Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1626
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, 1966), that the survivor may finally create joy from despair.
At the same time that he was publishing his novels, Wiesel began writing eyewitness accounts and autobiographical pieces and stories of his life during the Hitler years. After a 1965 trip to the Soviet Union, he described in a series of articles originally published in Hebrew in Yediot Aharonot (collected and translated as The Jews of Silence, 1966) the plight of Soviet Jewry, as they try to maintain their ethnic and religious identity in the face of often implacable anti-Semitism. His yeshiva and Sorbonne studies, along with more mature and in-depth readings of biblical texts and exegeses, were to form the basis of other nonfiction works, including several studies of Hasidism and Hasidic masters.
The prizewinning novel Le Mendiant de Jérusalem (1968; A Beggar in Jerusalem, 1970) marked a turning point for Wiesel. The novel shows how, through Israel’s victory in the Six Day War, a tormented people came of age; while celebrating this moment, the novel is both a memorial to the dead and an appeal on behalf of the world’s “beggars.” Although still haunted by the Holocaust, Wiesel could thereafter write about other human issues and problems faced by the next generation. For example, is madness, he asked in the first of several plays, an acceptable option for dealing with persecution (Zalmen: Ou, La Folie de Dieu, 1968; Zalmen: Or, The Madness of God, 1975)? Is silence a method for overcoming horror (Le Serment de Kolvillàg, 1973; The Oath, 1973)?
In 1969, Wiesel married Marion Erster Rose, who was to become his principal translator and with whom he would have one son. In the fall of 1972, he began his tenure at the City College of New York as Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies. This endowed chair gave him the opportunity to teach young students (he considers himself to be an educator first) the celebrations and paradoxes of Jewish theology and the meaning of modern Jewishness and to continue writing in diverse genres. He left this position in 1976 to become the Andrew Mellon Professor of Humanities at Boston University. Meanwhile, Wiesel continued to publish plays, novels, and nonfiction at a prolific pace; in these he again wove post-Holocaust despair and divine cruelty, but above all he denounced the world’s forgetfulness of and indifference to man’s inhumanity to man.
During this period Wiesel was also involved in various social and political activities, from fighting against racism, war, fanaticism, apartheid, and violence to commemorating the Holocaust. (He was a member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council until 1986, when he resigned in protest over President Ronald Reagan’s controversial visit to the military cemetery in Bitburg, West Germany.) For his humanitarian work and his concern for the oppressed everywhere, as well as for his literary achievements, he has received numerous honorary degrees, prizes, and awards, including the Congressional Gold Medal, the rank of Commandeur in the French Legion of Honor, and, in 1986, the Nobel Peace Prize.
The Holocaust and its remembrance, the nature of God and the terrible silence of God: These themes recur throughout Elie Wiesel’s novels, plays, personal recollections, and nonfiction. In trying to understand the mystery of theodicy, this modern humanist has encompassed much of Jewish lore, tradition, and memory. In addition, by asking—but without answering—the hard questions that have always plagued man and by relating the Jews’ unique experience to the universal legacy of humanity, he has succeeded in creating the quintessential Everyman: “What I try to do is to speak for man, but as a Jew. I make no distinction and I certainly make no restriction.”
Against revisionist historians who deny the very existence of the Nazi extermination camps, Wiesel has written with contempt. He has passionately defended the conduct of the murdered and the survivors to his fellow Jews—those who are ashamed of the submissiveness of the victims and those who are skeptical of the survivors’ integrity. He has no less passionately criticized novelists and playwrights, television and film directors for trivializing the tragedy of six million martyrs, whose greatest memorialist and bard he has become.
Abramowitz, Molly, comp. Elie Wiesel: A Bibliography. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1974. Dated but still valuable annotated bibliography of works by and about Wiesel.
Berenbaum, Michael. The Vision of the Void: Theological Reflections on the Works of Elie Wiesel. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1979. Although discussing works published before 1979, this is an excellent study of the Jewish tradition as evident in Wiesel’s religious writings and sociocultural position. The bibliography on theological philosophy is quite useful.
Cargas, Harry James. Harry James Cargas in Conversation with Elie Wiesel. New York: Paulist Press, 1976. In a series of fascinating and varied interviews, Wiesel speaks not only about the Holocaust but also about his audience, his craft, and his mission as a writer and witness.
Cargas, Harry James. Responses to Elie Wiesel. New York: Persea Books, 1978. A stimulating collection of articles, interviews, and book chapters (a few are new, most are reprinted), which presents specific aspects of Wiesel’s thought. Maurice Friedman’s essay on “the Job of Auschwitz” is particularly perceptive; letters, written by Christian philosophers and theologians, show Wiesel’s influence in the non-Jewish world as well.
Estess, Ted L. Elie Wiesel. New York: Ungar, 1980. In spite of its brevity, this general introduction is well argued and often insightful.
Rosenfeld, Alvin H., and Irving Greenberg, eds. Confronting the Holocaust: The Impact of Elie Wiesel. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978. A balanced collection of provocative essays, written by scholars from different disciplines. Also interesting is Wiesel’s own short statement, “Why I Write.” A highly selective and partly annotated bibliography of his writings is included.
Roth, John K. A Consuming Fire: Encounters with Elie Wiesel and the Holocaust. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1979. This examination by a philosopher of ethics and religion, to which Wiesel contributed an informative prologue, is both thorough and intelligent.
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