Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 445
Taking the title of his autobiography from Ecclesiastes, Elie Wiesel presents the important people and events of his life, beginning with his childhood in Sighet, Romania, and culminating in his 1969 marriage in Jerusalem. Wiesel, through stories and remembrances, tells of a family full of piety, moral courage, and selfless devotion to Judaism. From his mother and grandmother, Elie learned goodness and love; from his grandfather, the Jewish legends he would later use in fiction and essays; from his father, rectitude and altruism. His teachers, at various times of his life, inculcated in him a reverence for learning, an exactness in biblical or philosophical discourse, and above all the joy, sadness, and truth of the old masters.
World War II and the persecution of the Jews destroyed Wiesel’s idyllic world forever. He and his family were taken to Auschwitz. He later was transferred to Buchenwald. Unable to understand German cruelty, angry at those who did not intervene on the victims’ behalf, angry too at God for letting it happen, Wiesel emerged alive after terrible trials. At age seventeen he was endowed with a special knowledge of life and death.
Shortly after his liberation from Buchenwald he went to France, where he eventually enrolled at the university, enduring hardship and contemplating suicide. Saved by Zionist fervor, he worked as a journalist for an Israeli newspaper in Paris. A crucial meeting with novelist François Mauriac in 1955 was to decide his literary career: Mauriac encouraged him to break his self-imposed silence about his experience in concentration camps and found a publisher for Wiesel’s first novel, La Nuit (1958; Night, 1960), to which he contributed the foreword.
After Wiesel moved to New York to become his newspaper’s American correspondent, he soon applied for U.S. citizenship. In a series of amusing anecdotes he describes his life in a Jewish American milieu. He also tells of his relations with his French publishers and of his meeting with Marion, his future wife and translator. More moving and bittersweet are his return to his native town, where relatives and friends have disappeared and only the ghosts of his youth remain; his personal and literary campaign for Russian Jewry; the fear caused by the Six-Day War of 1967, since it could have meant the end of Israel and the Jewish dream; and his prayer of thanksgiving at the newly liberated Wailing Wall.
Throughout, a celebration of life and of the great Hasidic teachers and thinkers as well as a moral and ethical strength permeates Wiesel’s conduct and writings over his first forty years. In memorializing his relatives and friends and in bearing witness to their passing, he leaves his own mark behind.