Obituaries

Imprisoned in Nazi death camps as a teenager, Elie Wiesel survived to become an eloquent and unflinching witness to the Holocaust’s crimes against humanity; a prolific writer of novels, plays, essays, and memoirs; and a teacher, scholar, orator, moral philosopher, and human rights champion for whom the mass slaughter of Jews during World War II became the raw material for, and driving force behind, a lifetime of activism.

Mr. Wiesel, a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize who taught at Boston University for about four decades, died Saturday at his home in Manhattan. He was 87.

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His deeply held faith in Judaism, robust intellectual curiosity, and harrowing adolescence — his mother and younger sister perished in the camps and his father died in the Buchenwald camp with his son nearby, helpless to save him — set him on a lifelong quest to make sense of what defied rational understanding.

That path was marked by countervailing forces — confrontation and forgiveness, doggedness and doubt — with which Mr. Wiesel wrestled, even as his global stature and literary output grew. One question above all haunted him: How could the God he worshiped have allowed such suffering to happen, and how could humans inflict such atrocities on one another while so many did nothing to stop them?

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He explored that question and many others in dozens of books, many of them novels drawing on his prodigious storytelling gifts.

His first major book, “Night,” was published in English in 1960. After limited initial production and sales, the book would eventually bring Mr. Wiesel widespread attention. It contained a stark account of his confinement in three Nazi camps — Auschwitz, Buna, and Buchenwald — where he endured beatings, starvation, and other brutalities, all in the shadows of the crematoria where millions of Jews, old and young, were murdered. “Night” has been translated into more than 30 languages and become a seminal piece of literature.

In awarding him the 1986 peace prize, the Nobel committee praised Mr. Wiesel as a “messenger to mankind whose message is not one of hate and revenge, but of brotherhood and atonement . . . a man who has gone from utter humiliation to become one of our most important spiritual leaders and guides.”

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His overriding aim, the committee said, was to “awaken our conscience, because our indifference to evil makes us partners in the crime.”

Among Mr. Wiesel’s many other honors were a US Presidential Medal of Freedom, Congressional Gold Medal, Legion of Honour, and Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

“He raised his voice, not just against anti-Semitism, but against hatred, bigotry, and intolerance in all its forms,” President Obama said Saturday in a statement. “He implored each of us, as nations and as human beings, to do the same, to see ourselves in each other and to make real that pledge of ‘never again.’ ”

His Nobel Prize notwithstanding, Mr. Wiesel faced criticism from some quarters for dwelling too much on the Holocaust and its stain on human history, or even for profiting from it. As a novelist, Mr. Wiesel countered, he resisted fictionalizing what he called The Event, lest it be trivialized or in any way distorted, and opposed others doing so, too. However, as a staunch opponent of anti-Semitism, fanaticism, and other forms of tyranny and persecution, he considered it his solemn duty never to forget what he’d witnessed.

“Remembering means to shine a merciless light on facts and events,” he once wrote, “to say ‘No’ to the sands that bury words and to forgetfulness and death” and to “plead for the dead, to defend their memory and honor.”

Charges that he deliberately profited off the Holocaust were “outrageous and unworthy of reply,” he maintained, and anyone unfamiliar with the suffering of the victims and their survivors dishonored them by making such claims.

“For me, survivors constitute a family like no other, an endangered species,” Mr. Wiesel asserted. “We understand one another intuitively.”

Born Eliezer Wiesel on Sept. 30, 1928, in Sighet, a predominantly Jewish town in the Carpathian Mountains region of Transylvania (now Romania), young Elie was a bookish child devoted to academic study. Shlomo Wiesel, his father, ran a grocery store. Sarah Feig, his mother, bore the couple four children — Hilda, Beatrice, Eliezer, and Tziporah — who grew up in a home where conversation was predominantly in Yiddish.

He attended Jewish high schools and, with the aid of private tutors, became fascinated with mysticism and asceticism — by “what lay beyond reality,” as he put it.

His family survived intact until early 1944, when the mass deportation of Hungarian Jews began. (Sighet had come under Hungarian rule in 1940). That May, the Wiesels were herded onto cattle cars bound for concentration camps in Poland.

Elie never got to bid goodbye to his mother and three sisters. He and his father were first imprisoned in Auschwitz-Birkenau, then relocated to Buna and finally to Buchenwald, where his father died shortly before the camp was liberated, in April 1945.

Along with many other youthful survivors, Mr. Wiesel first settled in France, where he reunited with his two older sisters and embarked on a journalism career, traveling widely: to Israel, Spain, India, Canada, Brazil, and the United States, among other stops. By the mid-1950s, he’d resettled in New York City as a foreign correspondent and begun writing his first novel.

Employed by an Israeli journal, Mr. Wiesel forged personal bonds with many of Israel’s leading figures, most notably Golda Meir, the future prime minister. Roaming America, he reported on a wide range of subjects, from the civil rights movement to pop culture trends. Back in Israel, he covered the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the architects of the Third Reich.

In 1969, at age 40, Mr. Wiesel wed Marion Rose — herself a camp survivor from Austria — whose previous marriage had ended in divorce. The ceremony was held in Jerusalem. Mr. Wiesel also leaves a son, Elisha, according to the Washington Post.

In the 1970s, Mr. Wiesel left journalism to concentrate on his other writing and on his growing list of travel and speaking commitments. His trips abroad, including a return to his hometown Sighet, in 1964, inspired many of his well-received books.

