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Elie Wiesel gave the Holocaust a face and the world a conscience

By Sarah Wildman

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate who became a leading icon of Holocaust remembrance and a global symbol of conscience, died on July 2 at 87. His death was the result of natural causes, the World Jewish Congress said in a statement.

A philosopher, professor and author of such seminal works of Holocaust literature as Night and Dawn, Wiesel, perhaps more than any other figure, came to embody the legacy of the Holocaust and the worldwide community of survivors.

“I have tried to keep memory alive,” Wiesel said at the Nobel peace prize ceremony in 1986. “I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.”

Often, he would say the “opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference.”

The quest to challenge indifference was a driving force in Wiesel’s writing, advocacy and public presence. Though he considered himself primarily a writer, by the end of the 1970s he had settled into the role of moral compass, a touchstone for presidents and a voice that challenged easy complacency about history.

Wiesel spent the majority of his public life speaking of the atrocities he had witnessed and asking the public to consider other acts of cruelty around the world, though he drew the line at direct comparisons with the Holocaust. “I am always advocating the utmost care and prudence when one uses that word,” he told JTA in 1980.

“The State of Israel and the Jewish People bitterly mourn the passing of Elie Wiesel,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement.

“Elie, the wordsmith, expressed through his extraordinary personality and fascinating books the triumph of the human spirit over cruelty and evil.”

He won a myriad of awards for his work, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal and the National Jewish Book Award.

Night is now standard reading in high schools across America. In 2006, it was chosen as a book club selection by Oprah Winfrey and, nearly half a century after it was first published, spent more than a year atop the best-seller list. He would also take Winfrey to Auschwitz that same year. Writing for the New York Times Book Review in 2008, Rachel Donadio said that it had become “a case study in how a book helped create a genre, how a writer became an icon and how the Holocaust was absorbed into the American experience.”

“There is no way to talk about the last half century of Holocaust consciousness without giving Wiesel a front and center role,” said Michael Berenbaum, a professor at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles and former director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s research institute. “What he did, extraordinarily, was to use the Nobel Prize as a tool to call attention to things, and as a vehicle to scream louder, shout more, agitate more.”

Born in the town of Sighet, Transylvania, then and now a part of Romania, in 1928, Wiesel was deported to Auschwitz in 1944 with his family. He was 15. His mother and one of his sisters would disappear forever when the family was forced aboard the cattle cars, murdered immediately. His father, who traveled with him to the camps, died of dysentery and starvation in Buchenwald before liberation. Two sisters would survive the war.

In Night, Wiesel describes pinching his face to see if he is dreaming when he sees the murders of infants.

“In those places, in one night one becomes old,” Wiesel told NPR in 2014. “What one saw in one night, generations of men and women had not seen in their own entire lives.”

Wiesel was liberated from Buchenwald in 1945. He went on to study at the Sorbonne and moved to New York at the end of the 1950s, where he lived in relative obscurity. He worked hard to find a publisher for “Night,” which initially sold poorly.

“The truth is in the 1950s and in the early 1960s there was little interest and willingness to listen to survivors,” said Wiesel’s longtime friend Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, who had read a copy of Night in Israel in the early 1960s. “In 1963, someone told me this author is alive and well in New York City and I somehow managed to find him and go see him.”

Wiesel was “gaunt” and “working as a freelance reporter, a stringer, for a French newspaper, an Israeli newspaper and a Yiddish newspaper — and for none of the above was he making a living,” Greenberg said.

Greenberg was determined to help Wiesel find work. “He had this magnetic presence,” he said. “He was quiet but with tremendous force and he felt the vividness the Holocaust had a message.”

In the late 1960s Wiesel finally began to emerge as one of the preeminent voices in Holocaust literature. By the end of his career, he had written some 50 books.

In 1978, Wiesel became the chairman of the Presidential Committee on the Holocaust, which would ultimately recommend the building of a Holocaust museum in Washington. As his public presence grew, he began to visit the sites of other genocides. In 1980, he traveled to Cambodia. In an interview with JTA, he called the Cambodian refugee camps “spectacles of horror” and noted, “That these things could happen again simply means that the world didn’t learn — or that the world didn’t want to learn.”

The final years of his life also saw financial turmoil. His personal finances and $15.2 million in assets of the Elie Wiesel Foundation For Humanity were invested with Bernie Madoff, who was convicted in 2009 of fraud. Wiesel’s fortune and the reserves of his organization were wiped out.

And yet he did not cease his work. Just months after the scandal broke, in June 2009, he led Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on a trip to Auschwitz where he noted he was at his father’s grave. He then gave a searing indictment of the world’s continued inability to learn.

“As a public figure who was also the very symbol of the Holocaust survivor in America, Wiesel acted as a moral compass, his personal history lending unequalled gravity to his public remarks on genocide, antisemitism and other issues of injustice worldwide.” said Ruth Franklin, author of A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction. “Wiesel never pretended that he understood the Holocaust. He spoke of it as a horror beyond explanation, a black hole in history. As the virtual embodiment of the catch-phrase ‘never forget,’ he did more than anyone else to raise awareness of the Holocaust in American life.”

Wiesel is survived by his wife, Marion, and a son, Shlomo.

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