Muhammad Ali, David Bowie, Prince, Nancy Reagan. 2016 has been a rather devastating year for deaths. But this one tops the list for me. Elie Wiesel, full name Eliezer Wiesel, was born on September 30th, 1928. A Romanian-born Jewish writer who lived a full life – through the highest highs and lowest lows – Wiesel was an outstanding political activist who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 for speaking out against the repression and violence stemming from racism. Wiesel was the recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal in 1985, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and countless other awards. And, as most people know of him, Wiesel was a Holocaust survivor.
Just about everyone has read Night, perhaps his most well-received and popular book which was based around his experiences at Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Using this horrific experience, one in which total humiliation and desperation led him to a life of practicality in a sense of urging for peace within mankind, very few men – living or dead – reach the levels of life that Elie Wiesel did.
Born in Transylvania to Sarah Feig and Shlomo Wiesel, Elie’s tale begins with a divided yet family-rooted message. His father had, at a rather early age, encouraged and embezzled a strong humanist sense within him. He learned Hebrew and Yiddish, and was strongly advised to read popular literature by his father. His mother, on the other hand, wished for him to study the Torah. His father characterized reason, while his mother sponsored faith within the household.
At the Second Vienna Award in 1940, northern Transylvania was handed over to Hungary, which had lost rights to the territory at the Treaty of Trianon in 1920. Less than four years later, Germany’s Reich occupied Hungary and initiated the Hungarian Holocaust. In 1944, a the young age of 15, the Wiesel family was placed in a confinement ghetto within Sighetu, the very town he had been born and raised in. He stayed there for just a few short months, but then was transferred to Auschwitz concentration camp.
His mother (and one of his sisters) were killed shortly after arriving to the Auschwitz. Shortly after this, Wiesel and his father were once again deported – this time to Buchenwald near Weimar, Germany.
One of the most famous experiences recorded in Night was when Wiesel recalled hearing his father being beaten, describing the shame he felt as he was unable to help. His father would be killed at this camp, and Wiesel would remain until the camp was liberated by the U.S. Third Army in April of 1945.
After the war, Elie Wiesel moved to Paris, France. He acquired a third language, French, and studied writing. He became a journalist by the age of 19, writing for Israeli and French newspapers.
For a decade after his liberation, Wiesel absolutely refused to write about or discuss the time he spent in concentration camps during the Holocaust. Thankfully, his mind was changed by François Mauriac, the 1952 Nobel Laureate in Literature. Little did Wiesel know his own name would make its way to Nobel recognitions in the future.
Wiesel’s 900-page memoir And the World Remained Silent was originally written in Yiddish, which was published in Buenos Aires. He later shortened it in French, titling it La Nuit. He translated this shortened version into English as the Night most people know of in the year 1960.
He went on to write over forty more books, many of them Holocaust literature and novels about the subject of his experiences. He gained countless literary prizes and recognition, being the world’s most read account of the Holocaust through personal understanding. Hundreds of pages could be filled with what this man accomplished afterwards.
In 2006, Oprah Winfrey chose to spotlight his book Night for her book club. Wiesel traveled to Auschwitz with the television star the same year, telling her it would be his last trip there.
Unfortunately, not everyone is bright enough to understand history and feel compassion. In 2007, Wiesel was attacked by a 22-year-old Holocaust denier in San Francisco.
Elie Wiesel lived a life that nobody could dream of. A terrifying beginning with a long life of dedication to peace, human dignity, and decency. A “master of words”, as Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu described him, has unfortunately written his last in the chapters of history. The Holocaust survivor turned Nobel Laureate has died at the age of 87.