Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and author, dead at 87

In this Sept. 12, 2012, photo  Elie Wiesel is photographed in his office in New York.  Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial says Elie Wiesel has died at 87. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
In this Sept. 12, 2012, photo Elie Wiesel is photographed in his office in New York. Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial says Elie Wiesel has died at 87. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
Published July 3, 2016

Elie Wiesel, an Auschwitz survivor who became an eloquent witness for the 6 million Jews slaughtered in World War II and who, more than anyone else, seared the memory of the Holocaust on the world's conscience, died Saturday at his home in New York. He was 87.

Menachem Rosensaft, a longtime friend and founding chairman of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, confirmed the death.

Mr. Wiesel was the author of several dozen books and was a charismatic lecturer and humanities professor. In 1986, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But he was defined not so much by the work he did as by the gaping void he filled.

In the aftermath of the Germans' systematic massacre of Jews, no voice had emerged to drive home the enormity of what had happened and how it had changed mankind's conception of itself and of God. For almost two decades, the traumatized survivors — and American Jews, guilt-ridden that they had not done more to rescue their brethren — seemed frozen in silence.

But by the sheer force of his personality and his gift for the haunting phrase, Mr. Wiesel, who had been liberated from the Buchenwald concentration camp as a 16-year-old with the indelible tattoo A-7713 on his arm, gradually exhumed the Holocaust from the burial ground of the history books.

It was this speaking out against forgetfulness and violence that the Nobel committee recognized when it awarded him the 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."

Mr. Wiesel first gained attention in 1960 with the English translation of Night, his autobiographical account of the horrors he witnessed in the camps as a 15-year-old boy. He wrote of how he had been plagued by guilt for having survived while millions died, and tormented by doubts about a God who would allow such slaughter.

"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," Mr. Wiesel wrote. "Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God himself. Never."

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President Barack Obama, who visited the site of the Buchenwald concentration camp with Mr. Wiesel in 2009, called him a "living memorial."

"He raised his voice, not just against anti-Semitism, but against hatred, bigotry and intolerance in all its forms," the president 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.' "

In his 1966 book The Jews of Silence: A Personal Report on Soviet Jewry, Mr. Wiesel called attention to Jews who were being persecuted for their religion and yet barred from emigrating.

"What torments me most is not the Jews of silence I met in Russia, but the silence of the Jews I live among today," he said. His efforts helped ease emigration restrictions.

Mr. Wiesel condemned the massacres in Bosnia in the mid 1990s — "If this is Auschwitz again, we must mobilize the whole world," he said — and denounced others in Cambodia, Rwanda and the Darfur region of Sudan. He condemned the burnings of black churches in the United States and spoke out on behalf of the blacks of South Africa and the tortured political prisoners of Latin America.

Mr. Wiesel had a leading role in the creation of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, serving as chairman of the commission that united rival survivor groups to raise funds for a permanent structure.

Eliezer Wiesel was born on Sept. 30, 1928, in the small city of Sighet, in the Carpathian Mountains in what was then Romania. His father, Shlomo, was a Yiddish-speaking shopkeeper worldly enough to encourage his son to learn modern Hebrew and introduce him to the works of Freud. His mother, the former Sarah Feig, and his maternal grandfather, Dodye Feig, filled his imagination with mystical tales of Hasidic masters.

He grew up with his three sisters, Hilda, Batya and Tzipora, in a community of 15,000 Jews. But his idyllic childhood was shattered in spring 1944 when the Nazis marched into Hungary. The city's Jews were swiftly confined to two ghettos and then assembled for deportation.

"One by one, they passed in front of me," he wrote in Night, "teachers, friends, others, all those I had been afraid of, all those I could have laughed at, all those I had lived with over the years. They went by, fallen, dragging their packs, dragging their lives, deserting their homes, the years of their childhood, cringing like beaten dogs."

Night recounted a journey of several days spent in an airless cattle car before the narrator and his family arrived in a place they had never heard of: Auschwitz. Mr. Wiesel recalled how the smokestacks filled the air with the stench of burning flesh, how babies were burned in a pit, and how a monocled Dr. Josef Mengele decided, with a wave of a bandleader's baton, who would live and who would die. Mr. Wiesel watched his mother and his sister Tzipora walk off to the right.

"I did not know that in that place, at that moment, I was parting from my mother and Tzipora forever," he wrote.

He was later transferred with his father to the Buchenwald camp, where his father died. On April 11, 1945, after eating nothing for six days, Mr. Wiesel was among those liberated by the U.S. Army. Only after the war did he learn that his two elder sisters had not perished.

In the days after Buchenwald's liberation, he decided he had survived to bear witness, but vowed that he would not speak or write of what he had seen for 10 years.

"I didn't want to use the wrong words," he once explained.

In 1948, the newspaper L'Arche sent him to Israel to report on that newly founded state. He became the Paris correspondent for the daily Yediot Ahronot as well. In 1956 he produced an 800-page memoir in Yiddish. Pared to 127 pages and translated into French, it then appeared as La Nuit. The English version was published in 1960 as Night.

"The Holocaust was not something people wanted to know about in those days," Mr. Wiesel told Time magazine in 1985.

Night went on to sell more than 10 million copies. Mr. Wiesel wrote an average of a book a year, 60 books by his own count in 2015.

In 1956, Mr. Wiesel traveled on a journalistic assignment to New York to cover the United Nations. He became a lifetime New Yorker. His contact with the city's many Holocaust survivors shored up his resolve to keep telling their stories.

Mr. Wiesel became a U.S. citizen in 1963. Six years later, he married Marion Rose, a fellow Holocaust survivor who translated some of his books into English. They had a son, Shlomo. His wife and son survive him.

Based in New York, Mr. Wiesel commuted to Boston University for almost three decades, teaching philosophy, literature and Judaic studies and giving a popular lecture series in the fall.

In 1993, Mr. Wiesel spoke at the dedication of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. His words are now carved in stone at its entrance: "For the dead and the living, we must bear witness."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.