On this day in 1928, Eliezer “Elie” Wiesel, the human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize-winning author of more than 50 books, including “Night,” an internationally acclaimed memoir based on his experiences as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps during World War II, is born in Sighet, Transylvania (present-day Romania).
In May 1944, the Nazis deported 15-year-old Wiesel and his family to Auschwitz, a concentration camp in Poland. Wiesel’s mother and the youngest of his three sisters died at Auschwitz, while he and his father later were moved to another camp, Buchenwald, located in Germany. Wiesel’s father perished at Buchenwald just months before it was liberated by Allied troops in April 1945.
Following the war, Wiesel spent time in a French orphanage, studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and went on to work as a journalist in France. In the early 1950s, he broke a self-imposed vow not to speak about the atrocities he witnessed at the concentration camps and penned the first version of “Night” in Yiddish, under the title “Un di Velt Hot Geshvign” (“And the World Remained Silent”). At the encouragement of Nobel laureate and prominent French writer Francois Mauriac, Wiesel reworked the manuscript in French. However, even with Mauriac’s help in trying to land a book deal, the manuscript was rejected by multiple publishers, who believed few people at the time were interested in reading about the Holocaust. The book was eventually released in 1958 as “La Nuit”; an English translation, “Night,” followed in 1960. Although initial sales were sluggish, “Night” was generally well reviewed and over the decades gained an audience, eventually becoming a classic of Holocaust literature that has sold millions of copies and has been translated into more than 30 languages. In 2006, TV talk show host Oprah Winfrey selected “Night” for her famed on-air book club, and traveled with Wiesel to Auschwitz for an episode of her show.
Since the publication of “Night,” Wiesel has written dozens of works of fiction and non-fiction, lectured widely and crusaded against injustice and intolerance around the world. A professor at Boston University since the 1970s, he was instrumental in the founding of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and has received numerous awards, including the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize.