1928 – Present
The Importance of Remembering
In 1986, Elie Wiesel was awarded the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize. The Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee at the time, Egil Aarvik, not only recognized Wiesel for his unfathomable resilience as a survivor of the Holocaust, but also for the action he has taken in response to this great trauma. Aarvik explains:
“From the abyss of the death camps he has come as a messenger to mankind – not with a message of hate and revenge, but with one of brotherhood and atonement. He has become a powerful spokesman for the view of mankind and the unlimited humanity which is, at all times, the basis of a lasting peace. Elie Wiesel is not only the man who survived - he is also the spirit which has conquered. In him we see a man who has climbed from utter humiliation to become one of our most important spiritual leaders and guides.
…The duty and responsibility which Elie Wiesel preaches are not primarily concerned with the fear of the terrors of the past repeating themselves. It is much more an engagement directed at preventing the possible victory of evil forces in the future. The creative force in this process is not hate and revenge, but rather a longing for freedom, a love of life and a respect for human dignity. Or as Elie Wiesel has said himself: ‘I will conquer our murderers by attempting to reconstruct what they destroyed.’”
As is illuminated by the many great works by Elie Wiesel, his resounding spirit rose out of the tremendous hatred and pain borne by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Regime and the resulting infamous Holocaust – a resilience no one could have anticipated. Wiesel lost his mother, father, and youngest sister in the concentration camps. At the mere age of fourteen, his life was consumed by tragedy and unthinkable physical and emotional pain. And yet, today Wiesel is the author of more than fifty books of fiction and non-fiction, the worthy recipient of numerous awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize, and is the founder of a humanitarian organization of his own name.
Though he suffered profoundly, Wiesel emerged from the Holocaust determined to tell his story. He waited, however, for ten years before he embarked on the process of recounting his haunting past. As Robert McAfee Brown wrote in his preface to Elie Wiesel’s Night, “When Elie Wiesel was liberated from Buchenwald in 1945, having also been in Birkenau, Auschwitz, and Buna, he imposed a ten-year vow of silence upon himself before trying to describe what had happened to him and over six million other Jews. When he finally broke that silence, he had trouble finding a publisher. Such depressing subject matter.” After Night was finally published, itwas by no means an instant success. No one wanted to read about the Holocaust. But, one cannot avoid the realities of the past forever. Readers began to pick up Wiesel’s book, and the undeniable importance of his work began to spread. Wiesel’s courage, his brilliant voice, his stamina, and his deep heart are marked in his writing, his speeches, and his actions, and are never to be forgotten.
What was the Holocaust?
In his book entitled, After the Dark: Reflections from the Holocaust Elie Wiesel gives the best description any writer can give of the Holocaust. He sets the stage by telling of the Nazi regime:
“The Nazis’ reign lasted twelve years, from 1933 to 1945. It ended only when their opponents, fighting a just and noble war, forced the Nazis’ military and ideological leaders to surrender – in shame but not in remorse…. During the Nazi era, in thousands of towns and cities, men and women – young and old, from all walks of life – would eventually find themselves, from one day to the next, barricaded and condemned, simply because their community recalled an ancient covenant with God: the Jewish people. Their unique ordeal, their incomparable torment bears a name that one hopes will make people tremble, tomorrow and forever more: the Holocaust.”
Though Wiesel claims that “The greatest writers are incapable of describing what the Holocaust means,” he, himself, has done so many times over in his own extraordinary, breathtaking and heart wrenching words. How does one define the Holocaust? Here is a quick Elie Wiesel definition: “the agony, the terror, the prayers, the tears, the tenderness, the sadness of the scientifically prepared death of six million human beings. Six million young and old, rich and poor, scholarly and illiterate, strong and weak, religious and atheistic people. Six million human beings sentenced to death by an evil dictatorship not because of their faith or their circumstances but because of their very being. When we talk about the “Holocaust,” we mean the destruction of a third of the Jewish people. Who could have imagined it?”
From Sighet to Auschwitz
In the same book, After the Dark, Wiesel goes on to describe his childhood in brief, allowing for the broader story of the Holocaust to emerge out of his own tale:
“The man writing these lines must be frank: he doesn’t want to tell you about this uniquely bloody and murderous period; he’s reluctant to talk about his past. What can he achieve by making you sad? Why keep denouncing the indifference of some and the collaboration of others? And why bring up his own past when millions of other human beings have suffered as much as – if not more than – he has?
