Elie Wiesel Biography

Biography (History of the World: The 20th Century)

0111203178-Wiesel1.jpgElie Wiesel (©The Nobel Foundation) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Wiesel is not only a prizewinning novelist, dramatist, and religious philosopher, but by writing and speaking out on behalf of the world’s victims, he has become the conscience of modern times. For his work in this area he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Early Life

Elie Wiesel was born on September 30, 1928, in Sighet, a small town in the Carpathian Mountains, in an area that belonged to Hungary during World War II but that was Romanian territory before and after the war. Wiesel’s father, though a practicing member of the Jewish religious community, questioned traditional Judaism; a tolerant humanist, he emphasized the modern world at large and the need to be a part of it. Wiesel’s mother had a lasting and, probably, deeper influence. A devout woman steeped in Hasidism, she hoped that her only son would become a rabbi. To that end, Wiesel studied the Torah and the Talmud in a local yeshiva known for its ascetic mysticism and Cabbalist teachers. This sheltered, bookish existence was irrevocably shattered in the spring of 1944, when the Nazis invaded Hungary and rounded up all its Jews, including Wiesel, his parents, and three sisters.

The fifteen-year-old Wiesel, along with his father, was sent first to Auschwitz and then to Buchenwald, from which he was liberated by American troops on April 11, 1945. (His two elder sisters survived as well.) The horrors he witnessed there, the despair he felt, the anger he directed at God were all to be incorporated in his literary and philosophical writings. Shortly after the war, the young adolescent went to a refugee home in France, where in two years he learned French by carefully reading the classics, especially Jean Racine, whose style he was later to adopt; indeed, French remains Wiesel’s preferred written language. In addition, he was developing a life-long passion for philosophy (starting with Immanuel Kant and Karl Marx) and for philosophical fiction.

From 1948 to 1951, Wiesel studied philosophy, psychology, and literature at the Sorbonne, but, forced to work, he never finished his thesis on comparative asceticism. Instead, he began a career as a journalist, which allowed him to travel extensively; after emigrating to the United States in 1956, he became the United Nations correspondent of an Israeli newspaper, Yediot Aharonot.

At the urging of the French Catholic novelist François Mauriac, Wiesel agreed to bear witness to the six million Jews murdered in Europe’s concentration camps. From a massive work which he wrote in Yiddish, Un di Velt hot geshvign (1956), Wiesel distilled a very brief but exceedingly powerful memoir of the Holocaust, published in French as La Nuit (1958; Night, 1960). Both a wrenching account of the presence of evil and a terrifying indictment of God’s injustice, this book received international acclaim. Wiesel had found his voice and his themes.

Life’s Work

Following the success of Night, Wiesel wrote in rapid succession two short novels presenting the guilty anguish of those who survived the mass slaughter: L’Aube (1960; Dawn, 1961) and Le Jour (1961; The Accident, 1962). That every act is ambiguous and implies a loss of innocence and that “God commit[s] the most unforgivable crime; to kill without a reason” are central to the protagonists’ conduct and outlook. Little by little, however, Wiesel’s characters come to realize that friendship can help them live in the post-Holocaust world. This is especially true in La Ville de la chance (1962; The Town Beyond the Wall, 1964), where, despite society’s indifference to persecution and cruelty, loving and being a friend allow man to attain a kind of equilibrium. Questions about God, evil, and suffering, while they cannot be satisfactorily answered, must nevertheless be asked, since from the begining such a...

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Elie Wiesel Biography (Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Eliezer Wiesel Published by Gale Cengage

No other individual is so identified with the Holocaust—its memory and its prevention—as Wiesel. He was born in 1928 in Sighet, Romania, to Shlomo (a grocer) and Sarah Wiesel. His parents were part of a Hasidic Jewish community and encouraged him in his religious studies. Growing up, young Wiesel "believed profoundly" and felt it his duty to pray. In 1944, the distant threat of Hitler invaded the community, and his family was deported to a concentration camp. A few years after the war, Wiesel was reunited with surviving family members—two sisters.

At the war's close, Wiesel hoped to emigrate to Palestine which would see the declaration of the state of Israel in 1947. Being an orphan, however, placed him with other children enroute to Belgium. General Charles de Gaulle intervened and brought the train to France. Wiesel finished his teens in Normandy and won entrance to the Sorbonne in Paris. After completing his studies he became a journalist. After a decade of living in France he moved to the United States and eventually gained American citizenship. In 1969, he married Marion Erster Rose. She is also a survivor of the camps and a writer in her own right. She became his English translator.

In 1954, while working on assignment for a Tel Aviv newspaper, he interviewed Nobel Laureate Francois Mauriac. When the discussion turned to the suffering of Jesus Wiesel angrily burst out that nobody was speaking of the suffering just a few years before. Mauriac suggested he break the silence. The result was the first of many works, an eight hundred-page memoir in Yiddish, Un di Velt Hot Geshvign (1956), which detailed his experience of losing his family and friends to the concentration camps. This work became the famous La Nuit (1958), or, in English, Night (1960).

