Elie Wiesel is a world-renowned author, teacher, activist, and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, and his experience as a Holocaust survivor and refugee has shaped his dedication to the cause of human rights for all.
“When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant.” -Elie Wiesel
Born in 1928 in what is now Romania, Wiesel was only fifteen years old when his family was forcibly deported to Auschwitz, a Nazi death camp, during World War II. After being sent to Auschwitz, Wiesel and his father were forced into the Buna Werke labor camp to work under conditions that were truly inhumane. During this time, he and his father were sent to other Nazi concentration camps, including Buchenwald, where his father was beaten to death by a German soldier. In 1945, Wiesel as freed from Buchenwald. Tragically, Elie’s mother and younger sister Tzipora were killed during the Holocaust, while his two older sisters Beatrice and Helga survived.
In the years following the Holocaust, Elie Wiesel emerged as a singular voice on behalf more than 6 million Jews murdered systematically by the Nazis in his memoir, Night, a first-hand account of his horrific experiences in the concentration camps. In Night, Wiesel expresses the tremendous guilt he had felt for surviving while millions of others had been killed. His narrative was a poignant account of the horrors of the Holocaust, as well a powerful depiction of the massive loss of human lives.
Elie Wiesel was appointed in 1978 by President Carter to be the Chairman of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust, and in 1980, Wiesel became the Founding Chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. Furthermore, he played a crucial role in the establishment of the United States Holocaust Museum as Chairman of the museum’s memorial contribution, and he considered the Holocaust Museum to be his meaningful, lasting contribution to his adopted country.
In 1986, Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In his acceptance speech, he emphasized the importance of maintaining the memory of the tragedies of the Holocaust and affirmed, “If we forget, we are guilty, we are all accomplices.” Additionally, the International Rescue Commission awarded Wiesel the Freedom Award in 1987.
Soon after his acceptance of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize, Elie and his wife, Marion, established the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, which is committed to fighting “indifference, intolerance, and injustice through international dialogue and youth-focused programs that promote acceptance, understanding, and equality.” Through its international conferences, this organization serves as an important medium for fostering global advocacy and evoking change.
As a human rights activist, Wiesel consistently defended the causes of “Soviet Jews, Nicaragua’s Miskito Indians, Argentina’s Desaparecidos, Cambodian refugees, the Kurds, victims of famine and genocide in Africa, of apartheid in South Africa, and victims of war in the former Yugoslavia”, according to the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity. Regarding the Bosnian massacres in the mid-1990s, Wiesel urged that “If this is Auschwitz again, we must mobilize the world.”
Teaching was a fundamental aspect of Wiesel’s career, and he had been the Andrew Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University since 1976, where he taught both religion and philosophy. Prior to his time at Boston University, Wiesel had served as a Distinguished Professor at the City University of New York from 1972 to 1976. He also served as the first Henry Luce Visiting Scholar in Humanities and Social Thought at Yale University from 1982 to 1983.
After a long life dedicated to the causes of human rights, advocacy, education, and global peace, Elie Wiesel died at 87 in December 2016. From a life of difficulty and witnessing the true horror of the Holocaust, Elie Wiesel emerged as a powerful voice in defense of all those facing violence and discrimination. Through his literary works, his contributions to preserving the memory of victims of the Holocaust, and his foundation, Elie Wiesel continues to serve as an inspiration for those who seek to confront injustice.