Wiesel, Elie (1928– )
Of the hundreds of authors whose stories and words have shaped our understanding of the Holocaust, none has been more influential than Elie Wiesel. In terms of name recognition and worldwide readership, of course, Anne Frank trumps them all, but because Wiesel survived the event that claimed Anne and has devoted his long career to writing, teaching, and service in conveying his message, his writings have become the touchstone for those who seek a fuller picture of the horror than Anne's slender Diary can provide.
Born in 1928 and raised in an orthodox community in what was then rural Hungary, Wiesel was swept into the camps when Hungary turned on its Jews in 1944. Although Wiesel and two of his sisters survived, their parents and a third sister perished. Bearing witness to their deaths, contending with a God who would demand such a sacrifice, and struggling against hatred and indifference constitute the hallmarks of Wiesel's message.
By far the best known of his more than 40 books is Night (La Nuit). A radical condensation of the more spontaneous Un di Velt hot geshvign (And the World Remained Silent, 1956), Night is often categorized as memoir, although in terms of Page 346 | Top of Articlethe attention paid to language—especially metaphor—and in the liberties taken with details recorded differently in the two volumes of memoirs published decades later, it is better understood as a novel (of the interesting class of creative nonfiction constituting much of the witness literature of the Holocaust, including Anne's “diary”).
The passage in which the boy, Elie, describes his arrival in Auschwitz has become one of the most often quoted in Holocaust literature : “Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.”
Writing originally in Yiddish, then in French, which he mastered in the years spent in Paris after his liberation from Buchenwald, Wiesel also publishes and lectures in English, learned after immigrating to the United States in 1956. While Andrew Mellon Professor of Humanities at Boston University, Wiesel was named chair of the President's Commission on the Holocaust, which was instrumental in creating the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 for his activism in the cause of tolerance and human rights, Wiesel remained active into the 21st century as a commentator on incidents of human suffering and a much sought-after, charismatic lecturer. His proprietary view of the Holocaust—expressed in the oft-quoted “Not all the victims of the Holocaust were Jews, but all the Jews were victims” (And the Sea Is Never Full 129)—and the paradoxical, cabalistic quality of much of his writing have limited the success of his later novels, but Night and the companion stories Dawn and The Accident from the early trilogy are obligatory reading for those confronting the Holocaust through literature.
Mark E. Cory
Bloom, Harold, ed. Elie Wiesel's “Night.” Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2001.
Cargas, Harry James, ed. Responses to Elie Wiesel. New York: Persea, 1978.
Rosenfeld, Alvin H., and Irving Greenberg, eds. Confronting the Holocaust: The Impact of Elie Wiesel. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1978.