Elie Wiesel

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Elie Wiesel
Elie Wiesel 2012 Shankbone.JPG
Wiesel at the 2012 Time 100
Born Eliezer Wiesel
(1928-09-30) September 30, 1928 (age 94)
Sighet, Maramureș, Kingdom of Romania
Occupation Political activist, professor, novelist
Nationality American
Ethnicity Jewish
Notable awards Nobel Peace Prize
Presidential Medal of Freedom
Congressional Gold Medal
Grand Officer of the Order of the Star of Romania
Legion of Honour
Commander of the Order of the British Empire
Canterbury Medal
Spouse Marion Erster Rose[1]

Eliezer "Elie" Wiesel KBE (/ˈɛli wɪˈzɛl/;[2] September 30, 1928 - July 2, 2016)[3] was a Romanian-born Jewish American writer,[3] professor, political activist, and Nobel Laureate. He was the author of 57 books, including Night, a work based on his experiences as a prisoner in the Auschwitz, Buna, and Buchenwald concentration camps.[4] Wiesel was also the Advisory Board chairman of the newspaper Algemeiner Journal.

When Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, the Norwegian Nobel Committee called him a "messenger to mankind," stating that through his struggle to come to terms with "his own personal experience of total humiliation and of the utter contempt for humanity shown in Hitler's death camps", as well as his "practical work in the cause of peace", Wiesel had delivered a powerful message "of peace, atonement and human dignity" to humanity.[5]

Early life

The house where Wiesel was born

Elie Wiesel was born in Sighet, Transylvania (now Sighetu Marmației), Maramureș,[6] Romania,[6] in the Carpathian Mountains. His parents were Sarah Feig and Shlomo Wiesel. At home Wiesel's family spoke Yiddish most of the time, but also German, Hungarian, and Romanian.[7][8] Wiesel's mother, Sarah, was the daughter of Dodye Feig, a celebrated Vizhnitz Hasid and farmer from a nearby village. Dodye was active and trusted within the community. In the early years of his life, Dodye had spent a few months in jail for having helped Polish Jews who escaped and were hungry.

Wiesel's father, Shlomo, instilled a strong sense of humanism in his son, encouraging him to learn Hebrew and to read literature, whereas his mother encouraged him to study the Torah. Wiesel has said his father represented reason while his mother Sarah promoted faith.[9]

Wiesel had three siblings – older sisters Hilda and Beatrice, and younger sister Tzipora. Beatrice and Hilda survived the war and were reunited with Wiesel at a French orphanage. They eventually emigrated to North America, with Beatrice moving to Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Tzipora, Shlomo, and Sarah did not survive the Holocaust.

World War II

Buchenwald concentration camp, 1945. Wiesel is in the second row from the bottom, seventh from the left, next to the bunk post.[10]

In 1940, Romania lost the town of Sighet to Hungary following the Second Vienna Award. In 1944, when he was 15, Wiesel, his family, and the rest of the town were placed in one of the two ghettos in Sighet. Wiesel and his family lived in the larger of the two, on Serpent Street.

On May 6, 1944, the Hungarian authorities allowed the German army to deport the Jewish community in Sighet to Auschwitz-Birkenau. At Auschwitz, his inmate number, "A-7713", was tattooed onto his left arm.[11][12]

Separated from his three sisters and mother, he went to the same camp as his father.

Wiesel and his father were sent to the attached work camp Buna, a subcamp of Auschwitz III-Monowitz. He managed to remain with his father for more than eight months as they were forced to work under appalling conditions and shuffled among three concentration camps in the closing days of the war.

On January 29, 1945, just a few weeks after the two were marched to Buchenwald, Wiesel's father was beaten[13] by an SS guard as he was suffering from dysentery, starvation, and exhaustion. He was also beaten by other inmates for his food. He was later sent to the crematorium, only weeks before the camp was liberated by the U.S. Third Army on April 11.[14]

After the war

After World War II, Wiesel taught Hebrew and worked as a choirmaster before becoming a professional journalist. He learned French, which became the language he used most frequently in writing.[15] He wrote for Israeli and French newspapers, including Tsien in Kamf (in Yiddish).

