I met Elie Wiesel over a decade ago. He asked me to come to his book-lined office at Boston University, where he was the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities. In addition to his role as a university professor, the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies was named in his honor.
He invited me for tea after he read a review I wrote of one of his novels. As we chatted about books, Wiesel gently steered the conversation to more personal matters. He asked me where I grew up and about my family. I shared that I was saying the Kaddish for my father, who had recently died, and Wiesel asked me to tell him about my dad. It felt indulgent to talk about my father to a man whose father died in his arms in the Holocaust. When I began to tell him so, he kindly said to me, “He was your father.”
For more than six decades, Elie Wiesel has eloquently and gracefully expressed the moral, spiritual and even physical fortitude it took to survive the concentration camps. “Night,” his classic memoir about the atrocities of the Holocaust—both personal and universal—not only established a literary canon, but also unequivocally demonstrated the transformative power of words. And while Wiesel’s literary output has been impressive—he has written more than 40 books, as well as myriad essays and articles—he noted that “Night” was the foundation of everything else he had written. “The rest,” he said, “is commentary. In each book, I take one character out of ‘Night’ and give him refuge, a book, a tale, a name, a destiny of his own.”
Only 127 pages in the English edition, “Night” was introduced to American audiences in 1960. The book was originally an 800-page opus written in Yiddish and published in Argentina in 1955. A French edition came out in 1958. Much of the material cut from it reappeared in Wiesel’s subsequent literary fiction, confirming “Night” as his most formative work.
Elie Wiesel was born to an Orthodox family in Sighet, a small Hungarian town in an area that now belongs to Romania. The only son among four children, his gifts as a Talmudic scholar and student of the kabbalah were evident when he was a young boy. His learning was a mixture of Hasidic works and, at the insistence of his father, secular studies that included learning modern Hebrew literature alongside psychology, astronomy and music.
Wiesel’s childhood came to a traumatic end in 1944, when at the age of 15 he was deported first to Auschwitz and then to Buchenwald. Separated from his mother and sisters, he managed to stay with his father until the elder Wiesel succumbed to dysentery and a beating from the SS. In “Night,” Wiesel wrote about both the guilt and relief he felt at his father’s death. In the camps he also had a profound crisis of faith, which resulted in the question he bluntly raised in “Night”: Where was God at Auschwitz?
Wiesel was liberated from Buchenwald at 16 and went to Paris. There he left his studies at the Sorbonne to become a journalist. He came to New York in the mid-1950s to serve as the United Nations correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahranoht. Wiesel married in 1969 and had one son, whom he named after his father.
During the intervening years, Wiesel continued to write, as well as teach, becoming the Distinguished Professor of Jewish Studies at City College in New York before going on to Boston University. It was also a time where Wiesel moved from the dark despair of his early work toward a pellucid faith that he recounted in his book “Ani Maamin: A Song Lost and Found Again.”
In 1978, President Jimmy Carter appointed Wiesel to a commission that was a precursor to the founding of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. In 1985, Wiesel famously opposed President Ronald Reagan’s visit to Bitburg Military Cemetery in Germany where SS members were buried. Wiesel saw the event as a “real breakthrough” that brought the lessons of “Night” into wider public recognition. When Reagan awarded him a Congressional Gold Medal at the White House, Wiesel took the opportunity to reiterate his disapproval of Reagan’s planned visit to Bitburg. “That place, Mr. President, is not your place,” he said. “Your place is with the victims of the SS.” Wiesel’s words garnered worldwide attention, but did not dissuade Reagan from making the trip.
In what might be considered a capstone of his life and career as both witness and interpreter of the Holocaust, Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, just a year after Bitburg. The Nobel committee called Wiesel “a messenger to mankind,” teaching “peace, atonement and human dignity.” Wiesel’s “commitment, which originated in the sufferings of the Jewish people, has been widened to embrace all repressed peoples and races.”
In his affecting acceptance speech to the Nobel committee, Wiesel said:
I remember: it happened yesterday, or eternities ago. A young Jewish boy discovered the Kingdom of Night. I remember his bewilderment, I remember his anguish. It all happened so fast. The ghetto. The deportation. The sealed cattle car. The fiery altar upon which the history of our people and the future of mankind were meant to be sacrificed.
I remember he asked his father: “Can this be true? This is the twentieth century, not the Middle Ages. Who would allow such crimes to be committed? How could the world remain silent?”
And now the boy is turning to me. “Tell me,” he asks, “what have you done with my future, what have you done with your life?” And I tell him that I have tried. That I have tried to keep memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.
Elie Wiesel has not only perpetuated the memory of the Holocaust, he has also ensured that future generations will not forget this rupture in human history.
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