The survivor must be a witness. He doesn’t have the right to hide behind a façade of false modesty. The easy way would be just to say nothing – but it’s been a long time since he took the easy way.
So listen. Listen to the haunted memories of a Jewish child from a little Carpathian village.
I was happy at home in the way only a child full of love and curiosity can be. I was happy because my family had a house. And because in that house I had my parents and my three sisters. I was happy because I loved them. And because they loved me….
I went to school. I studied the Bible, the Talmud, and their commentaries. I was eager to learn, to deepen my faith. I believed in the Eternal One and held fast His laws. My whole soul awaited the arrival of the Messiah, who would make people instruments of peace, not violence….
Then, suddenly, the earth began quaking under our feet.”
Wiesel’s first and most famed work is Night, his recounting of his experience of the Holocaust – his loss of innocence. Wiesel’s words speak volumes:
“We jumped out [of the cattle car]…. In front of us flames. In the air that smell of burning flesh. It must have been about midnight. We had arrived – at Birkenau, reception center for Auschwitz.”
“’Men to the left! Women to the right!’ Eight words spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion. Eight short, simple words. Yet that was the moment when I parted from my mother. I had not had time to think, but already I felt the pressure of my father’s hand: we were alone. For a part of a second I glimpsed my mother and my sisters moving away to the right. Tzipora held my Mother’s hand…. And I did not know that in that place, at that moment, I was parting from my mother and Tzipora forever. I went on walking. My father held onto my hand.”
“Not far from us, flames were leaping up from a ditch, gigantic flames. They were burning something. A lorry drew up at the pit and delivered its load – little children. Babies! Yes, I saw it – saw it with my own eyes…. I pinched my face. Was I still alive? Was I awake? I could not believe it. How could it be possible for them to burn people, children, and for the world to keep silent? No, none of this could be true. It was a nightmare…. My father’s voice shook me from my thoughts…. His voice was terribly sad. I realized that he did not want to see what they were going to do to me. He did not want to see the burning of his only son. My forehead was bathed in a cold sweat. But I told him that I did not believe that they could burn people in our age, that humanity would never tolerate it…. ‘Humanity? Humanity is not concerned with us. Today anything is allowed. Anything is possible, even these crematories…” His voice was choking.”
“Some SS officers moved about in the room, looking for strong men. If they were so keen on strength, perhaps one should try and pass oneself off as sturdy? My father thought the reverse. It was better not to draw attention to oneself…. Later, we were to learn that he was right. Those who were selected that day were enlisted in the Sonder-Kommando, the unit which worked in the crematories. Bela Katz – son of a big tradesman from our town – had arrived at Birkenau with the first transport, a week before us. When he heard of our arrival, he managed to get word to us that, having been chosen for his strength, he had himself put his father’s body into the crematory oven.”
When the Allied Forces began to close in on Buna, the Germans were forced to evacuate their concentration camp. Wiesel, his father, and the other prisoners were made to run nearly fifty miles in the dead of winter, in the blistering cold and relentless snow, with the fear of being shot if one were to slow down, to respond to any signs of fatigue. Of this experience, Wiesel wrote:
“We were outside. The icy wind stung my face…. Around me everything was dancing a dance of death. It made my head reel. I was walking in a cemetery, among stiffened corpses, logs of wood. Not a cry of distress, not a groan, nothing but a mass agony, in silence. No one asked anyone else for help. You died because you had to die. There was no fuss.”
“It was pitch dark. I could hear only the violin, and it was as though Juliek’s soul were the bow. He was playing his life…. I shall never forget Juliek. How could I forget that concert, given to an audience of dying and dead men! To this day, whenever I hear Beethoven played my eyes close and out of the dark rises the sad, pale face of my Polish friend, as he said farewell on his violin to an audience of dying men. I do not know how long he played. I was overcome by sleep. When I awoke, in the daylight, I could see Juliek, opposite me, slumped over, dead. Near him lay his violin, smashed, trampled, a strange overwhelming little corpse.”
Life After Darkness
On April 6, 1945, the guards at Buchenwald, the final concentration camp to which Wiesel was taken in Germany, told the prisoners they would no longer be fed, and began evacuating the camp, killing 10,000 prisoners a day. On the morning of April 11, an underground movement by the Allies rose from within the Buchenwald and attacked the SS guards. In early evening, the first American military units arrived and announced that the prisoners were now free.
