Elie Wiesel brought the Holocaust and its survival to the American public.
The Long Night
Eliezer, Wiesel’s narrator in Night (1958), encounters a man named Moishe the Beadle in Sighet, who has been on one of the trains bound for the death camps, and miraculously survived. “I wanted to return to Sighet to describe to you my death so that you might ready yourselves while there is still time,” Moishe tells him, and there is a sense in which Wiesel’s project is much the same. After having seen his own figurative death, and enduring the all-too-literal death of his family, Wiesel reluctantly appointed himself the storyteller for the dead, their memory and their conscience. “Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust,” Wiesel writes in Night. “Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.” Night went on to become the most read of all books on the Holocaust.
Wiesel’s artistic project was to document not just the Holocaust, but the terrors of life as a Jew in the mad 20th century. His second novel, Dawn
(1961)--its title intended to reflect a partial lessening of the Holocaust’s darkness--delves into the psyche of a Jewish soldier
, another survivor, who is given the task of executing a British officer. The archetypal Jew as victim brushes up against the Jew as aggressor, with Wiesel crafting a symbolic debate between past and future.
Elie Wiesel, Author
Later works would also toe the line between myth and reality, spinning Jewish history into a series of pointed fables. In “An Old Acquaintance,” a powerful story from his collection Legends of Our Time (1968), a survivor riding a Tel Aviv bus spots a Jewish kapo who had thrived in hell by collaborating with the Nazis. “And what about now?” the survivor asks, confronting his old tormentor. “Tell me, do you eat well? With appetite?”
Wiesel is a fabulist as much as a memoirist, and while Night (which many forget is officially a novel) was an impassioned testimony from the camps, much of Wiesel’s work was devoted to the perplexities of Jewish life and Jewish history. As an amateur biblical scholar, Wiesel retold familiar stories from the Old Testament in Messengers of God (1976). He transformed the legends of the early Hasidic leaders and mystics into the elegant Souls on Fire (1982).
Human Rights Activist
Meanwhile, Wiesel has also devoted himself to the conviction, informed by the Holocaust that Jews, and other downtrodden groups, could no longer be allowed to suffer quietly. Wiesel visited the Soviet Union
in the mid-1960s, and The Jews of Silence
(1966), his book on the degradations suffered by Soviet Jews, and refuseniks in particular, was hugely influential on the burgeoning Soviet Jewry movement
in the United States. Wiesel was also an advocate for Kurdish rights
, for the people of Cambodia
, and against South African apartheid and ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia.
Wiesel has written more than 40 books, including two volumes of memoir: All Rivers Run to the Sea (1995) and And the Sea is Never Full (1999). He has also returned to fiction with works like A Mad Desire to Dance (2009), which echoes the philosophical questing of his earlier novels. While never a favorite of literary critics, many of whom consider his post-Night output to be didactic and lacking in novelistic flair, Wiesel’s work, particularly Night, has struck an enduring chord with readers.
In recent years, Wiesel has been an impassioned supporter of international intervention in Darfur, arguing that the actions of government-sponsored militias in that region of Sudan are tantamount to genocide. Some criticized the Nobel committee for giving Wiesel the Nobel Peace Prize, as opposed to the literature prize, but Wiesel’s untiring dedication to serving as a voice for the voiceless has proven the rightness of that judgment. Wiesel has served as that voice, both for himself, and for those who have come to accept him as the embodiment of our collective humanity.
Did you like this article? MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.
Please consider making a donation today.