Elie Wiesel: Holocaust survivor, activist, acclaimed writer, dies at 87


(CNN) — Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and author who fought for peace, human rights and simple human decency, has died at the age of 87, a spokesman for Israel’s Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, said Saturday.

Wiesel, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, recounted his family being sent to the Nazi concentration camps in his first book, “Night,” which was published in France in 1958.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lauded Wiesel as a “master of words.”

“(He) gave expression through his exceptional personality, and fascinating books about the victory of the human spirit over cruelty and evil. In the darkness of the Holocaust in which our brothers and sisters — 6 million — were murdered, Elie Wiesel was a ray of light and greatness of humanity who believed in the good in man,” Netanyahu said.

“I was privileged to know Elie and to learn so much from him.”

Born in Romania, Wiesel was 15 when he was sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland with his family in 1944.

The future writer was later moved and ultimately freed from the Buchenwald camp in 1945. Of his relatives, only two of his sisters survived.

Wiesel told CNN last year that Auschwitz was “to this day, a source of shock and astonishment.”

He broke his silence on his Holocaust experience 10 years after the liberation with the acclaimed memoir “Night,” originally published in French as “La Nuit,” which has been translated into 30 languages and has sold millions of copies since its publication.

The Nobel peace laureate, who wrote extensively about the horrors he and others endured, said he knew he’d have to write at some point but feared the words would elude him.

“I’m not sure, by the way, that I did find them,” he said. “Maybe there are no words for what happened. Maybe somehow, the Germans … the cruel killers, have succeeded at least in one way, at least that it deprived us, the victims, of finding the proper language of saying what they had done to us, because there are no words for it.”

In 1986 the Nobel committee called Wiesel an important spiritual leader.

In his speech honoring Wiesel, then-chairman Egil Aarvik said: “From the abyss of the death camps he has come as a messenger to mankind, not with a message of hate and revenge, but with one of brotherhood and atonement.”

Wiesel spoke of his own guilt in his moving Nobel acceptance speech.

“Do I have the right to represent the multitudes who have perished? Do I have the right to accept this great honor on their behalf? I do not. No one may speak for the dead, no one may interpret their mutilated dreams and visions,” he said.

He said he sensed the presence of the tens of thousands of people who died at Buchenwald, and accepted the prize on their behalf and on behalf of his fellow survivors.

Millions of people were touched by “Night” and dozens of other works Wiesel produced. His books were deeply personal. He was honest with his readers about what he went through physically, emotionally, spiritually.

He wrote:

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. 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 those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God himself. Never.

Throughout his life, the writer and teacher sought to give a voice to the voiceless.

He was a professor at the City College of New York from 1972 until he left four years later to become a humanities professor at Boston University. Before that, Wiesel was a journalist in Paris and then New York.

He was, in the words of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the international leader of the Holocaust remembrance movement.

“In the aftermath of the Holocaust, at a time when the world could not bear to remember, he could not bear to forget,” the museum wrote in a statement. “Through his singular moral leadership, intellect, and eloquence, he gave voice to those who had been silenced forever and devoted his life to fulfilling the promise of ‘never again’ for all future victims of genocide.”

Wiesel also didn’t shy away from making strong remarks. While at the White House in 1985, he asked President Ronald Reagan to cancel a visit to a World War II military cemetery in West Germany.

“That place, Mr. President, is not your place,” he said, according to The New York Times. ”Your place is with the victims of the SS.”

When he returned to the site of the Buchenwald death camp in 2009, he advocated for peace in the Middle East while addressing President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Andrea Merkel.

He lamented there was no grave of his father to visit and said the hope of no more war that he felt upon his rescue in 1945 was damaged.

“What can I tell him?” he asked. “That the world has learned? I am not so sure.”

He implored Obama to help bring peace to the world.

“The time must come. It’s enough — enough to go to cemeteries, enough to weep for oceans. It’s enough,” he said. “There must come a moment — a moment of bringing people together.”

CNN’s Annie Rose Ramos and Oren Liebermann contributed to this report.

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