What made Wiesel’s voice so urgent was his articulation of the deeply troubling questions of conscience, guilt and faith raised by the Holocaust for all of humanity.
Elie Wiesel, the Auschitwz survivor and Nobel laureate famous for his work on the horrors faced by the Jews during the Holocaust, died on Saturday, July 2, at his home in New York, at the age of 87.
As the New York Times reports, after World War II, little was spoken or written about what had happened or how to come to terms with it, even by survivors. Through his works, Wiesel came to be hailed as a voice for the six million Jews who were systematically massacred by the Nazis during the war. It was with the translation of his first work into English in 1960 that Wiesel gained attention. Night, originally La Nuit, is an autobiographical account of the horrors he witnessed at the Auschwitz and Buchenwald camps as a teenager.
Wiesel was born in 1928 in the small Jewish community of Sighet, near the Ukrainian border. When the Nazis invaded, Wiesel’s family was deported to Auschwitz, where Wiesel was separated from his mother and sisters, and worked at the nearby labour camp Buna, loading stones into railway cars. At Buchenwald, he watched his father die from dysentery and starvation. After the US army liberated the camp in 1945, just after his father died, Wiesel was sent to a home in France, under the care of a Jewish organisation. He went on to study at the Sorbonne in 1948, and become a journalist with the French newspaper L’Arche.
He wrote La Nuit while reporting on the newly founded state of Israel for L’Arche. The 800-page memoir was edited down to 127 pages and published, but did not do particularly well. It was only after the televised trial of Adolf Eichmann that people began to notice it and Wiesel himself. He went on to lecture and speak widely, and to write several novels, essays and books of reportage. Night went on to sell more than 10 million copies.
As the New York Times obituary notes, Wiesel’s other books deal with Judaic studies widely; yet what makes his voice so urgent is how he articulates, in spare and haunting prose, the deeply troubling questions of conscience, guilt and faith raised by the Holocaust for all of humanity.
In his works, Wiesel identified and struggled with what he called the “dialectical conflict” – between the need to recount what he had witnessed and the futility of giving voice to events of such extremity.
“If I survived, it must be for some reason,” he said in a New York Times interview in 1981. “I must do something with my life. It is too serious to play games with anymore, because in my place, someone else could have been saved. And so I speak for that person. On the other hand, I know I cannot.”
In 1986, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, for being a “messenger to mankind” and for his “message of peace, atonement and human dignity”.
When accepting it, he said: “Whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation, take sides… Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
Wiesel outspokenly denounced the massacres in Bosnia, Cambodia, Rwanda and Darfur and the violence against black South Africans and political prisoners in Latin America.
In 1985, while accepting a Congressional Gold Medal of Achievement at the White House, he urged then President Ronald Reagan to cancel his planned visit to a military cemetery where Hitler’s SS soldiers were buried.
In 2013, when the Obama administration was in talks with Iran about the latter’s nuclear programme, Wiesel took out a full-page advertisement in the Times calling on the US president to demand a total dismantling of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure because of what he said was the country’s ‘genocidal’ intent against Israel.
Wiesel was not without his critics. Writer Max Blumenthal, a critic of the Israeli state, repeatedly attacked Wiesel for his support of Israel, as well as his comments on the Armenian genocide and the Iraq war.
Amidst wide mourning over Wiesel’s death on Saturday, Blumenthal tweeted that he “went from a victim of war crimes to a supporter of those who commit them… He did more harm than good and should not be honored.”