Elie Wiesel 1928-
(Full name Eliezer Wiesel) Romanian-born American novelist, memoirist, journalist, short story writer, essayist, nonfiction writer, children's writer, and playwright.
The following entry presents an overview of Wiesel's career through 2001. See also Elie Wiesel Criticism (Volume 3), and Volumes 5, 11.
A survivor of the Nazi concentration camps and the winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize, Wiesel is one of the most acclaimed authors of Holocaust literature and an eloquent spokesperson for contemporary Judaism. Throughout his career he has delineated the horror of the concentration camps and has explored the apparent indifference of God, ultimately reaffirming his life and faith. His lyrical, impressionistic novels, written primarily in French, frequently juxtapose past and present to examine the effect of the Holocaust on Jews, both as individuals and as a people. Although Wiesel focuses strongly on the experience of Jews, his work also speaks for all persecuted people, and, by extension, for humanity itself.
Wiesel was born in Sighet, Romania, a well-known center of Jewish cultural life in the region of Transylvania. His parents encouraged his interest in the Hebrew and Yiddish languages as well as in the teachings of the Hasidic masters and the traditions of the Torah, Talmud, and Kabbala. In the spring of 1944, Nazi forces deported Wiesel, then fifteen years old, and his family to the Birkenau concentration camp. Separated from his mother and sisters upon arrival, he was then sent with his father to Auschwitz. When Soviet troops neared the concentration camp in 1945, the inmates were forced to march to Buchenwald; Wiesel's father died of dysentery and starvation soon thereafter. Upon being liberated in April of that year, Wiesel learned that his mother and younger sister had perished in the gas chambers. His older sisters, however, had survived, and years later they and Wiesel were reunited. Following his release, Wiesel hoped to leave for the then-British state of Palestine, but immigration restrictions proved insurmountable, and he was placed on a train with other Jewish orphans bound for Belgium. The train was rerouted to France at the insistence of General Charles de Gaulle. Living at first in Normandy, Wiesel eventually moved to Paris, where he studied literature at the Sorbonne. He later became a journalist for the French-Jewish periodical Arche and was sent to cover the formation of the Israeli state. In 1952 he left Arche to work for Yediot Ahronot, a newspaper in Tel Aviv, Israel. Two years later he was assigned to interview Françcois Mauriac, the well-known Roman Catholic novelist and Nobel Laureate, who persuaded Wiesel to break his vow of silence concerning his concentration camp experience and to bear witness for those who had died. The resulting eight-hundred-page memoir, Un di velt hot geshvign (1956), was transformed over two years into the much shorter text of La Nuit (Night), which has become regarded as one of the most powerful works in Holocaust literature. In 1956 Wiesel traveled to New York City as Yediot Ahronot's United Nations correspondent and was struck by a taxicab. Compelled by his long convalescence to remain in the United States, Wiesel applied for and received U.S. citizenship when his French travel papers expired. In 1969 he married Marion Erster Rose, a fellow Holocaust survivor who is now the primary English translator of his works. With the success of his writings, Wiesel has emerged as an important moral voice on issues concerning religion, human rights, and the Middle East. He now serves as chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council and is the Andrew Mellon Professor of Humanities at Boston University.