At the time of the book's completion, nobody wanted to be reminded of the Holocaust. In fact, the publishing world felt Anne Frank's Diary of a Little Girl was a sufficient memento of the horror. A tiny firm disagreed and managed to pay $250. Today, annual sales of the work in the United States exceed 300,000 copies.

Despite the book's lack of commercial success, Wiesel was defined by it. He has spent his life, ever since, as a vocal champion of human rights. His eloquent moral voice has often been compared with that of Albert Camus. Wiesel hopes that his stories will prompt a reflection that leads to a more humane future. In 1986, Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

For the last decade he has advised the U. S. Congress on memorials, religion, and the Middle East. He has served as chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council and is the Andrew Mellon Professor of Humanities at Boston University. In May 1997, Wiesel was appointed to head the Swiss Holocaust Fund. This was in "recognition of his extraordinary accomplishments and his respected moral guidance," said Swiss Foreign Minister Flavio Cotti.

Elie Wiesel Biography (Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Wiesel, a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, published numerous works of philosophy, drama, and fiction based on his experiences. By writing and speaking out on behalf of the world’s victims, he became a significant voice of conscience.

Early Life

The journey that took Elie Wiesel through the Holocaust, the systematic destruction of nearly six million Jews by Nazi Germany during World War II, began in the town of Sighet, now part of Romania, where he was born on September 30, 1928. Raised in a religious home, Wiesel was the third child and only son born to his parents, Shlomo and Sarah Feig Wiesel. Sighet was in the northern area of a region known as Transylvania. Once a part of the Austrian Empire, it was ceded to Romania after World War I and then came under Hungarian control during World War II. During Wiesel’s boyhood, Sighet’s residents included some ten thousand Jews, about 40 percent of the population, and most of them were religiously Orthodox.

Sighet’s Jews were subjected to Hungary’s anti-Jewish policies, which included socioeconomic discrimination and deprivation of basic civil rights. Wiesel’s father, a shopkeeper in Sighet, was jailed for a time because he helped rescue Polish Jews who had found their way to Hungary. Nevertheless, the young Wiesel’s worlds of study, faith, and Jewish tradition remained relatively undisturbed until the Germans occupied the territory of their faltering Hungarian allies in March, 1944. Within a few weeks, the Jews of Sighet were ghettoized and then deported to Auschwitz in four transports between May 16 and May 22. Wiesel survived the shattering experience of that German death camp. His older sisters, Hilda and Bea, also escaped death during the Holocaust, but Wiesel’s mother, father, and little sister, Tsiporah, did not.

Selected for slave labor, Wiesel and his father endured Auschwitz’s brutal regime until January, 1945. As Soviet troops approached the camp, the two were evacuated to Germany. Severely weakened by the death march to Buchenwald, Wiesel’s father perished there, but the son was liberated by American troops on April 11, 1945. Eventually he was reunited with his older sisters. The horrors Wiesel witnessed during the Holocaust, the despair he felt, the protest he directed at God were all to be incorporated in his literary and philosophical writings.

After Wiesel’s liberation from Buchenwald, he was assisted by French relief agencies and took up residence in Paris. With French as his adopted language, he plunged into literature and philosophy at the Sorbonne from 1948 to 1951. Albert Camus, Søren Kierkegaard, and Franz Kafka were among the writers who influenced him most. Wiesel spent time in India, too, hoping to write a dissertation on asceticism in the Jewish, Christian, and Hindu traditions. He wrote at length on the subject but was unable to complete all of his university work because he had to support himself. Finding work as a journalist, Wiesel wrote for Israeli, French, and American newspapers. His reporting assignments took him to Israel and then to New York in 1956 to cover the United Nations. That same year, he was struck by a taxicab in Times Square. When a long convalescence prevented him from making a required return to France to renew expired papers, Wiesel, a “stateless person” at the time, was persuaded to apply for U.S. citizenship. He was naturalized in 1963.

During the first decade after the war, writing of more than a scholarly or journalistic kind had been on Wiesel’s mind. However, he had vowed to be silent about his Holocaust experiences for ten years, and thus it was only in 1956 that he published his first book. Written in Yiddish, Un di Velt hot geshvign (and the world remained silent) was a lengthy account of his life in Auschwitz. Two years later, he shortened this work considerably, translated the book into French, and published it as La Nuit. An English translation, Night, was published in 1960. Wiesel had found his voice and his themes. Both a wrenching account of the presence of evil and a terrifying indictment of God’s injustice, Night, Wiesel’s brief early memoir, remains his best-known book.

Life’s Work

More than thirty of Wiesel’s books have been published since Night appeared. None of the others focuses so explicitly on the Holocaust, but that event shadows everything he writes. All of his subsequent works are built around Night’s testimony. Wiesel followed Night with two short novels presenting the anguish of those who survived the Holocaust: Dawn and The Accident. That every act is ambiguous and implies a loss of innocence and that “God commit[s] the most unforgivable crime: to kill without a reason” are central to the protagonists’ conduct and outlook.

