The famous writer who dedicated his life to bear witness about the horrors of the Holocaust and warn against racism passed away on Saturday at age 87.
He used his personal tragedy to arouse awareness of the Holocaust and the memory of the six million Jews who were killed by Nazi-Germany. He condemned massacres and genocides after the Second World War – in Bosnia, Cambodia, Rwanda and Darfur – and engaged himself in the sufferings of other people.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker wrote on Twitter: “Saddened by the death of Elie Wiesel. He experienced the cruelest hours of Europe. He reacted with a commitment to unity and peace.”
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini wrote that “Elie Wiesel showed the world that man’s wisdom can overcome man’s insanity. That, despite unspeakable suffering, peace must remain our goal”.
In an interview in 1981, Wiesel said: “If I survived the Holocaust, it must be for some reason. I must do something with my life. I speak for those people who were killed. On the other hand, I know that I cannot.”
After having moved from France to the US, he became American citizen in 1963, his first citizenship after his stateless status after the war. In a statement on Saturday, President Obama called him a “living memorial.”
“He raised his voice, not just against anti-Semitism, but against hatred, bigotry and intolerance in all its forms.”
Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. “Wiesel is a messenger to mankind,” the Nobel citation said. “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.”
As a writer, teacher and human rights activist, his books and speeches reached millions of people around the world. He was knighted as Commander of the British Empire and received the rank of Grand-Croix in France’s Legion of Honor.
But his Grand Cross Order of Merit that he had received from Hungary he gave back in 2012 in protest of what he called the “whitewashing of tragic and criminal episodes” that happened in the country during the war.
Wiesel was born in 1926 in Sighet, a town in Transylvania with a peaceful Jewish community that symbolizes European history. The town had been transferred from Hungary to Romania after the First World War, only to return to Hungarian administration in 1940. After the war it became part of Romania again.
Wiesel’s happy childhood in Sighet came to a brutal end in May 1944 when all the remaining 14 000 Jews in the town were transported to Auschwitz. His mother and a sister were killed immediately. He and his father survived a death march in January 1945 but his father was beaten to death in Buchenwald by a German soldier.
He was liberated from Buchenwald as a 16-year-old with the indelible tattoo A-7713 on his arm. After the war he was reunited with two sisters. He spent his first years after the war in France where he learned French and became a journalist in French, Yiddish and Hebrew.
Only after some years, he felt capable of writing about the Holocaust. His first book in 1956 was written in his mother language Yiddish under the title “Un di velt hot geshvign” (= And the world was silent). After a meeting with the French Nobel laureate in literature François Mauriac he rewrote it in French in a much shorter version – “La nuit”.
Wiesel would write several books but his first book is probably his most famous one. Years later it would become a bestseller in English, “Night”, and has been sold in 10 million copies. Swedish journalist Natan Shachar writes in Dagens Nyheter about a Palestinian lawyer, Amjad Iraqi, who once told that the book was the most shocking one he had read in his youth.
“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,” Wiesel writes. “Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the faces of little children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.”
The book describes how Nazis threw babies into the air and machine-gunned them. Witnessing a public execution in Auschwitz, someone behind Wiesel asks “Where is God”? Wiesel hears the answer from within: “There, he is hanging in the gallows.”
Coming from a religious family, he kept religious traditions as the years passed. Once in an interview Wiesel was asked how he could remain normal after having been deprived his humanity and suffered so much. He answered that “what is unnormal is that I’m normal. It’s still a mystery to me.” He raised a family, made an academic career and became “a living memorial.”
The Brussels Times