Elie Wiesel, Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor, has died at age 87.
Wiesel was born in what is now Romania in 1928, and was moved into a Jewish ghetto with his family when he was 15. He was then sent to one of the Auschwitz-Birkenau work camps; his mother and younger sister were murdered within hours, and his father died later. Wiesel survived the camp, despite being very ill, and later studied in Paris and moved to New York in 1955.
The New York Times calls Wiesel an “eloquent witness for the 6 million Jews slaughtered in World War II,” which was a core part of Wiesel’s identity and led to his Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.
Though best known for his autobiographical novel Night, Wiesel authored some 40 books, both fiction and non-fiction. Several of those, including Night, reflect on the Holocaust in some way. Night was first published in 1956, and in English in 1960, and its sparse prose describes horrors that are still difficult to comprehend. Wiesel devoted his life to trying to make the world understand that the concentration camps were where “educated, disciplined men in uniform came to kill” and where “infants were tossed into the air and used as targets for machine guns.” Night evokes the crisis of faith that Wiesel suffered during his year in Auschwitz, wondering where God was, as well as the guilt he felt at surviving. A 2008 essay in The New York Times traces the story of Night’s publication, noting that the book “created a genre” and was essential to Americans’ understanding of the Holocaust.
Thanks to a boost from Oprah’s Book Club in 2006, Night saw a huge resurgence, sitting atop the New York Times bestseller list for 80 weeks, until it was finally removed. In this way, Wiesel was able to keep memories of the Holocaust alive, even decades after it passed from collective recent memory.
When he accepted his Nobel Peace Prize, Wiesel said, “I have tried to keep memory alive… I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.”