“I write to understand as much as to be understood,” Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel once said. Wiesel, a prolific author and outspoken activist, died Saturday at the age of 87. He was "the conscience of the world" and a "living memorial" who compelled humanity to act in the face of suffering, U.S. President Barack Obama said on Saturday.
Wiesel famously waited a decade after being liberated from the Buchenwald concentration camp in 1945 before writing about his wartime experiences, but once he began putting pen to paper, it seemed he never stopped.
“If it hadn’t been for the war, I would not have written probably,” Wiesel told the New York Times in 1981. “I would have become a teacher of the Talmud. I would be obsessed and concerned with my little Jewish world, my religious needs. Without the war, I would never have questioned any of my beliefs.”
In the nearly six decades following the publication of his autobiographical work “Night” in France in 1958, Wiesel authored more than 60 works of fiction and non-fiction, plays, children’s literature, opinion pieces and more. His topics ranged from the horrors of the Holocaust and the suffering of Jews in the former Soviet Union to the Bible, Hasidism and Jerusalem.
Below is a list of works that illustrate Wiesel’s range as a writer, from the best-known memoir that launched his career to some of his lesser-known pieces.
1. “Night” (1960) – Originally published in French as “La Nuit,” Wiesel’s searing account of his experience with his father in the Nazi concentration camps Auschwitz and Buchenwald is the first part of his trilogy (followed by “Dawn” and “Day”) about survival, guilt, God, human cruelty and redemption.
“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed,” Wiesel wrote. “Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. ... Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”
2. “Dawn” (1961) – The second installment of Wiesel’s trilogy is a fictional account of two men confronting death – one a Holocaust survivor who has settled in Palestine and joins a pre-state Jewish underground militia, the other a British officer that the Jew has been commanded to execute at dawn. The novel is a meditation on morality, particularly during wartime.
“We were at war; we had an ideal, a purpose – and also an enemy who stood between us and its attainment,” the protagonist, Elisha, recounts. “The enemy must be eliminated. And how? By any and all means at our command. There were all sorts of means, but they were unimportant and soon forgotten. The purpose, the end, this was all that would last. But the dead never forget; they would remember. In their eyes I should be forever branded a killer. There are not a thousands ways of being a killer; either a man is one or he isn’t. He can’t say I’ll kill only 10 or only 26 men; I’ll kill for only five minutes or a single day. He who has killed one man alone is a killer for life. He may choose another occupation, hide himself under another identity, but the executioner or at least the executioner’s mask will be always with him.”
3. “Day” (1962) – Initially titled “The Accident,” the final installment of the trilogy is a novel about a Holocaust survivor and journalist who is struck by a New York City cab and spends his time in recovery reflecting on his past. Wiesel again contemplates questions about loss of faith, life and death and whether Holocaust survivors can relegate their memories to the past and build new lives, despite having endured immense tragedy.
“Man prefers to blame himself for all possible sins and crimes rather than come to the conclusion that God is capable of the most flagrant injustice,” Wiesel wrote in “Day.” “I still blush every time I think of the way God makes fun of human beings, his favorite toys.”
4. “The Jews of Silence: A Personal Report on Soviet Jewry” (1966) – In 1965, Haaretz sent Wiesel, then a young journalist, to the Soviet Union to report on the lives of Jews living behind the Iron Curtain. He interviewed Jews in Moscow, Kiev, Leningrad, Vilna, Minsk and Tbilisi about the restrictions on Jewish life, bringing into public view their hardship – and their extraordinary efforts to keep Jewish culture alive.
“I would approach Jews who had never been placed in the Soviet show window by Soviet authorities,” wrote Wiesel. “They alone, in their anonymity, could describe the conditions under which they live; they alone could tell whether the reports I had heard were true or false – and whether their children and their grandchildren, despite everything, still wish to remain Jews. From them I would learn what we must do to helpor if they want our help at all. They alone, I told myself, have the right to speak, to advise, to demand. Theirs is the only voice to which one is obliged to listen. My journey to Russia would be a journey to find them.”
5. “A Beggar in Jerusalem” (1970) – This novel centers on a Holocaust survivor who visits Jerusalem and the Western Wall after Israel captures the eastern part of the city during the Six-Day War of 1967. It is one of the early examples of Wiesel’s deep spiritual connection to Jerusalem, a subject he returned to as recently as 2010, when he wrote an open letter to U.S. President Barack Obama, asking him not to pressure Israel about settlement activity in the city. (That letter provoked an angry response from some Jewish Jerusalemites who disagreed with Wiesel.)
“For me, the Jew that I am, Jerusalem is above politics,” Wiesel wrote to Obama. “It is mentioned more than six hundred times in Scripture – and not a single time in the Koran. Its presence in Jewish history is overwhelming. To many theologians, it IS Jewish history. It belongs to the Jewish people and is much more than a city, it is what binds one Jew to another in a way that remains hard to explain. When a Jew visits Jerusalem for the first time, it is not the first time; it is a homecoming. Contrary to certain media reports, Jews, Christians and Muslims ARE allowed to build their homes anywhere in the city. The anguish over Jerusalem is not about real estate but about memory.”
6. “The Trial of God” (1979) – God features heavily in much of Wiesel’s writing, and in this play, as the title suggests, the author put Him in the defendant’s seat. Set in a Ukrainian village in 1649 following a pogrom, the play was inspired by an incident Wiesel witnessed at Auschwitz, when three rabbis decided to indict God for allowing innocents to be massacred. The play contemplates the age-old dilemma of God’s silence in the face of human suffering – a question that haunted Wiesel throughout his life.
He returned to the subject in a 1997 opinion piece for the New York Times, in which he decided to “make up” with God after harboring anger against Him for so long.
“In my testimony I have written harsh words, burning words about your role in our tragedy,” Wiesel wrote in the Times. “I would not repeat them today. But I felt them then. I felt them in every cell of my being. Why did you allow if not enable the killer day after day, night after night to torment, kill and annihilate tens of thousands of Jewish children? Why were they abandoned by your Creation? These thoughts were in no way destined to diminish the guilt of the guilty. Their established culpability is irrelevant to my ‘problem’ with you, Master of the Universe. In my childhood I did not expect much from human beings. But I expected everything from you. As we Jews now enter the High Holidays again, preparing ourselves to pray for a year of peace and happiness for our people and all people, let us make up, Master of the Universe. In spite of everything that happened? Yes, in spite. Let us make up: for the child in me, it is unbearable to be divorced from you so long.”
7. Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech (1986) – The Nobel committee bestowed the peace prize on Wiesel for being “one of the most important spiritual leaders and guides in an age when violence, repression and racism continue to characterize the world.”
In his acceptance speech, he declared that wherever humans suffer, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”
8. “Open Heart” (2012) – One of the final works of Wiesel’s writing career, “Open Heart” is a slim memoir the author wrote at age 82, after having emergency heart surgery. In it, Wiesel reflects on imminent mortality and on his life, his experiences, his family. He also contemplates the power of words, writing:
“I still believe in man in spite of man. I believe in language even though it has been wounded, deformed, and perverted by the enemies of mankind. And I continue to cling to words because it is up to us to transform them into instruments of comprehension rather than contempt. It is up to us to choose whether we wish to use them to curse or to heal, to wound or to console.”