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.
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.
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 dialogue has been established between God and His creation. By rejoining his religious community, Wiesel seems to suggest further, in Les Portes de la forêt (1964; The Gates of the Forest ,...
(The entire section is 2,108 words.)