Who was Elie Wiesel?
Born on September 30, 1928, in Sighet, Romania, Elie Wiesel pursued Jewish religious studies before his family was forced into Nazi death camps during WWII. Wiesel survived, and later wrote the internationally acclaimed memoir Night. He also penned many books and became an activist, orator and teacher, speaking out against persecution and injustice across the globe. Wiesel died on July 2, 2016 at the age of 87.
Surviving the Holocaust
In 1940, Hungary annexed Sighet and the Wiesels were among the Jewish families forced to live in ghettos. In May 1944, Nazi Germany, with Hungary’s agreement, forced Jews living in Sighet to be deported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. At the age of 15 Wiesel and his entire family were sent to Auschwitz. Wiesel was sent to Buna Werke labor camp, a sub-camp of Auschwitz III-Monowitz, with his father, where they were forced to work under deplorable, inhumane conditions. They were transferred to other Nazi camps and force marched to Buchenwald where his father died after being beaten by a German soldier, just three months before the camp was liberated. Wiesel’s mother and younger sister Tzipora also died in the Holocaust. Elie was freed from Buchenwald in 1945. Of his relatives, only he and his older sisters Beatrice and Hilda survived.
Wiesel went on to study at the Sorbonne in France from 1948-51 and took up journalism, writing for French and Israeli publications. His friend and colleague François Mauriac, a French Nobel Laureate for Literature, encouraged him to write about his experiences in the camps; Wiesel would publish in Yiddish the memoir And the World Would Remain Silent in 1956. The book was shortened and published in France as La Nuit, and as Night for English readers in 1960. The memoir eventually became an acclaimed bestseller, translated into many languages, and is considered a seminal work on the terrors of the Holocaust.
Writer and World Activist
Wiesel went on to write many books, including the novels Town of Luck (1962), The Gates of the Forest (1966) and The Oath (1973), and such nonfiction works as Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters (1982) and the memoir All Rivers Run to the Sea (1995). Wiesel also became a revered international activist, orator and figure of peace over the years, speaking out against injustices perpetrated in an array of countries, including South Africa, Bosnia, Cambodia and Rwanda. In 1978, Wiesel was appointed chair of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust by President Jimmy Carter. He was honored across the world with a number of awards, including the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom and the French Legion of Honor’s Grand Croix.
Teaching was another of Wiesel’s passions, and he was appointed in the mid-1970s as Boston University’s Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities. He also taught Judaic studies at the City University of New York, and served as a visiting scholar at Yale.
Wiesel won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. The Nobel citation honoring him stated: “Wiesel is a messenger to mankind. His message is one of peace, atonement and human dignity. His belief that the forces fighting evil in the world can be victorious is a hard-won belief.” He founded the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity with his wife Marion to “combat indifference, intolerance and injustice” throughout the world. The couple had one son, Elisha.