Each era of turmoil tends to suffuse with truth a representative spokesperson, a survivor who is thrust into the light by the Zeitgeist, the metaphoric "spirit of the times." The looming evil of Hitler's Third Reich produced a slight, solitary, sad-eyed stoic with the number A-7713 tattooed on his left arm. He came of age after World War II among orphans belonging to no country. He learned the journalist's trade and delivered to an uncaring, bigoted, cyclically vicious world a denunciation of gratuitous murder: "Never again!"
Dr. Elie Wiesel (eh lee wee zehl), noted proponent of peace and reconciliation, pioneered single-author Holocaust literature based on eyewitness accounts. As a leading American advocate of memorials and reclamation of Holocaust memorabilia, he has published a forceful stream of speeches, polemics, autobiography, drama, fiction, documentary, and articles. Driven by an empathy that impels him to protest carnage and to impose humanitarian values on behalf of the world's oppressed, he has heeded an inner compulsion to serve humanity by illuminating the hate-darkened past.
The world's most renowned writer of Holocaust literature, Eliezer "Elie" Wiesel seems forever on the cusp between devout Jew and agnostic existentialist. From his pen pour the repeated why's, a demand for response from the silent God whom Elie revered from childhood as the guiding figure of his being. The grandson of rabbis and only son and third of four children of grocers Shlomo (spelled "Chlomo" in Night) and Sarah Feig Wiesel, he was born September 30, 1928, in the shtetl, or village, of Sighet, Romania, in the Carpathian Mountains, a thriving Judaic cultural center for 15,000 Jews which was later absorbed by Hungary. Shy, somber-eyed, and introspective at age three, Elie attended classes under a revered rabbi and learned the Hebrew alphabet, recalling in later years the simple classroom repetition of aleph, beth, gimel (A, B, C). A scholarly child, he preferred chess to soccer and followed the orthodox Hasidic traditions by wearing peyes, or side curls, and donning tefillin, the traditional leather phylacteries that bound scripture to his forehead and arm before morning prayers; on Fridays, he honored the Sabbath with prayers, meditation, devotional readings, and chants. He picked apricots on his grandfather's farm, was blessed at age eight by the revered Rabbi Israel of Wizhnitz, challenged friend Itzu Goldblatt in a match of piety and self-discipline, and attended high school in Debrecen and Nagyvárad with the intention of becoming a writer.
Wiesel had superb role models. His maternal grandfather, Dodye Feig, a white-bearded farmer, told lively stories and shared the camaraderie of the family prodigy, who, in early childhood, was obviously preparing for a life of piety and scholarship. Elie's father, a shopkeeper and revered community leader and counselor, served the town as a mediator for Jews and a saintly humanitarian to the needy. Himself a victim of torture and jail for aiding Jews to escape persecution in Poland, Shlomo urged Elie to trust in human goodness and to study modern Hebrew, Freudian psychology, and astronomy. In contrast to Shlomo's aims for his contemplative son, Wiesel's mother, a high school graduate who was the voice of tradition throughout his childhood, quoted Goethe and Schiller and guided him toward traditional Judaism through study of the Torah, Talmud, and cabbala, the Hasidic mystical lore that he studied with Moshe the Beadle, a synogogue caretaker. While Elie entered his teens and studied for a life of orthodoxy, Nazi soldiers under the command of Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler were introducing the deadly poisonous Zyklon B to death camps, where they efficiently gassed exiles from Russia, Silesia, Bohemia, and Moravia in large numbers before disposing of their remains in camp crematories.
The War Years
The German high command moved closer during the celebration of Purim on March 19, 1944, and put the Hungarian police in charge of the "Jewish problem," which included all people with Jewish surnames, even those who had converted to Christianity or who had never practiced the Jewish faith. By Passover, local police, goaded by the fascist Nyilas party, began imposing the Nuremberg Laws: closing Jewish-owned shops and offices; desecrating and looting synagogues; conducting raids and inspections of "sanitary measures"; outlawing marriage between Jews and Gentiles; imposing a three-day curfew; and posting warnings of potential execution for noncompliance.
The purported reason for mass anti-Semitism was to put down a "Jewish conspiracy," a nonexistent plot that Hitler claimed threatened all Europe. In May 1944, when Russian troops were twelve miles from Sighet, Adolf Hitler's master plan called for storm troopers to load convoys to hasten the removal and annihilation of Romania's "undesirables" — trade unionists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Catholics, Jews, Gypsies, retardates, homosexuals, the elderly, and the physically handicapped, blind, and deaf. Elie's father joined the council of elders and Gestapo officers in a discussion of the future for Jews of Sighet. As storm troopers began stringing barbed wire around the Jewish ghetto, local doctors learned of a village annihilation plot and several committed suicide before the massive assault left them no choice.