In 1946, after learning of Irgun's bombing of the King David Hotel, Wiesel made an unsuccessful attempt to join the underground movement. In 1948 he translated articles from Hebrew to Yiddish for Irgun periodicals, but says he was not a member of the organization.[16] In 1949 he travelled to Israel as a correspondent for the French newspaper L'arche. He then was hired as Paris correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, subsequently becoming its roaming international correspondent.[17]

For ten years after the war, Wiesel refused to write about or discuss his experiences during the Holocaust. However, a meeting with the French author François Mauriac, the 1952 Nobel Laureate in Literature who eventually became Wiesel's close friend, persuaded him to write about his experiences. Wiesel said that a discussion he had with Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson was a turning point in his writing of the Holocaust.[18]

Wiesel first wrote the 900-page memoir Un di velt hot geshvign (And the World Remained Silent) in Yiddish, which was published in abridged form in Buenos Aires.[19] Wiesel rewrote a shortened version of the manuscript in French, which was published as the 127-page La Nuit, and later translated into English as Night. Even with Mauriac's support, Wiesel had trouble finding a publisher for his book and initially it sold only a few copies.[20]

In 1960 Arthur Wang of Hill & Wang agreed to pay a $100 pro-forma advance and published it in the United States in September that year as Night. The book agent was Georges Borchardt, then just starting his career. Borchardt remains Wiesel's literary agent today.

The book sold just 1,046 copies over the next 18 months, but attracted interest from reviewers, leading to television interviews with Wiesel and meetings with literary figures such as Saul Bellow. "The English translation came out in 1960, and the first printing was 3,000 copies," Wiesel said in an interview. "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." The 1979 book and play The Trial of God are said to have been based on his real-life Auschwitz experience of witnessing three Jews who, close to death, conduct a trial against God, under the accusation that He has been oppressive of the Jewish people. Regarding his personal beliefs, Wiesel calls himself an agnostic.[21]

Night has been translated into 30 languages. By 1997 the book was selling 300,000 copies annually in the United States alone. By March 2006, about six million copies were sold in the United States. On January 16, 2006, Oprah Winfrey chose the work for her book club. One million extra paperback and 150,000 hardcover copies were printed carrying the "Oprah's Book Club" logo, with a new translation by Wiesel's wife, Marion, and a new preface by Wiesel. On February 12, 2006, the new translation of Night was No. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list for paperback non-fiction and the original translation placed third.[22]

Film director Orson Welles approached Wiesel about making Night into a feature film. Wiesel refused, saying that his widely read memoir would lose its meaning if it were told without the silences in between his words.[23]

Life in the United States

In 1955, Wiesel moved to Washington, D.C., having become a U.S. citizen. He was offered this citizenship to resolve his status of living with an expired visa from being forced to stay in New York due to an injury. In 1964, Rabbi Men M. Schneerson encouraged Wiesel to get married.[citation needed] Wiesel went on to marry his wife Marion and they had a son, Elisha.[24] In the US, Wiesel wrote over 40 books, both fiction and non-fiction, and won many literary prizes. Wiesel's writing is considered among the most important in Holocaust literature. Some historians credit Wiesel with giving the term "Holocaust" its present meaning, but he does not feel that the word adequately describes the event and wishes it were used less frequently to describe significant occurrences as everyday tragedies.[25]

He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 for speaking out against violence, repression, and racism. He has received many other prizes and honors for his work, including the Congressional Gold Medal in 1985, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and The International Center in New York's Award of Excellence.[citation needed] Additionally, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1996.[citation needed]

Wiesel also played a role in the initial success of The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski by endorsing it before revelations that the book was fiction and, in the sense that it was presented as all Kosinski's true experience, a hoax.[26][27]

Wiesel has published two volumes of his memoirs. The first, All Rivers Run to the Sea, was published in 1994 and covered his life up to the year 1969. The second, titled And the Sea is Never Full and published in 1999, covered 1969 to 1999.[citation needed]

Wiesel and his wife, Marion, started the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity. He served as chairman for the Presidential Commission on the Holocaust (later renamed US Holocaust Memorial Council) from 1978 to 1986, spearheading the building of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., during which he pleaded for intervention during the persecutions in Yugoslavia after a visit in December 1992.[citation needed]

Wiesel is particularly fond of teaching and holds the position of Andrew Mellon Professor of the Humanities at Boston University, where he became a close friend of the late president and chancellor John Silber.[28] From 1972 to 1976, Wiesel was a Distinguished Professor at the City University of New York and member of the American Federation of Teachers. In 1982 he served as the first Henry Luce Visiting Scholar in Humanities and Social Thought at Yale University. He also co-instructs Winter Term (January) courses at Eckerd College, St. Petersburg, Florida. From 1997 to 1999, he was Ingeborg Rennert Visiting Professor of Judaic Studies at Barnard College of Columbia University.[29]

