Elie Wiesel back­stage before speak­ing to the Unit­ed Jew­ish Appeal Con­ven­tion, 1988, Pho­to by Michael Geissinger

Library of Congress

Had there been no Sec­ond World War, Elie Wiesel might have end­ed up as a Hasidic rab­bi in a Hun­gar­i­an shtetl, per­haps revered for his schol­ar­ly com­mand of the Tal­mud and for his mys­ti­cal under­stand­ing of the ways of God.

But the war trans­port­ed Wiesel to realms no one could have fore­seen. In its wake, he became a jour­nal­ist, nov­el­ist, teacher, and ora­tor, writ­ing Nightone of the most essen­tial and wide­ly read accounts of the Holo­caust. He became the torch­bear­er for Holo­caust sur­vivors, and won a Nobel Peace Prize for his mes­sage that elo­quent­ly con­demned geno­cide and per­se­cu­tion everywhere.

How did all that come about? I was drawn to writ­ing the biog­ra­phy Elie Wiesel: Con­fronting the Silence because of Wiesel’s aston­ish­ing accom­plish­ments. But I was also intrigued by the idea that twists of fate, as much as a roadmap of inten­tions, often deter­mine how our lives unfold.

Wiesel was born in 1928 and grew up in the town of Sighet, which vac­il­lat­ed between Roma­nia and Hun­gary for much of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. His grand­fa­ther was a Hasid of the Viznitz sect and Wiesel was beguiled by his grandfather’s piety and Tal­mu­dic eru­di­tion and sought to emu­late him as a child. Wiesel stood out in school for his mas­tery of Torah and Tal­mud. As a teenag­er he was also drawn to kab­bal­ah, show­ing an ear­ly flair for mys­ti­cism that col­ored the nov­els and essays he would write as an adult. Wiesel’s moth­er, more cul­ti­vat­ed than was typ­i­cal of Hasidic women, exert­ed her influ­ence too. (She read sec­u­lar mag­a­zines sent from Paris and Vien­na, accord­ing to Wiesel’s memoir.)

The cozy har­mo­ny of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty of Sighet was upend­ed dur­ing the war when Ger­man Nazis occu­pied the region around Sighet, angry that Hun­gar­i­an offi­cials were not suf­fi­cient­ly tor­ment­ing Jews. The Ger­man Nazis then con­fined Sighet’s Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion in ghet­toes and ulti­mate­ly deport­ed them to Auschwitz-Birke­nau. Wiesel saw his moth­er and sev­en-year-old sis­ter walk off to what turned out tobe the gas cham­bers. Assigned with his father to a slave labor squad at the Auschwitz satel­lite camp of Buna, he saw his father starved, sick­ened, and beat­en. After a death march to Buchen­wald through snow-shroud­ed roads in only thin clothes, Wiesel’s father suc­cumbed to his wounds.

Upon Buchenwald’s lib­er­a­tion, Wiesel was a six­teen-year-old orphan. But in an irony of fate that sta­tus proved for­tu­nate – he could be includ­ed in a train of 400 orphans that Gen­er­al Charles de Gaulle of France agreed to take in. Wiesel was put up in a string of Jew­ish-run orphan­ages not far from Paris. When the time came for the orphans to strike out on their own, Wiesel wound up tak­ing cours­es in lit­er­a­ture and phi­los­o­phy at the Sor­bonne, idling in cafes with peo­ple in John Paul Sartre’s cir­cle. This gave him the intel­lec­tu­al and lit­er­ary heft that was to dis­tin­guish him.

In the col­lec­tive post­war ret­i­cence about grap­pling with the Holo­caust, Wiesel’s clas­sic mem­oir Night bare­ly caused a rip­ple when it was pub­lished in 1960.

