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.
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.
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.)
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.)
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.)
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.)
“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.)
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.)