Elie Wiesel gave the Holocaust a face and the world a conscience

Elie Wiesel gave the Holocaust a face and the world a conscience

Mr. Wiesel’s first book, “Night,” a Holocaust memoir, was enormously influential.
Mr. Wiesel’s first book, “Night,” a Holocaust memoir, was enormously influential.

WASHINGTON — Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate who became a leading icon of Holocaust remembrance and a global symbol of conscience, died on Saturday at 87.

His death was the result of natural causes, the World Jewish Congress said in a statement.

A philosopher, professor, and author of such seminal works of Holocaust literature as “Night” and “Dawn,” Mr. Wiesel perhaps more than any other figure came to embody the legacy of the Holocaust and the worldwide community of survivors.

“I have tried to keep memory alive,” Mr. Wiesel said at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in 1986. “I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.”

Often he would say that the “opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference.”

The quest to challenge indifference was a driving force in Mr. Wiesel’s writing, advocacy, and public presence. Though he considered himself primarily a writer, by the end of the 1970s he had settled into the role of moral compass, a touchstone for presidents, and a voice that challenged easy complacency about history.

Mr. Wiesel spent the majority of his public life speaking of the atrocities he had witnessed and asking the public to consider other acts of cruelty around the world, though he drew the line at direct comparisons with the Holocaust. “I am always advocating the utmost care and prudence when one uses that word,” he said in 1980.

President Barack Obama, who met frequently with Mr. Wiesel and took his counsel, said he had been a “living memorial.”

“Along with his beloved wife Marion and the foundation that bears his name, he raised his voice, not just against anti-Semitism, but against hatred, bigotry and intolerance in all its forms,” Obama said in a statement. “He implored each of us, as nations and as human beings, to do the same, to see ourselves in each other and to make real that pledge of ‘never again.’”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Mr. Wiesel was “bitterly mourned” by the state of Israel and the Jewish people. “Elie, the wordsmith, expressed through his extraordinary personality and fascinating books the triumph of the human spirit over cruelty and evil,” he said in a statement.

Mr. Wiesel won a myriad of awards for his work, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal, and the National Jewish Book Award. “Night” now is standard reading in high schools across America. Oprah Winfrey chose it as a book club selection in 2006, so, nearly half a century after it was first published, it spent more than a year atop the best-seller list.

Mr. Wiesel took Ms. Winfrey to Auschwitz that same year.

Writing for The New York Times Book Review in 2008, Rachel Donadio said that “Night” had become “a case study in how a book helped created a genre, how a writer became an icon and how the Holocaust was absorbed into the American experience.”

“There is no way to talk about the last half century of Holocaust consciousness without giving Wiesel a front and center role,” said Michael Berenbaum, a professor at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles and a former director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s research institute. “What he did, extraordinarily, was to use the Nobel Prize as a tool to call attention to things, and as a vehicle to scream louder, shout more, agitate more.”

Born in the town of Sighet, Transylvania, then and now a part of Romania, in 1928, Elie Wiesel was deported to Auschwitz with his family in 1944, when he was 15. His mother and one of his sisters would disappear forever when the family was forced aboard the cattle cars. They were murdered immediately. His father, who traveled with him to the camps, died of dysentery and starvation in Buchenwald. Two sisters survived the war.

In “Night,” Mr. Wiesel describes pinching his face to see if he was dreaming when he saw infants being murdered. “In those places, in one night one becomes old,” he told NPR in 2014. “What one saw in one night, generations of men and women had not seen in their own entire lives.”

Mr. Wiesel was liberated from Buchenwald in 1945. He went on to study at the Sorbonne and moved to New York at the end of the 1950s, where he lived in relative obscurity. He worked hard to find a publisher for “Night,” which initially sold poorly.

“The truth is in the 1950s and in the early 1960s there was little interest and willingness to listen to survivors,” said Wiesel’s longtime friend Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, who had read “Night” in Israel in the early 1960s. “In 1963, someone told me this author is alive and well in New York City and I somehow managed to find him and go see him.”

Mr. Wiesel was “gaunt” and “working as a freelance reporter, a stringer, for a French newspaper, an Israeli newspaper and a Yiddish newspaper — and for none of the above was he making a living,” Rabbi Greenberg said.

He was determined to help Mr. Wiesel find work.

“He had this magnetic presence,” Rabbi Greenberg said. “He was quiet but with tremendous force, and he felt the vividness of the Holocaust had a message.”

