Elie Wiesel: Confronting the Silence (Jewish Lives)

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Release Date: 
May 23, 2023
Yale University Press
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Deeply engrossing and moving, this splendid biography gives us the remarkable man behind the tortured face.”

He taught us to bear witness.

The human rights activist Elie Wiesel (1928–2016) was a carefree “yeshiva boy” living in a small Hungarian town when the Germans came. They deported him to the Auschwitz concentration camp, where his mother and younger sister were murdered.

A year later, Wiesel was liberated.

“He had lived through the most horrific event in human history,” writes Joseph Berger in this stellar biography of the world-renowned champion of Holocaust survivors.

“The universe had become a very different place, one that could turn overnight into a madhouse of brutal tormenters and humans reduced to desperate, debased creatures bearing numbers not names. It was as if he had awoken on a different galaxy. And he was now just sixteen years old.”

In Elie Wiesel, former New York Times reporter Berger offers incisive views of the teacher and author whose 1960 novel Night is widely regarded as the greatest work to emerge from the Holocaust.

“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed,” writes Wiesel in that book. “Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.”

“Nobody wanted to hear about concentration camps,” said French literary agent George Borchardt, who struggled to find a publisher for Night, an account of Wiesel’s survival as a teenager in the Nazi death camps. Hill & Wang finally took it for a $250 advance. The book, later an Oprah Winfrey book club selection, became an international bestseller.

The author explores Wiesel’s tortured obsession as an adult with God’s tolerance of the murder of His chosen people. In his long career of public speaking (including 180 lectures at the 92nd Street Y), Wiesel “expressed doubts that the human race was “sufficiently worthy to make [the Messiah] come and save a humanity that has doomed itself,” notes Berger. But he would continue to protest God’s “apparent indifference to the injustices that savage His creation.”

Said Wiesel: “I would not be the man that I am, the Jew that I am, if I betrayed the child who was once duty-bound to live for God. . . . It is because I still believe in God that I argue with him.”

After the war, he lived in France, studied literature and psychology at the Sorbonne, and heard lectures by Martin Buber and Jean-Paul Sartre. At 19, he began working as a journalist for Israeli and French newspapers.

Ten years had to pass before he felt able to write about the Holocaust. He did so at the urging of the French writer Francois Mauriac, who became a close friend. He eventually wrote more than 50 books while teaching, first at New York’s City College and then for many years at Boston University, where he was the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Humanities.

“By all accounts, he was an unforgettable teacher,” writes Berger.

“Only once did Professor Wiesel teach a course explicitly on the Holocaust, and afterward he was so emotionally drained that he never taught the course again.”

One student described Wiesel as “physically quite small” and said he “spoke barely above a whisper.” But “the tormented expression which never escaped his face jolted me into the reality of a very powerful physical presence in our midst.”

Over the years, as the Holocaust became a cultural phenomenon, he would argue against its “trivialization.” He was especially critical of the 1978 NBC-TV miniseries Holocaust, watched by millions, which he faulted for its tawdriness.

“The great irony,” says Berger, “is that all the works of art that Wiesel disdained helped elevate his own stature as a Holocaust authority.”

A revered public figure, Wiesel was “something of a luftmensch, more preoccupied with ideas than with the practicalities of advancing his career,” writes Berger.

He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. His gravestone says: “Lived to Bear Witness.”

Deeply engrossing and moving, this splendid biography gives us the remarkable man behind the tortured face.