Wiesel has become a popular speaker on the subject of the Holocaust. As a political activist, he has advocated for many causes, including Israel, the plight of Soviet and Ethiopian Jews, the victims of apartheid in South Africa, Argentina's Desaparecidos, Bosnian victims of genocide in the former Yugoslavia, Nicaragua's Miskito Indians, and the Kurds. Conversely, he withdrew from his role as chair of the International Conference on the Holocaust and Genocide, and made efforts to abort the conference, in deference to Israeli objection to the inclusion of sessions on the Armenian genocide.[30][31]

In 2004, he voiced support for intervention in Darfur, Sudan at the Darfur Emergency Summit convened at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York by the American Jewish World Service and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.[32] He also led a commission organized by the Romanian government to research and write a report, released in 2004, on the true history of the Holocaust in Romania and the involvement of the Romanian wartime regime in atrocities against Jews and other groups, including the Roma. The Romanian government accepted the findings in the report and committed to implementing the commission's recommendations for educating the public on the history of the Holocaust in Romania. The commission, formally called the International Commission for the Study of the Holocaust in Romania, came to be called the Wiesel Commission in honor of his leadership.

Wiesel is the honorary chair of the Habonim Dror Camp Miriam Campership and Building Fund, and a member of the International Council of the New York–based Human Rights Foundation.[citation needed]

On March 27, 2001, Wiesel appeared at the University of Florida for Jewish Awareness Month and was presented with an honorary degree from the University of Florida.[33]

In 2002, he inaugurated the Elie Wiesel Memorial House in Sighet, in his childhood home.[34]

Later life

File:Dalai Lama and Bush welcome Elie Wiesel (2007).jpg
President George W. Bush, joined by the Dalai Lama and Wiesel, Oct. 17, 2007, to the ceremony at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., for the presentation of the Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama

In early 2006, Wiesel traveled to Auschwitz with Oprah Winfrey, a visit which was broadcast as part of The Oprah Winfrey Show on May 24, 2006.[35] Wiesel said that this would most likely be his last trip there. In September 2006, he appeared before the UN Security Council with actor George Clooney to call attention to the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. On November 30, 2006, Wiesel received a knighthood in London in recognition of his work toward raising Holocaust education in the United Kingdom.[36]

During the early 2007 selection process for the Kadima candidate for President of Israel, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reportedly offered Wiesel the nomination (and, as the ruling-party candidate and an apolitical figure, likely the presidency), but Wiesel "was not very interested."[37] Shimon Peres was chosen as the Kadima candidate (and later President) instead.

In 2007, Wiesel was awarded the Dayton Literary Peace Prize's Lifetime Achievement Award.[38] That same year, the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity issued a letter condemning Armenian genocide denial, a letter that was signed by 53 Nobel laureates including Wiesel. Wiesel has repeatedly called Turkey's 90-year-old campaign to downplay its actions during the Armenian genocide a double killing.[39]

Wiesel is a member of the International Advisory Board of NGO Monitor.[40]

Wiesel and his wife invested their life savings, and the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity invested nearly all of its assets (approximately $15.2 million USD) through Bernard Madoff's Ponzi scheme,[41] an experience Wiesel later spoke about at a Condé Nast roundtable. Although an exact recovery percentage is not yet known, as of April 2013, 53% of victims' monies have been recovered and returned to them.[42] In a New York Times article, Wiesel called Madoff a "thief, scoundrel, criminal."[43]

In 2009, Wiesel criticized the Vatican for lifting the excommunication of controversial bishop Richard Williamson, a member of the Society of Saint Pius X.[44]

On June 5, 2009, Wiesel accompanied US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel as they toured Buchenwald. Merkel and Wiesel each spoke about Buchenwald in personal terms, with Merkel considering the responsibility of Germans vis-à-vis Nazi history, and Wiesel reflecting on the suffering and death of his father in the camp.[45]

Wiesel returned to Hungary for the first visit since the Holocaust between December 9–11, 2009, by the invitation of Rabbi Slomó Köves, executive rabbi of the Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation and the Hungarian branch of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. During his visit, Wiesel participated in a conference at the Upper House Chamber of the Hungarian Parliament, met Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai and President László Sólyom, and made a speech to the approximately 10,000 participants of an anti-racist gathering held in Faith Hall. The speech was broadcast live by Magyar ATV, a nationwide television channel.[46][47][48]

