Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times
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JUL 5, 2016

Elie Wiesel dies at 87; Nobel Peace Prize laureate and renowned Holocaust survivor

By Mary Rourke and Valerie J. Nelson, Los Angeles Times

Elie Wiesel, the Nazi concentration camp survivor, Nobel Peace Prize winner and author whose seminal work “Night” is regarded as one of the most powerful achievements in Holocaust literature, has died, Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial said. He was 87.

Based on his experiences and those of other Holocaust survivors, Wiesel wrote dozens of semi-autobiographical books, memoirs and plays. His message “of peace, atonement and human dignity” earned him the Nobel prize in 1986.

For a decade, he was silent about the horrors he witnessed after being transported by train to Auschwitz with his parents and three sisters when he was 15.

After a year, he was liberated at the end of World War II with other prisoners from the German camp Buchenwald — and soon learned that his mother and younger sister had been killed in the gas chambers. He already had seen his captive father die a brutal death.

First penned in Yiddish, the harrowing yet unsentimental account based on Wiesel’s year in the death camps was published in French in 1958 and eventually printed in more than 30 languages.

President Obama issued a statement Saturday, calling Wiesel a “dear friend" and recounting their visit together in 2009 to Buchenwald, where more than 50,000 people were killed during the Nazi regime.

“Elie Wiesel was one of the great moral voices of our time, and in many ways, the conscience of the world,” Obama said.  “Elie was not just the world's most prominent Holocaust survivor, he was a living memorial.  After we walked together among the barbed wire and guard towers of Buchenwald where he was held as a teenager and where his father perished, Elie spoke words I've never forgotten —  ‘Memory has become a sacred duty of all people of goodwill.’  Upholding that sacred duty was the purpose of Elie's life.”

In a statement released Saturday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel and the Jewish people mourned the passing of Wiesel. "Through his unforgettable books, moving words and personal example, Elie personified the triumph of the human spirit over the most unimaginable evil," Netanyahu said.

The first version of “Night” — originally called “And the World Remained Silent” — ran 800 pages, but it had been drastically shortened by the time it debuted in the U.S. in 1960 to positive reviews and lukewarm sales.

Elie Wiesel opened the eyes of the world to the Holocaust with his penetrating books.— Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

The Nation called it “the single most powerful literary relic of the Holocaust,” and The New York Times said it was “a slim volume of terrifying power.” It also was recognized as one of the first books to raise a haunting question for people of faith: Where was God at Auschwitz?

Wiesel later theorized that the public wasn’t ready for such a graphic account of the Holocaust. “The Diary of Anne Frank” had sold well when it was published in the U.S. in 1952, but the diary of the Jewish teenager’s life in hiding from the Nazis did not extend to the concentration camp where she died.

Rabbi Steve Leder, who serves at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, first encountered Wiesel’s writing as a 12-year-old boy at his family’s home in Minnesota. Serving as a witness, Leder said, was at the foundation of Wiesel’s “very being.”

“I remember reading ‘Night’ in my little bedroom in the basement in the middle of the winter, and just being utterly astounded by the reality and the horror of the Holocaust from the perspective of a teenager,” Leder said. “Because he was a teenager when he was at Auschwitz. It resonated very, very deeply and profoundly with me.”

The news of Wiesel’s death hit hard for Los Angeles physician Gary Schiller, who served six years as chairman of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. Schiller, the son of a concentration camp survivor, said he responded by taking Wiesel’s “Night” and “The Fifth Son” off the shelf and showing them to his 10- and 12-year-old sons.

Schiller said told his sons of Wiesel’s tremendous influence and the importance of firsthand accounts of the Holocaust.

“It will be very difficult to give them the same degree of insight without people like Wiesel, or their grandfather, to tell them very directly what they experienced,” he said.

Through his words and his work, Wiesel spent his life preparing future generations for the day when there would no longer be a living witness to the Holocaust, Leder said.

“That places a tremendous responsibility on the next generation to continue to tell the story,” he said.

When Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann went on trial in 1961, it brought the Holocaust renewed attention in mainstream America and heightened the visibility of Wiesel and other survivors who were writing their stories. Wiesel’s books were largely well-reviewed, but over time, some critics questioned his role as a self-appointed witness to history.

In 1985, Wiesel received one of the highest U.S. civilian honors, the Congressional Gold Medal. The controversy caused by his acceptance speech inadvertently brought greater attention to “Night,” he later said. The speech urged President Reagan to forgo a trip to West Germany that included Bitburg Military Cemetery, where many Nazi SS soldiers who deported Jews and ran concentration camps are buried.

“That place is not your place, Mr. President,” Wiesel said. “Your place is with the victims of the SS. The issue here is not politics, but good and evil. And we must never confuse them.” Reagan went to Bitburg but added a stop at a concentration camp.

By the 1990s, “Night” was a standard high school and college text, selling an estimated 400,000 copies a year. When Oprah Winfrey selected an updated version of the book for her television book club in 2006, it became a bestseller but reignited a debate over whether it was a novelized memoir. Wiesel maintained that it was a true account.

Using his personal story as both a testimonial and departure point for his writing, he earned a reputation as the leading spiritual archivist of the Nazi persecution of the Jews.

He never put to rest a question that had haunted him since the war: Why did those who knew about the Nazis’ effort to exterminate the Jews not do more to prevent it? “The free world, including Jewish leaders in America and Palestine, had known since 1942, but we knew nothing,” he wrote in his 1995 memoir, “All Rivers Run to the Sea.” “Why didn't they warn us?”

To read the full article in the Los Angeles Times, click here.