Elie Wiesel (1928 to 2016): He Who Forced the World to Remember

Over his long life of 87 years, the Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who died July 2, wrote more than 60 volumes of books—essays, novels, philosophical tomes, histories and reportage. He was at various times, a student, professor, a Nobel Prize winner, lecturer, public speaker, a man who inspired the creation of institutions of memory and became a kind of living monument to memory.

But he would always be that thin, fierce-eyed 16-year-old boy, in the picture on a bunk with other slave laborers who stared at a U.S. Army camera in Buchenwald after the camp had been liberated by Americans in April 1945.

With one book, published years later, which he wrote in French and which emerged in its English translation in 1960 as “Night,” Wiesel would become the conscience, the insistent voice that urged memory to stay alive about the Holocaust, the slaughter by the Nazis of six million Jews and what the world had lost.

His voice was singular—he had survived Auschwitz, where he saw his mother and a younger sister go off to the right to be immediately gassed and burned and go up in smoke, and where he stayed with his father, who would eventually die of dysentery at Buchenwald. He bore the numbered tattoo A-7713 on his arm.

The number of Holocaust survivors — also like the number of veterans on all sides of World War II, the generations who fought, the generations whose members were the victims of that war, those who died on the battlefield, during air raids, and those who were murdered in vast numbers — is dwindling.

Nothing has been forgotten, thanks to living history projects, and stories recorded by the thousands, but also thanks to Elie Wiesel. He told his story as a kind of fiction in the form of a novel, but also a kind of memoir, a distinction that is not about the truth of experience. He made sure of that in “Night,” a trilogy that also included the aftermath of his survival.

Wiesel’s “Night” may or may not be the best or most horrific, most profound, eloquent or comprehensive work of words to come out of the Holocaust, but it surely is one of the most important. Originally, it was a work that measured close to a thousand pages. It was pared down into a skeletal, much thinner, sharply focused work,  a kind of outcry of suffering,  doubt, anguish and, in the end, even with shards, sharp and bloodied, of hope.

On as personal level, Wiesel’s experience, singular and unique to him, but representative in  many details of the suffering and death of so many Jews in Europe: So many souls up in smoke, so many lives erased, destroyed, so much history completely wiped out.

Wiesel won the Nobel Peace Prize, and was, more than anyone else, instrumental in the creation of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, a place that even now 23 years after it opened, is a major attraction for visitors. It remains a place that can still shock and evoke a stillness of memory for all those who were born after the end of World War II.  Wiesel was an evocative speaker who became something beyond the living soul and victim of an unparalleled atrocity against a particular people.  His moral authority was such that other attempts at genocide in the modern world from Rwanda to the horrors of the Balkan wars did not go unnoticed and unjudged.

Memory was Wiesel’s urgent mission.  “To forget the dead would be akin to killing them all over again,” he wrote in “Night,” which is a novel. It is in all of its details and urgency, not so much a work of literature, as a work of witness and experience that it moves us. Its details were not imagined but lived. Its emotions were not merely recollected but felt daily and in dreams. It was an act of remembering as much as an act of creation.

Wiesel’s childhood was spent in Sighet, a town of 15,000 Jews in Romania. His father was Shlomo, his mother was Sarah, and he had three sisters named Hilda, Batya and Tzipora. His mother and the young Tzipora were selected at the moment they stepped off a train at Auschwitz, and just like that they were gone from his life in a place of smokestacks, crematoriums, gas chambers and an entry sign that said “Work Sets You Free” (“Arbeit Mach Frei”).

Wiesel seriously questioned his faith in the shadow of Auschwitz, as did many Jews. “Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”

His words were echoed by many, including an exchange during the course of a play in which a young German asks a survivor if he could ever forgive.  “Forgive?” the man replied. “Perhaps. Some day. But forget. Never.”

Describing the hanging of a boy at Auschwitz, Wiesel wrote, “Behind me I heard [the same] man asking, ‘For God’s sake, where is God?’ and from within me, I heard a voice answer: ‘Where He is? This is where – hanging here from his gallows.’ ”

Now, in the end, people everywhere gather to remember Elie Wiesel, who made the world remember.


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