In the late 1960s, Mr. Wiesel finally began to emerge as one of the preeminent voices in Holocaust literature. By the end of his career he had written some 50 books.

In 1972, he enthralled Yeshiva University students with his excoriation of the American and American Jewish leadership for its silence during the Holocaust. How many Jewish leaders “tore their clothes in mourning?” he asked. “How many marched on Washington? How many weddings took place without music?”

His 1966 book reporting the plight of Soviet Jews, “The Jews of Silence,” made the movement that sought their freedom possible.

“Elie Wiesel was the collective moral compass of the Jewish people,” Natan Sharansky, who became the face of the Soviet Jewish struggle, said in a statement with his wife, Avital, who with Mr. Wiesel led advocacy for Mr. Sharansky’s release from prison.

“He was the first to break the silence surrounding the plight of Soviet Jewry, and he accompanied our struggle until we achieved victory,” said Mr. Sharansky, who is now the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel. “We will miss him deeply.”

In 1978, Mr. Wiesel became the chairman of the Presidential Committee on the Holocaust, which ultimately would recommend that a Holocaust museum be built in Washington. As his public presence grew, he began to visit the sites of other genocides. In 1980, he traveled to Cambodia; when he returned, he called the Cambodian refugee camps “spectacles of horror” and noted, “That these things could happen again simply means that the world didn’t learn — or that the world didn’t want to learn.”

In 1985, Mr. Wiesel’s reputation grew beyond the Jewish world when he challenged President Ronald Reagan on live television over the president’s plan to visit a German cemetery that housed the remains of Nazi soldiers. In the Oval Office to receive the Congressional Medal of Achievement, Mr. Wiesel chastised Reagan.

“This is not your place, Mr. President,” Mr. Wiesel famously said. The president visited the cemetery anyway, but changed his itinerary to include a visit to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

Mr. Wiesel challenged the White House again in 1993 when he charged the newly inaugurated President Bill Clinton to do more to address the atrocities then unfolding in Yugoslavia.

“Most people don’t confront a sitting president that way, and he confronted two,” said Sara Bloomfield, now the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s director.

“He saw people would listen to him,” said Stuart Eizenstat, who held senior positions in many presidential administrations and was a key figure in the negotiation of Holocaust restitution agreements with several European governments.

“He became more aggressive about showing that it is not just the Holocaust, but applying lessons to rest of the world as well,” Mr. Eizenstat said. “He became more active in other genocidal or world conscious issues. He wanted to use that power for the cause not just of Holocaust memory, but also to prevent genocide.”

At the inauguration in 1993 of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Mr. Wiesel said, clearly, “I don’t believe there are answers. There are no answers. And this museum is not an answer; it is a question mark.” He applied that question mark to global atrocities, as well as to historical ones.

In Mr. Wiesel’s later years, he waded into politics. He was friends with Mr. Obama but also loudly chastised the president for calling for an end to settlement construction and for brokering the Iran nuclear rollback-for-sanctions-relief deal. Those positions led to criticism, even from longtime admirers. His very public support for Netanyahu also was questioned. Peter Beinart wrote in Haaretz: “Wiesel takes refuge in the Israel of his imagination, using it to block out the painful reckoning that might come from scrutinizing Israel as it actually is.”

The final years of his life also included financial turmoil. His personal finances and $15.2 million in assets of the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity were invested with Bernie Madoff, who was convicted of fraud in 2009. Mr. Wiesel’s fortune and his organization’s reserves were wiped out.

Yet he did not cease his work. Just months after the Madoff scandal broke, in June 2009, Mr. Wiesel led Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on a trip to Auschwitz, which, he noted, was at his father’s grave. Mr. Wiesel then gave a searing indictment of the world’s continued inability to learn.

“As a public figure who was also the very symbol of the Holocaust survivor in America, Wiesel acted as a moral compass, his personal history lending unequaled gravity to his public remarks on genocide, anti-Semitism and other issues of injustice worldwide,” said Ruth Franklin, author of “A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction.” “Wiesel never pretended that he understood the Holocaust. He spoke of it as a horror beyond explanation, a black hole in history. As the virtual embodiment of the catchphrase ‘never forget,’ he did more than anyone else to raise awareness of the Holocaust in American life.”

Mr. Wiesel is survived by his wife and their son, Shlomo Elisha.

Related: Abe Foxman remembers Elie Wiesel

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