Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel dies

  • 3 Jul 2016 at 10:01
  • Newspaper section: Video

Elie Wiesel, an Auschwitz survivor who became an eloquent witness for the 6 million Jews slaughtered in World War II and who, more than anyone else, seared the memory of the Holocaust on the world’s conscience, died Saturday at his home in Manhattan. He was 87.

Menachem Rosensaft, a longtime friend and founding chairman of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, confirmed the death.

Wiesel was the author of several dozen books and was a charismatic lecturer and humanities professor. In 1986, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But he was defined not so much by the work he did as by the gaping void he filled.

In the aftermath of the Germans’ systematic massacre of Jews, no voice had emerged to drive home the enormity of what had happened and how it had changed mankind’s conception of itself and of God. For almost two decades, the traumatised survivors - and American Jews, guilt-ridden that they had not done more to rescue their brethren - seemed frozen in silence.

But by the sheer force of his personality and his gift for the haunting phrase, Wiesel, who had been liberated from Buchenwald as a 16-year-old with the indelible tattoo A-7713 on his arm, gradually exhumed the Holocaust from the burial ground of the history books.

This January 24, 2005, shows US author and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Elie Wiesel addressing the United Nations General Assembly in New York. (AFP photo)

It was this speaking out against forgetfulness and violence that the Nobel committee recognised when it awarded him the peace prize in 1986.

“Wiesel is a messenger to mankind,” the Nobel citation said. “His message is one of peace, atonement and human dignity. His belief that the forces fighting evil in the world can be victorious is a hard-won belief."

Wiesel first gained attention in 1960 with the English translation of "Night", his autobiographical account of the horrors he witnessed in the camps as a teenage boy. He wrote of how he had been plagued by guilt for having survived while millions died, and tormented by doubts about a God who would allow such slaughter.

"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," Wiesel wrote. “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. Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God himself. Never.”

There may have been better chroniclers who evoked the hellish minutiae of the German death machine. There were arguably more illuminating philosophers. But no single figure was able to combine Wiesel’s moral urgency with his magnetism, which emanated from his deeply lined face and eyes as unrelievable melancholy.

President Barack Obama, who visited the site of the Buchenwald concentration camp with Wiesel in 2009, called him a "living memorial."

"He raised his voice, not just against anti-Semitism, but against hatred, bigotry and intolerance in all its forms," the president said Saturday in a statement. “He implored each of us, as nations and as human beings, to do the same, to see ourselves in each other and to make real that pledge of 'never again'."

In his 1966 book “The Jews of Silence: A Personal Report on Soviet Jewry,” Wiesel called attention to Jews who were being persecuted for their religion and yet barred from emigrating.

"What torments me most is not the Jews of silence I met in Russia, but the silence of the Jews I live among today," he said. His efforts helped ease emigration restrictions.

Wiesel condemned the massacres in Bosnia in the mid-1990s - "If this is Auschwitz again, we must mobilise the whole world," he said - and denounced others in Cambodia, Rwanda and the Darfur region of Sudan. He condemned the burnings of black churches in the United States and spoke out on behalf of the blacks of South Africa and the tortured political prisoners of Latin America.

Wiesel had a leading role in the creation of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, serving as chairman of the commission that united rival survivor groups to raise funds for a permanent structure.

Eliezer Wiesel was born on Sept 30, 1928, in the small city of Sighet, in the Carpathian Mountains in what was then Romania. His father, Shlomo, was a Yiddish-speaking shopkeeper worldly enough to encourage his son to learn modern Hebrew and introduce him to the works of Freud. His mother, the former Sarah Feig, and his maternal grandfather, Dodye Feig, a Viznitz Hasid, filled his imagination with mystical tales of Hasidic masters.

He grew up with his three sisters, Hilda, Batya and Tzipora, in a community of 15,000 Jews. But his idyllic childhood was shattered in spring 1944 when the Nazis marched into Hungary. The city’s Jews were swiftly confined to two ghettos and then assembled for deportation.

"One by one, they passed in front of me," he wrote in "Night", "teachers, friends, others, all those I had been afraid of, all those I could have laughed at, all those I had lived with over the years. They went by, fallen, dragging their packs, dragging their lives, deserting their homes, the years of their childhood, cringing like beaten dogs."

“Night” recounted a journey of several days spent in an airless cattle car before the narrator and his family arrived in a place they had never heard of: Auschwitz. Wiesel recalled how the smokestacks filled the air with the stench of burning flesh, how babies were burned in a pit, and how a monocled Dr. Josef Mengele decided, with a wave of a bandleader’s baton, who would live and who would die. Wiesel watched his mother and his sister Tzipora walk off to the right.

“I did not know that in that place, at that moment, I was parting from my mother and Tzipora forever,” he wrote.

On April 11, 1945, after eating nothing for six days, Wiesel was among those liberated by the United States Army. Only after the war did he learn that his two elder sisters had not perished.

In the days after Buchenwald’s liberation, he decided he had survived to bear witness, but vowed that he would not speak or write of what he had seen for 10 years.

"I didn’t want to use the wrong words," he once explained.

In 1948, the newspaper L'Arche sent him to Israel to report on that newly founded state. He became the Paris correspondent for the daily Yediot Ahronot as well. In 1956 he produced an 800-page memoir in Yiddish. Pared to 127 pages and translated into French, it then appeared as "La Nuit".

"The Holocaust was not something people wanted to know about in those days," Wiesel told Time magazine in 1985.

"Night" went on to sell more than 10 million copies. Wiesel wrote an average of a book a year, 60 books by his own count in 2015.
married in Jerusalem in 1969, when Wiesel was 40, and they had one son, Shlomo Elisha. They survive him, as do a stepdaughter, Jennifer Rose, and two grandchildren.