No other individual is so identified with the Holocaust-its memory and its prevention-as Wiesel. He was born in 1928 in Sighet, Romania, to Shlomo (a grocer) and Sarah Wiesel. His parents were part of a Hasidic Jewish community and encouraged him in his religious studies. Growing up, young Wiesel “believed profoundly” and felt it his duty to pray. In 1944, the distant threat of Hitler invaded the community and his family was deported to a concentration camp. A few years after the war, Wiesel was reunited with surviving family members-two sisters.
At the war’s close, Wiesel hoped to emigrate to Palestine, which would see the declaration of the state of Israel in 1948. Being an orphan, however, placed him with other children en route to Belgium. General Charles de Gaulle intervened and brought the train to France. Wiesel finished his teens in Normandy and won entrance to the Sorbonne in Paris. After completing his studies he became a journalist. After a decade of living in France, he moved to the United States and eventually gained American citizenship. In 1969, he married Marion Erster Rose. She is also a survivor of the camps and a writer in her own right. She became his English translator.
In 1954, while working on assignment for a Tel Aviv newspaper, he interviewed Nobel Laureate Francois Mauriac. When the discussion turned to the suffering of Jesus, Wiesel angrily burst out that nobody was speaking of the suffering just a few years before. Mauriac suggested he break the silence. The result was the first of many works, an 800 page memoir in Yiddish, Un di Velt Hot Geshvign (1956), which detailed his experience of losing his family and friends to the concentration camps. This work became the famous La Nuit (1958) or, in English, Night (1960).
At the time of the book’s completion, nobody wanted to be reminded of the Holocaust. In fact, the publishing world felt Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl was a sufficient memento of the horror. A tiny firm disagreed and managed to pay $250.
Despite the book’s lack of commercial success, Wiesel was defined by it. He has spent his life, ever since, as a vocal champion of human rights. His eloquent moral voice has often been compared with that of Albert Camus. Wiesel hopes that his stories will prompt a reflection that leads to a more humane future. In 1986, Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Wiesel has advised the U. S. Congress on memorials, religion, and the Middle East. He has served as chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council and is the Andrew Mellon Professor of Humanities at Boston University. In May 1997, Wiesel was appointed to head the Swiss Holocaust Fund. This was in “recognition of his extraordinary accomplishments and his respected moral guidance,” said Swiss Foreign Minister Flavio Cotti.