Wiesel Receives the Nobel Peace Prize Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Elie Wiesel, a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his words and deeds, which provided leadership essential to the support of peace and human rights.

Summary of Event

On October 14, 1986, Egil Aarvik, chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, announced that Elie Wiesel would receive the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize. The prize was formally given to Wiesel in ceremonies held at Oslo University’s Aula Festival Hall on December 10, 1986. The factors that brought Wiesel to Oslo go back to events that occurred more than forty years earlier. Nobel Peace Prize;Elie Wiesel[Wiesel] [kw]Wiesel Receives the Nobel Peace Prize (Dec. 10, 1986) [kw]Nobel Peace Prize, Wiesel Receives the (Dec. 10, 1986) [kw]Peace Prize, Wiesel Receives the Nobel (Dec. 10, 1986) [kw]Prize, Wiesel Receives the Nobel Peace (Dec. 10, 1986) Nobel Peace Prize;Elie Wiesel[Wiesel] [g]Europe;Dec. 10, 1986: Wiesel Receives the Nobel Peace Prize[06280] [g]Norway;Dec. 10, 1986: Wiesel Receives the Nobel Peace Prize[06280] [c]Human rights;Dec. 10, 1986: Wiesel Receives the Nobel Peace Prize[06280] Wiesel, Elie Aarvik, Egil Ossietzky, Carl von

Born on September 30, 1928, Wiesel lived in Sighet, Romania, a town controlled by Hungary during much of World War II. In May, 1944, soon after Nazi Germany occupied the territory of the faltering Hungarian government, Sighet’s Jewish population—including Wiesel, his parents, and his youngest sister, Tzipora—were deported to the death camp at Auschwitz, Poland. Caught in the Holocaust, Holocaust Jews;Holocaust Nazi Germany’s systematic attempt to destroy the European Jews and millions of other people, Wiesel’s mother and younger sister perished at Auschwitz. Wiesel and his father were spared for labor. Late in January, 1945, they were force marched from Auschwitz to Germany. Wiesel’s father died at the Buchenwald concentration camp. Nazi concentration camps Liberated in April, 1945, Wiesel was eventually reunited with his two older sisters. After living in France for a time, Wiesel settled in the United States and became an American citizen in 1963.

Wiesel could not forget the consuming fire that destroyed his pre-Holocaust Jewish world. Believing that he survived Auschwitz by chance, Wiesel felt duty-bound to give his survival meaning and to justify each moment of his life. Intensified and honed in silence, his memories found expression in a life of dedicated service and remarkable authorship. Wiesel has led the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council Holocaust Memorial Council, U.S. and has protested on behalf of oppressed peoples everywhere—Soviet Jews as well as groups in Cambodia, Biafra, Bangladesh, Latin America, and the Middle East, among others. In addition, he has organized international symposia on human relations, taught throughout the world, and interceded with world leaders for the sake of human rights.

Writer, political activist, and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel delivers a speech after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize on December 10, 1986, in Oslo.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The Nobel Peace Prize citation commended Wiesel as a messenger to humanity and stated that his messages about human dignity take “the form of a testimony, repeated and deepened through the works of a great author.” Wiesel’s writing desk has indeed been a foundation for his contributions to justice and peace. Wiesel’s command of words, however, did not come easily. Although he intended early to become a writer, he felt the weight of the awesome responsibility conferred on him by his Auschwitz survival. That responsibility meant that he must give testimony, but determining what to say and how to express his message for maximum effect required painstaking care and time. Wiesel vowed to be silent about his Holocaust experiences for ten years, and he did not publish his first book until 1956.

Written in Yiddish, that initial book, Un di Velt hot geshvign (and the world remained silent), was a lengthy account of Wiesel’s life in Auschwitz. Auschwitz death camp Two years later, he radically shortened the volume to about one hundred pages, translated it into French, and published it as La Nuit (1958). Night, the English version, appeared in 1960. Wiesel has observed that all of his other books are built around this, his best-known work. Although he has dealt constantly with fundamental issues, Wiesel has not seen himself primarily as a philosopher, nor has he identified himself as a theologian, despite the fact that religious themes, and questions about God in particular, appear frequently in his writings. Political theory has not been his chosen field either, even though his books are full of implications for politics. Instead, Wiesel has usually described himself as a storyteller.

