When confronted with horror beyond the scope of imagination, the natural response is the look away. To shield yourself from the terror and madness. For those who have experienced such things, those memories are as sharp as knives and must be kept safely locked away to avoid further harm. It’s a natural, human reaction, but one that can have tragic consequences. When we don’t learn to recognize evil, we are bound to be taken by it again.
Elie Wiesel stared directly into the greatest atrocity of human history. He experienced the full horror of the Nazi’s "final solution” to the Jewish people and somehow managed to survive. But, he did not look away, he did not bury his memories down where they couldn’t reach him anymore. No, Elie Wiesel brought his harrowing account of the holocaust to the world, so nobody could ever forget the mistakes and sins of the past.
Wiesel’s early life was like many other children. He was born in 1928 in Sighet, a town in Romania. He lived there with his family in a small Hasidic community. It was a quiet life. Both of Elie’s parents were community figures in their own way, devout and introspective. They encouraged Elie to pursue literature and study the Torah along with his three siblings.
These days would soon turn dark. WWII was brewing and in Sighet, like so many places in Europe, it was becoming increasingly dangerous to be a Jew. In 1940, Sighet was annexed by Hungary, who’s government was allied with Nazi Germany, creating an uneasy situation.
Tensions would boil over into terror though in 1944 when Germany officially occupied Hungary and removed all pre-tense of allowing the state autonomy or control. Immediately, every Jew in the nation became a target of Hitler’s mad regime and it wasn’t long before Wisel’s entire family were arrested, corralled into a cattle car, and sent to Auschwitz.
Elie’s mother and youngest sister, Tzipora were executed on arrival. Brutally murdered after a casual inspection could prove "no useful utility” for an ailing mother and young child. The rest of the family were separated, with Elie’s surviving two sisters taken to the women’s camp while he and his father were sent to be used for hard labour until they were no longer of use.
And work they did. Elie and his father Shlomo were pressed into slave labour under the most brutal conditions imaginable. A number was burned into Elie’s arm that he would carry with him the rest of his life. They worked through starvation, beatings, torture, and an inescapable miasma of constant death and dehumanizing savagery. They kept each other alive. What gave Elie the strength to survive another day was the knowledge that his father would die without him, that he couldn’t take the heartache.
It was this connection that kept them alive in the camp, but nothing could have prepared them for the death march to Buchenwald. With the allies moving in, the Nazis enacted a strategy of hiding of their war crimes and ensuring that camps would not be liberated by moving large masses of prisoners to other camps by foot. Soldiers would first cull the number of prisoners with summary executions and then march the remainder through freezing conditions to a new camp, anyone who could not keep pace would be killed and left on the road. The Wiesel men made the march, but the toll was too much for Shlomo and he died at the end of January 1945. In April, the camp would be liberated.
Freed from the camp and reunited with his two surviving sisters, Wiesel relocated to France to pick up the pieces of his life. He returned to school after having his teenage years so cruelly interrupted to study journalism and soon worked with several French and Israeli papers. With his lifelong love of literature and nascent career as a journalist, it would seem natural that he would write about his experiences, but he couldn’t do it. The pain was still too searing, the wounds too fresh to examine.
It would be years before Elie could confront what was done to him and his family. For a decade Wiesel wrote nothing about the holocaust. It was only after years of healing and the urging of some of his closest friends, including novelist Fancois Mauriac, before he would address the topic.
The result was Wiesel’s first book, Un di Velt Hot Geshvign, or, And the World Remained Silent. Better known by it’s shortened name – Night.
Night was Wiesel’s first-hand account of his experience of the holocaust, a harrowing tome that brought the true, raw, horror of the holocaust into the laps of readers across the world. An account stripped of clinical language or euphemisms of casualty rates or procedures, one that spoke plainly to the true brutality of hatred. Of what happened in the darkest corners of the darkest period of human history. Words that spoke to the deep pain of betrayal and disbelief among the inmates that the world could allow this to happen to them.
Over 10 million copies of Night have been sold. It is considered a monumental text and historical document.
From that time onward, all of Wiesel’s work would spring from his experiences in the Holocaust. It was like a dam had broken and he needed to let the tears flow free. He was determined to make sure that everybody understood what had happened and how it had been allowed to happen. As he said himself:
"Because I remember, I despair. Because I remember, I have the duty to reject despair.”
We must remember
Elie Wiesel died in 2016 at the age of 87, but his words still live on. We must never allow ourselves to forget what happened in the Holocaust. We must never avert our eyes again.