In After the Dark, Wiesel elaborates on this new and unfamiliar concept:
“Once the nightmare of the war was over, the survivors of the Holocaust, still weak, still unable to believe that all that had happened, all still wounded, awoke in complete confusion…. Uprooted and disoriented, they did not know what to do with their rediscovered freedom. Go back home to look – with hope beyond hope – for a relative? … Many made this poignant journey, and so many were disappointed…. One Polish girl, eighteen years old, in search of her younger brother, spent weeks in the town of her birth; she preferred to stay with a girlfriend rather than risk encountering familiar ghosts that were surely haunting her former home.”
Wiesel’s own experience continued as follows:
After spending two weeks in a hospital bed due to food poisoning, of all things, Wiesel took a train to France. By chance, his sister, Hilda, saw his picture in a newspaper and got in touch with him. Months later, he reunited with his other sister Bea in Antwerp, Belgium.
In 1948, Wiesel enrolled in the Sorbonne University where he studied literature, philosophy and psychology and worked as a Hebrew teacher and choirmaster. He was extremely poor and at times became depressed to the point of considering suicide. In time, however, he became involved with the Irgun, a Jewish militant organization in Palestine, and translated materials from Hebrew to Yiddish for the Irgun’s newspaper. He began working as a reporter in 1949 and traveled to Israel as a correspondent for the French paper L’Arche. In Israel, he secured a job as Paris correspondent for the Israeli paper Yediot Achronot, and in the 1950s he got to travel around the world as a reporter.
In 1956 an accident changed the course of his life. Wiesel was knocked down by a taxi in New York and suffered injuries that confined him to a wheelchair for nearly a year. He decided to apply for American citizenship in order to stay New York. He spent the next year drawing on the outline he had written in the hospital to write an 862-page Yiddish manuscript he called And the World Was Silent. He gave it to a publisher in Argentina and it came back as a 245-page book entitled Night. The final manuscript, distilled down to 109 pages, was first published in France in 1958 and then in the U.S. in 1960.
In 1969, Wiesel married Marion Erster Rose, who translated all of Wiesel’s subsequent books. In 1972, they had a son who they named Shlomo Elisha Wiesel, after Wiesel’s father.
In Memory, In Gratitude
In After the Dark, Wiesel recounts a memory:
“One writer, more than half a century after his journey from darkness into light, accepted an invitation to give a speech at West Point on ‘The Meaning of Freedom.’ A parade in his honor of 4,500 cadets moved him to tears. That evening, when they were gathered to listen to him, he told them why: ‘I have always wanted to say thank you to the soldiers who wore your uniform, to thank them for saving my life.’ And he told them about Buchenwald on April 11, 1945. And these officers of the future, already hardened, struggled not to break down in tears. Yes: this is a story of memory, but also one of gratitude.”
In his speech at the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize Award Ceremony, Chairman Aarvik posed a question: “How can one live a meaningful life under the weight of such agonizing memories?” The life of Elie Wiesel answers this question: with love, with remembrance, with gratitude, and with action Elie Wiesel was able to breathe the fire of life back into his dull and hardened post-WWII existence. Aarvik continues:
“And with this hard-won belief [Wiesel] stands forward today with his message to all people on this earth. This is a message which not only awakens our conscience, but also inspires a limitless solidarity….
I doubt whether any other individual, through the use of such quiet speech, has achieved more or been more widely heard. The words are not big, and the voice which speaks them is low. It is a voice of peace we hear. But the power is intense. Truly, the little spark will not be put out, but will become a burning torch for our common belief in the future. Truly, prisoner number A 7713 [Wiesel’s identity during the war] has become a human being once again - a human being dedicated to humanity.”
And in a perfectly fitting response to Chairman Aarvik’s speech, Elie Wiesel opened his acceptance speech by saying:
“Then – thank you, Chairman Aarvik, for the depth of your eloquence. And for the generosity of your gesture. Thank you for building bridges between people and generations. Thank you, above all, for helping humankind make peace- its most urgent and noble aspiration.”
And Wiesel concluded:
“Human suffering anywhere concerns men and women everywhere….
And action is the only remedy to indifference, the most insidious danger of all.
What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs.”
And at the age of 83, Elie Wiesel is still fighting for freedom and for peace for people across the globe.
Elie Wiesel, Night (New York: Bantam Books, 1960) v.
Elie Wiesel, After the Dark: Reflections from the Holocaust (New York: Schocken Books, 2002) 5.
Wiesel After the Dark 9-10.
Wiesel After the Dark 42.
“The Greatest American Speeches” (London: Quercus Publishing Ltd, 2006) 192.
Wiesel After the Dark 44.
Wiesel, “Acceptance Speech”.