Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate who became a leading icon of Holocaust remembrance and a global symbol of conscience, died Saturday 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.
“He was one of the most influential Jews in Jewish history,” said Rabbi Danny Schiff, the Federation Scholar at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. “He bore witness, with extraordinary poignancy and poetry, to the depths of human evil. After immense tragedy and suffering, he taught us not only about inhumanity, but about the joy of Bible, and Chasidism, and Judaism, and he oriented us back to life. He was a powerful, unafraid voice for morality and for the finest of Jewish values. His death — perhaps more than any other —represents our transition to a time when we will need to carry on without the survivor generation.”
Local Holocaust survivors recognized their own responsibility to continue Wiesel’s work and stressed the educational impact of firsthand accounts of the Shoah.
“Although my contributions to Holocaust remembrance are not as illustrious as Wiesel’s, I feel that it is my duty as the last of the survivor generation to carry on his legacy,” said Harry Schneider, who survived the Holocaust as a child by hiding in the woods with his family. “It is my duty to share with others my memories to ensure the Holocaust is not forgotten. Hatred, left unchecked and unchallenged, can create another Holocaust.”
Moshe Baran, a survivor who fought in the resistance, said he was inspired by Wiesel’s “emphasis on bearing witness.”
“In my experience speaking to students, nothing could be more important to them in learning about the Shoah than meeting and listening to a survivor’s story,” Baran said.
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.
Pennsylvania State Rep. Dan Frankel remembered meeting Wiesel in the late 1970s at the home of his late father-in-law, Alfred Ronald (formerly Rosenthal). The two men were close friends, Frankel said, and Wiesel even wrote about Ronald, a German refugee who went on to become a United States paratrooper in World War II.
“I spent an evening with him,” Frankel recalled. “There was an aura about Elie Wiesel that was so extraordinary. There was a spirituality just being in his presence. In his eyes, you could almost see the history of the Holocaust.”
Frankel remembered hearing Wiesel speak in Pittsburgh at the Three Rivers Lecture Series in 1995, and his most unusual introduction by the head of Bayer Corporation, Helge Wehmeier. Wehmeir, a Germany native, publicly apologized for the first time to Wiesel for the brutal actions of his corporation’s predecessor during World War II.
Bayer’s parent company, Bayer AG, was part of the German chemical conglomerate I.G. Farben, which ran slave-labor factories during the Holocaust, including one at which Wiesel worked as a teenager, the AP reported at the time. IGF also had a significant investment in a company that made Zyklon B gas, used to kill hundreds of thousands of Jews at Auschwitz, the camp where Wiesel’s mother and sister died.
Frankel praised Wiesel’s legacy, which he said has greatly impacted the future of Holocaust education, including in Pennsylvania.
“The fact that Elie Wiesel was such a prominent figure in memorializing the Holocaust and writing about it had an enormous impact on the establishment of a Holocaust curriculum used statewide [pursuant to Act 70, encouraging schools to teach the Holocaust, genocide and human rights],” Frankel said. “Even though he is one of the last spokesmen of a generation, he left a legacy we all think is so important. Nobody will be able to distort the history of that era.”
Wiesel 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. Wiesel also took Winfrey to Auschwitz that same year.
Pittsburgh City Councilman Dan Gilman noted that Wiesel “spent decades dedicated to ensuring that the world never forgot the hatred, violence, prejudice and inhumanity that he personally witnessed. He dedicated his life to the promotion of peace and tolerance for all. His words ring true today and should always remain in our hearts and mind. As President Barack Obama stated, Elie Wiesel was the ‘conscience of the world.’ May his memory always serve as a blessing.”
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 when he was 15. His mother and one of his sisters were murdered immediately. His father, who traveled with him to the camps, died of dysentery and starvation in Buchenwald before liberation. Two other sisters survived 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,” the rabbi said.
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 1972, he enthralled Yeshiva University students with his excoriation of the American and American Jewish leadership for its silence during the Holocaust.
How many Jewish leaders “tore their clothes in mourning?” Wiesel asked. “How many marched on Washington? How many weddings took place without music?”
His 1966 book reporting the plight of Soviet Jews, “The Jews of Silence,” made possible the movement that sought their freedom.
“Elie Wiesel was the collective moral compass of the Jewish people,” Natan Sharansky, who became the face of the Soviet Jewish struggle, said in a statement with his wife, Avital, who with Wiesel led advocacy for Sharansky’s release from prison.
“He was the first to break the silence surrounding the plight of Soviet Jewry, and he accompanied our struggle until we achieved victory,” said Sharansky, who is now the chairman of The Jewish Agency for Israel. “We will miss him deeply.”
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, Wiesel 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.”
In 1985, Wiesel’s reputation grew beyond the Jewish world when he challenged President Ronald Reagan on live television over his intention to visit a German cemetery that housed the remains of Nazi soldiers. In the Oval Office to receive the Congressional Medal of Achievement, Wiesel chastised Reagan.
“This is not your place, Mr. President,” Wiesel famously said. The president visited the cemetery anyway, but changed his itinerary to include a visit to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
Wiesel challenged the White House again in 1993 when he charged the newly inaugurated President Bill Clinton to do more to address the atrocities then unfolding in Yugoslavia.
“Most people don’t confront a sitting president that way, and he confronted two,” said Sara Bloomfield, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s current director.
At the inauguration in 1993 of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Wiesel said, clearly, “I don’t believe there are answers. There are no answers. And this museum is not an answer; it is a question mark.” That question mark he applied to global atrocities, as well as historical ones.
“Wiesel stood for remembering the Holocaust and for translating that memory into action in the present,” Lauren Bairnsfather, director of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh said in a statement. “His memoir, ‘Night,’ is the Holocaust text most read in schools across Western Pennsylvania. It is through Wiesel’s straightforward, staccato prose that students encounter the atrocities of the Holocaust and the ambiguity of survival. Wiesel’s example of surviving the worst and living to demand the best of humanity inspires us every day.”
Wiesel’s later years saw him wade into politics. He was friends with Obama but also loudly chastised the president for calling for an end to settlement construction and for brokering the Iran nuclear rollback-for-sanctions-relief deal, positions that led to criticism, even from longtime admirers. His very public support for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was also questioned. Peter Beinart, writing in Haaretz, said: “Wiesel takes refuge in the Israel of his imagination, using it to block out the painful reckoning that might come from scrutinizing Israel as it actually is.”
Likewise, in the hours following news of his death other critics, including David Harris-Gershon, writer for the progressive Tikkun magazine and teacher at Pittsburgh’s Community Day School, took to Twitter.
“My view of Wiesel is conflicted,” Harris-Gershon tweeted. In pointing to Wiesel’s own words (“We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim”) Harris-Gershon wrote: “Words like these are precisely why it was so difficult to see Wiesel celebrate settlers & expelling of Palestinians.”
The final years of his life 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.
Yet, he did not cease his work. Just months after the Madoff scandal broke, in June 2009, he led Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on a trip to Buchenwald, where he noted he was at his father’s grave. Wiesel then gave a searing indictment of the world’s continued inability to learn.
“I am deeply saddened by the passing of Elie Wiesel,” said Barbara Burstin, who teaches courses on the Holocaust at both Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh. “His voice was like the resounding voice of a Hebrew prophet demanding action in the face of human suffering and persecution. His moral passion came out of the depths of the Holocaust and spoke for a generation of survivors. We will not see his likes again.”
Along with his wife, Wiesel is survived by a son, Shlomo.
JTA contributed to this article.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.