The novel has been translated into more than 30 languages and is read by students, lovers of history, and citizens of countries around the world. The novel follows the youthful Eliezer, a representation of Elie Wiesel himself, as he is taken from his home and family and placed into a concentration camp, Auschwitz.
Wiesel used this novel as a way to deal with what happened to him during the Holocaust while speaking more broadly on the importance of never forgetting the events of that period in history. Eliezer loses his mother and sister, then eventually his father, after doing everything he could to keep him alive through their months together moving to different camps, laboring under the constant threat of death, and watching friends and acquaintances murdered. Wiesel was liberated from Buchenwald, along with his fellow prisoners in April 1945.
The Jews of Silence
After his liberation, Wiesel refrained from speaking about the events of his imprisonment for ten years. He sat down to write Night and continued to write more than 60 works of fiction and non-fiction. One of the most important was The Jews of Silence, a novel that spoke about the treatment of Soviet Jews and was especially important to the Save Soviet Jewry movement.
The book is a non-fiction account of Wiesel’s travel to the Soviet Union during the 1965 High Holidays. While there, he reported on the conditions and treatment of Soviet Jews and called attention to those who were being persecuted for their religion and forced to remain in the country. Wiesel spent two weeks in the region visiting five cities to learn about the area and what it was like post-Stalin. He concluded:
that despite the remorseless propaganda and harsh exactions of the government, soviet Jews still feel they share in the purpose and destiny of the Jewish people.
One of Wiesel’s best-known quotes comes from the end of the book. He wrote:
What torments me most is not the Jews of silence I met in Russia, but the silence of the Jews I live among today.
The book was received with positive reviews, with The New York Times praising it as a passionate outcry. It is considered today to be one of the primary movers in regard to the galvanization of the Soviet Jewry Movement. In 2001, a conference in Moscow was named “From the Jews of Silence to the Jews of Triumph” that discussed the changes that had occurred since Wiesel penned his famous words about the “Jews of silence” he met in Russia.
Wiesel as a United Nations Messenger of Peace
While mostly known as a writer and survivor, Elie Wiesel also lived his remaining years as an activist, traveling the world and speaking about his experiences. He was designated as a United Nations Messenger of Peace in 1998 and used his voice to speak on causes promoted by the UN until his death. He brought topics such as eradicating poverty and atrocities occurring around the world, (such as in Darfur, Sudan) into the public’s eye.
Wiesel was often present at the UN, such as at the first-ever International Day of Commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust. According to the UN, after Wiesel’s death, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon spoke of him as one of the world’s “most important witnesses — and one of its most eloquent advocates of tolerance and peace.”
Elie Wiesel and the Nobel Peace Prize
Elie Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 for his role as Chairman of The President’s Commission on the Holocaust, as well as his broader contributions. In motivation for the prize, the committee wrote the following words:
for being a messenger to mankind: his message is one of peace, atonement and dignity.
He is remembered by the committee as being one of the world’s leading spokespeople on the Holocaust. This is in regard to the facts of the Holocaust but also the importance of fighting against specific attitudes suggesting that other people’s affairs or suffering are “no concern” to those who aren’t experiencing them firsthand. The Nobel Prize committee included this quote by Elie Wiesel in their description of his beliefs:
The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference.
The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity
The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity was founded soon after Wiesel was awarded the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize. The foundation’s stated goal is “to combat indifference, intolerance, and injustice through international dialogue and youth-focused programs that promote acceptance, understanding and equality.”
It is the hope of the foundation, created by Wiesel and his wife, Marion, to serve “as a catalyst for change and action.” They hold conferences focusing on themes including peace, education, and more. Its first conference, Facing the 21st Century: Threats & Promises, was held in 1988 and included 79 Nobel laureates gathered to discuss the topic in Paris. It led to other conferences such as the Petra Conferences of Nobel Laureates.
Elie Wiesel Awards and Legacy
Wiesel has received various honors throughout his life, such as the Congressional Gold Medal in 1984. He was named a commander in the French Legion of Honor, received a star of Romania, and an honorary knighthood in the United Kingdom. Wiesel also won numerous literary awards.
Elie Wiesel died on July 2, 2016, in Manhattan. When speaking about her husband, Marion Wiesel wrote the following words:
[He] was a fighter. He fought for the memory of the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust, and he fought for Israel. He waged countless battles for innocent victims regardless of ethnicity or creed. But what was most meaningful to him was teaching the innumerable students who attended his university classes. We are deeply moved by the outpouring of love and support we have already seen in the wake of his passing.
He is remembered today for his writing and his activism; as the one to push President Carter to commission the United States Holocaust Museum and the one who called upon President Clinton to protect those being slaughtered in Kosovo and the Balkans. He was unafraid to ask questions, demand answers, and remind everyone who would listen of the importance of never forgetting the past.