Elie Wiesel's story endures, empowers

"I maintain therefore that this personal record, coming as it does after so many others and describing an abomination such as we might have thought no longer had any secrets for us, is different, distinct and unique nevertheless," wrote Mauriac.

The book sold a few thousand copies in its first five years, says Wiesel, the world uninterested in Wiesel's unflinching contemplations of what happened. Perhaps his depiction was too harrowing for the world to accept at first.

"He takes you up to the doors of the Holocaust — and then he takes you inside," says Irving Abrahamson, who spent a decade preparing the three-volume set "Against Silence: The Voice and Vision of Elie Wiesel." "It's a short book that contains a whole world — a whole world that existed once and that was destroyed."

Wiesel wrote the text in Yiddish because it's "my homeland," he says. "I was born in Yiddish. You can describe Jewish suffering in Yiddish better than in any other language. Suffering or humor. It's either laughing or tears, in Yiddish."

While "Night" languished on bookstore shelves, Wiesel continued writing, prolifically. Novels, essays, plays, speeches, diaries — an avalanche of words, all written first in French, the language in which he was schooled after the war, the language that he says "adopted me."

At the same time, he restlessly toured the globe, giving lectures contemplating the world we live in but steeped in the lessons of the Talmud. All the while, he struggled against the specter of the Holocaust, wondering, he says, if he could hold on to his mental equilibrium.

"I wasn't so sure I would," he says. "I was afraid of that, maybe, and I was taken by that: insanity. That's why in every novel of mine there is always a madman. Look, to tell you that I know the answer, I don't. Logically, normally, I should have given in to despair or to insanity or something, anyway, or to total disbelief."

But Wiesel concluded, he says, "that we are stronger than we think. I think a French philosopher or a French poet said it: 'Actually I am so weak that any pebble can kill me. But as long as I breathe — as long as I breathe! — I'm immortal.'"

Fighting for justice

W

iesel was among the first to champion persecuted Soviet Jews, following a trip to the Soviet Union in 1965, writing and advocating on their behalf and, in effect, ultimately helping to liberate them. He similarly has fought for Nicaraguan Miskito Indians, South African victims of apartheid and others terrorized because of their identities.

In 1969 he married Marion Erster Rose and they had a son in 1972, the year Wiesel left journalism to become a professor at City College of New York (and later at Boston University, a position he still holds). His wife emerged as a translator of his works into English, while his copious writing, constant traveling and uninterrupted advocating for the powerless won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.

"His aim is not to gain the world's sympathy for the victims or the survivors," then-Nobel chairman Egil Aarvik said in presenting him the honor. "His aim is to awaken our conscience. Our indifference to evil makes us partners in the crime."

The moment Wiesel was to receive the Nobel in Oslo, however, he was stricken, he says.

"I remember something very strange," he says. "During the ceremony, when I came, the whole world is watching. And all of a sudden, I had a feeling I was seeing my father. … I couldn't speak. Long, long endless minutes passed. I couldn't speak. …

"His eyes never leave me — and my little sister's (eyes) — they don't leave me. And all that fused into the Nobel: 'What am I doing here? So many of my peers, of my family, are not there, and I am there? What am I doing there?'"

The Nobel made Wiesel a global leader, a man of already considerable moral authority accorded the kind of platform few receive. He was a prominent figure in galvanizing support to build the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., which opened in 1993; he took a delegation to prison camps in Sarajevo during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, in hopes of drawing the kind of global attention to crimes against humanity that might have stopped the crimes of the Holocaust; he has convened conferences of fellow Nobel laureates from Haifa to Hiroshima to discuss themes such as "The Anatomy of Hate" and "The Future of Hope."

His work echoes widely.

"He tells the truth with a capital 'T,' which is something many people would like to forget or even deny," says Sister Marci Hermesdorf, an assistant professor of English at Dominican University in River Forest. "Dominicans proclaim the truth. Elie Wiesel proclaims the truth in the face, sometimes, of denial and resistance. For that, he's what I would call a Dominican — even though he's not Catholic."

After all he has lived through, how does Wiesel feel about the fate of the world we live in?

CHICAGO

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