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Holocaust Chronicler Elie Wiesel Dead at 87

Quintessential Holocaust Survivor lauded for his writings worldwide

 

Mr. Wiesel first gained attention in 1960 with the English translation of "Night," his autobiographical account of the horrors he witnessed in the camps as a 15-year-old boy. He wrote of how he had been plagued by guilt for having survived while millions died, and tormented by doubts about a God who would allow such slaughter.

Eliezer "Elie" Wiesel died Saturday at 87, of congestive heart failure. The Auschwitz survivor became an eloquent witness for the six million Jews and two million others slaughtered in World War II and who, more than anyone, seared the memory of the Holocaust on the world's conscience, died on Saturday at his home in Manhattan. He was 87.

When Ronald Reagan agreed to speak at an SS cemetery in Germany called Bitberg, Wiesel confronted him at a public event. "You are the President of the United States," said the man who had been liberated by US Soldiers 40 years before. "Your place is with the victims of the Nazis, not with the SS." By the time Wiesel finished, he had the US President in tears.

"Mr. Wiesel was the author of several dozen books and was a charismatic lecturer and humanities professor. In 1986, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But he was defined not so much by the work he did as by the gaping void he filled. In the aftermath of the Germans' systematic massacre of Jews, no voice had emerged to drive home the enormity of what had happened and how it had changed mankind's conception of itself and of God. For almost two decades, both the traumatized survivors and American Jews, guilt-ridden that they had not done more to rescue their brethren, seemed frozen in silence."

"But by the sheer force of his personality and his gift for the haunting phrase, Mr. Wiesel, who had been liberated from Buchenwald as a 16-year-old with the indelible tattoo A-7713 on his arm, gradually exhumed the Holocaust from the burial ground of the history books", said the New York Times.

He was an American Romanian-born Jewish writer, professor, political activist, Holocaust survivor, and Nobel Laureate. He was the author of 57 books, written mostly in French and English, including Night, a work based on his experiences as a prisoner in the Auschwitz, Buna, and Buchenwald concentration camps. Wiesel was also the Advisory Board chairman of the newspaper Algemeiner Journal. He was the Andrew Mellon Professor of the Humanities at Boston University, in Boston, Massachusetts.

When Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, the Norwegian Nobel Committee called him a "messenger to mankind," stating that through his struggle to come to terms with "his own personal experience of total humiliation and of the utter contempt for humanity shown in Hitler's death camps", as well as his "practical work in the cause of peace", Wiesel had delivered a powerful message "of peace, atonement and human dignity" to humanity.

Elie Wiesel was born in Sighet, now Romania in the Carpathian Mountains. His parents were Sarah Feig and Shlomo Wiesel. At home, Wiesel's family spoke Yiddish most of the time, but also German, Hungarian, and Romanian.

Wiesel's mother, Sarah, was the daughter of Dodye Feig, a celebrated Vizhnitz Hasid and farmer from a nearby village. Dodye was active and trusted within the community. In the early years of his life, Dodye had spent a few months in jail for having helped Polish Jews who escaped and were hungry.

Wiesel's father, Shlomo, instilled a strong sense of humanism in his son, encouraging him to learn Hebrew and to read literature, while his mother encouraged him to study the Torah. Wiesel has said that his father represented reason while his mother Sarah promoted faith.

Wiesel had three siblings – older sisters Beatrice and Hilda, and younger sister Tzipora. Beatrice and Hilda survived the war and were reunited with Wiesel at a French orphanage. They eventually emigrated to North America, with Beatrice moving to Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Tzipora, Shlomo, and Sarah did not survive the Holocaust.

Mr. Wiesel first gained attention in 1960 with the English translation of "Night," his autobiographical account of the horrors he witnessed in the camps as a 15-year-old boy. He wrote of how he had been plagued by guilt for having survived while millions died, and tormented by doubts about a God who would allow such slaughter.

"Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed," Mr. Wiesel wrote. "Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. 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 long as God himself. Never."

After 1960, Weisel wrote novels, books of essays and reportage, two plays and even two cantatas. While many of his books were nominally about topics like Soviet Jewry or Hasidic masters, they all dealt with profound questions resonating out of the Holocaust: What is the sense of living in a universe that tolerates unimaginable cruelty? How could the world have been mute? How can one go on believing? Mr. Wiesel asked the questions in spare prose and without raising his voice; he rarely offered answers.

In early 2006, Wiesel traveled to Auschwitz with Oprah Winfrey, a visit which was broadcast as part of The Oprah Winfrey Show on May 24, 2006. Wiesel said that this would most likely be his last trip there. In September 2006, he appeared before the UN Security Council with actor George Clooney to call attention to the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. On November 30, 2006, Wiesel received a knighthood in London in recognition of his work toward raising Holocaust education in the United Kingdom.

During the early 2007 selection process for the Kadima candidate for President of Israel, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reportedly offered Wiesel the nomination (and, as the ruling-party candidate and an apolitical figure, likely the presidency), but Wiesel "was not very interested." Shimon Peres was chosen as the Kadima candidate (and later President) instead.

In 2007, Wiesel was awarded the Dayton Literary Peace Prize's Lifetime Achievement Award. That same year, the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity issued a letter condemning Armenian genocide denial, a letter that was signed by 53 Nobel laureates including Wiesel. Wiesel has repeatedly called Turkey's 90-year-old campaign to downplay its actions during the Armenian genocide a double killing.

Famous photo from the day Buchenwald concentration camp was liberated. Weisel is the 7th from the left, second row from the bottom.

Wiesel was a member of the International Advisory Board of NGO Monitor.

Wiesel and his wife invested their life savings, and the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity invested nearly all of its assets (approximately $15.2 million USD) through Bernard Madoff's Ponzi scheme, an experience Wiesel later spoke about at a Condé Nast roundtable. Although an exact recovery percentage is not yet known, as of April 2013, 53% of victims' monies have been recovered and returned to them. In a New York Times article, Wiesel called Madoff a "thief, scoundrel, criminal."

Wiesel accompanied Pres. and Mrs. Barack Obama when the two toured Buchenwald in 2012.

In 2009, Wiesel criticized the Vatican for lifting the excommunication of controversial bishop Richard Williamson, a member of the Society of Saint Pius X.

 

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