Wiesel, Elie (Eliezer Wiesel)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Wiesel, Elie (Eliezer Wiesel)

Wiesel, Elie (Eliezer Wiesel) (1928- ) Romanian-born American journalist and autobiographer

Through grim realism, the ethicist Elie Wiesel vilifies tyranny and barbarity in speeches and memoirs about his survival of Nazi hellholes at Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, and Buchenwald. Born Eliezer Wiesel in Sighet, Transylvania, in the Carpathian Mountains, he studied Torah Hebrew, Kabbala, and biblical commentaries as well as astronomy, contemporary Hebrew, literature, and Freudian psychology. At age 12, as Nazism loomed, he heard rumors of lethal anti-Semitism, deportations, and mass murder by the Gestapo. While the Third Reich advanced as far as Budapest, he refused to accept the possibility of a Jewish GENOCIDE.

Wiesel's slim study of death, La nuit (Night, 1960) reprises his family's roundup by Nazis on Passover week, April 20, 1944, when police loot and shutter synagogues and jail ghetto leaders. By cattle car, the Gestapo deports citizens, 80 per car, ostensibly to crews in brick factories at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland. Wiesel's text pities refugees as “fallen, dragging their packs, dragging their lives, deserting their homes, the years of their childhood, cringing like beaten dogs” (Wiesel 1986, 15). At midnight, they view the gas crematoria that wipe out evidence of Central European Semites. He personalizes his narrative with memories of his mother and seven-year-old sister Tzipora, who vanish among the doomed, as do his maternal grandparents and nameless infants burned in a pit.

Wiesel endorses pacifism by depicting the work- or-die style of concentration camp life. He and his father survive as long as they elude the selection process of Dr. Josef Mengele, an SS officer who culls the feeble and sick. Camp dehumanization begins with head shaving, delousing, and tattooing before herding inside electric wires at Auschwitz and assignment to the electrical warehouse at Buna Werke. In the last days of World War II, Wiesel trudges 400 miles to Buchenwald, Germany, to drag stone blocks alongside criminals, gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, Jews, pacifists, and spies. Inmates take fleeting refuge in dreams of the diaspora to Haifa, Palestine. In January 1945, the SS flees the Red Army of the Russians and evacuates prisoners through snow to a subcamp at Gleiwitz. Orphaned in the final days, Wiesel fears a pervasive PROPHECY: “This was the End! Hitler was going to keep his promise” (107). He chews potato peelings and grass until his rescue on April 10 by the U.S. Third Army.

Stateless and homeless, Wiesel sheltered in Normandy, France, and then, at the Sorbonne, studied Jewish mysticism and the works of FYODOR DOSTOYEVSKY, Franz Kafka, and Thomas Mann. From newspaper work and translation jobs, he advanced to postwar treatises that popularized the term Holocaust as a historical entity produced by Hitler's search for a “final solution” for unwanted non-Aryans. After the slow success of Night, Wiesel created a trilogy with his publication of Laube (Dawn, 1961) and Le jour (The Accident, 1962), works that established his authority on Nazism and genocide. His public appearances, classroom teaching, and writings earned him the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize. The author of 58 books, he became a U.S. citizen in 1955 and, with his wife, formed the Elie Wiesel Foundation for humanity. He continues to write and lecture, keeping the horrors of the Holocaust fresh in the public memory in his most recent work, A Mad Desire to Dance (2009), a retrospect on psychological trauma.


Chmiel, Mark. Elie Wiesel and the Politics of Moral Leadership. New York: Temple University Press, 2001.

Houghton, Sarah. Elie Wiesel: A Holocaust Survivor Cries Out for Peace. New York: Red Brick Learning, 2003. Wiesel, Elie. Night. New York: Bantam, 1986.