Remembering Elie Wiesel

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Through his eyes and his words, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel made the world remember.

In 1960, the Holocaust did not exist.

Fifteen years after the war’s end, the phrase itself was absent from the mainstream vocabulary; the horror it encompassed was not part of the public imagination. The extermination of Jews had become a taboo topic, remembered vaguely, in media and textbooks, as one of the many atrocities that had formed the backdrop to the greater drama of the Second World War. For the countless Jews who had seen their families gassed or worked or starved to death only years before, the horror was simply inexpressible, beyond the capability of words.

It was Elie Wiesel, more than anyone else, who broke that silence. The publication of his memoir-novel Night, which first appeared in English in 1960, began a decade-long public awakening. The language it used to describe his Auschwitz ordeal was plain and unsparing enough to be achingly specific, yet cast as a universal narrative, the story shared by six million murdered souls. It was the story that taught us what the trains and gas chambers and work camps really meant, and it was his early insistence on popularizing an old scriptural term that led us all to call it the Holocaust.

By the time Elie Wiesel died on July 2, 2016, at age 87, he had become such a significant and beloved public figure, the winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize and almost every other major world honour, that it was too easy to forget the silence that came before, the harsh resistance to the publication of Night, the long years during which few people read it—and the jarring slap in the face it delivered to so many North Americans and Europeans.

For Jewish readers, it was the shock of finding an explicitly spiritual meaning and shape in the unmentionable chaos of their family past. In the Canada of the 1960s, Night “was passed around among my hip Jewish friends at McGill with unusual sincerity,” remembers the scholar Bernard Avishai. “Most of our families were immigrants from Eastern Europe, and his past was ours, only worse and more perfectly articulated…Wiesel became the author of our passion play: unspeakable cruelty, common indifference, God’s forsaking, the sacrifice of his innocent chosen.”

Next: He was a spiritual, reflective boy…

Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany, 1945. Wiesel is pictured in the second bunk from the bottom, seventh from the left, next to the vertical beam.

It was a barely altered recounting of his own life story. A spiritual, reflective boy in a forgotten Transylvanian village, he seemed destined for a rabbinical life until modernity caught up with his family in the worst way: forced onto trains with a half million other Hungarian Jews, they were unloaded at Auschwitz, where his little sister and his mother were ordered to the right, straight into the gas chambers (“I saw them disappear into the distance; my mother was stroking my sister’s hair”), and Elie and his father to the left, where three years of slave labour and death marches await, during which he sees his father waste away, beg him for help and die calling the name of a son who was too afraid to help. As he watches fellow children die in agony around him, Elie’s emerging hatred of God is a defining theme.

Night coincided with two other events, the 1961 publication of Raul Hilberg’s scholarly masterpiece The Destruction of the European Jews, which provided the first full documentary proof of the organized murder of six million and the trial in Israel the same year of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, which turned the bureaucratic organization of the death camps into front-page news. But it was Wiesel’s almost scriptural recounting of his unspeakable past, his commanding presence in the public eye, and his moral authority that captured the world’s imagination and defined the Shoah as a singular rupture in world history.

Over the next five decades, he would publish more than 50 books and several plays, most of them based directly or indirectly on his experiences in the death camps, in pogrom-plagued European villages or in early Israel, all recounted in the style of fables and proverbs laced with descriptive language that pricks the heart. We kept listening because that first book showed us how a single story can change the world.

A version of this article appeared in the September 2016 issue with the headline, “The Witness,” p. 74-75.