The memory-keeper for victims of Nazi persecution

By Emily Langer

Elie Wiesel in his office in New York in 2012. Photo / AP
Elie Wiesel in his office in New York in 2012. Photo / AP

Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, the memory-keeper for victims of Nazi persecution, and a Nobel laureate who used his moral authority to force attention on atrocities around the world, has died at his home in New York. He was 87.

His death was confirmed in a statement from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Other details were not immediately available.

By the time of Wiesel's death, millions had read Night, his account of the concentration camps where he watched his father die and where his mother and younger sister were gassed. Presidents summoned him to the White House to discuss human rights abuses in Bosnia, Iraq and elsewhere, and the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee called him a "messenger to mankind".

But when he emerged, gaunt and near death, from Buchenwald concentration camp in 1945, there was little indication that he - or any survivor - would have such a presence in the world. Few survivors spoke openly about the war.

Those who did often felt ignored. Decades before a Holocaust museum stood in downtown Washington and moviegoers watched Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List, Wiesel helped force the public to confront the Holocaust.

"The voice of the person who can speak in the first-person singular - 'This is my story; I was there' - it will be gone when the last survivor dies," Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt told the Washington Post. "But in Elie Wiesel, we had that voice with a megaphone that wasn't matched by anyone else."

"Elie Wiesel was one of the great moral voices of our time, and in many ways, the conscience of the world," President Barack Obama said, describing Wiesel as "a dear friend".

"After we walked together among the barbed wire and guard towers of Buchenwald where he was held as a teenager and where his father perished," the President continued, "Elie spoke words I've never forgotten - 'Memory has become a sacred duty of all people of goodwill.' "

Wiesel was in his 20s when he wrote the first draft of Night after 10 years of silence about the war. Today, perhaps the only volume in Holocaust literature that eclipses the book in its popular reach is Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl.

Wiesel was less than nine months older than the aspiring writer who chronicled her existence in an Amsterdam hideaway, but Night is rarely characterised as the narrative of a young boy. While the diary ends days before Nazis arrest Anne and her family, Night puts readers in Auschwitz within the first 30 pages.

Short enough to be read in a single sitting, the volume captures all of the most salient images of the Holocaust: the teeming ghettos where many struggled to believe that the worst was yet to come, the cattle cars, the barracks, the smokestacks. The book also contains one of the most famous images in the vast theological debates surrounding the slaughter: the vision of God with a noose around his neck.

" 'For God's sake, where is God?' " Wiesel hears a man ask as they watch a boy hanged at Auschwitz.

"And from within me, I heard a voice answer," he writes. " 'This is where - hanging here from this gallows.' "

At the encouragement of the French writer François Mauriac, whom he interviewed as a journalist in the 1950s, Wiesel submitted the manuscript for publication in France. Publisher after publisher turned him away. Les Éditions de Minuit published the manuscript in 1958, but the book found little commercial success.

Initially, it fared no better in the United States. One rejection note, from Scribner's, called the work a "horrifying and extremely moving document" but cited "certain misgivings as to the size of the American market" for it, according to a New York Times account of the book's publication. Critics wrote admiring reviews when Hill & Wang published it in 1960, but few people in the general public knew that Night existed.

As time passed, more survivors began to open up about the war. Among the most prominent of them was Wiesel, who in the 1960s, by then living in the United States, began a celebrated lecture series at the 92nd Street Y in New York City.

Wiesel, whose speeches routinely drew sell-out crowds, would remain highly sought-after as a lecturer for the rest of his life. More than lecture, he told stories, one flowing into the next in a way that recalled a passage from Ecclesiastes, the one that inspired the titles of his two-volume memoir: All Rivers Run to the Sea and And the Sea Is Never Full.

With those stories, he revived the old world of the shtetl and glorified the Hasidic masters he so loved. He was sombre in the company of fellow survivors but hopeful, even funny, before students. At times, his style left the impression of a davening rabbi.

In 1978, President Jimmy Carter appointed Wiesel chairman of the President's Commission on the Holocaust, which would call for the creation of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. It was an important recognition of his role in the Holocaust community.

This April 16, 1945 file photo provided by the US Army, shows inmates of the German KZ Buchenwald inside their barrack, a few days after US troops liberated the camp. Photo / AP
This April 16, 1945 file photo provided by the US Army, shows inmates of the German KZ Buchenwald inside their barrack, a few days after US troops liberated the camp. Photo / AP

Another turning point came in 1985, when Wiesel publicly confronted President Ronald Reagan about a coming trip to West Germany, where the President planned to visit the Bitburg military cemetery. Wiesel and others opposed the trip after learning that the cemetery included the graves of several dozen members of the SS, the elite Nazi force.

"That place, Mr President, is not your place," Wiesel said during a White House ceremony in which Reagan awarded him the Congressional Gold Medal, Congress's highest civilian honour. "Your place is with the victims of the SS."

Several weeks later, amid controversy, Reagan made the trip to Bitburg.

It was not the last time Wiesel took on a head of state. In 1986, just after Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish year, he learned he had been selected for the Nobel Peace Prize. He said the honour did not make him a different person - "If the war did not change me, you think anything else will change me?" he commented upon winning the prize, the Times reported - but it did confer on him considerably greater authority.

Speaking at the dedication of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1993, Wiesel faced President Bill Clinton and said: "Mr President, I must tell you something. I have been in the former Yugoslavia last fall. I cannot sleep since what I have seen. As a Jew I am saying that. We must do something to stop the bloodshed in that country."

Clinton later told reporters that he accepted Wiesel's challenge, the Washington Post reported. The President went on to lead Nato in two bombing campaigns in the Balkans, first in 1995 against Bosnian Serbs and four years later to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.

Later in Clinton's Administration, Wiesel challenged him about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

"Why are we . . .so nobly involved in Kosovo and why were we not in Rwanda?" he asked the President at the White House in 1999. "I think we could have prevented that massacre. Why didn't we?"

Wiesel said in his Nobel acceptance speech that Jewish issues would always be of paramount interest to him. He belonged to a "traumatised generation," he said, and it would be "unnatural" for him to feel otherwise. But he said that other causes were as important to him.

Wiesel compared apartheid with anti-Semitism and backed the Solidarity movement in Poland. He spoke out on behalf of Soviet Jews, Cambodians and the Kurds, among other populations. He declared his support for the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, maintaining that the United States has an obligation to intercede when evil comes to power.

Critics accused Wiesel of having a blind spot where Israel was involved. When talk show host Oprah Winfrey asked him in an interview whether he had any regrets, he responded: "I wish I had done more for the Palestinian refugees. I regret that."

Speaking about the Holocaust, he often emphasised his conviction that it was an unparalleled event in history.

"I have learned that the Holocaust was a unique and uniquely Jewish event, albeit with universal implications," he said at the White House speech in which he prevailed on Reagan not to visit the Bitburg cemetery. "Not all victims were Jews, but all Jews were victims."

To forget the Holocaust, he always said, would be to kill the victims a second time.

- Washington Post

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