A Biographical Overview
Elie Wiesel, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, was born in the provincial town of Sighet, Romania on September 30, 1928. A Jewish community had existed there since 1640, when it sought refuge from an outbreak of pogroms and persecution in Ukraine.
Wiesel at age 15
His maternal grandfather, Reb Dodye Feig, was a devout Hasidic Jew, whose influence on Wiesel was deep, and inspired him to pursue Talmudic studies in the town's Yeshiva. However his father Shlomo, who ran a grocery store, although also religious, was regarded as an emancipated Jew, open to events of the world. He insisted that his son study modern Hebrew as well, so that he could read the works of contemporary writers. And at home in Sighet, which was close to the Hungarian border, Wiesel's family spoke mostly Yiddish, but also German, Hungarian and Romanian. Today, Wiesel thinks in Yiddish, writes in French, and, with his wife Marion and his son Elisha, lives his life in English.
Life for Wiesel and his extended family changed tragically in 1943 and 1944, when Nazi Germany decided that the Jews living in the Axis nations of Eastern Europe Romania, Hungary, and Bulgaria should share the fate of the rest of European Jewry and be transported to the death camps of Poland. Grandfather Dodye went first, when he and his three sons and their children where taken away in 1943. The following year, Wiesel's entire family, his mother, father and his three sisters, were transported with him to Poland. Only Wiesel and his two older sisters survived.
Reb Dodye Feig
Liberated from Auschwitz - Buchenwald by the American Third Army in 1945, he was sent to France to study as part of a group of Jewish children orphaned by the Holocaust. There he was given a choice secular studies, or religious studies. Wiesel's faith had been severely wounded by his experiences in Auschwitz and three other concentration camps. He felt God had turned his back on the Jews. But, despite his bitterness, he chose to return to religious studies:
"My only experience in the secular world," he explains, "was Auschwitz."
Sent to Paris to study at the Sorbonne after several years of preparatory schools, he became a journalist for a small French newspaper, and supplemented his meager income as a translator and Hebrew teacher. Persuaded by the distinguished French Catholic writer Francois Mauriac, he finally put down on paper the experiences he had vowed to recount only after ten years of silence. The result was "Night", an internationally acclaimed memoir that has been translated into 30 languages and has sold more than seven million copies, the income from which goes to support a yeshiva in Israel established by Wiesel in memory of his father.
Wiesel's entry card to Paris
Wiesel has, since then, dedicated his life to ensuring that the murder of six million Jews would never be forgotten, and that other human beings would never be subjected to genocidal homicide.
Most of the 40 books he has written since novels, collections of essay, plays explore the subject that haunts him, the events that he describes as "history's worst crime." Speaking, writing, traveling incessantly, he has become a spokesman for human rights wherever they are threatened in the former Soviet Union, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo and with the Nobel Peace Prize award established the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity.
Assigned to New York in 1956 as a correspondent for an Israeli newspaper, Wiesel was struck by a taxi while crossing the street and was hospitalized for months. Still a stateless person at the time, unable to travel to France to renew his identity card and unable to receive a US visa without it, he found that he was eligible to become a legal resident. Five years later, he received an American passport, the first passport he had ever had. Years later, when his then close friend Francois Mitterand became President of France, he was offered French nationality.
"Though I thanked him," he writes in his memoirs, "and not without some emotion, I declined the offer. When I had needed a passport, it was America that had given me one."
In 1978 President Carter named Wiesel to chair the President's Commission on the Holocaust, which recommended the creation of a national day of remembrance and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, both subsequently created by acts of Congress.
Wiesel on a boat
to Israel in 1949
He has been Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies at the City University of New York (1972-76), Henry Luce Visiting Scholar in Humanities and Social Thought at Yale University (1982-83), and since 1976 has occupied the Mellon Chair in the Humanities at Boston University.
Along with the Nobel Peace Prize, he has been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States Congressional Gold Medal, and the Grand Croix of the French Legion of Honor.