Elie Wiesel

Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel and his wife, Marion.
Elie Wiesel and his wife Marion are photographed October 14, 1986 at their home in New York City. (Photo by Yvonne Hemsey/Getty Images)

Who Was Elie Wiesel?

Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, author of Night and dozens of other works, was often recognized as a spokesperson for Holocaust survivors and was a prominent voice in the field of human rights.

Born in Sighet, Romania in 1928, Wiesel's Orthodox Jewish upbringing was harshly interrupted when the Nazis deported his family – first to a local ghetto and then to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where his mother and younger sister instantly perished.

Wiesel survived the Holocaust and later chronicled his experiences in Night.

Dates: September 30, 1928 -- July 2, 2016

Childhood

Born on September 30, 1928, Elie Wiesel grew up in a small village in Romania, where his family had roots for many centuries.  His family ran a grocery store and despite his mother Sarah’s status as the daughter of an esteemed Hasidic rabbi, his father Shlomo was known for his more liberal practices within Orthodox Judaism.   The family was well-known in Sighet, both for their retail business and his father’s educated world views.  Wiesel had three sisters: two older sisters named Beatrice and Hilda, and a younger sister, Tsiporah.

Although the family was not financially well-off, they were able to sustain themselves from the grocery.  Wiesel’s austere childhood was typical of Jews in this area of Eastern Europe, with a focus on family and faith over material possessions being the norm.

Wiesel was educated both academically and religiously at the town’s yeshiva (religious school). Wiesel’s father encouraged him to study Hebrew and his maternal grandfather, Rabbi Dodye Feig, instilled in Wiesel a desire to further study the Talmud. As a boy, Wiesel was viewed as serious and dedicated to his studies, which set him apart from many of his peers.

The family was multi-lingual and while speaking mainly Yiddish in their home, they also spoke Hungarian, German, and Romanian. This was also common for Eastern European families of this period as their country’s borders had changed several times during the 19th and early 20th centuries, thus necessitating the acquisition of new languages.  Wiesel later credits this knowledge to helping him survive the Holocaust.

The Sighet Ghetto

The German occupation of Sighet began in March 1944.  This was relatively late due to the status of Romania as an Axis power from 1940 onward.  Unfortunately for the Romanian government, this status was not enough to prevent the country’s division and subsequent occupation by German forces.

In the spring of 1944, the Jews of Sighet were forced into one of two ghettos within the confines of the town.  Jews from the surrounding rural area were also brought into the ghetto and the population soon reached 13,000 people.

By this point in the Final Solution, ghettos were short-term solutions to the containment of the Jewish population, holding them only long enough to be deported to a death camp. Deportations from the large ghetto began on May 16, 1944.

The Wiesel family’s home was located within the boundaries of the large ghetto; therefore, they did not initially have to move when the ghetto was created in April 1944.

On May 16, 1944 when the deportations began, the large ghetto was closed and the family was then forced to temporarily move into the smaller ghetto, bringing with them only a few possessions and a small amount of food. This relocation was also temporary.

A few days later, the family was told to report to the synagogue within the small ghetto, where they were held for overnight prior to their deportation from the ghetto on May 20.

Auschwitz-Birkenau

The Wiesels were deported, along with several thousand other individuals from the Sighet Ghetto via train transport to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Upon arrival on the unloading ramp in Birkenau, Wiesel and his father were separated from his mother and Tsiporah. He never saw them again.

Wiesel managed to stay with his father by lying about his age. At the time of his arrival in Auschwitz, he was 15 years old but was tipped off by a more seasoned prisoner to state that he was 18 years old.

His father also lied about his age, claiming to be 40 instead of 50. The ruse worked and both men were selected for a work detail instead of being sent directly to the gas chambers.

Wiesel and his father remained in Birkenau in quarantine on the edge of the Gypsy camp for a short period of time before being transferred to Auschwitz I, known as the “Main Camp.” He received a tattoo of his prisoner number, A-7713, when he was processed into the main camp.

In August 1944, Wiesel and his father were transferred to Auschwitz III-Monowitz, where they remained until January 1945. The two were forced to work in a warehouse affiliated with I.G. Farben’s Buna Werke industrial complex.  Conditions were difficult and rations were poor; however, both Wiesel and his father managed to survive despite the unfavorable odds.

Death March

In January 1945, as the Red Army was closing in, Wiesel found himself in the prisoner hospital in the Monowitz complex, recuperating from a foot surgery. As prisoners within the camp received orders to evacuate, Wiesel decided that his best course of action was to leave on the death march with his father and other evacuated prisoners rather than staying behind in the hospital.  Only days after his departure, Russian troops liberated Auschwitz.

Wiesel and his father were sent on a death march to Buchenwald, via Gleiwitz, where they were put onto a train for transport into Weimar, Germany. The march was physically and mentally difficult and at numerous points Wiesel was certain that both he and his father would perish.

