Elie Wiesel: Con­fronting the Silence

By – May 22, 2023

I wrote to tes­ti­fy, to stop the dead from dying, to jus­ti­fy my own sur­vival,” Elie Wiesel once said, forc­ing the world to acknowl­edge the Holo­caust. With his haunt­ed eyes and impas­sioned words, he took on an almost prophet-like presence.

Win­ner of the 1986 Nobel Prize for Peace, Wiesel (1928 – 2016) was an out­spo­ken advo­cate for human rights and vic­tims of oppres­sion, a force behind the found­ing of the US Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Muse­um, a sup­port­er of Israel, a mem­o­rable speak­er and pro­fes­sor, and the author of six­ty books — most notably Night, the sear­ing account of his time in Auschwitz. But as Joseph Berg­er traces Wiesel’s unlike­ly jour­ney from a small town in Hun­gary to world promi­nence, he also shows Wiesel in all his com­plex­i­ties, as an unaf­fect­ed, fal­li­ble man who kept his faith even while strug­gling with God.

As a reporter for the New York­Times, Berg­er had first­hand knowl­edge of many of the impor­tant events in Wiesel’s career, and even knew him per­son­al­ly. To sup­port this deeply researched and engross­ing biog­ra­phy, he turned to Wiesel’s exten­sive writ­ings and the archives at Boston Uni­ver­si­ty, where Wiesel taught for almost four decades. He also spent long hours with Wiesel’s col­leagues and fam­i­ly, shed­ding light on the pri­vate side of Wiesel’s increas­ing­ly pub­lic life. 

Wiesel was born in Sighet, a town in Hun­gary that in some ways he nev­er left. He took delight in Hasidic melodies, Jew­ish study and tra­di­tion, the silence of Shab­bat after­noons, and his grand­fa­ther’s exu­ber­ant faith and love of music. His life in Sighet end­ed abrupt­ly and bru­tal­ly in May 1944, when the last Jews were deport­ed from the town. As Wiesel and his father were steered into Birke­nau, he saw his moth­er and beloved younger sis­ter one final time.

While Wiesel’s pub­lic career began in his late for­ties, Berg­er makes a point of invok­ing the years dur­ing which Wiesel recov­ered and reshaped his life. After lib­er­a­tion, he found his foot­ing by return­ing to his Tal­mu­dic stud­ies. When France opened a cen­ter for sur­viv­ing teenagers, Wiesel resumed his edu­ca­tion there. Soon flu­ent in French, he stud­ied at the Sor­bonne, read wide­ly, enjoyed Left Bank cafes, found­ed choral groups, and admired beau­ti­ful women.

Wiesel’s career as a writer began as part of an unsuc­cess­ful attempt to fight for Israel in the war against the new state. After he was declared phys­i­cal­ly unfit, he became a trans­la­tor for an Irgun news­pa­per. When the paper shut down, he jumped at the oppor­tu­ni­ty to serve as a cor­re­spon­dent in Israel for a French Jew­ish paper. The six months he spent there were unset­tling. Israelis looked down on sur­vivors as cow­ards who meek­ly went to the camps; and he was trou­bled by polit­i­cal infight­ing and atti­tudes toward Pales­tini­ans. But he left with a press card as a cor­re­spon­dent for the nascent Yedio­th Ahronoth—and was now an accred­it­ed journalist.

An assign­ment took Wiesel on a six-week ocean trip, dur­ing which he met a Jew­ish pub­lish­er from Argenti­na. He saw Wiesel with a man­u­script and asked about it; and, in 1956, he showed the pub­lish­er a Yid­dish ver­sion of what would ulti­mate­ly become Night. It was pub­lished in French in 1958 and again in Eng­lish two years lat­er, at a time when many were reluc­tant to face the Holo­caust. Ques­tions have arisen about the authen­tic­i­ty of the man­u­script; but what­ev­er the quib­bles about the var­i­ous edi­tions and its orig­i­nal small sales, Berg­er points out that there can be no doubt about the pro­found issues raised in Night and its influ­ence worldwide. 

Upon his return from Israel, Yedio­th Ahronoth offered Wiesel a job as a cor­re­spon­dent in New York. He was soon part of the city’s vibrant refugee com­mu­ni­ty, and began free­lanc­ing and report­ing for Yid­dish news­pa­pers. When his visa expired, the state­less Wiesel got a green card, the first step toward Amer­i­can citizenship. 

