Study Guide

Elie Wiesel in The Perils of Indifference

By Elie Wiesel

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Elie Wiesel

A Man Who Is Impossible to Introduce

How do you introduce a monumentally eloquent humanitarian like Wiesel? How do you sum up a life that included the horrors of Nazi concentration camps and winning a Nobel Prize?

Unfortunately, we can't hand the mic over to Wiesel himself—he passed away in 2016. But we can use snippets from his various obituaries…although, frankly, the writers of those obits seemed almost at a loss to how to even begin to memorialize a man who contributed so much to the world.

Here's The New York Times:

Mr. Wiesel, a charismatic lecturer and humanities professor, was the author of several dozen books. In 1986, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But he was defined not so much by the work he did as by the gaping void he filled. In the aftermath of the Germans' systematic massacre of Jews, no voice had emerged to drive home the enormity of what had happened and how it had changed mankind's conception of itself and of God. For almost two decades, the traumatized survivors—and American Jews, guilt-ridden that they had not done more to rescue their brethren—seemed frozen in silence. (Source)

And here's what Barack Obama had to say about Wiesel, via The Washington Post:

"Elie Wiesel was one of the great moral voices of our time, and in many ways, the conscience of the world," President Obama said in a statement, describing Mr. Wiesel as "a dear friend."

"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," the president continued, "Elie spoke words I've never forgotten—'Memory has become a sacred duty of all people of goodwill.'" (Source)

You should head on into the wilds of the internet to read all the obituaries out there—in fact, what you should really do is go and read everything that Wiesel ever wrote, starting with his most famous work, Night.

But for now, we'll give you a snapshot of the man's life…and how it pertains to "The Perils of Indifference."

It Started With Him

Elie Wiesel was born in Romania in 1928. He had two older sisters—who also survived the Holocaust—and a younger sister who died at Auschwitz.

His parents were well educated, and they encouraged young Elie to look at Judaism in different ways. His mother was more traditional (she encouraged Torah study) whereas his father told Elie to also consider that, while faith in a higher power was well and good, believing in the power of the average person to do good was important, too. His father also encouraged him to read a lot of literature, and Wiesel became a voracious reader.

But all of this was cut short by the ascension of Nazism in Germany and of the Iron Guard in Romania. Hundreds of thousands of Romanian Jews were murdered in pogroms, and still others were deported to concentration camps.

All the Jews living in Wiesel's hometown were sent to Auschwitz, and a large majority was killed upon arrival, including his mother and younger sister. Both Elie and his father lied about their ages so they'd be able to work, and they were sent to Auschwitz III-Monowitz, a forced labor camp not far from Auschwitz I.

But toward the end of World War II, when the Allies were closing in, the Nazis started destroying gas chambers and other evidence of the Final Solution. For Wiesel and some of the other prisoners at Auschwitz, that meant another deportation, this time deeper into Germany and away from the approaching armies. It was a grueling journey, especially after months of hard labor and malnutrition—and with the Germans becoming increasingly nervous, and therefore more violent.

Both Wiesel and his father ended up in Buchenwald, but the older Mr. Wiesel died a few weeks before the camp was liberated on April 11th, 1945. Elie Wiesel was only 16 years old.

It Ends With Us

After the Holocaust, Wiesel went to France, where he was reunited with his two older sisters. He ended up studying journalism, and when a colleague encouraged him to write about his experiences in the camps, the result was Night.

The book is now regarded as the most important work about the Holocaust apart from The Diary of Anne Frank, and it helped garner Wiesel a well-deserved Nobel Prize. (You should also read his Nobel acceptance speech, known as "Hope, Despair and Memory.")

Wiesel came in 1955 to New York, where he met his wife, Marion Erster Rose, who helped translate many of his books. Most of Wiesel's work supports his belief that, as a survivor, he had a responsibility to speak to his experiences: that the dead deserved to be remembered, and the living needed to hear about their suffering.

Is Wiesel's work easy to read? No, not at all. But it's insanely important. Wiesel believed that his story belonged to everyone—the victims, the survivors, the killers, the bystanders. And it especially belonged to those who weren't around to see it in person.

(Yes. Wiesel is talking to you.)

Up until his death on July 2nd, 2016, Wiesel traveled the world to preserve the memory of the Holocaust, to advocate for peace, and to make sure we all understood how important it was to never forget what he'd been through.

Wiesel's focus was on making the world a better place by holding everyone accountable. That's the best way to honor the victims of the Holocaust who didn't survive, as well as the survivors that will eventually pass away.

Wiesel wanted us to be prepared to pick up where he left off, to choose not to be indifferent to similar tragedies happening around the world, and, like his father taught him a lifetime ago, to believe in our ability to make change and do good.

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