Today is the birthday of Elie Wiesel (books by this author), the Romanian-American writer and Holocaust survivor most well known for his memoir Night. Wiesel was sent to Auschwitz with his family when he was 15, where his mother and sister were murdered. He and his father were then sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp, and his father died before the Allies liberated the camp in 1945. After he was freed, Wiesel was sent to France to live in a rehabilitation center for child refugees and went on to study literature and philosophy at the Sorbonne.
Wiesel wrote the first version of Night in Yiddish under the title “And the World Stayed Silent” while working as a journalist in Brazil. Later he met the French writer François Mauriac, who convinced him to write a shorter version of the book in French. A lot of publishers rejected Night at first; the only really successful book about the Holocaust that had come out so far was The Diary of Anne Frank, which didn’t show the horror of the camps. (Wiesel once said, “Where Anne Frank’s book ends, mine begins.”) Scribner’s rejected the book because they thought it was too much of a historical account and not enough of a work of art.
Night was published in 1958 but, despite good reviews, had bad sales until 20 years later. It was one of the first books to raise the question of the goodness of a God who could allow the Holocaust. (Wiesel lost his Jewish faith during his time in the camps.)
Night broke the silence around the Holocaust and made it easier for other survivors to tell their stories.
Wiesel’s writing comes off as stark and artistically modest; he avoids editorializing or using the Holocaust to express some other idea. Wiesel has repeatedly used the word “witness” to describe himself, and he views his work in a much more limited way than most artists. In an introduction to a new translation of Night, he wrote: “I must confess that I do not know, or no longer know, what I wanted to achieve with my words. I only know that without this testimony, my life as a writer — or my life, period — would not have become what it is: that of a witness who believes he has a moral obligation to try to prevent the enemy from enjoying one last victory by allowing his crimes to be erased from human memory.”
Wiesel preferred teaching to writing, and taught in the philosophy and religion departments at Boston University. He was also the chairman of the council that created the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. Wiesel died in 2016 at the age of 87 and is remembered for his urgent call to pay attention to victims of oppression. He wrote: “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, but indifference between life and death.”