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Who is Elie Wiesel? - Biography, Books, Facts & Nobel Peace Prize

Instructor: Jenn Baudreau

Jenn has taught high school English literature and writing; her masters degree is in Teaching & Learning from Colorado State University.

After experiencing the absolute worst that humanity is capable of, is it possible not to hate? Read on to learn about how Elie Wiesel survived the horrors of the concentration camps of the Holocaust, and then went on to find ways to live a life full of love, writing many important books and dedicating himself to helping others.

Early Life

Elie Wiesel's life began in an ordinary way. He was born in Sighet, Romania, on September 30, 1928 to an Orthodox Jewish family. His parents owned a grocery store, and he had three sisters, one younger and two older. From an early age, Wiesel became very interested in religion, learning Hebrew and studying the Bible and the Talmud.

Everything changed in March of 1944 when Wiesel was fifteen years old. German soldiers occupied Sighet, forcing the Jews to wear yellow stars. Things quickly got worse as Jewish stores were closed, ghettos were formed and Jewish houses were raided. Shortly after, Jews began to be deported. The Wiesels had a Christian maid who offered to let them hide in her home in the mountains, but they chose to stay with their Jewish community instead. Sadly, in June of that year, Wiesel and his family were taken and forced in a cattle car (eighty people were crammed together in a single car) and taken to Auschwitz, a concentration camp in Poland. Wiesel's mother and younger sister were taken to the gas chambers to be killed. Wiesel himself avoided the gas chambers by lying about his age, claiming to be eighteen and a strong farmer in good health. He and his father became slave laborers.

The Concentration Camps

Life in the concentration camps was horrific. Wiesel and the millions of other Jews in the camps were subject to physical and psychological torture on a daily basis. Wiesel and his father were able to stay together for a while, which was Wiesel's only source of comfort. However, his father eventually died in the camps of dysentery and starvation, leaving Wiesel an orphan. The picture below shows Wiesel and other slave laborers in the Buchenwald concentration camp.

Slave laborers at the Buchenwald concentration camp. Wiesel is in second row from the bottom, seventh from the left.
Buchenwald concentration camp

The Liberation

On April 11, 1945, the American military arrived and liberated the prisoners. Wiesel was taken to France with other orphaned children. He became very sick after the liberation, and while in the hospital wrote down some of his memories of the concentration camps. He promised himself he'd wait ten years before trying to publish his memories, however, and so he did nothing with the notes he took at that time. Once he recovered from his illness, he began studying in France, and -- even though he had great reason to have his religious faith shattered -- he continued studying and practicing Judaism as well. By chance in 1947 he was reunited with his older sister, who had also survived. She'd seen his picture in the newspaper, and got in touch with him.

Wiesel soon began writing for a small newspaper. In 1954 he interviewed a Catholic writer who spoke about Jesus during the interview. Unable to contain himself, Wiesel exclaimed '... ten years ago, not very far from here, I knew Jewish children every one of whom suffered a thousand times more, six million times more, than Christ on the cross. And we don't speak about them.' Wiesel then ran from the room, but the writer caught up with him and suggested Wiesel write about his experiences of the Holocaust. Wiesel agreed, even though to do so was very difficult for him. He began revising and adding to the notes he took about his memories while he was in the hospital. In 1960 he published Night, a book about his experience in the concentration campus. The book has sold millions of copies, helping people learn about and remember the Holocaust.

Writer, Teacher, and Human Rights Advocate

Wiesel is a prolific writer. In addition to Night, he's written over forty works, including books, plays, memoirs and essays. In an interview with John S. Friedman of The Paris Review, Wiesel described the relationship between the anger he feels and why he writes:

'All my writing was born out of anger. In order to contain it, I had to write. If I had not written, I would have exploded.'

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