Elie Wiesel: Holocaust survivor whose fame forced the world to remember

Obituary: Writer, activist and Nobel Laureate who had a significant impact on American life

Eliezer (Elie) Wiesel:  September 30th, 1928-July 2nd, 2016. Photograph: Bebeto Matthews/AP Photo

Eliezer (Elie) Wiesel: September 30th, 1928-July 2nd, 2016. Photograph: Bebeto Matthews/AP Photo

 

With the death of the writer and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel at 87, the last of the three unforgettable voices of the tragedy of the Jewish people during the Third Reich has been silenced. Anne Frank and Primo Levi, born in the decade after the end of the first World War, came from the assimilated world of western European Jewry: Frank, born in Frankfurt, spoke Dutch and lived most her life in Amsterdam. Levi was born to a cultured Jewish family in Turin in northern Italy, and studied chemistry.

Their outlook was modern by comparison with that of Wiesel, born in Sighet, Romania, in the Carpathian Mountains, who had a traditional religious upbringing.

Frank died, probably of typhus, in Bergen-Belsen. Levi spent 11 months at Monowitz-Buna, the subcamp at Auschwitz run by the SS on behalf of the IG Farben chemical company, until it was liberated by the Red Army in January 1945. Wiesel was freed in April 1945, when US army troops arrived at Buchenwald. To his death, Wiesel carried on his left arm his Auschwitz tattoo: A-7713.

Wiesel and Levi were both at Auschwitz in 1944-45, though Levi had no recollection of meeting Wiesel at that time. They met at a cultural congress in Rome, and became friends, though at the concentration camp they were “unacquainted and unaware of each other”. They exchanged letters. One of Levi’s biographers, Ian Thomson, suggested that Levi was somewhat envious of the acclaim that followed the award of the Nobel peace prize to Wiesel in 1986.

Platform to rebuke

Wiesel was a public man and what he did with his fame had a significant impact on American life.

Wiesel’s family had long lived in the Sighet ghetto – he was the son of Shlomo, a shopkeeper, and his wife Sarah – and in 2014 he extended his blessings on the opening of a Holocaust learning centre in his childhood home. There were no more Jews in Sighet: 13,000 had been transported to their deaths. Wiesel hoped the centre might help the world to remember and learn from their fate.

That was his theme, in a lifetime spent in teaching, lecturing and the writing of more than 40 books: there was a need to remember, and throughout a long life Wiesel challenged the world to accept that imperative. Given the chance by Jimmy Carter, Wiesel steered the US presidential commission towards the creation of a Holocaust museum in Washington.

Mass murder

Those who had been so moved by Anne Frank’s story were not confronted by the reality of Bergen-Belsen. Wiesel thought that Night, his classic work, was an antidote to the powerful sentimentality of Frank’s diary. “Where Anne Frank’s book ends,” he wrote, “mine begins.”

After the second World War he went to Paris, studied at the Sorbonne and became a journalist. Written originally in Yiddish, the manuscript of what was then titled And the World Remained Silent was 900 pages long. Even with the support of Nobel laureate François Mauriac, the Éditions de Minuit text of what became La Nuit (1955) sold poorly. The manuscript was cut, and cut again.

Wiesel moved to New York in the mid-1950s and got a job working for the Jewish Daily Forward. The first American edition of Night (1960) had a print run of 3,000 copies. Despite powerful reviews there was little interest in the book.

How an unknown Jewish author from Transylvania eventually came to receive the honours he did is highly instructive. How did he become, in the words of Barack Obama, “the conscience of the world”?

Wiesel despaired of the kitsch and vulgar melodrama that surrounded the representation of the Holocaust in American culture. “The truth of Auschwitz remains hidden in its ashes,” he wrote in the New York Times in 1989.

Raised complexities

NightThe Painted Bird

He was believed to have lost $15 million of his personal assets, and those of the Elie Wiesel Foundation, when the Bernie Madoff ponzi scheme fell apart in 2008. “We have seen worse,” he told Oprah Winfrey. He was stunned when hundreds of Americans sent him money in response to his misfortune.

In 1969 he married Marion Erster Rose, also a Holocaust survivor. She survives him, along with his son, Shlomo.