In November 2011, Wiesel accepted an appointment to the Board of Visitors of Ralston College, a start-up liberal arts college based in Savannah, Georgia.[49]

In June 2012, he protested against "the whitewashing of tragic and criminal episodes" that happened in Hungary during the Holocaust. He gave up the Great Cross award received from the Hungarian government and sent a letter to László Kövér, the Speaker of Hungarian Parliament, where he criticized him for his participation in a ceremony celebrating József Nyírő, a loyal member of Hungary's World War II fascist parliament. During the short rule of the Arrow Cross Party, which led a government in Hungary, ten to fifteen thousand Jews were murdered outright,[50] and 80,000 Jews, including many women, children and elderly were deported from Hungary to their deaths in the Auschwitz concentration camp.[51] In his letter Wiesel wrote:

It has become increasingly clear that Hungarian authorities are encouraging the whitewashing of tragic and criminal episodes in Hungary's past, namely the wartime Hungarian governments' involvement in the deportation and murder of hundreds of thousands of its Jewish citizens. I found it outrageous that the Speaker of the Hungarian National Assembly could participate in a ceremony honoring a Hungarian fascist ideologue.[52]

Kövér, in his answer letter to Wiesel, stated the American, British and Soviet generals in the Allied Control Commission declared in 1945 and 1947 that Nyirő was not a war criminal, nor fascist or anti-Semitic when they refused to extradite the exiled writer two times at the request of the contemporary Hungarian Communist Minister of the Interior.[53] He also mentioned that Nicolae Ceauşescu's government treated Nyírő as a well-recognized writer and ensured pension for his widow in the 1970s.[53] Kövér cited a Hungarian Jewish scientific review (the Libanon) and the newspaper stated that Nazi ideals or anti-Semitism cannot be found in Nyírő's literary works.[53] Nyírő, the Transylvanian-born Hungarian writer, deserves respect not because of his—although insignificant, certainly tragically misguided—political activities but for his literary works according to Kövér.[53]

In fact, Nyírő was a great admirer of Joseph Goebbels; he wrote lyrics about the Nazi Minister of Propaganda and was a politician associated with Fascist Arrow-Cross parliament in 1944, who later escaped retribution and participated in the propaganda work of Hungarian Fascist emigrants.[54]

Wiesel is currently an adviser at the Gatestone Institute.[55] In 2010, Wiesel accepted a five-year appointment as a Distinguished Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. In that role, he makes a one-week visit to Chapman annually to meet with students and offer his perspective on subjects ranging from Holocaust history to religion, languages, literature, law and music.[56]

Wiesel was in attendance and his famous "Never Again" quote was recited by the Israeli prime minister's Benjamin Netanyahu; during Netanyahu 2015 address to United States congress.[57]

2007 attack on Wiesel

On February 1, 2007, Wiesel was attacked in a San Francisco hotel by 22-year-old Holocaust denier Eric Hunt, who tried to drag Wiesel into a hotel room. Wiesel was not injured and Hunt fled the scene. Later, Hunt bragged about the incident on the infamous antisemitic website Stormfront.[58] Approximately one month later, he was arrested and charged with multiple offenses.[59] Hunt was convicted on July 21, 2008,[60] and was sentenced to two years imprisonment, but was given credit for time served and good behavior; he was released on probation and ordered to undergo psychological treatment. The jury convicted Hunt of three charges but dismissed the remaining charges of attempted kidnapping, stalking, and an additional count of false imprisonment, amid Hunt's withdrawal of his insanity plea.[61] District Attorney Kamala Harris said, "Crimes motivated by hate are among the most reprehensible of offenses ... This defendant has been made to answer for an unwarranted and biased attack on a man who has dedicated his life to peace."[62] At his sentencing hearing, Hunt apologized and insisted that he no longer denies the Holocaust;[63] however, he continued for some time afterwards to maintain and update a (now defunct) blog that was critical of prominent Jewish people and denied the Holocaust.[64]

Reaction to proxy baptizing of Jews by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

