Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor turned writer, professor, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has died. He was 87.
Wiesel promoted education about the Holocaust and wrote an internationally bestselling memoir, “Night,” about his experiences as a teenager in a concentration camp, recounting losing his mother, father, and sister during World War II.
Wiesel was born in the Romanian town of Sighet in 1928, and lived there with his family until the family was deported in 1944 (along with the rest of the Jewish community there) to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. After the war, the now-orphaned Wiesel was sent to a home in France, where he was eventually reunited with his two surviving sisters.
For years, he spoke out about the systematic extermination of Jewish people, and decried the world’s silence about it:
But by the sheer force of his personality and his gift for the haunting phrase, Mr. Wiesel, who had been liberated from Buchenwald as a 16-year-old with the indelible tattoo A-7713 on his arm, gradually exhumed the Holocaust from the burial ground of the history books.
It was this speaking out against forgetfulness and violence that the Nobel committee recognized when it awarded him the peace prize in 1986.
“Wiesel is a messenger to mankind,” the Nobel citation said. “His message is one of peace, atonement and human dignity. His belief that the forces fighting evil in the world can be victorious is a hard-won belief.”
Wiesel spoke out against ongoing acts of violence and genocide in the world for the rest of his life. In his 1986 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, he decried neutrality for allowing crimes against humanity to flourish:
We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.
Wiesel also was one of the higher-profile victims of Bernie Madoff’s pyramid schemes, losing millions from his foundation:
The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity lost $15.2 million it had invested with Madoff, and the Wiesels lost their own life’s savings, reported to be around $1 million. The foundation later managed to raise about one-third of the money it lost to Madoff from sympathetic donors, and to continue to function. When asked to describe Madoff by a New York Times journalist, Wiesel said, “Psychopath – it’s too nice a word for him.”
Wiesel is survived by his wife, Marion — who also translated a significant portion of his work — as well as a son, a stepdaughter, and two grandchildren.