of a political division that would place the Old City of Jerusalem — home of the Temple Mount and Western Wall — under Palestinian control, writing in 2001: “How can we forget that between 1948 and 1967, while the Old City was occupied by Jordan, Jews were denied access to the Western Wall in spite of a signed agreement between the two governments?”
He also condemned the Gaza-based terrorist group Hamas as a “death cult” during its 2014 war with Israel, writing: “Do the two cultures that brought us the Psalms of David and the rich libraries of the Ottoman Empire not share a love of life, of transmitting wisdom and opportunity to their children? And is any of this discernible in the dark future offered by Hamas to Arab children, to be suicide bombers or human shields for rockets? Palestinian parents want a hopeful future for their children, just like Israeli parents do. And both should be joining together in peace.”
When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized the Iran deal before Congress in 2015, Wiesel — who warned of the “catastrophic danger of a nuclear Iran” — attended as a guest of honor. It was not the first time Wiesel publicly opposed the position of a sitting U.S. president; in 1985, while being awarded the Congressional Gold Medal of Achievement, Wiesel criticized President Ronald Reagan’s controversial decision to visit a German military cemetery that contained the graves of 49 Nazi SS Stormtroopers.
“In the darkness of the Holocaust when our brothers and sisters perished — the six million — Elie Wiesel served as a ray of light and an example of humanity that believes in the goodness of man,” Netanyahu said following Wiesel’s death. “Elie’s prolific creations do not just reflect the Holocaust but also the hope and optimism against the darkness of Auschwitz. Jerusalem — the eternal capital of Israel — represented to him our ability to rise from the bottom and reach new heights.”
In his remembrance, President Barack Obama, who traveled with Wiesel to Buchenwald in 2009, called the Nobel laureate “one of the great moral voices of our time, and in many ways, the conscience of the world.”
“Like millions of admirers, I first came to know Elie through his account of the horror he endured during the Holocaust simply because he was Jewish,” he added. “After we walked together among the barbed wire and guard towers of Buchenwald where he was held as a teenager and where his father perished, Elie spoke words I’ve never forgotten – ‘Memory has become a sacred duty of all people of goodwill.’ Upholding that sacred duty was the purpose of Elie’s life. Along with his beloved wife Marion and the foundation that bears his name, he raised his voice, not just against anti-Semitism, but against hatred, bigotry and intolerance in all its forms. He implored each of us, as nations and as human beings, to do the same, to see ourselves in each other and to make real that pledge of ‘never again.’”
“Elie Wiesel was the collective moral compass of the Jewish people,” Natan Sharansky, head of the Jewish Agency for Israel and a former Soviet refusenik, wrote along with his wife Avital. “He was the first to break the silence surrounding the plight of Soviet Jewry, and he accompanied our struggle until we achieved victory. We will miss him deeply.”
In 2006, Wiesel accompanied popular talk show host Oprah Winfrey on a visit to Auschwitz. The segment that aired following their trip is embedded below.
[Photo: World Economic Forum / Flickr ]