“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” (Night)
According to the Nobel Prize committee, who awarded him the Peace Prize in 1986, Elie Wiesel was “The Messenger to Mankind.” His experiences as a Holocaust survivor meant he had the worst messages imaginable about his species, but he delivered them with grace, and he lived an exemplary life as an activist, writer and intellectual.
Born in Romania, Wiesel was 15 years old when he and his family, along with other Jews, were sent to Auschwitz. There he lost his mother and one of three sisters. At Buchenwald, he lost his father. He later wrote movingly of the shame he felt at hearing his father’s cries and being unable to help.
In 1945, Buchenwald was liberated, and Wiesel, who had become inmate A-7713, went to live in France. He studied at the Sorbonne and began his writing career as a journalist. For a decade he didn’t talk about his war experiences, but his friend and fellow Nobel Laureate, François Mauriac, eventually persuaded him to write about them. The result was La Nuit, published in English as Night in 1958, a harrowing account of his time in the concentration camps.
On the surface Wiesel was an old-style European intellectual. He was a man of letters, extraordinarily well-read and conversant in several languages including Yiddish, Hebrew, French, and English. He was a much-garlanded writer and served as Professor of Humanities at Yale, Columbia and Boston Universities. He published over forty books.
But the thrust of Wiesel’s life was the pursuit of justice and the act of remembrance rather than personal honors. (“To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time” – from Night.) In later life he turned his attention to other atrocities around the world, notably apartheid in South Africa and violence in Nicaragua.
Wiesel was an exceptional man. He somehow forged a productive life from the tragedies of his youth, and shone a light on the darkest period in human history. That light shines on.