On April 22, 1993, Elie Wiesel was standing in a downpour on a rain-sodden stage in Washington, D.C., awaiting his part in the opening of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Some 30,000 people stood on wet ground, huddled under umbrellas. He approached the microphone, opened his water-logged folder and saw that his speech had been reduced to a fine webwork of inky rivulets -- unreadable. He began to speak, nevertheless, forcing himself to recall the words he had so carefully written. And then, in a burst of emotion, he started to improvise: "Forgive me. I'm just back from Sarajevo," he said, pushing the papers aside. He told the audience about the devastating effects of the Bosnian conflict -- the mass killings, the destruction of Muslim sacred sites, the cold-blooded murder of thousands of children. "I cannot put that place out of my mind. It has robbed me of my sleep." He turned to Bill Clinton, seated on the dais behind him. "Mr. President. You must do something." Later -- much later, after many more lives had been taken and the United States finally intervened to stop the Serbian campaign of ethnic cleansing -- President Clinton claimed that a single force changed the course of American policy. That force was Elie Wiesel.
And so it has been for this man's 77 years. His famous dictum, "to remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin of all," stands as a precise summation of his life and work. Author of 45 books, chairman of the President's Commission on the Holocaust, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, advisor to statesmen, Wiesel believes that we all share the moral responsibility to fight hatred and racism.
He was born in1928 in Sighet, a village whose very history was marked by displacement. When his father was a child, Sighet was in Austro-Hungary; when Wiesel was growing up, it was in Romania; when he was dragged off to a Nazi concentration camp, it was in Hungary again.
On March 19, 1944, a day he describes with eerie calm in his essay above, the Germans began the deportation of Sighet's Jews. The Wiesel family was driven from their house and force-marched to the camps. Wiesel's mother and little sister perished the night of their arrival in Auschwitz. His father died some time later in Buchenwald. His two other sisters were ferried off to other camps in other corners of the Nazi empire.
Wiesel's first book, Night (1958), recounts those harrowing days: "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. 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. . . . Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things. . . . Never."
Wiesel managed to survive Auschwitz, Buna, Buchenwald and Gleiwitz. When the camps were liberated in April of 1945, he was not yet 17.
For 10 years, he hewed to a vow of silence, refusing to speak about his experience. "I was afraid I would find the wrong words," he says. The Nobel laureate Francois Mauriac convinced him he needed to do otherwise. At the time, Wiesel was working as a journalist for L'Arche, a Yiddish newspaper in France, traveling back and forth to South America. He wrote Night in a rush, in Yiddish, during reporting trips. It was published in Buenos Aires and turned down by every major publisher in New York. When it was finally translated and issued with an introduction by Mauriac, it sold a mere 3,000 copies. By contrast, Wiesel's just published novel, The Time of the Uprooted, is sure to attract a worldwide readership.
Now an American citizen, he combines his writing with traveling and speaking. And ever the witness, he travels the globe tirelessly, reminding his listeners about the Holocaust, trying to prevent its recurrence in a new place, with another people.
-- Marie Arana