Holocaust survivor challenged world leaders to fight anti-Semitism and pursue peace
Elie Wiesel, who perpetuated the memory of the Holocaust, championed international recognition of evil in all its forms and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, passed away on July 2 at his home in Manhattan. He was 87 years old.
“Wiesel is a messenger to mankind,” wrote the Nobel committee. “His message is one of peace, atonement and human dignity. His belief that the forces fighting evil in the world can be victorious is a hard-won belief.”
Eliezer Wiesel was born in 1928 to Shlomo and Sarah Wiesel in Sighet, Romania, where he received a traditional yeshivah education. His maternal grandfather, Dodye Feig, was a member of the Vishnitz Chassidic sect and had a strong influence on the development of the values that would eventually earn his grandson the Nobel Prize.
In 1940, Hungary annexed Sighet. Its Jewish residents were forced into two ghettoes where they lived in extreme poverty until May 1944, when the Nazis, with Hungary’s agreement, transferred the entire community to Auschwitz.
Wiesel was sent to the Buna Werke labor camp before being transferred near the war’s end to a series of other concentration camps, including Buchenwald. His bookNight, published in 1960, details the harrowing ordeal of a 15-year-old living in a Nazi concentration camp and surviving a death march. The book has since been translated into 30 languages.
Wiesel studied at the Sorbonne in Paris following the war and began work as a journalist, translating Hebrew articles into Yiddish for the Irgun militia.
He visited Israel in 1949 as a foreign correspondent for the French newspaper L’Arche, and was subsequently hired by the Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth as its Paris correspondent. He also worked as a freelance writer covering the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. In subsequent years, he devoted himself in novels, essays and public speaking to keeping the memory of the Holocaust and its atrocities alive in the world’s consciousness.
Through his early work as a reporter and columnist, he met fellow journalist Gershon Jacobson, who suggested that he meet the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory. “But I’m a Vishnitzer Chassid,” Wiesel jokingly told Jacobson, who advised that he visit the Rebbe “as a journalist, not as a Vishnitzer.” Wiesel agreed and met the Rebbe for the first of a number of long, private audiences.
The first encounter, which Wiesel called “transformative,” lasted until the early hours of the morning, during which they discussed Wiesel’s early works, and what at that point was the writer’s “anger at G d.”
From their first meeting in the early 1960s, Wiesel formed a deep relationship with the Rebbe, whom he considered to be his spiritual guide and with whom he engaged in deep correspondences regarding G d, life after the Holocaust, issues of personal faith and family matters. It was the Rebbe who persuaded Wiesel to marry, with Wiesel remembering years later: “The greatest bouquet of flowers I ever received was from the Rebbe for my wedding.”
Wiesel would frequently cite the inspiration he received from the Rebbe in speeches around the world.
At the conclusion of one long letter on how to help people cope with suffering and loss, the Rebbe concluded: “Too long a letter? If, however, with good fortune you will be married after the festival of Shavuot, according to the tradition of Moses and Israel, this lengthy letter, as well as the time you spend reading it, will have been well worth the while.”
Subsequently, Wiesel did marry, and he attributed his decision, in part, to the Rebbe’s prodding. As he related in an interview, the Rebbe was overjoyed at the news: “He was [always] nudging me to get married. I have letters—one letter in which we speak about Jewish theology—seven, eight pages about theology. At the end [of the letter], he said, ‘And by the way, when are you getting married?’ As if the two had something in common.”
Facing Evil With Faith
In one 1965 letter to Wiesel, the Rebbe asserted that only a true believer could sincerely confront G d with the question: Will the judge of all the earth not do justice? The challenge for humanity, the Rebbe concluded, is not only to remember the Holocaust, but to actively work against Hitler’s “final solution.”
In 1992, Wiesel spoke at congressional dinner held in Washington on the occasion of the Rebbe’s 90th birthday. “I hope I will always remember what I felt when I was first introduced into his study, some 30 years ago, and what we said to one another,” recalled Wiesel. “Time in his presence begins running at a different pace. You feel inspired, you feel self-examined, you are made to wonder about the quest for meaning which ought to be yours. In his presence nothing is superficial, nor is it artificial. In his presence you come closer in touch with your inner center of gravity.”
“Thanks to the Rebbe,” Wiesel continued, “a Jew becomes a better Jew, thus a better human being, thus making his fellow human beings more human, more hospitable, open to a greater sense of generosity.”
Later, Wiesel spoke at the award ceremony of the Rebbe’s Congressional Gold Medal.
Although he once said that he would never go back to his former home, he returned in 2009 to help honor the 20th anniversary of Chabad-Lubavitch activities in Hungary.
Praise From World Leaders
The reaction to news of Wiesel’s passing was swift. In the United States, President Barack Obama remembered Wiesel as “one of the great moral voices of our time, and in many ways, the conscience of the world.”
“Like millions of admirers,” Obama continued, “I first came to know Elie through his account of the horror he endured during the Holocaust simply because he was Jewish,” he said. “But I was also honored and deeply humbled to call him a dear friend. I’m especially grateful for all the moments we shared and our talks together, which ranged from the meaning of friendship to our shared commitment to the State of Israel.”
Wiesel’s devotion to Judaism was evident in his writings and personal conduct throughout his life, as was his steadfast support of Israel, especially in recent years.
“More than anyone else, Elie Wiesel did not allow the embers of the Holocaust to go out,” said Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, and a longtime personal friend. “He fearlessly defended the honor and memory of the Holocaust victims even when it meant confronting President Reagan about his visit to the Bitburg cemetery back in 1985,” recalled Rabbi Krinsky. “His lifelong determination to keep the memory of his people alive, and to raise awareness of humanity’s capacity for evil and indifference to evil, are a rare legacy.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised Wiesel as “a beacon of light” in the “darkness” of the Holocaust, and said that Israel and the Jewish world were “shedding bitter tears” over his passing.
“Elie, the wordsmith, expressed through his extraordinary personality and fascinating books the triumph of the human spirit over cruelty and evil. Throughout the dark period of the Holocaust, in which our 6 million brethren perished, Elie Wiesel was a beacon of light and an example of humanity that believes in man’s inherent good,” he said.
Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin said Wiesel was a “hero of the Jewish people and a giant of all humanity.”
Rivlin called him “one of the Jewish people’s greatest sons, who touched the hearts of so many, and helped us to believe in forgiveness, in life and in the eternal bond of the Jewish people. May his memory be a blessing, everlastingly engraved in the heart of the nation.”
Wiesel is survived by his wife Marion, their son Shlomo Elisha Wiesel, his stepdaughter Jennifer and two grandchildren.
Yaakov Ort (Chabad.org)