Sixty-seven years ago, a beaten, exhausted, and starving boy was forced on a death march through the snowy countryside of occupied Poland. Since then, Elie Wiesel has come a long way: His remarkable accomplishments have earned him a Nobel Peace Prize, a spot on The New York Times best-seller list, commendations from former Presidents Carter and Clinton, and a special tribute from Oprah Winfrey.
But perhaps his proudest achievement is the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, a project that he spearheaded and continues to develop today.
Wiesel, 83, has just been reappointed by President Obama to serve on the museum’s advisory board, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. In this role, he plans to continue calling on other survivors to bear witness so that generations to come can appreciate—although perhaps not fully comprehend—their experience.
Wiesel was born in Sighet, Transylvania—now Sighetu Marmatiei, Romania—in 1928. In May 1944, when he was just 15, the German army deported Sighet’s entire Jewish community to Auschwitz, where Wiesel and his father, Shlomo, were separated from his mother and three sisters.
Wiesel managed to stay with his father for more than eight months in three different concentration camps, but in the end the hardship the inmates were forced to endure was too much for Shlomo. In January 1945, with the Soviet army on their tail, the Germans decided to flee Auschwitz. The officers drove Wiesel, his father, and the other inmates on a 50-mile death march to Gleiwitz, and then on another deadly journey to Buchenwald. One hundred Jews boarded the cattle car that carried them to Buchenwald; only 12 survived. Just a few weeks later, Shlomo was sent to the crematorium, just months before the inmates were liberated in April 1945.
Wiesel survived the Holocaust and was reunited with two of his sisters, Beatrice and Hilda, at a French orphanage. They never saw their mother Sarah and sister Tzipora again; presumably, they died in the gas chambers.
The young Wiesel was shuffled through four orphanages before attending university at the Sorbonne. After he graduated, Wiesel became a journalist and wrote for Israeli and French newspapers. He said he chose the profession because he loves words, and because he wanted to be involved in the global conversation.
“For a young student, it is fascinating to deal with words,” Wiesel said, “to try to know things that are happening in the world.”
Wiesel did not write or talk about his time in the concentration camps for 10 years after the war. But finally, in 1954, he began to write his first book, which was published as La Nuit, in 1958. Released in English as Night in 1960, the book is a powerful memoir about his Holocaust experience.
“When the war ended, I knew I was going to write [the book],” Wiesel said. “But I gave myself a 10-year silence on that subject. Then, the 10 years were over.”
Although the book initially sold few copies, it has slowly drawn a worldwide audience over the decades since its publication. La Nuit has now been translated into 30 languages and, by 1997, was selling 300,000 copies a year in the U.S. alone. In January, 2006, Oprah Winfrey chose the memoir for her book club, and the next month Night was No. 1 on The New York Times best-seller list for paperback nonfiction.
Wiesel moved to New York City in 1955, and has made his home in America ever since. He has written more than 50 books, many of which have won literary prizes, and he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 for speaking out against violence, repression, and racism.
Wiesel has known each president since Carter and has spent much of his life as a political activist, advocating on causes such as the state of Israel, genocide in Bosnia, apartheid in South Africa, and the humanitarian crisis in Darfur.
These days, however, he stays away from politics. He still reads the papers, but he is more interested in pursuing his two passions: teaching and writing. Wiesel has been a professor at several universities, teaching philosophy, religious studies, and writing. He has taught at Yale, the City College of New York, and Barnard College, among others, and now serves as the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University.
“My passion is learning, and therefore I teach,” Wiesel said. “I don’t like politics. The goal of politics is power, and I don’t like power. I like to write. It’s the only power I may have to influence … my reader.”
Driven by his love of learning, Wiesel was instrumental in the development of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. President Carter appointed Wiesel chairman for the Presidential Commission on the Holocaust—later called the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council—in 1978, charging him with planning a memorial to the victims. This mandate spawned the building of the museum, which opened to the public in 1993. At the dedication, Wiesel shared the stage with then-President Clinton, who he recalled had told him that if one man could singlehandedly change American policy, it would be Wiesel.
Wiesel, who led the council until 1986, said he is very happy with the growth of the museum, which has attracted more than 30 million visitors since its dedication.
“In my wildest dreams, I never expected such a success,” he said, adding that being part of the museum’s creation was “a very gratifying experience, and still is. Whenever I go there, I feel gratified.”
This article appears in the November 15, 2011, edition of NJ Daily.