To mention only a few of the many books Wiesel has published since 1956, novels such as Le Mendiant de Jérusalem (1968; A Beggar in Jerusalem, 1970), Beggar in Jerusalem, A (Wiesel) Le Serment de Kolvillàg (1973; The Oath, 1973), Oath, The (Wiesel) Le Cinquième Fils (1983; The Fifth Son, 1985), Fifth Son, The (Wiesel) Le Crépuscule, au loin (1987; Twilight, 1988), Twilight (Wiesel) and Le Temps des déracinés (2003; The Time of the Uprooted, 2005) Time of the Uprooted, The (Wiesel) have received international acclaim. Also widely admired have been his studies of biblical characters and Jewish teachers, such as Sages and Dreamers: Biblical, Talmudic, and Hasidic Portraits and Legends (1991), Sages and Dreamers (Wiesel) as well as his essays and dialogues in books such as Un Juif aujourd’hui (1977; A Jew Today, 1978) Jew Today, A (Weisel) and From the Kingdom of Memory (1990). From the Kingdom of Memory (Wiesel) In the last decade of the twentieth century, he published two volumes of memoirs, Tous les fleuves vont à la mer (1994; All Rivers Run to the Sea, 1995) All Rivers Run to the Sea (Wiesel) and Et la Mer n’est pas remplie (1996; And the Sea Is Never Full, 1999). And the Sea Is Never Full (Wiesel)

Although the Holocaust is not usually placed center stage in Wiesel’s writings, it nevertheless shadows all the words Wiesel writes and informs all the messages he delivers. Central to those messages are four major themes. First, the Holocaust is a watershed event that calls everything into question. “At Auschwitz,” Wiesel states in Le Chant des morts (1966; Legends of Our Time, 1968), Legends of Our Time (Wiesel) “not only man died, but also the idea of man. . . . It was its own heart the world incinerated at Auschwitz.” Like nothing else, Wiesel believes, the Holocaust shows that human thought and action need revision—unless one wishes to continue the same blindness that produced the darkness of Night. Second, language is linked with life and death. Be careful with words, Wiesel insists, because the wrong ones waste lives and the right ones save them. Third, no enemy of humankind is greater than indifference. Wiesel asserts that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself. Along with passivity and neutrality, indifference always favors the killer, not the victim. Fourth, while life is imperiled by forgetting, it can be saved by remembering, and death and despair deserve no more victories. Humanity’s moral task, according to Wiesel, is to transform injustice—including God’s—into human justice and compassion.

Using his own sorrow to prevent further suffering, Wiesel has worked for human rights and peace in many ways, but when Aarvik, the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s chair, presented the prize, he emphasized the significance of Wiesel’s writings and his role as a teacher who practices a humanitarian philosophy. Not hate and revenge but respect and understanding, not death and degradation but rebellion against evil—these themes in Wiesel’s work, said Aarvik, are the ones that made Wiesel worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Fifty years earlier, Aarvik noted, the Nobel Peace Prize Nobel Peace Prize;Carl von Ossietzky[Ossietzky] went to Carl von Ossietzky, a German journalist and pacifist who denounced his nation’s rearmament and consequently suffered Nazi imprisonment. Aarvik recalled how controversy swirled around Ossietzky’s award. The Nazis took offense, but so did critics outside Germany who thought the selection provoked Germany too much and failed to serve the cause of peace. What Nazi Germany did to Elie Wiesel and millions of his Jewish brothers and sisters, contended Aarvik, vindicated the Nobel Committee’s decision to honor Ossietzky.

Elie Wiesel survived the death camps’ abyss, but even more, Aarvik stressed, Wiesel turned his survival into an inspiring spirit of resistance that protests everything that stands in violation of human rights. Aarvik suggested that Wiesel and Ossietzky are linked by their dedication to preventing the wasting of human life, noting that the Nobel Peace Prize is a fitting bond between them.

In Oslo, Norway, on December 11, 1986, Wiesel responded by delivering his Nobel lecture, titled “Hope, Despair, and Memory.” It explored how, “if anything can, it is memory that will save humanity.” Wiesel affirmed that hope is possible—not without despair but beyond it. Remembering the victims of injustice, especially those who perished in the Holocaust, obliges one, he insisted, to “reject despair” and “invent a thousand and one reasons to hope.”


From time to time, Wiesel has noted that Holocaust survivors have been too optimistic in thinking that their testimony would bring the world to its senses and put an end to mass murder. As he did on October 14, 1986, the day his winning of the Nobel Peace Prize was announced, Wiesel has since reiterated that Holocaust survivors have been “an example to humankind how not to succumb to despair, although despair often was justified.” Wiesel added that the Nobel Peace Prize would give him an opportunity to “speak louder” and “reach more people” in defense of human rights. Those themes apparently reflected the thinking of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, because the committee’s chairman, Egil Aarvik, observed how impressive it was that a man could experience so much destruction, hate, and suffering and still become “a spokesman for peace and conciliation.” Aarvik’s comments summed up the widespread international support that Wiesel’s Nobel nomination had received, which included backing from previous Nobel laureates such as German political leader Willy Brandt, India’s Mother Teresa, and Poland’s Lech Wałęsa.

