When Elie Wiesel passed away in 2016, the world lost a really incredible individual. In a year that saw the passing of so many greats (RIP David Bowie! RIP Prince!), his loss was keenly felt and universally mourned.
But why was such a fuss made about an eighty-seven-year-old man? Because he was an insanely important writer and political activist. It's hard to make light of the contributions Wiesel gave the world; he's up there with Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi in terms of wow-this-guy-is-awesome-ness.
As one of the dwindling number of Holocaust survivors still surviving, he emerged from unimaginable tragedy to become one of the world's foremost advocates for global peace. His books, Night chief among them, have been read and reread worldwide, and as a professor and a lecturer he touched the lives of tons of people.
Yeah. Wiesel was pretty much the man.
Elie Wiesel was born in Romania to pretty well-educated parents. He said, when asked about them, that his father taught him reason and his mother taught him faith. He had three sisters, and by all accounts lived a pretty normal childhood.
However, Hitler's world domination plan pushed forward, and in 1944 his conquer-ings brought Elie Wiesel's hometown squarely into his domain. Elie Wiesel, at age fifteen, was snatched up alongside his family in Hitler's "Final Solution" and deposited in Auschwitz. It was in Auschwitz that his mother and youngest sister were killed, and eventually he and his father were transferred to the concentration camp in Buchenwald. His father became a hollow shell of a man, and supporting him in the camp made Elie resentful of him, much to his guilt. His father too would pass away, only a few weeks before the camp was liberated in 1945.
Only sixteen, Elie Wiesel managed to escape the nightmare that was the Holocaust alive, but orphaned.
When Elie Wiesel painted the mental picture of a young man in France in his speech, he was actually talking about his own experiences. In Paris, he learned French and studied literature, philosophy, and psychology in the hodge-podge of universities occupying the Sorbonne. He became a journalist, writing in both Hebrew and French, but avoided writing about the Holocaust outright for the next decade.
When he finally broke that silence and put pen to paper, it became his most well-known work: Night. His deeply personal account brought the real horror of the Holocaust home to readers, and after initially weak sales it became incredibly wildly read…and praised around the world.
From France, he eventually moved to the United States as a journalist for an Israeli daily newspaper, and it was there where he would meet his wife, who after their marriage in 1969 would end up translating a bunch of his books. Hey: if you're married to a dude as great as Wiesel, you do your bit to get his work out there.
After winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, he went on to found the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity and help found the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. He was awarded over ninety—count 'em, ninety—honorary degrees over the course of his life, most of them doctorates. (If you counted all of the hypothetical tuition for all of those honorary doctorates, you could probably support a small country out of pocket.)
He continued pursuing social activist causes all the way up until his death in 2016. After carrying unfathomable suffering with him throughout generations, the least we can do is take up the work he set down and pass it on to you in turn.
And hey: even if all you read is this bio, we've pretty much just turned you into a little bit better of a person. Because it's essentially impossible to hear about Wiesel's life and not feel a little bit more interested in making the world a better place…and a lot bit inspired by the biography of such a deeply committed and brave individual.