To people who are unfamiliar with the writings of Elie Wiesel, I usually recommend they read Night. It’s an autobiographical work about his and his father’s experiences at Auschwitz and Buchenwald Nazi concentration camps. It’s a powerful writing that relates the absolute evil and horror of the Holocaust in a very personal way. My preferred format is the audiobook version. Whether you read or listen to the book, you will experience a profound introduction to Elie Wiesel.
Wiesel was born in the town of Sighet, Transylvania, now in Romania, in 1928. During the Second World War, the Wiesel family was deported to Nazi camps where his youngest sister and his father died. Elie and his two elder sisters were liberated from Buchenwald in 1945. He ended up in Paris where he studied at the Sorbonne and was employed as a journalist.
In 1958 his first book La Nuit was published but it didn’t sell very well. The book was translated into English as Night. This was after Wiesel moved to New York City and began his post war work.
He went on to write some 60 books. He has been an advocate in the cause of Soviet Jews, Cambodian refugees, victims of South African apartheid, Nicaragua’s Miskito Indians, war victims in the former nation of Yugoslavia, and Argentina’s Desaparecidos.
Wiesel was appointed Chairman of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust by President Jimmy Carter in 1978. From there, he was the Founding Chairman of the US Holocaust Memorial Council. He and his wife created the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity. Its primary purpose is to address intolerance, indifference, and injustice.
The human rights activist and author has not been free of criticism. Wiesel has been brought to task by political scientist Norman Finkelstein in the book The Holocaust Industry. Finkelstein accuses Wiesel of advocating the “uniqueness doctrine” which supposedly presents the Holocaust as the ultimate in evil and the worst of all possible genocides. Wiesel was accused of lobbying for exclusive commemoration of only Jews and no other oppressed groups at the US Holocaust Museum in Washington DC.
Wiesel is also the Chairman of the overtly pro-Israel group, Ir David. The group aims to further strengthen Jewish ties to the city of Jerusalem. It has been accused of trying to diminish Arab presence in East Jerusalem. Ir David describes itself as an advocate for education, archaeology, and tourism.
In 1986, Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on the President’s Commission on the Holocaust. The Nobel Committee said he was a “messenger to mankind”. He was cited for “his practical work in the cause of peace.”
Among his numerous other prizes, Wiesel has been presented with the US Congressional Gold Medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Star of Romania, the Norman Mailer Prize, Commander, Grand Officer, Grand Cross in the French Legion of Honor, and Honorary Knighthood in the UK.
One excerpt from the Night Trilogy that sums up Wiesel’s life purpose, is this. “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”