Some dissenters found fault with Wiesel for not speaking out more boldly against Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. On the whole, however, public reaction to Wiesel’s award was favorable, although his selection was acknowledged with serious respect more than exuberant celebration, given that the messages Wiesel brings are somber and challenging. He could have received the Nobel Prize in Literature, some commentators pointed out, but the Nobel Peace Prize seemed particularly appropriate for Wiesel, whose life has united words and deeds so effectively. It was in keeping with Wiesel’s character that, while in Oslo to receive the Nobel Prize, he spent hours on the telephone encouraging Jews who had been denied permission to emigrate from the Soviet Union—so-called refuseniks. Jews;refuseniks Refuseniks Wiesel was dedicated to relieving the plight of Soviet Jews, and his efforts to win greater freedom for them were considerable.

After winning the Nobel Prize, Wiesel continued to teach and write. No one can quantify the effects he has had on those who have heard him speak and have read his books, but Wiesel’s voice makes sure that the abuse of human life will not be ignored or forgotten. To carry those concerns further, Wiesel used his Nobel Prize to establish in 1987 the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity. Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity Under its auspices, seventy-five Nobel laureates met in Paris in January, 1988, to discuss the threats and promises that will face humankind in the twenty-first century. The foundation has since sponsored a series of international symposia to explore the nature of hate and ways to move beyond it. Also included in the foundation’s activities is the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics, which goes to the winners of an annual essay contest for college and university seniors in the United States. Nobel Peace Prize;Elie Wiesel[Wiesel]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berenbaum, Michael. The Vision of the Void: Theological Reflections on the Works of Elie Wiesel. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1979. Explores the religious implications of Wiesel’s work from a Jewish perspective. Skillfully compares and contrasts Wiesel’s views with those of other Jewish thinkers who have reflected on the religious significance of the Holocaust. Not only sheds light on Wiesel but also helps readers to comprehend the human predicament after Auschwitz.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Robert McAfee. Elie Wiesel: Messenger to All Humanity. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989. Highly recommended work by an important Christian thinker who has been substantially influenced by Wiesel. Presents a comprehensive study of Wiesel’s authorship. One fascinating discussion links Wiesel to biblical figures such as Job and Jeremiah.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cargas, Harry James. Harry James Cargas in Conversation with Elie Wiesel. New York: Paulist Press, 1976. Interview volume by an author who knows Wiesel well and has interviewed him often. Wiesel responds to demanding questions openly and in detail. An excellent source for information about Wiesel’s life and also for insights regarding his major concerns as a writer.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hilberg, Raul. The Destruction of the European Jews. Rev. ed. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1985. The definitive work in English about the Nazi policy of genocide against the Jews. The author’s grasp of the formation and execution of that policy is as gripping as it is thorough. Provides invaluable background to help readers understand why the Holocaust is so important to Wiesel.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rittner, Carol, ed. Elie Wiesel: Between Memory and Hope. New York: New York University Press, 1990. Collection of essays edited by the first executive director of the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity. Brings together leading Jewish and Christian interpreters of Wiesel’s thought—literary scholars, theologians, and philosophers—who explore Wiesel’s writings and show how his outlook has developed and changed while also remaining constant in many ways.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rubenstein, Richard L., and John K. Roth. Approaches to Auschwitz: The Holocaust and Its Legacy. Rev. ed. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 2003. Overview of the Holocaust and its impacts presents information on the Holocaust’s historical roots, the rise and fall of Nazi Germany and the “final solution,” and responses to the Holocaust. Draws on Wiesel’s experience and authorship while providing background that places his life and work in a broad historical context. Includes chronology of Holocaust-related events, select bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wiesel, Elie. All Rivers Run to the Sea: Memoirs. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995. Moving work covers Wiesel’s childhood, his Holocaust experience, and his postwar life in France. Includes photographs, glossary, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. And the Sea Is Never Full: Memoirs, 1969-. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999. Second volume of memoirs takes up where the earlier one left off. Includes extensive discussion of the impacts on Wiesel of being awarded the Nobel Prize. Features photographs, glossary, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. From the Kingdom of Memory: Reminiscences. 1990. Reprint. New York: Schocken Books, 1995. Contains Wiesel’s Nobel acceptance speech and his Nobel lecture, “Hope, Despair, and Memory,” as well as a variety of essays, reflections, and a moving series of dialogues. This volume’s contents provide a representative sample of the themes, questions, and causes to which Wiesel has devoted his life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Night. Translated by Marion Wiesel. 1972. Reprint. New York: Hill & Wang, 2006. Few books about the Holocaust are more widely read or better remembered than this memoir, which portrays Wiesel’s year in Auschwitz and Buchenwald. For any reader who has not read Wiesel before, this is the place to start.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wiesel, Elie, and Richard D. Heffner. Conversations with Elie Wiesel. New York: Schocken Books, 2001. Transcripts of conversations between Wiesel and Heffner that were aired over a period of several years on the public television series The Open Mind. Covers many topics, including the interplay of religion and politics, euthanasia, and capital punishment.

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