After walking for several days, they finally arrived at Gleiwitz. They were then locked in a barn for two days with minimal food before being sent on a ten-day train ride to Buchenwald.

Wiesel wrote in Night that nearly 100 men were in the train car but only a dozen of the men survived. He and his father were among this group of survivors, but his father was stricken with dysentery. Already extremely weakened, Wiesel’s father was unable to recover. He died the night after their arrival in Buchenwald on January 29, 1945.

Liberation From Buchenwald

Buchenwald was liberated by Allied forces on April 11, 1945, when Wiesel was 16 years old. At the time of his liberation, Wiesel was severely emaciated and did not recognize his own face in the mirror. He spent time at recuperating in an Allied hospital and then relocated to France where he sought refuge in a French orphanage.

Wiesel’s two older sisters had also survived the Holocaust but at the time of his liberation he was not yet aware of this stroke of luck.  His older sisters, Hilda and Bea, spent time in Auschwitz-Birkenau, Dachau, and Kaufering before being liberated in Wolfratshausen by United States troops.

Life in France

Wiesel stayed in foster care through the Jewish Children’s Rescue society for two years.  He wished to emigrate to Palestine, but was unable to obtain the proper paperwork due to the pre-independence immigration situation of the British mandate.

In 1947, Wiesel discovered that his sister, Hilda, was also living in France.

Hilda had stumbled upon an article about refugees in a local French newspaper and it happened to have a picture of Wiesel included within the piece. Both were also soon reunited with their sister Bea, who was living in Belgium in the immediate post-war period.

As Hilda was engaged to be married and Bea was living and working in a displaced person camp, Wiesel decided to remain on his own. He began studying at the Sorbonne in 1948. He took up the study of humanities and taught Hebrew lessons to help provide himself with a living.

An early supporter of the state of Israel, Wiesel worked as a translator in Paris for the Irgun, and a year later he became the official French correspondent in Israel for L'arche. The paper was eager to establish a presence in the newly created country and Wiesel’s support of Israel and command of Hebrew made him a perfect candidate for the position.

Although this assignment was short lived, Wiesel was able to turn it into a new opportunity, moving back to Paris and serving as the French correspondent for the Israeli news outlet, Yedioth Ahronoth.

Wiesel soon graduated to a role as an international correspondent and remained a reporter for this paper for nearly a decade, until he cut back on his role as a reporter to focus on his own writing. It would be his role as author that would eventually take him to Washington, D.C. and a path to American citizenship.

Night

In 1956, Wiesel published the first edition of him seminal work, Night. In his memoirs, Wiesel relates that he first outlined this book in 1945 as he was recovering from his experience in the Nazi camp system; however, he did not want to pursue it formally until he had time to process his experiences further.

In 1954, a chance interview with French novelist, François Mauriac, led the author to urge Wiesel to record his experiences during the Holocaust. Soon after, aboard a ship bound for Brazil, Wiesel completed an 862-page manuscript that he delivered to a publishing house in Buenos Aires that specialized in Yiddish memoirs.  The result was a 245-page book, published in 1956 in Yiddish that was entitled Un di velt hot geshvign("And the World Remained Silent").

A French edition, La Nuit, was published in 1958 and included a preface by Mauriac. An English edition was published two years later (1960) by Hill & Wang of New York, and was reduced to 116 pages.  Although it was initially slow selling, it was well received by critics and encouraged Wiesel to begin to focus more on the writing of novels and less on his career as a journalist.

Move to the United States

In 1956, as Night was going through the final stages of the publication process, Wiesel moved to New York City to work as a journalist for the Morgen Journal as their United Nations beat writer.  The Journal was a publication that catered to immigrant Jews in New York City and the experience allowed Wiesel to experience life in the United States while remaining connected to a familiar environment.

That July, Wiesel was struck by a vehicle, shattering nearly every bone in the left side of his body. The accident initially placed him in a full-body cast and eventually resulted in a year-long confinement in a wheelchair. Since this restricted his ability to return to France to renew his visa, Wiesel decided that this was an opportune time to complete the process of becoming an American citizen, a move that he has sometimes received criticism for from ardent Zionists. Wiesel was officially granted citizenship status in 1963 at the age of 35.

Early in this decade, Wiesel met his future wife, Marion Ester Rose. Rose was an Austrian Holocaust survivor whose family managed to escape to Switzerland after being detained in a French internment camp. They had initially left Austria for Belgium and after the Nazi occupation in 1940, they were arrested and sent to France. In 1942, they managed to arrange the opportunity to be smuggled into Switzerland, where they remained for the duration of the war.

Following the war, Marion married and had a daughter, Jennifer. By the time she met Wiesel, she was in the process of a divorce and the pair married on April 2, 1969 in the old city section of Jerusalem. They had a son, Shlomo in 1972, the same year Wiesel became the Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies at the City University of New York (CUNY).

