Winston Churchill called the Holocaust a "crime without a name." Elie Wiesel, one of its most eloquent survivors, would spend the rest of his life trying to find the words to describe what for many seemed incomprehensible. That he often succeeded is a testament to his greatness. In his new book, Elie Wiesel: Confronting the Silence, Joseph Berger profiles a man who became not only a spokesman for Holocaust survivors, but the living embodiment of their calls to "never forget."
As Berger, a former New York Times journalist, has observed: "By the sheer force of his personality and his gift for the haunting phrase, Mr. Wiesel, who had been liberated from Buchenwald as a sixteen-year-old with the indelible tattoo A-7713 on his arm, gradually exhumed the Holocaust from the burial ground of the history books." Wiesel became, a Norwegian Nobel Prize Committee said, "a messenger to mankind."
Wiesel’s works, particularly his 1960 memoir, Night, spread awareness about the Holocaust at a moment when much of the world would have rather forgotten a crime whose barbarity remains hard to fathom.
Wiesel, Berger notes, "had an aura of a prophet about him," yet "he wasn’t a prophet, he was a human being." Berger wondered how a little Hasidic boy from a small town in what is today Romania became an "iconic figure that everyone knows." His biography goes a long way in explaining this.
Wiesel was born in the Carpathian town of Sighet, then a part of Hungary. On the eve of the Holocaust, 40 percent of its 10,000 residents were Jewish, many of them Hasidim. The town was deeply cultured, with eight synagogues, an elegant hotel, and a publishing house. Like many of Europe’s shtetls, or Jewish communities, it would become a lost world.
As a child, Wiesel displayed a love for both books and music that would remain with him all his life. He was fascinated with the mystic and the otherworldly. His idyllic life would change, however, when on March 19, 1944, Nazi forces occupied Hungary. Reports reached Sighet warning of what was to come. On the eve of Passover, Nazi forces ordered the town’s synagogues to be closed and soon the Jewish community had to surrender their possessions, livelihoods, and eventually, their very lives.
"I felt like I was living—not learning but living—an incandescent chapter of history; one that later generations would study," Wiesel would one day write. But that introspection came later. First came surviving.
Like others throughout Europe, the Jewish community of Sighet was rounded up and put into ghettos and eventually death camps. Wiesel would witness his mother and sister being sent off to what turned out to be their deaths. Per the directions of the camp’s guards, his sister and mother went to the right while he and his father went left. "I didn’t know that this was the moment in time and the place where I was leaving" them, he later wrote. "I will see them that way, walking away, to the end of life."
The loss of his little sister, Tzipora, would particularly haunt him. In his memoir, Wiesel would admit that he never spoke to his wife Marion or son Elisha about her because "it mortifies me to talk of her in the past tense, for she is present."
"My little sister wanted to be brave," he would write. "And I wanted to die in her place."
Wiesel witnessed unimaginable horrors. He saw his father, whom he revered, beaten and humiliated. He saw children—some of them babies—thrown screaming into fires. The Holocaust, he would later say, was "an indictment of our present world." He would never forget, never forgive, the world’s inaction and the barbarism that he saw.
Wiesel survived. His father did not.
At war’s end, Wiesel found himself in France, housed and fed as part of a program for those orphaned by the Holocaust. He resisted suggestions to return to Sighet. "The town," he wrote, "no longer existed. It had followed the Jews into deportation." Eventually he contacted his two surviving sisters. And it wasn’t long before he began to wrestle with all that he had endured. Importantly, he initially chose to stay in France.
Many of his fellow orphans went to the United States or British-ruled Mandatory Palestine. But in France, Wiesel found a home—and the beginnings of his life’s work.
In Paris, Wiesel studied at the Sorbonne, read Plato and Freud in French, attended lectures by philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Buber, and became immersed in the café life of the Latin Quarter. He began to write. And, if fleetingly at first, he became a journalist.
As Berger notes, these years were crucial. Elie Wiesel was not the only Holocaust survivor. But his years in France, and his lifelong existential struggle, made him view his experiences through a different lens.
"I owe France my secular education, my language and my career as a writer. Liberated from Buchenwald, it was in France that I found compassion and humanity," he wrote. Wiesel, Berger notes, had a "lifelong penchant to view the universe in transcendent terms, to allow for the possibility of the mystical and surreal, to see himself as something of a mystic." And "not surprisingly, more than a few people saw in Wiesel an otherworldly aspect, like that of a biblical prophet."
In the spring of 1954, while on a voyage to Brazil, Wiesel wrote Night, in which he recounted his experiences. "I wrote to testify, to stop the dead from dying, to justify my own survival," he recounted in his memoir. "I wrote to speak to those who were gone. As long as I spoke to them, they would live on, at least in my memory."
Wiesel had a difficult time getting the manuscript published. One editor turned him down, telling Wiesel "no one is interested in the death camps anymore." And when it was finally put to print, the book sold precious few copies.
Israel’s miraculous victory in the 1967 Six-Day War would prove to be a turning point. A renewed interest in the plight of world Jewry, and Wiesel’s prolific output, spurred attention. At the time of its publication, there were precious few published testimonies and books about the slaughter of six million Jews. Night, buoyed by Wiesel’s "deliberately spare style," as he put it, helped change that. "Every phrase was a testament," he said.
Night, and the modest success of some of his other works, pushed Wiesel to the forefront of the world’s emerging consciousness about the Holocaust. He became a sought-after lecturer, author, essayist, and teacher—the latter a title that he prized above all else. The world might have wanted to forget, but he wouldn’t let it.
By the time of his death in 2016, Wiesel had become a renowned voice for the voiceless, calling on the world not only to remember the Holocaust but to prevent future genocides. He was unafraid to reproach U.S. presidents and other world leaders for their mistakes and failures, and remained an ardent advocate for Israel and the Jewish people.
Although the book’s ending is marred by the author’s decision to characterize Wiesel’s friendships with certain pro-Israel figures like Sheldon Adelson as "missteps," it is a beautifully written, even-handed, and illuminating account of an unassuming, but haunted man from a small shtetl who warned that "the opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference." At a time of rising anti-Semitism, both the message and the man are worth remembering.
Elie Wiesel: Confronting the Silence
by Joseph Berger
Yale University Press, 360 pp., $26
Sean Durns is a senior research analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis.