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Nobel laureate and Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel dies at 87

Published 03/07/2016

Elie Wiesel, right, is presented with the 2009 National Humanities Medal by US president Barack Obama (AP)
Elie Wiesel, right, is presented with the 2009 National Humanities Medal by US president Barack Obama (AP)

Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, the Romanian-born Holocaust survivor whose classic Night became a landmark testament to the Nazis' crimes and launched his long career as one of the world's foremost witnesses and humanitarians, has died at 87.

His death was announced on Saturday by Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial.

Mr Wiesel summed up his mission in 1986 when accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, saying: "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."

US president Barack Obama said: "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."

For more than half a century Mr 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 by far was Night, a classic ranked with Anne Frank's diary as standard reading about the Holocaust.

Night was his first book and its journey to publication crossed both time and language. It began in the mid-1950s as an 800-page story in Yiddish, was trimmed to under 300 pages for an edition released in Argentina, cut again to under 200 pages for the French market and finally published in the United States, in 1960, at just over 100 pages.

Mr 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.

It was so bleak that publishers doubted it would appeal to readers. In a 2002 interview with the Chicago Tribune, Mr 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," he said.

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

"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.

Mr Wiesel's prolific stream of speeches, essays and books, including two sequels to Night and more than 40 books overall of 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 only after his mother, father and one sister had died in Nazi camps. Two other sisters survived.

After the liberation of Buchenwald in April 1945, Mr 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 Mr 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 Mr Wiesel's resolve to keep telling their stories.

He became a US citizen in 1963 and 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, Mr Wiesel commuted to Boston University for almost three decades, teaching philosophy, literature and Judaic studies and giving a popular lecture series in the autumn.

He also taught at Yale University and the City University of New York.

Some of his most memorable spoken words came in 1985, when he received a Congressional Gold Medal from President Ronald Reagan and asked him not to make a planned trip to a cemetery in Germany that contained graves of Adolf Hitler's personal guards.

"May I, Mr President, if it's possible at all, implore you to do something else, to find a way, to find another way, another site. That place, Mr President, is not your place. Your place is with the victims," he told Mr Reagan.

Mr Reagan visited the cemetery in Bitburg, despite international protests.

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

Mr Wiesel defended Soviet Jews, Nicaragua's Miskito Indians, Cambodian refugees, the Kurds, victims of African famine and those of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia.

He was a long-time supporter of Israel although he was criticised at times for his closeness to prime minister Benjamin Netanhayu.

Despite Mr 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.

AP

Mrs Wiesel described her husband as "a fighter".

"He fought for the memory of the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust and he fought for Israel," she said in a statement.

"He waged countless battles for innocent victims regardless of ethnicity or creed."

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