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||Elie Wiesel (1928-2016)|
Rumanian-born American writer, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1986. Basis for Wiesel's work was his own experiences and personal testament of the destruction of Jews during World War II. A survivor of the horrors of the Holocaust, Wiesel was considered "a messenger to mankind... The message is in the form of a testimony, repeated and deepended through the works of a great author." (in the Nobel Peace citation) Central themes in Wiesel's fiction, memoirs, and essays are the struggle against evil, "man's inhumanity toward man", and silence versus verboseness.
"How can one work for the living without by that very act betraying those who are absent? The question remains open, and no new fact can change it. Of course, the mystery of good is no less disturbing than the mystery of evil. But one does not cancel out the other. Man alone is capable of uniting them by remembering." (in A Beggar in Jerusalem, 1968)
Wiesel was born in Sighet, Romania. "Sighet was a typical
shtetl, a sanctuary for Jews," Wiesel once said. It was also center for
Hasidic Jewish learning. Wiesel spent a happy childhood. He learned
Yiddish from his mother and father, and studied biblical Hebrew in
school. In 1944 all Jews from the town were moved to Auschwitz, where
his mother and younger sister were killed. While in Auschwitz, Wiesel's
inmate number, "A-7713", was tattooed onto his left arm. He was sent to
Buchenwald, where his father was died from dysentry, starvation, and
exhaustion shortly before Buchenwald's
liberation. Three children from the family survived, Wiesel was one of
them. At the time when he was liberated by the Americans, Wiesel was
16. When General Patton's Third Army came to Buchenwald on April 11,
1945, he recalled, "Our first act as free men was to throw
ourselves onto the provisions. We thought only for that. Not of
revenge, not our families. Nothing but bread." (The Era of the Witness by Annette Wieviorka, 2006, p. 35) Three days later he came ill with food poisoning.
After the war
Wiesel settled in France, and studied at Sorbonne literature,
psychology, and philosophy. His faith in God was shattered but during
the following years he found again Jewish traditions. From 1949 he
started to write for the Franco-Jewish newspaper L'Arche. In
1952 he became a reporter for the Tel Aviv newspaper Yediot Ahronot.
he was sent to New York to cover the United Nations, and seven years
later he was naturalized. In 1969 Wiesel married Marion Erster Rose, a
survivor of the German concentration camps. They lost their life's savings in the Bernie Madoff fraud.
In his new home country, which he shared with France and Israel, Wiesel gave thousands of lectures at college campuses. He taught at City College of New York and at Boston University, where he was Andrew Mellon Professor of the Humanities and from 1988 professor of philosophy. In 1992 Wiesel was invited by presidents Izetbegovic of Bosnia and Milosevic of Serbia, to observe the war ravaged cities. Wiesel's honors include Congressional Medal of Achievement he received from President Ronald Reagan in 1984. He received honorary doctorates from dozens of universities, and he was Commander of the French Legion of Honor.
Although Wiesel yearned to be a writer after the war, he could
not gather the courage to recount what he had witnessed in the
concentration camps. He once asked, "How
can we imagine what is beyond imagination... How can we retell what
escapes language?" Wiesel
wrote a romantic spy novel under the pen name Elisha
Carmeli and travelled in India. In France he was encouraged by the
Nobel laureate François Mauriac to write
about his experiences. This resulted in 1956 to the publication of
Wiesel's first book, an 800-page memoir And the World Remained
Silent, written originally in Yiddish. "I knew the story had to be told," Wiesel said. "Not to transmit an experience is to betray it." ('Why I Write,' in Confronting the Holocaust: The Impact of Elie Wiesel, edited by Alvin H. Rosenfeld and Irving Greenberg, 1978, p. 201)
Mauriac assisted Wiesel in editing and translating La Nuit (Night) and wrote its foreword. Published by Les Éditions de Minuit, this semi-autobiographical story appeared two years later. Wiesel sent Mauriac a manuscript copy of the book, and later said: "I owe him much.... That I should say what I had to say, that my voice be heard, was as important to him as it was to me." (Elie Wiesel: A Religious Biography by Frederick L. Downing, 2008, p. 103.)
La Nuit, which had been rejected by all major
publishers around the world, became an international
best-seller. Even Les Éditions de Minuit had doubted its success – at
first, the book sold slowly. In the U.S., Arthur Wang purchased
Night in 1959 and published it a year later.
In L'aube (1960, Dawn) Wiesel told of a survivor of the Nazi terror, who seeks to kill the enemies of the nascent Jewish state of Israel. Le Jour (1961, The Accident) was about another survivor who must deal with the guilt at staying alive while his family had perished at Auschwitz. The book formed a trilogy with Night and Dawn. A version of the trilogy, La Nuit, L'Aube, Le Jour came out in 1972. The daily cycle for the three works suggested hope, but actually the movement from darkness to light is not straightforwad. In Dawn the victim turns into a killer.