Gradually Wiesel’s fiction became longer and more complex. His characters, moreover, come to realize that friendship can help them live in the post-Holocaust world. This is especially true in The Town Beyond the Wall, where, despite society’s indifference to persecution and cruelty, loving and being a friend allow a kind of equilibrium. Questions about God, evil, and suffering, although they cannot be satisfactorily answered, must nevertheless be asked, because from the beginning, such a dialogue has been established between God and God’s creation. By reconnecting with his religious community, Wiesel seems to suggest in The Gates of the Forest, the survivor may rediscover joy in spite of despair.

By 1965, Wiesel’s literary accomplishments were winning book awards such as the French Prix Rivarol and the National Jewish Book Council Literary Award. His credits were enhanced further by The Jews of Silence and Legends of Our Time. Originally a series of newspaper articles, The Jews of Silence describes the first of Wiesel’s many visits to the Soviet Union on behalf of persecuted Jews. Legends of Our Time brings together short pieces by Wiesel—many of them autobiographical—on a wide range of...

(The entire section is 2528 words.)

Elie Wiesel Biography (Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Eliezer Wiesel, the third child and only son of Shlomo and Sarah Wiesel, was born in the village of Sighet, in Transylvania, Romania, on September 30, 1928. He had two older sisters, Bea and Hilda, and one younger one, Tzipporah. His parents were Orthodox Jews. As a child, Eliezer was a profound believer in God and spent his days in religious studies. His father, though religious, was a man of culture and a rational humanist. He taught his son to believe in humanity and saw to it that he learned secular subjects, such as Latin, mathematics, and physics, as well as religious ones. His mother was more spiritual. She taught her son a love of God. The constant argument in the Wiesel home was whether their son should be a professor or a...

(The entire section is 1667 words.)

Elie Wiesel Biography (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Elie Wiesel’s sheltered, bookish adolescence was forever shattered in 1944, when the Nazis invaded Hungary and rounded up all its Jews, including the Wiesel family. The fifteen-year-old Elie was deported to Auschwitz and Buchenwald, from which he was liberated in April, 1945. The horrors he saw there, the despair he felt, the anger he directed at God were later themes in his literary and nonfiction writings.

Shortly after the war, Elie went to France, where he learned the language and developed a lifelong passion for philosophy and literature. When, in 1955, French novelist François Mauriac urged him to bear witness to the six million Jews murdered in Europe’s concentration camps, Wiesel wrote the acclaimed...

(The entire section is 384 words.)

Elie Wiesel Biography (Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

Author Profile

Wiesel’s writings have made him the messenger of the Jewish Holocaust dead and the prophetic muse of the post-Auschwitz age. This fact may explain why he wrote his first published memoir, Night, in Yiddish, the lingua franca of the murdered Jewish people, rather than in French, the language in which he wrote all of his other works. Wiesel writes masterfully, with a Kafkaesque pen, and his themes include pogroms, the destruction of the shtetls (Jewish villages), songs of mourning and exile, the madness of the Messiah, divine love and silence, and the guilt and obligation of survival, all of which are interwoven with threads of Hasidic tales, Kabbalistic mysticism,...

(The entire section is 1006 words.)

Elie Wiesel Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The journey that took Elie Wiesel (vee-ZEHL) through the Holocaust, the systematic destruction of nearly six million Jews by Nazi Germany during World War II, began in his native Romania, in Sighet, where he was born on September 30, 1928. Reared in a religious home, Wiesel was the third child and only son born to his parents, Shlomo and Sarah Feig Wiesel. Sighet, his hometown, was in the northern area of a region known as Transylvania. Sighet’s residents at that time included some ten thousand Jews, about 40 percent of the population, and most of them were religiously Orthodox.

Sighet’s Jews were subjected to Hungary’s anti-Jewish policies, which included socioeconomic discrimination and deprivation of basic...

(The entire section is 1029 words.)

Elie Wiesel Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

“It is given to man to transform divine injustice into human justice and compassion,” Elie Wiesel says in Celebration biblique (1975; Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends, 1976), his recounting of Bible stories about Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and many more. Like Wiesel himself, these biblical messengers understood that thought and action have abused the freedom to choose that makes life human. They also wrestled with the fact that human existence neither accounts for, nor completely sustains, itself. Their dearly earned reckoning with that reality led them to a profound restiveness. It revealed, in turn, the awesome injunction that God intends for humankind to endure hard, even impossible, moral work...

(The entire section is 207 words.)

Elie Wiesel Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Eliezer (Elie) Wiesel (vee-ZEHL) received his early education completely within Jewish tradition; he attended a religious primary school (heder) and then went to a local yeshiva for Torah and talmudic studies. In 1944, at the age of fifteen, he was interned in several German concentration camps, where his parents and his younger sister all perished. Upon his release from Buchenwald in April, 1945, he went to France as a displaced person. Within three years, after working as a choir director and Bible teacher, he was able to begin university studies at the Sorbonne, where he majored in philosophy, literature, and psychology.

Wiesel first worked in journalism. As a writer for French newspapers covering...

(The entire section is 723 words.)