On February 13, 2012, the Salt Lake City Tribune announced that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints performed a posthumous baptism of Simon Wiesenthal's parents.[65] The following day, the Huffington Post announced that Wiesel's name had been submitted by a Latter-day Saint to a genealogical database used for proposing proxy baptisms. The Huffington Post also notified Wiesel, prompting him to speak out against the practice of posthumously baptizing Jews and to call on United States presidential candidate and Latter-day Saint Mitt Romney to denounce it.[66][67][68] In an interview on February 15, 2012 with Lawrence O'Donnell, Wiesel called the practice "bizarre", and said, "I am a Jew. Born a Jew. Lived as a Jew. Tried to write about the Jewish condition...the human condition all over the world, and they should do it to me?" He reported that he had worked for two years with Bobby Adams and Holocaust survivor Ernest Michel to achieve an agreement with the LDS church regarding the practice of baptizing Holocaust dead, and that LDS church apostle Quentin Cook apologized to him by telephone earlier that day for the database submission of his family's names, and reported blocking the name of former Prime Minister of Israel Golda Meir from proxy baptism.[69]

Iran and Gaza

In December 2013, Wiesel wrote an ad in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal declaring that "Iran must not be allowed to remain nuclear", and that "If there is one lesson I hope the world has learned from the past it is that regimes rooted in brutality must never be trusted. And the words and actions of the leadership of Iran leave no doubt as to their intentions."[70]

In an August 4, 2014, full-page advertisement in The New York Times and other newspapers, Wiesel condemned Hamas for the "use of children as human shields" during the 2014 Israel-Gaza Conflict[71] The London Times refused to run the advertisement, saying "the opinion being expressed is too strong and too forcefully made and will cause concern amongst a significant number of Times readers."[72][73]


On April 18, 2010, in The New York Times and on 16 April for three other newspapers, Wiesel wrote a full-page advertisement in which he emphasized the Jewish connection to Jerusalem and criticized the Obama administration for pressuring Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to halt East Jerusalem Israeli settlement construction.[74][75] He wrote:

For me, the Jew that I am, Jerusalem is above politics. It is mentioned more than six hundred times in Scripture—and not a single time in the Koran.... It belongs to the Jewish people and is much more than a city; it is what binds one Jew to another in a way that remains hard to explain. When a Jew visits Jerusalem for the first time, it is not the first time; it is a homecoming. The first song I heard was my mother's lullaby about and for Jerusalem. Its sadness and its joy are part of our collective memory.[76]

Three weeks later, on May 4, 2010, Wiesel met with President Barack Obama at the White House to discuss Middle East peace relations. Afterwards, Wiesel said, "The president is convinced that the peace process must continue. And we all agree of course. There is no substitute to peace among nations. Each side must understand that there is no absolute justice in the world, nor absolute peace in the world. One side must understand the other's need for assurance for respect."[77]

Wiesel's position on Jerusalem has been criticized by the Americans for Peace Now in an open letter: "Jerusalem is not just a Jewish symbol. It is also a holy city to billions of Christians and Muslims worldwide. It is Israel's capital, but it is also a focal point of Palestinian national aspirations." They also claimed that equal residential rights do not exist in the city.[78] Wiesel has also been criticized by some on the left in Israel. Haaretz published an article by Yossi Sarid which accused him of being out of touch with the realities of life in Jerusalem.[79]

Wiesel was criticized by former DePaul University professor and political scientist Norman Finkelstein in his book The Holocaust Industry. Finkelstein accuses Wiesel of promoting the "uniqueness doctrine" which holds, according to Finkelstein, the Holocaust as the paramount of evil and therefore historically incomparable to other genocides.[80] Finkelstein also accuses Wiesel of playing down the importance of other genocides, especially the Armenian Genocide, and thwarting efforts of raising awareness of the genocide of the Romani people executed by the Nazis. Finkelstein cited Wiesel's lobbying for commemorating Jews alone (not the Romani people) in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., in addition to his numerous other assertions on the "uniqueness of Holocaust".[81]

Since 2011, Wiesel has served as the chairman of the controversial Ir David Foundation council.[82][83][84]

In 2014, 327 Holocaust survivors and descendants, sponsored by the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, condemned Wiesel's comments supporting the 2014 Israeli invasion of Gaza in an ad in the New York Times:

...we are disgusted and outraged by Elie Wiesel's abuse of our history in these pages to justify the unjustifiable: Israel's wholesale effort to destroy Gaza and the murder of more than 2,000 Palestinians, including many hundreds of children. Nothing can justify bombing UN shelters, homes, hospitals and universities. Nothing can justify depriving people of electricity and water.[85]

In 2017, Wiesel was accused of having sexually assaulted a woman in 1989 while she was a college student.[86]

Awards and honors

Honorary degrees


See also


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External links

Speeches and interviews