Elie Wiesel, an Auschwitz concentration camp survivor who became an eloquent witness for the 6 million Jews slaughtered in World War II and who, more than anyone, seared the memory of the Holocaust on the world’s conscience, died Saturday at his home in New York. He was 87.
Wiesel wrote several dozen books and was a lecturer and humanities professor. In 1986, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
But he was defined not so much by the work he did as by the gaping void he filled. In the aftermath of the Germans’ systematic massacre of Jews, no voice had emerged to drive home the enormity of what had happened and how it had changed mankind’s conception of itself and of God. For almost two decades, both the traumatized survivors and American Jews, guilt-ridden that they had not done more to rescue their brethren, seemed frozen in silence.
But by the sheer force of his personality and his gift for the haunting phrase, Wiesel, who had been liberated from Buchenwald as a 16-year-old with the 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.”
Some in the Kansas City area still remember meeting Wiesel when he visited the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence in the late 1990s.
While many dignitaries who visited the library in those days came by private plane, Wiesel arrived on a regular flight to Kansas City International Airport just like anyone else, said Jeffrey Byrne, who was the library’s vice president of institutional development at the time and picked Wiesel up at the airport.
“He was short in stature but packed a lot of punch,” Byrne said. “He was very bold in his message.”
Wiesel was in town then for a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the United States’ recognition of the state of Israel, which was formally made by Truman.
Appearing before a crowd of about 3,000 at the Community of Christ Auditorium in Independence, Wiesel spoke about the reconciliation of nations and peoples, Byrne said.
Wiesel first gained attention in 1960 with the English translation of “Night,” his autobiographical account of the horrors he witnessed in the camps as a 15-year-old boy. He wrote of how he had been plagued by guilt for having survived while millions died, and tormented by doubts about a God who would allow such slaughter.
“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed,” Wiesel wrote. “Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live long as God himself. Never.”
Wiesel went on to write novels, books of essays and reportage, two plays and two cantatas. Although many of his books were nominally about topics like Soviet Jewry or Hasidic masters, they all dealt with profound questions resonating out of the Holocaust: What is the sense of living in a universe that tolerates unimaginable cruelty? How could the world have been mute? How can one go on believing? Wiesel asked the questions in spare prose and without raising his voice. He rarely offered answers.
“If I survived, it must be for some reason,” he told Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times in an interview in 1981. “I must do something with my life. It is too serious to play games with anymore, because in my place, someone else could have been saved. And so I speak for that person. On the other hand, I know I cannot.”
There may have been better chroniclers who evoked the hellish minutiae of the German death machine. There were arguably more illuminating philosophers. But no single figure was able to combine Wiesel’s moral urgency and magnetism, which emanated from his deeply lined face and eyes as unrelievable melancholy.
“He has the look of Lazarus about him,” Roman Catholic writer François Mauriac wrote of Wiesel, a friend.
The Star’s Ian Cummings contributed to this report.