Human rights activist and writer Elie Wiesel died today in his New York City home. The 87-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner’s typically busy schedule had become quieter in recent years, as his health began to decline following a 2011 heart surgery. He would later document the experience in his 2012 book Open Heart. However, it is in his efforts related to the Holocaust, as its “messenger of the dead among the living” (to use his own words), for which Wiesel is best known. His story is one of survival, of spiritual and moral struggle and of an impassioned dedication to the fight for justice for oppressed peoples the world over that has been the focus of his life’s work in literature, politics and education.
Elie Wiesel was born on September 30, 1928, in a small Hasidic community in Sighet, Romania. Much of his youth was centered on religious study, though through the encouragement of his father, he received a more secular, modern education as well. In 1944, however, Wiesel’s world was turned upside down when the Nazis invaded and deported him and his family to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. He was subsequently separated from his younger sister and mother, who were both killed in the camp, as well as his older sisters. He and his father managed to remain together for a time, working as slave laborers, before they were eventually marched to Buchenwald. Wiesel’s father died in January 1945, just three months before the camp was liberated.
Without a family or a home, Wiesel was sent to live in an orphanage in France, where he was ultimately reunited with his older sisters, who had also survived the camps. He began to learn French and assumed French nationality, and from 1948 to 1951 he attended the Sorbonne in Paris, where he focused on philosophy and psychology. Following his studies, Wiesel found employment as a journalist for both French and Israeli publications. It was while working in this capacity that he was ultimately encouraged to break a 10-year vow of silence to write of his experiences as a prisoner during the war. The resulting 900-plus-page work, And the World Has Remained Silent, was originally published in Yiddish in 1956 before being condensed and published in French as La Nuit (Night) two years later. Following a trip to New York City around this time, during which he was hit by a car and unable to return to France, Wiesel also applied for American citizenship, and in 1960 Night was published in English. Although the book sold slowly at first, after it received positive critical reviews, it began to sell more steadily and to date the book has been translated into more than 30 languages and has sold more than 7 million copies. It is considered to be one of the most important books in the cannon of Holocaust writing and ultimately propelled Wiesel to center stage as a spokesperson for survivors everywhere.
As Wiesel’s celebrity increased, he continued to write, publishing two more books in what would become the Night trilogy, Dawn (in 1961) and Day (in 1962). He began to use his fame to gain access to areas of humanitarian crisis around the world as well, reporting on the persecution of Jews in the Soviet Union and the Six Day War in Israel, among other topics. After meeting and marrying his wife, Marion, in 1969, Wiesel also began to teach. He was professor of Judaic studies at CUNY from 1972 to 1976, and in 1976 became professor of humanities at Boston University.
In acknowledgment of Wiesel’s emergence as the most important voice among Holocaust survivors, in 1978 President Jimmy Carter appointed Wiesel to a commission that ultimately resulted in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, opened in 1993. In 1986 Wiesel received perhaps his highest honor when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his Holocaust-related work. Three months later, he and Marion used the award to establish the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, an organization dedicated to fighting injustice and promoting peace throughout the world. During the nearly three decades of its existence, the foundation has championed the causes of Cambodian refugees in Vietnam, victims of war in Yugoslavia and apartheid in South Africa and indigenous peoples in Latin and South America. However, Wiesel is not without his critics, who have accused him of downplaying the genocide of groups other than Jews and of blindly supporting Israel in its frequent incursions into Gaza and its repressive treatment of Palestinians.
Despite these criticisms, for his decades of humanitarian work, Wiesel has been granted countless honorary degrees, as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the US Congressional Gold Medal, the Grand-Croix of the French Legion of Honor and an honorary Knighthood. He has also published in excess of 60 books, including numerous prize-winning works of fiction and nonfiction as well as several plays, the majority of which revolve around Holocaust-related themes and the moral obligation to never remain silent in the face of injustice and atrocity. He is survived by his wife, Marion, and their son, Elisha.