Also impor­tant in shap­ing him was his desire to join up with the mili­tias fight­ing for Israeli inde­pen­dence. He was reject­ed as too frail to be a sol­dier but assigned to work at the news­pa­per of the Irgun, one of the mili­tias. That’s how he became a jour­nal­ist, a career he pur­sued for the next twen­ty-five years that gave him a foun­da­tion to write more exten­sive prose, includ­ing sem­i­nal books like The Jews of Silence, focus­ing on the per­se­cu­tion of Sovi­et Jew­ry, and Souls on Fire, about Hasidic mas­ters, and also a dozen novels.

In the col­lec­tive post­war ret­i­cence about grap­pling with the Holo­caust, Wiesel’s clas­sic mem­oir Night bare­ly caused a rip­ple when it was pub­lished in 1960, sell­ing about a thou­sand copies a year. But the so-called mir­a­cle of the Six-Day War of 1967 set off a tidal wave of Jew­ish pride and a fer­vor to plumb Jew­ish iden­ti­ty and the Holo­caust itself. Wiesel overnight became a pop­u­lar speak­er and Night the text that seemed to most vivid­ly and elo­quent­ly cap­ture the hor­rif­ic expe­ri­ence of the camps.

Wiesel was in a way anoint­ed as the torch­bear­er of Holo­caust sur­vivors when Pres­i­dent Jim­my Carter (seek­ing to help his re-elec­tion cam­paign by mol­li­fy­ing a Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty angered by his sale of advanced mil­i­tary jets to Sau­di Ara­bia) cre­at­ed a com­mis­sion to con­sid­er build­ing a Holo­caust mon­u­ment of some sort in the nation’s cap­i­tal. He appoint­ed Wiesel as its chair­man. Wiesel got the com­mit­tee off to an inspired start with a deci­sion to build an edu­ca­tion­al muse­um focused on the mur­der of the six mil­lion, but he did not have the man­age­ment skills to actu­al­ly con­struct the museum.

Nev­er­the­less, it was he who was called upon in 1985 to protest Pres­i­dent Ronald Reagan’s deci­sion to lay a wreath at a mil­i­tary ceme­tery in Bit­burg that, it was soon revealed, con­tained the graves of forty-nine mem­bers of the Waf­fen SS, the Nazi unit which had per­pe­trat­ed some of the war’s worst atroc­i­ties. Again, by a stroke of for­tu­nate coin­ci­dence, two weeks before the Bit­burg vis­it Rea­gan was to hand Wiesel a Con­gres­sion­al Medal of Achieve­ment at a White House cer­e­mo­ny. With TV cam­eras record­ing, Wiesel respond­ed to receiv­ing the medal with a dis­creet but pow­er­ful­ly plain­spo­ken rebuke of the planned Bit­burg visit: 

That place is not your place, Mr. Pres­i­dent,” he said at the speech’s mem­o­rable cli­max. Your place is with the vic­tims of the SS.”

A year fol­low­ing the world­wide head­lines about the White House con­fronta­tion, Wiesel was informed that he had won the Nobel Prize for Peace for being a mes­sen­ger to mankind.” Although there were many oth­er worth­while rea­sons for him to be so hon­ored, many ana­lysts saw the Bit­burg episode as final­ly goad­ing the Nobel com­mit­tee to award the prize he had long rich­ly deserved for his work and words.

The Nobel was some­thing of a Hol­ly­wood end­ing to a life seared by tragedy. Yet it was the cin­e­mat­ic and branch­ing arc of Wiesel’s sto­ry that also filled me with con­fi­dence that a biog­ra­phy of this bril­liant, momen­tous man could find an abun­dance of readers. 

Joseph Berg­er was a New York Times reporter, colum­nist, and edi­tor for thir­ty years, and he con­tin­ues to con­tribute peri­od­i­cal­ly. He has taught urban affairs at the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York’s Macaulay Hon­ors Col­lege. He is the author of Dis­placed Per­sons: Grow­ing Up Amer­i­can After the Holo­caust and lives in New York City.