Elie's family had fleeting opportunities to escape deportation. A compassionate police officer tapped at their window to warn them of danger. On May 14, Elie's father refused an offer of safe refuge in a cabin in the mountains from Maria, his Christian housekeeper, who lived on the outskirts of town. Two days later, authorities resituated Elie's family in Uncle Mendel's house in the smaller of two ghettos, then later transported them aboard the last rail convoy. In a sealed cattle car they traveled to Birkenau, the SS sorting center for the infamous Auschwitz complex, where guards tossed babies into flaming ditches. During their banishment, Elie dreamed noble reveries of Jews in antiquity and contemplated the romance of exile. As he neared the burning ditch, however, he feared that his life was about to end in a burst of flame. By the end of the war, his romantic notions of martyrdom crumbled along with the remains of six million Jewish corpses. The Jewish population of his homeland had been reduced by half.
In Night (1960) and All Rivers Run to the Sea (1995), Wiesel details camp life and the caprices of fate that saved ten to fifteen percent for enforced labor and destroyed others, sometimes whole convoys. After a midnight arrival, he joined his father in the men's line; his mother and sisters followed the women to separate confines. Sarah Wiesel and her youngest, Tzipora, apparently died in the Birkenau ovens; his older sisters survived. (Note: Wiesel avoids describing the ordeals of his sisters, which he considers private matters.) During idle moments in camp, he prayed, performed daily rituals, and recited from the Torah and Talmud. Dressed in shapeless striped prison garb, cap, and clogs at Auschwitz II, he and his father endured hard labor, cold, malnutrition, and arbitrary lashings. Barracks conditions were primitive and provided only skimpy straw or excelsior bedding on wooden slats and a night bucket for a toilet. Poor sanitation and a lack of soap and pure water spread intestinal bacteria, vermin, typhus, and cholera.
Upon transfer to Auschwitz III, the electrical warehouse at Buna, south of the Vistula River, father and son sorted electrical parts until Elie entered a camp infirmary in January 1945 for surgery to relieve an inflamed foot. (In All Rivers Run to the Sea, Wiesel describes the infirmity as a swollen knee.) On January 18, the threat of Russian troops forced the Germans to mount a chaotic camp evacuation forty-two miles on foot to Gleiwitz, Poland, to board roofless cattle cars for a ten-day journey northwest to Buchenwald in central Germany. There, two and a half months before American forces liberated the camp, Shlomo Wiesel died of dysentery, malnutrition, and a blow to the head, leaving his son to doubt God's existence and to mourn with the little strength he had left.
On April 11, Allied liberators arrived to feed and tend the starving survivors. Elie was so ill that he collapsed and was treated at the former SS hospital. No list of survivors named his parents or sisters. At the invitation of Charles de Gaulle, the Oeuvre au Secours aux Enfants (Children's Rescue Service) shuttled Elie by train along with four hundred fellow orphans to Belgium, then to a chateau at Écouis, Normandy, for recuperation. Because he misunderstood a border guard's spoken offer of French citizenship, he remained stateless. In June, he began a journal in Yiddish, his native language. He reunited with his older sister Hilda and learned that Beatrice had returned to Sighet; the three later met at Antwerp. In 1948, because he had no kinship ties with citizens of the new state of Israel, a rejection for a visa to Palestine ended his ambition of becoming a freedom fighter for Haganah, the Zionist underground.
Without making a clear choice of careers, in 1948 Wiesel enrolled in literature and philosophy courses at the Sorbonne in Paris and heard lectures by novelist Jean-Paul Sartre and philosopher Martin Buber. To better interpret wartime trauma and SS evil, he studied asceticism with the mystic specialist Shushani but vowed not to write about his experiences. Often suicidal and hungry on the meager stipend of $16 per month, he lingered at the orphanage and contemplated alternatives while healing his spirit from the aftereffects of rootlessness and trauma. He worked part-time as tutor, director of a choir of displaced persons, movie subtitler, camp counselor, and translator for the militant Yiddish weekly Zion in Kamf before accepting a post as a multilingual journalist for the Yiddish weekly Yedioth Ahronoth.