Through his writ­ing, Wiesel’s pub­lic voice was gain­ing force. On a trip to the Sovi­et Union in 1965, he took to heart the oppres­sion of the Sovi­et Jews, who were locked in a coun­try that did not allow them to prac­tice open­ly or emi­grate. His mov­ing The Silence of the Jews, along with demon­stra­tions and ongo­ing pres­sure on Con­gress, final­ly forced the Sovi­et Union to relent. 

Israel’s extra­or­di­nary vic­to­ry in the Six-Day War brought even more atten­tion to Wiesel. Sud­den­ly every­one want­ed to know about the Holo­caust; and Wiesel, with his per­son­al his­to­ry and strik­ing pres­ence, became the pub­lic voice of the sur­vivors, con­stant­ly called on to speak. His lec­tures dis­played his broad knowl­edge and per­son­al charm and led to a long career as a pro­fes­sor. And he con­tin­ued to write exten­sive­ly through­out these years, draw­ing on his mem­o­ries and his rich knowl­edge of Hasidism and Jew­ish tales.

One strength of Berger’s book lies in his account of how Wiesel’s promi­nence gave him the oppor­tu­ni­ty to address mat­ters of vital con­cern to the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. In 1978, Pres­i­dent Jim­my Carter announced the estab­lish­ment of a memo­r­i­al to the Holo­caust and named Wiesel chair­man of the com­mis­sion that would deter­mine its form. He was adamant that, first and fore­most, the muse­um must ful­ly record the destruc­tion of Euro­pean Jew­ry as a unique his­tor­i­cal event, before acknowl­edg­ing the oth­er vic­tims of Nazi per­se­cu­tion and oth­er geno­cides. He also insist­ed on an accu­rate account of the response in Europe and the Unit­ed States dur­ing the war. 

In March 1985, Pres­i­dent Rea­gan announced a vis­it to Ger­many, where he would lay a wreath at a Ger­man mil­i­tary ceme­tery in Bit­burg, in which SS mem­bers were buried. He had no plans to vis­it any con­cen­tra­tion camps. The event gal­va­nized the Amer­i­can Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty as well as vet­er­ans and human rights activists. To make mat­ters worse, Wiesel was sched­uled to receive the Con­gres­sion­al Gold Medal two weeks before Reagan’s trip. In a speech in which he expressed his respect and admi­ra­tion for the pres­i­dent, Wiesel exhort­ed him to find anoth­er way … [Bit­burg] is not your place, Mr. Pres­i­dent. Your place is with the vic­tims of the SS.” Rea­gan ulti­mate­ly pro­ceed­ed with the lay­ing of the wreath, but added a vis­it to Bergen-Belsen to the trip.

In show­ing all sides of Wiesel, includ­ing his dif­fi­cult final years, Berg­er paints an utter­ly human por­trait. Wiesel was not above per­son­al dis­agree­ments or the plea­sures of promi­nence. An obser­vant Jew, he grap­pled with God through­out his life, and he strug­gled with Israel, staunch­ly and pub­licly sup­port­ing the state even while wish­ing it would set a moral exam­ple. Above all, Wiesel was, in the words of the Nobel com­mit­tee, a mes­sen­ger of peace, atone­ment, and human dig­ni­ty” to mankind who went to extra­or­di­nary lengths to fight for the rights of oppressed peo­ple all over the world.

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions

Joseph Berger’s Elie Wiesel: Con­fronting the Silence tells the sto­ry of the writer and Jew­ish leader Elie Wiesel. Wiesel is prob­a­bly the world’s most famous Holo­caust sur­vivor, but he did not set out to be a pro­fes­sion­al sur­vivor. Wiesel began his career as a jour­nal­ist and only slow­ly became the inter­na­tion­al­ly known Elie Wiesel, Holo­caust sur­vivor. Berg­er takes us on this jour­ney, describ­ing not only Wiesel’s har­row­ing time in Auschwitz, but also his post-Holo­caust peri­od as a pen­ni­less and, he thought, fam­i­ly­less refugee; as a bud­ding jour­nal­ist; and even­tu­al­ly as an acclaimed author. Berg­er also explores Weisel’s strug­gle with theod­i­cy — how to resolve the ques­tion of evil in a world gov­erned by G‑d. The book is in line with many of the Jew­ish biogra­phies in the indis­pens­able Yale series, but the clar­i­ty and pow­er of Berger’s writ­ing makes it par­tic­u­lar­ly notable.