Last week, the world lost one of its most enduring champions of human rights. Elie Wiesel was a Holocaust survivor, professor, political activist, Jewish historian, author, and Nobel Laureate, but, above all else, he was one of the most steadfast and vociferous chroniclers of the Holocaust and one of the world’s most renown human rights advocates. He lent his considerable influence and support to combat injustice wherever and whenever he encountered it whether it was anti-Semitism, Apartheid, genocide in Sudan or oppression in places like Nicaragua.
Eliezer (Elie) Wiesel was born on September 30, 1928 in Sighet, Romania (Carpathian Mountains area). He had three sisters, two of which, Beatrice and Hilda, survived WWII. The third sister, Tzipora, did not. In March 1944 the Germans invaded, and in May, at the age of 15, Wiesel and all the other Jews in the area were deported to Auschwitz. Approximately 90% of them, including Wiesel’s mother and youngest sister, were exterminated upon arrival. Eventually, Wiesel and his father were transported to Buchenwald where he remained until the camp was liberated by the US Army on April 11, 1945.
Wiesel described the personal horrors he endured in his book, Night. Although he wrote dozens of books, Night is considered, by most, to be his singular work. Published in the early 1950s, for millions of readers the compelling first-hand account was their introduction to the horrors of the Holocaust. Night has since been translated into 30 languages, and over 10 million copies have been sold in the US alone. According to Rabbi Perry Berkowitz, president of the American Jewish Heritage Organization and a former assistant of Wiesel’s, Night spawned a “global remembrance movement that is very vital today.” Berkowitz echoes the feelings of many that books such as Night are very important for remembrance purposes. Without them, as the Holocaust survivors die out, their stories will die with them, the lessons of the Holocaust will fade, and anti-Semitism will resurface.
After the War Wiesel studied and worked as a journalist in France for several years. It was there that a friend convinced him to write about his “harrowing” experiences in the camps. People needed to know what had happened. In the late 1940s he spent some time Israel. One of his jobs was as a translator for the Irgun. In the 1950s he emigrated to the US. He married, raised a family and wrote some 40 books, mostly non-fictional describing the Holocaust on a very personal and compelling level. In fact, some historians credit Wiesel with being responsible for popularizing the term “Holocaust.”
In addition, he became a professor of Humanities at Boston University, which established the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies in his honor. He helped establish the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. and the NY Human Rights Foundation. Moreover, as mentioned above, he became very active in human rights causes all over the world. For his continuing efforts in this area he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. The Nobel Committee described him as a “messenger to mankind,” adding that he had delivered a message of “peace, atonement, and human dignity” to mankind. The Los Angeles Times characterized him as “the most important Jew in America.”
Wiesel was the recipient of countless awards and honorary degrees, far too numerous to list here. In many ways, he was a living reminder of the horrors suffered by Jews in the Holocaust and the foremost champion of and advocate for human rights sufferers all over the world. Perhaps, Wiesel’s philosophy was summed up best at his memorial by Ronald Lauder, President of the World Jewish Congress and a long-time friend and associate. He remembered that Wiesel had once told him: “The opposite of love is not hate. It’s indifference. It was indifference that brought anti-Semitism to Germany, and it was indifference that brought the Holocaust.” Those who have studied history know that it does tend to repeat itself, so it is absolutely critical that we never forget those important lessons. Let’s be prepared for next time, for it will surely come.
Wiesel died on July 2, 2016 at the age of 87. Rest in peace Elie. You will be sorely missed.