Wiesel the Writer
On May 14, 1955, François Mauriac, Nobel-prize winning French novelist and biographer of General Charles de Gaulle, encouraged Wiesel to speak for the survivors of the Holocaust. Mauriac advised Wiesel on the publication of Night, a humanistic documentary which the author and his publisher pared down from a more than 800-page Un di Velt Hot Geshvign (And the World Remained Silent) to a manuscript one-eighth of the original, a spare, intense first-person account of his incarceration by the Nazi SS. The book was translated from Yiddish into French, retitled La Nuit, and dedicated to his parents and his little sister. It garnered weak response from potential publishers, who doubted that so pessimistic a story would find a ready audience. Meanwhile, Wiesel's journalistic career took him to Spain, Tangiers, Morocco, eastern Europe, Canada, Brazil, India, and Israel, where he observed the early years of Jewish statehood. While translating for the World Jewish Conference in Geneva, he followed the emergence of David Ben-Gurion, the bold Israeli leader, and met the great political, philosophical, and military figures of the era: General Moshe Dayan, Hannah Arendt, Pierre Mendès-France, Golda Meir, Nikita Khrushchev, Sir Anthony Eden, General Dwight Eisenhower, and Marshal Georgy Zhukov.
After moving to the United States in 1956, Wiesel lived alone at a hotel and wrote a spy novel under the pseudonym Elisha Carmeli while he reported U. N. activities for the Morgen Journal, a popular newspaper for immigrant Jews. In July of that year, he was hit by a speeding taxi in the heart of New York City. The first hospital where he was taken rejected him because he was considered too poor and not likely to recover. His injuries put him in a full-body cast and confined him to a wheelchair for a year. During his lengthy recuperation, he applied for United States citizenship, which he finally received in 1963.
On April 2, 1969, in the Ramban synagogue in the old sector of Jerusalem, Wiesel married Austrian-born writer and editor Marion Erster Rose, a survivor of the Holocaust and mother of a daughter named Jennifer. Wiesel lives in New York with his wife and their son, Shlomo Elisha, born in 1972, a Yale graduate specializing in computer science. Currently, Marion oversees the translation of her husband's works and joins with him in overseeing work of the Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, a consortium that studies the source and impetus of hate groups.
Wiesel the Humanitarian
A prolific writer and speaker, Wiesel appeals to a wide audience of young Jews who, in the 1960s, felt cut off from their traditions and their ancestors' struggles. The receipts from his lectures he gives to a yeshiva, an Orthodox Jewish school; his book royalties he donates to a fund for a synagogue to honor his father, whose death so near liberation continues to haunt Wiesel. He supports Holocaust survivors, lectures, publishes, and comments on the subjects of world indifference to suffering, Cambodian refugees, the Vietnamese "boat people," the "disappeared" of Argentina, Arab refugees in Palestine, and nuclear proliferation. He attended the Adolf Eichmann trial in 1961 and the Jewish liberation of Jerusalem, filmed a visit to Sighet for NBC twenty years after his deportation, and in 1965 risked arrest in a Moscow airport while visiting Russian Jewish "refuseniks." He sympathized with Martin Luther King's civil rights efforts, rebuked former President Reagan in 1985 for honoring the Bitburg Cemetery for SS corpsmen, and bolsters humanitarian efforts in Biafra, Northern Ireland, Yugoslavia, and Bosnia. In 1987, he testified about his experiences at Auschwitz during the trial of war criminal Klaus Barbie in Lyons, France.
A classroom influence for human rights, Wiesel, formerly Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies at Manhattan's City College of New York, has served Yale and Florida International universities as a visiting scholar. He has remained at Boston University since 1976 as the Andrew Mellon Professor of Humanities. Named chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council by President Jimmy Carter, Wiesel is often called upon as a consultant and receives continual publicity and acclaim for his insistent illumination of the Holocaust, which be considers a holy event, and his denunciation of the bystanders who witnessed the loading of cattle cars and made no outcry. His honors include the American Liberties Medallion, Prix Médicis, Prix Rivarol, Prix de l'Universalité, Joseph Prize for Human Rights, Eleanor Roosevelt Memorial, Martin Luther King, Jr. Medallion, Raoul Wallenberg Medal, and, in 1985, the Congressional Gold Medal of Achievement. His honorary degrees derive from a broad span of colleges and universities: Jewish Theological Seminary, Hebrew Union, Manhattanville, Yeshiva, Boston, Spertus College of Judaica, Wesleyan, Notre Dame, Anna Maria, Brandeis, Bar-Ilan, Hofstra, Talmudic, Marquette, Simmons, St. Scholastica, Tufts, Moravian, Loyola, Emory, and Yale. On December 10, 1986, his sister Hilda attended the Nobel ceremonies at the University of Oslo, Norway, and heard her brother's acceptance of the Peace Prize, an award to a beloved freedom fighter which carried a stipend of $287,769.78 along with the admiration of the civilized world. In 1995, he wrote again of his family's catastrophe and cited events leading up to his marriage in All Rivers Run to the Sea, the first volume of a two-part autobiography.
September 30: Elie Wiesel is born in Sighet, Romania, which later becomes Hungarian territory.
January: Brown-shirted storm troopers murder eight Berlin Jews.