A powerful, moving account of his experiences at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, Night expresses Wiesel's feelings of guilt as a Holocaust survivor and his anger at God for having allowed people to be destroyed despite their faithfulness to God's law. These emotions also inform Wiesel's two subsequent novels, L'aube (1961; Dawn) and Le jour (1961; The Accident), which revolve around survivors who must find some meaning in the Holocaust before they can regain their faith in God and humanity. In Dawn a young survivor becomes a terrorist in the war to free Palestine from British rule yet discovers that he has forsaken his religious ideals in the process. The Accident is about an Israeli foreign correspondent who, after being struck by a taxicab, gradually realizes that his subconscious guilt as a concentration camp survivor has led him to seek his own death. Wiesel's later novels elaborate on the theme of self-discovery and examine such moral issues as the choice between death and life, indifference and responsibility, and suffering and love. In La ville de la chance (1962; The Town beyond the Wall) a Holocaust survivor returns to Hungary to confront his former Nazi guard, only to discover that revenge and madness are merely denials of his own moral responsibility. The Jewish survivor of Les portes de la foret (1964; The Gates of the Forest) changes his perception of his relationship to the world when he realizes that he has imprisoned himself in his pain and memories. The protagonist ultimately accepts that suffering must lead to an embracement of others, not a rejection of life. Le cinquième fils (1983; The Fifth Son) examines the impact of the Holocaust on the children of survivors, telling the story of a young Jewish American who travels to Europe with plans to kill his father's persecutor. He relents in his pursuit, however, when he is faced with the man's incomprehension of his deeds. Wiesel further explores the themes of guilt, innocence, and history in Le juges (1999; The Judges) a novel set in the confines of a Connecticut house. Five airline passengers are stranded in the house during a snowstorm when their flight from New York to Tel Aviv is grounded. The passengers are at the mercy of a sadistic host who calls himself the Judge, and who decrees that one of them will die by morning. As the night progresses the passengers examine their lives and ambitions, as Wiesel ponders philosophical questions about the nature of good and evil. Wiesel's mythopoeic plays Zalmen; ou la folie de Dieu (1966; Zalmen, or the Madness of God) and Le procès de Shamgorod (1979; The Trial of God) address the notion of a cruel and unjust God and weigh human responsibility for God's judgments.
In the mid-1960s Wiesel extended his commitment to speak for the persecuted by focusing his nonfiction works on contemporary Jewish victims of oppression. Le Juifs du silence (1966; The Jews of Silence) is both an eyewitness report of Jewish persecution in the former Soviet Union and a plea for global Jewish solidarity. Wiesel further examines the political and moral effects of apathy upon today's oppressed people in the stories and autobiographical fragments collected in Le chant des morts (1966; Legends of Our Time) and Entre deux soleils (1970; One Generation after). Although Wiesel states in One Generation after that the world has learned nothing from the Holocaust, he also emphasizes the need for the modern Jew to impose a meaning on these events and draw comfort from their nameless, faceless pain. This idea is again explored in Un juif aujourd'hui (1977; A Jew Today), a collection of autobiographical sketches, essays, and dialogues in which Wiesel expresses shame for the past and a cautious hope for the future. Wiesel has additionally addressed the affirmative aspects of Judaism through his humanistic examinations of Jewish biblical figures and legends. Beginning with Celebration hassidique: Portraits et legendes (1972; Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters), Wiesel expounds on his belief that Hasidism's modern relevance lies in its example of how to live joyfully in an incomprehensible and absurd universe. Ensuing collections of Wiesel's biblical portraits, based on lectures delivered at various international universities, include Four Hasidic Masters and Their Struggle against Melancholy (1978), Five Biblical Portraits (1981), and Contre la mélancholie (1982; Somewhere a Master). In recent years, he has published two additional volumes of memoirs—Tous les fleuves vont a la mer (1994; All Rivers Run to the Sea) and And the Sea Is Never Full 1969- (1999).
Wiesel's works have often generated disagreement among critics. While some reviewers have considered his plots and characters to be mere vehicles for his moral, religious, and philosophical concerns, many have praised his sensitive insight into human behavior, his candor, and his ability to objectively examine the Holocaust and its effect upon modern Jewish thought. Commentators have explored Wiesel's dominant thematic concerns, such as man's inhumanity to man, the importance of memory and faith, and the effect of the Holocaust on the survivors as well as the next generation of Jews. Reviewers have frequently lauded Wiesel's examinations of such complex themes as life, death, guilt, and forgiveness in his fiction. Commenting on The Judges, Jonathan Rosen has stated “Evil is a real presence in Mr. Wiesel's novel, though he seems most interested in the response to evil, and it is this that gives his book its metaphysical tension.” Although some reviewers have faulted Wiesel's novels—including The Judges—for their inattention to minor details, numerous critics have praised the underlying questions and larger themes present in Wiesel's writing. Though his detractors have argued that much of his writing—especially works such as Dawn—are more polemic than artistic, a majority of commentators have agreed that Wiesel's fiction has a riveting emotional core. Praise for his memoir Night has been almost universal from both critics and readers alike. Despite this range of critical opinion, Wiesel's fiction has been widely regarded as among the most passionate and powerful of all Holocaust writing.