A 1965 trip to Soviet Union, for instance, where he met with persecuted Soviet Jews, led to “The Jews of Silence.” Rushing to Israel during the Six Day War, in 1967, he brought home the seeds for his novel “A Beggar in Jerusalem.”

Other fictional works drew upon biblical themes and sources and on Mr. Wiesel’s broad readings in literature, religion, and philosophy. He once described his fiction projects as “searching for my inner compass.”

His other novels include “The Town Beyond the Wall,” “The Gates of the Forest,” “The Oath,” and “The Fifth Son.” He also wrote plays, children’s books, dialogues with world leaders (for example, then-President Francois Mitterand of France), and volumes of autobiography. Among the latter are the titles “All Rivers Run to the Sea,” “And The Sea is Never Full,” and “Open Heart,” an account of his 2011 heart-bypass surgery and its aftermath.

In all, Mr. Wiesel published nearly 60 books, many translated into English by his wife, Marion, whom he considered an invaluable collaborator.

In 1972, Mr. Wiesel began teaching at the City College of New York. He left that post for Boston University in 1976 at the invitation of then-president John Silber. At the university, Mr. Wiesel held the Andrew W. Mellon Professorship in the Humanities. He later taught at Yale University and Eckerd College in Florida as well.

An unapologetic Silber loyalist, Mr. Wiesel defended the often embattled BU president against myriad challenges to his authority. At one point, he even offered to resign from the faculty if charges of anti-Semitism leveled against Silber proved true (they were never formally pursued).

Largely owing to their friendship, Mr. Wiesel turned down other prestigious teaching offers. Silber in turn was invited to officiate at the New York press conference celebrating the announcement of Mr. Wiesel’s Nobel Prize.

“Because of Elie Wiesel, Jews in Boston fell in love with Boston University,” said BU religion professor Michael Zank, who directs the Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies, a hub of Jewish cultural life on campus. “He was a man of enormous charisma but also one of critical scholarship, the full thrust of a human being who stands beside his words.”

In addition to his teaching duties, which brought him to campus on a weekly basis throughout the academic year, Mr. Wiesel gave lectures and closely supervised graduate students. Many have gone on to become rabbis and spiritual leaders themselves, Zank noted. Yet to some degree, Zank conceded, his global activism overshadowed his reputation as a teacher.

Mr. Wiesel was first and foremost “a literary man” whose writings open up “a world of great imagination, of magic and mysticism,” Zank pointed out.

Mr. Wiesel’s travels to South Africa, Cambodia, Bosnia, and other countries riven by human rights abuses were undeniably news events, though, helping to train a global spotlight on apartheid, genocide, terrorism, and other vexing issues.

In 1979, after Jimmy Carter named him to the President’s Commission on the Holocaust, Mr. Wiesel made his first trip back to Auschwitz, by then a museum, and to Birkenau, where he encountered what he later described movingly as an “eternal silence under a moribund sky.”

He was also chosen to chair the Holocaust Memorial Council, which oversaw the design and construction of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and in 1995 to lead the US delegation to ceremonies observing the 50th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation. Fourteen years after that historic trip, Mr. Wiesel toured Buchenwald with President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, where he publicly thanked Obama for “allowing me to come back to my father’s grave, which is still in my heart.”

An earlier presidential trip, in 1985, badly misfired, however. President Reagan had invited Mr. Wiesel along on a visit to West Germany. Once it became known that Reagan would visit a Bitburg cemetery where Nazi SS officers were interred, an angry Mr. Wiesel declined the offer.

Mr. Wiesel soon resigned from the Holocaust Memorial Council. The museum itself, which opened in 1993, at first made Mr. Wiesel uncomfortable. However, he later said he found it an impressive — and moving – educational experience for the millions who visit it yearly and who unlike himself harbor no firsthand knowledge of what happened at the Nazi death camps.

In many cases, though, he rarely showed signs of mellowing or compromising his principles. Disputes with other public figures wrestling with the same issues he did were not uncommon, as Mr. Wiesel confessed in print.

He openly clashed or broke with, among others, literary critic Alfred Kazin; authors William Styron (Mr. Wiesel loathed the film version of Styron’s “Sophie’s Choice,” although not the novel itself) and Isaac Bashevis Singer, once a good friend; Mitterand, another longtime friend; and Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, who, in Mr. Wiesel’s view, was jealous that a Nobel Prize had not gone to him instead.

Still other critics accused Mr. Wiesel of Judeocentrism — caring primarily, if not exclusively, about Jews and their place in the world — and, from another perspective, for not taking up residence in Israel himself.

“So be it,” Mr. Wiesel concluded, somewhat defiantly. “I shall be a second-class Jew.”

At age 82, Mr. Wiesel underwent heart-bypass surgery. Facing death, he questioned whether he was truly prepared for it.

Jewish law teaches that “death is not meant to guide us,” he reflected in “Open Heart.’’ “It is life that will show us the way.”

Ultimately the choice is God’s, he decided.

Meanwhile, “My life unfolds before me like a film,” he mused. “Landscapes from my childhood. Adventures in far away, sometimes exotic places. Meetings with masters. Have I performed my duties as a survivor? Transmitted all I’m capable of? Too much, perhaps?”

Asserting that he still had many projects to complete, Mr. Wiesel sounded a more hopeful note. Every moment granted to him post-surgery “is a new beginning,” he marveled. “If life is not a celebration, why remember it?”

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at josephpkahn@gmail.com.
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