In his books Wiesel drew on his early theological training and used the Hasidic tradition. One of the central conflicts in the novels, the doubt and belief in God, is embodied in the enigmatic character of Moshe the Madman. God's silence in front of suffering and the despair and hope of humanity is a recurrent theme. In the second part of his memoirs, And the Sea Is Never Full (1999), Wiesel wrote: "The silence of Birkenau is a silence unlike any other. It contains the screams, the strangled prayers of thousands of human beings condemned to vanish into the darkness of nameless, endless ashes. Human silence at the core of inhumanity. Deadly silence at the core of death. Eternal silence under a moribund sky."
Most of Wiesel's novels take place either before or after the events of the Holocaust. "When I see that it becomes tolerable, I don't speak about it. That's why I have written so little about the Holocaust." Wiesel wrote to testify, and to justify his own survival. La Ville de la chance (1962, The Town beyond the Wall) deals with the silence of non-Jewish in front of the Holocaust. Le Mendiant de Jerusalem (1968, Beggar of Jerusalem) is about the Six-Day War. Le Serment de Kolvillàg (1973, The Oath) was about a small town somewhere in the Carpathian Mountais, which only exists in the memory of its last survivor, Azriel. His burden is to know the story when a Christian boy disappeared and Jews were accused of ritual murder. Moshe, a mystic, chooses assume the guilt and the community takes the oath: whoever would survive never speak of the town's last days and nights. "In the final stage of every equation, of every encounter, the key is responsibility. Whoever says "I" creates the "you." Such is the trap of every conscience. The "I" signifies both solitude and rejection of solitude. Words name things and then replace them. Whoever says tomorrow, denies it. Tomorrow exists only for him who does not seek it. And yesterday? Yesterday is Kolvillàg: a name to forget, a word already forgotten." Le Cinquième fils (1983, The Fifth Son) is an exploration of good and evil. The narrator is the stepchild of a survivor of the Holocaust, Reuven. He goes after an SS officer, who had murdered Reuven's son. Le Crépuscule, au loin (1987) asks the question, were the cultured henchmen of the Nazi era truly sane people, and L'Oublié (1989, The Forgotten) is a story of a journalist, who explores his own and his family's past. The central characters are Elhanon Rosenbaum, a New York psychotherapist and survivor of the Holocaust, who begins to suffer from Alzheimer's disease, and his son, Malkiell, who travels to Romania, where his father had fought with the partisans.
Wiesel other works include Célébration hasidique (1972),
a collection of Hasidic tales, Célébration biblique (1975,
Messenger of God), a collection of biblical stories, Silences et
(1989, Sages and Dreamers), and anthologies
of varied essays dealing with collective and individual quilt,
post-World-War-II Germany, the Klaus Barbie trial in France, the evils
of racism, and the Jewish faith. When he traveled to the Ukraine in
1979 with a delegation of the President's Commission on the Holocaust,
he condemned the distortion of historical truth upon seeing the
memorial at Babi Yar that the Soviets had erected: there was no mention
of victims who were Jewish.
A three volume collection
of Wiesel's essays, entitled Against Silence: The Voice and Vision
of Elie Wiesel (edited by Irving Abrahamson) was published in
1985. The Jews of Silence (1966) and The Testament
(1981) dealt with the oppression of Jews under Communism. Memoir in
Two Voices (1966) was based on conversations between President
Francois Mitterrand and the author. In the book Mitterand defended his
collaboration with the anti-Semitic Vichy regime during World War II.
From the 1990s Wiesel devoted much of his time to the publication
of his own memoirs and to organizing and participating in a number of
prestigious international conferences and events. The first part of his
memoirs, All Rivers Run in to the Sea, came out in
1995, and the second, And the Sea is Never Full, in 1999. Many of his books were translated into English by his wife. Wiesel died on July 2, 2016, at his home in Manhattan.
For further reading: Elie Wiesel: A Religious Biography by Frederick L. Downing (2008); Encyclopedia of World Literatuire in the 20th Century, Vol. 4, ed. Steven R. Serafin (1999); Elie Wiesel: A Voice for Humanity by Ellen Norman Stern (1996); Silence in the Novels of Elie Wiesel by S.P.. Sibelman (1995); Elie Wiesel by P.M. de Saint Cheron (1994); Elie Wiesel's Secretive Texts by C. Davis (1994); Elie Wiesel by Caroline Lazo (1994); In Dialogue and Dilemma with Elie Wiesel by David Patterson (1991); Elie Wiesel: Between Memory and Hope, ed. C. Rittner (1990); Elie Wiesel - Qui êtes-vous? by B.-F. Cohen (1987); Elie Wiesel: Messanger to All Humanity by R. M. Brown (1983): Elie Wiesel: Witness for Life by E.N. Stern (1982); Elie Wiesel by Ted L. Estess (1980); The Vision of the Void by M. Berenbaum (1979); Confronting the Holocaust, ed. by A.H. Rosenfeld and I. Greenberg (1978); The Holocaust and the Literary Imagination by L. Langer (1975) - See also: Nelly Sachs