October: Nazis hold 107 seats in the Reichstag, Germany's parliament.
January: Hitler becomes Chancellor of Germany.
March: Hitler rises to dictator and withdraws Germany from the League of Nations. Heinrich Himmler establishes Dachau outside Munich, Germany, as the first Nazi death camp; thousands of Jews are murdered here, some in brutal medical experiments.
April: All Jews working in government jobs or teaching in universities are fired.
July: The Nazi party is formally declared to be the only political party in Germany.
September: Nuremberg Laws revoke Jewish citizenship and ban intermarriage with Gentiles.
October: Germany allies with Italy and Japan.
July: Buchenwald concentration camp begins receiving convoys.
March: Germany controls Austria.
Early Summer: Romanian fascists strip Jews of citizenship.
October: Hitler evicts German Jews from their homes and forces them into ghettos.
November 9-10: Nazis carry out a devastating plan called Kristallnacht (literally, "Crystal Night," or the Night of Broken Glass), which destroys 7500 Jewish-owned stores and synagogues. Jewish children are banned from German schools. Twenty thousand Jews are taken into "protective custody" and sent to concentration camps. Many Jews emigrate.
January: Hitler reveals his intention to annihilate the Jewish race.
March: Hitler captures the remainder of Czechoslovakia.
August: Germany and Russia enter a ten-year non-aggression pact.
September: Germany precipitates World War II by invading Poland.
April: Germany overruns Norway and Denmark. Auschwitz, Poland, becomes a concentration camp.
June: Germany overruns France.
August: Nazis confine Jews to ghettos.
October-November: Romanian Nazis confiscate Jewish homes, farms, and businesses.
January: Nazis massacre 170 Jews in Bucharest.
June: Nazis shoot 212,000 Romanians. Germany attacks Russia.
September: Himmler uses Zyklon B at Auschwitz. Nazis machine-gun more than 33,000 Jews at Babi Yar, near Kiev, Russia.
October 15: Nazis declare Jews outlaws.
December 7: Japan bombs Pearl Harbor. Hitler declares war on the United States.
December 8: Chelmo is the first death camp to use mobile annihilation vans.
Late December: Twelve-year-old Elie Wiesel meets Moshe the Beadle.
Late in the year: Moshe the Beadle escapes Gestapo slaughter to warn the Jews in Sighet. Nazis transport 200,000 Jews to Trans-Dniestria, in the southwestern Ukraine. Two-thirds die of hunger and disease; others depart for Palestine.
March: Crematories open at Auschwitz.
April: The Warsaw ghetto rebels against the Nazis.
July: Mussolini's government collapses. Allies pursue Nazis into Italy.
March: Adolf Eichmann supervises the deportation of Hungarian Jews.
April: Nazis arrest Jewish leaders and close synagogues in Sighet. Jews are quarantined. Nazis confiscate valuables and force Sighet Jews to wear the yellow Star of David and ban them from restaurants, cafes, and public transportation.
May 16: All Sighet Jews are forced from their homes and told to line up in the street at 8 A.M. At 1 P.M., the first group departs by train.
Several days later: Elie's family marches to the "little ghetto."
A few days later: The Wiesels join the last group of deportees aboard a railway cattle car.
Late May: The convoy reaches Birkenau, and Elie and Chlomo spend their first night in camp. Summer Guards send Elie and Chlomo to Auschwitz. There, they meet Stein of Antwerp. Elie and Chlomo march to Buna. Elie is tattooed A-7713 on his left arm.
July 20: Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg attempts to murder Hitler.
August 25: The Allies liberate Paris.
October 26: Himmler dismantles the Auschwitz crematory.
January: Elie undergoes surgery in the Auschwitz infirmary. Chlomo and Elie run with evacuees to Gleiwitz, where they and others board open cattle cars for a ten-day ride to Buchenwald in central Germany.
January 18: The Red Army liberates Auschwitz.
Late January: Chlomo Wiesel dies in a bunk at Buchenwald.
February: Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin meet at Yalta to discuss the end of the war in Europe. Allied troops reach the Rhine.
April: The resistance launches an attack on Buchenwald's SS. American forces liberate Buchenwald and Dachau. Elie falls ill with food poisoning. Hitler and Eva Braun commit suicide in a Berlin bunker.
May: General Jodl signs Germany's surrender to the Allies.
July-August: Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee, and Joseph Stalin discuss the denazification of Germany.
The Nuremberg Trials begin to punish war criminals.
Elie Wiesel enters the Sorbonne in Paris.
May 14: Israel proclaims itself an independent, sovereign state.
Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl is published in English.
François Mauriac convinces Elie to write about the Holocaust.
Elie Wiesel comes to the United States.
Night is published in English; it originally appeared in 1958, in French, as La Nuit.