Time as an Author

Following the publication of Night, Wiesel went on to write the follow-up pieces Dawn and The Accident, which were loosely based on his post-war experiences up to the point of his accident in New York City. These works were critically and commercially successful and in the years since, Wiesel has published nearly six dozen works.

Elie Wiesel has won numerous awards for his writing, including the National Jewish Book Council Award (1963), the Grand Prize in Literature from the City of Paris (1983), the National Humanities Medal (2009), and the Norman Mailer Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011. Wiesel also continues to write op-ed pieces related to the Holocaust and human rights issues.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

In 1976, Wiesel became the Andrew Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University, a position he still holds today. Two years later, he was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the President's Commission on the Holocaust. Wiesel was selected as the chairman of the newly formed, 34-member commission.

The group included individuals from various backgrounds and careers, including religious leaders, Congressmen, Holocaust scholars and survivors.  The Commission was tasked with determining how the United States could best honor and preserve the memory of the Holocaust.

On September 27, 1979, the Commission officially delivered their findings to President Carter entitled, Report to the President: President's Commission on the Holocaust. The report suggested that the United States build a museum, memorial, and education center devoted to the Holocaust in the nation’s capital.

Congress officially voted on October 7, 1980 to move forward with the findings of the Commission and proceeded to construct what would become the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). This piece of legislation, Public Law 96-388, transitioned the Commission to become the United States Holocaust Memorial Council that consists of 60 members appointed by the President.

Wiesel was named the chair, a position he held until 1986. During this period, Wiesel was instrumental not only in shaping the direction of USHMM but also in helping to procure public and private funds to ensure that the Museum’s mission would be recognized.  Wiesel was replaced as chairman by Harvey Meyerhoff but has served intermittently on the Council in the past four decades

Elie Wiesel’s words, “For the dead and the living, we must bear witness,” are engraved at the Museum’s entrance, ensuring that his role as a Museum founder and witness will live on forever.

Human Rights Advocate

Wiesel has been a staunch advocate of human rights, not only regarding the suffering of Jews throughout the world but also for others who have suffered as a result of political and religious persecution.

Wiesel was an early spokesperson for the suffering of both Soviet and Ethiopian Jews and worked hard to ensure emigration opportunities for both groups to the United States. He also voiced concern and condemnation regarding apartheid in South Africa, speaking out against Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment in his 1986 Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

Wiesel has also been critical about other human rights violations and genocidal situations.  In the late 1970s, he advocated for intervention in the situation of “the disappeared” during Argentina’s “Dirty War.” He also strongly encouraged President Bill Clinton to take action in the former Yugoslavia in the mid-1990s during the Bosnian genocide.

Wiesel was also one of the first advocates for the persecuted people in the Darfur region of Sudan and continues to advocate for aid to the peoples of this region and other areas of the world where genocide warning signs are occurring.

On December 10, 1986, Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway. In addition to his wife, his sister Hilda also attended the ceremony. His acceptance speech reflected heavily on his upbringing and experience during the Holocaust and he declared that he felt that he was accepting the award on behalf of the six million Jews who had perished during that tragic era. He also called upon the world to recognize the suffering that was still occurring, against Jews and non-Jews, and implored that even just one person, such as Raoul Wallenberg, could make a difference.

Wiesel’s Work Today

In 1987, Wiesel and his wife established the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity. The Foundation uses Wiesel’s commitment to learning from the Holocaust as its basis for targeting acts of social injustice and intolerance around the world.

In addition to hosting international conferences and an annual ethics-essay contest for high-school students, the Foundation also does outreach work for Ethiopian-Israeli Jewish youth in Israel. This work primarily takes place through the Beit Tzipora Centers for Study and Enrichment, named after Wiesel’s sister who perished during the Holocaust.

In 2007, Wiesel was attacked by a Holocaust denier in a San Francisco hotel. The attacker hoped to force Wiesel to deny the Holocaust; however, Wiesel was able to escape unharmed. Although the attacker fled, he was arrested one month later when he was discovered discussing the incident on several antisemitic websites.

Wiesel remained on the faculty at Boston University but has also accepted visiting faculty positions at universities such as Yale, Columbia, and Chapman University. Wiesel maintained a fairly active speaking and publication schedule; however, he abstained from traveling to Poland for the 70th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz due to health concerns.

On July 2, 2016, Elie Wiesel died peacefully at age 87.

Format
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Goss, Jennifer L., Contributing Writer. "Elie Wiesel." ThoughtCo, Jul. 7, 2016, thoughtco.com/elie-wiesel-1779863. Goss, Jennifer L., Contributing Writer. (2016, July 7). Elie Wiesel. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/elie-wiesel-1779863 Goss, Jennifer L., Contributing Writer. "Elie Wiesel." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/elie-wiesel-1779863 (accessed December 14, 2017).