Elie Wiesel, the venerated Holocaust survivor, novelist, journalist, human rights activist and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, died yesterday in New York after a prolonged illness.
He was 87.
Called “the world’s leading spokesman on the Holocaust” by the Nobel committee, Wiesel dedicated his life to perpetuating the memory of the Holocaust and promoting Holocaust education, as well as “to combat[ ting] indifference, intolerance and injustice through international dialogue and youth-focused programs that promote acceptance, understanding and equality,” according to his foundation.
Wiesel said the fight against indifference and the concomitant attitude that “it’s no concern of mine” was a struggle for peace. “The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference,” he said. “To remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin of all.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a statement last night saying Wiesel “gave expression to the victory of the human spirit over cruelty and evil through his extraordinary personality and his fascinating books. In the darkness of the Holocaust, in which our sisters and brothers were killed – six million – Elie Wiesel served as a ray of light and example of humanity who believed in the goodness in people.”
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein said: “The Jewish people all over the world bids farewell this evening with great sadness to Elie Wiesel, one of the central Jewish figures in the last century. There is no doubt that his intellectual and moral contribution will echo for many more years.”
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog said he had the honor to meet Wiesel as a child, and talk to him over the years about his books, which he said had a great influence on him. Herzog said he hoped the books will be studied at every school in Israel and the world.
“May his memory be a blessing, as one of the great men of the Jewish people throughout the generations,” Herzog said.
Wiesel was the author of some four dozen works dealing with Judaism, the Holocaust and the moral responsibility of all people to fight hatred, racism and genocide.
But it was his first, the memoir Night (1956), which gained Wiesel fame. It tells of his experience with his father in Auschwitz and Buchenwald in 1944–1945, to where he was taken at age 15 from his Romanian hometown of Sighet.
Eliezer “Elie” Wiesel born there into a hassidic family on September 30, 1928. After the war, Wiesel was sent to an orphanage in Écouis, France, where he lived for several years. He became a professional journalist, writing for both French and Israeli publications.
After visiting Israel in 1949 as a foreign correspondent for the French newspaper L’arche, he was subsequently hired by Yediot Aharonot as its Paris correspondent.
The original version of his first memoir was over 800 pages, written in Yiddish and entitled Un di velt hot geshvign (And the World Remained Silent). He wrote a shorter version in French, published in 1958 as La Nuit, which was translated into English as “Night” two years later.
It sold fewer than 2,000 copies in the United States in its first 18 months, but did attract much attention among reviewers and created a higher media profile for Wiesel. It has gone on to sell more than six million copies. Night would form the first part of Holocaust memoir trilogy that would include Dawn and Day.
He received numerous awards and honors over the years, including the Presidential Medal of Honor by Israel, the US Presidential Medal of Freedom, the rank of Grand- Croix in France’s Legion of Honor, and he was knighted as Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Wiesel was also the recipient of over 100 honorary doctorates, and received France’s distinguished Prix Medicis for his 1968 book A Beggar in Jerusalem, describing the Jewish response to the reunification of Jerusalem following the Six Day War.
In 1978, US President Jimmy Carter appointed him as chairman of the Presidential Commission on the Holocaust (later renamed the US Holocaust Memorial Council), a role in which he served until 1986. In that capacity, Wiesel became a driving force behind the establishment of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. His words, “For the dead and the living, we must bear witness,” are engraved in stone at the entrance to the museum.
In 2003, Romanian President Ion Iliescu appointed Wiesel to lead the International Commission for the Study of the Holocaust in Romania. This group, later referred to as the Wiesel Commission, was tasked with setting the record straight regarding the involvement of Romania’s fascist Iron Guard regime in Holocaust atrocities against Jews, Roma and others. The Romanian government recognized the commission’s findings, published in 2004, including the assessment that between 280,000 and 380,000 Jews and more than 11,000 Roma died during World War II as result of policies advanced by the Romanian authorities.
In addition to his writing, Wiesel enjoyed a second career as an academic. From 1972 to 1976 he was professor of Judaic Studies at the City University of New York. Thereafter, he was Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University and a member of both its philosophy and religion departments.
Wiesel was Henry Luce Visiting Scholar in Humanities and Social Thought at Yale University (1982-83), and visiting professor of Judaic studies at Barnard College of Columbia University from 1997 to 1999.
In the latter years of his life, Wiesel was in the headlines for an entirely unrelated reason: as one of the more prominent victims of Wall Street financier Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme.
The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity lost $15.2 million it had invested with Madoff, and the Wiesels lost their own life’s savings, reported to be around $1m. The foundation later managed to raise about one-third of the money it lost to Madoff from sympathetic donors, and to continue to function. When asked to describe Madoff by a New York Times journalist, Wiesel said: “Psychopath – it’s too nice a word for him.”
Wiesel was not without a sense of humor. Upon receiving the World Jewish Congress’s Theodore Herzl Award in 2013, Wiesel said: “There were two great men in Europe at that time: Herzl and Freud. Luckily they never met. Just imagine Herzl knocking on the door of Dr. Freud: ‘I had a dream.’ Freud would have said, ‘Sit down. Tell me about your mother.’”
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