Last reviewed: June 2017
September 30, 1928
July 2, 2016
New York, New York
Eliezer (Elie) Wiesel (vee-ZEHL) received his early education completely within Jewish tradition; he attended a religious primary school (heder) and then went to a local yeshiva for Torah and talmudic studies. In 1944, at the age of fifteen, he was interned in several German concentration camps, where his parents and his younger sister all perished. Upon his release from Buchenwald in April 1945, he went to France as a displaced person. Within three years, after working as a choir director and Bible teacher, he was able to begin university studies at the Sorbonne, where he majored in philosophy, literature, and psychology.
Wiesel first worked in journalism. As a writer for French newspapers covering Israel’s 1948 war for independence and related Middle Eastern events, he traveled extensively. These travels eventually brought him to the United States in 1956. In the same year, Wiesel published his first literary work, a massive autobiographical account of his experience of the Holocaust, Un di Velt hot geshvign (and the world remained silent). From this work, written in Yiddish and published in Argentina, Wiesel quarried the book that made him famous: Night, a brief but unforgettable Holocaust memoir, written in French and soon widely translated. Elie Wiesel during the session 'Message from Davos: Believing in the Future' at the Annual Meeting 2008 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 27, 2008.
Elie Wiesel during the session 'Message from Davos: Believing in the Future' at the Annual Meeting 2008 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 27, 2008.
Writer and political activist Elie Wiesel at the Time 100 Gala, May 3, 2010. Photo by David Shankbone.
Because of visa complications, Wiesel was unable to return to France. After applying for immigrant status in the United States, he served as United Nations correspondent for a New York Yiddish newspaper. At the same time, he was working on his first novel, which appeared first in French, then in English translation. Over the next few years, he published a novel almost every year. He became an American citizen in 1963, and by 1964 he had gained sufficient recognition as an author to abandon his salaried work as a journalist. For the next few years, until his first academic appointment, he was able to earn a living through his writing and lecturing. An important experience that affected both his work as a novelist and as a lecturer occurred in 1965 when he visited the Soviet Union. There, he observed conditions of Jewish life under the Soviet regime, a subject that became the focus of a series of articles published in 1966 under the title The Jews of Silence. This work was followed by another novel, A Beggar in Jerusalem, based on Wiesel’s impressions of Israel’s experience of the 1967 Arab-Israeli Six-Day War. The book, originally published in French, earned the author the Prix Médicis.
In 1969, Wiesel married Marion Erster Rose, a concentration-camp survivor, who soon contributed directly to her husband’s literary pursuits by translating his works into English. By this date, Wiesel had completed his first drama, Zalmen, which had to wait six years before being performed for the first time in Washington, DC. In 1970, another autobiographical work reflecting on the experience of the Holocaust, One Generation After, gained international recognition and prepared the way for Wiesel’s first academic appointment, in 1972, to a distinguished professorship of Jewish studies at the City College of New York. From this point, and without interrupting his active career as a writer, Wiesel was involved in a number of academic and humanitarian public-service posts. In 1976, he was appointed to a special chair in the humanities at Boston University, a position he maintained while lecturing (in 1982–83) at Yale University. Wiesel was named by President Jimmy Carter to chair the President’s Special Commission on the Holocaust in 1979, but he resigned from this post to protest President Ronald Reagan’s 1986 visit to the German military cemetery in Bitburg.
Increasingly, recognition was extended to Wiesel as a writer driven by an intense dedication to the cause of world peace. This recognition came first in the form of the Belgian International Peace Prize, which was awarded to Wiesel in 1983. In quick succession after this, Wiesel received special awards from French president François Mitterrand and American president Reagan (1984). The crowning recognition was the award in 1986 of the Nobel Peace Prize, which he dedicated to all the remaining survivors of the Holocaust.
Afterward, Wiesel continued to speak out on behalf of the downtrodden and disinherited, and he continued to produce both fiction and nonfiction. In The Forgotten he reprised the important themes of memory, remembrance, and mental and psychological forgetting, all of which are themes of earlier works as well. In 1994, he published All Rivers Run to the Sea, the first volume of his memoirs. The second and final volume of his memoirs, And the Sea Is Never Full, was first published in French two years later.
While still writing nonfiction works about the Holocaust into the twenty-first century, including After the Darkness: Reflections on the Holocaust (2002), Wiesel also continued to publish novels, first in French and subsequently translated into English, that deal with the subject as well as more general themes revolving around morality and tortured souls, such as A Mad Desire to Dance (2009), The Sonderberg Case (2010), and Hostage (2012). He wrote his final book, a work of nonfiction that was published in French before being translated and published in English as Open Heart in 2012, as a reflection on his life and mortality that centers upon him having had to undergo heart surgery. Following an illness, he died at his home in Manhattan on July 2, 2016, at the age of eighty-seven.