The Holocaust survivor and Nobel peace laureate Elie Wiesel has died aged 87 at his home in Manhattan.
His friend Menachem Rosensaft and Israeli Yad Veshem research center confirmed the death on Saturday. “Yad Vashem mourns the passing of Elie Wiesel-Holocaust survivor, Nobel laureate, renowned author,” the center said in a statement.
“There were so many dimensions to this unique, truly extraordinary individual,” wrote Rosensaft, general counsel of the World Jewish Congress, in a tribute published by Tablet magazine on Saturday.
Rosensaft remembered Wiesel as passionate and curious, intellectual and spiritual – an indefatigable crusader for conscience and learning.
“He abhorred bigotry of any kind, against Jews certainly, but with equal fervor if it was directed at any other group,” Rosensaft wrote. “He neither flaunted his Jewishness nor presumed to impose it on others. Rather he sought to explain its mysteries and to convey his love of the Jewish religion, of Jewish culture and tradition, of Jewish mysticism and Jewish mysteries.”
Born in Sighet, Romania on 30 September 1928, Wiesel became best known for his book Night, which drew on his experiences in Nazi concentration camps during the final years of the second world war. Barely a teenager when Hungary annexed his town and forced its Jewish people into ghettos in 1940, Wiesel was then sent with his father to the concentration camp at Auschwitz, Poland.
His mother and sister were killed in gas chambers. After a forced march to Buchenwald, his father, already suffering from dysentery, was killed by an SS officer’s beating.
Freed from the camp at 16, Wiesel moved to France with other Jewish survivors and became a journalist for French and Israeli papers in the late 1940s. He moved to the US in 1955 and became a US citizen in 1963. In the late 1950s he completed Night, which was translated into English in 1960. The book, which was turned down by more than a dozen publishers, became a perennial bestseller, selling an estimated 10m copies.
Wiesel completed more than 40 other books, including Dawn and Day, which also addressed the Holocaust. He married Marion Rose, another survivor, in Jerusalem in 1969, and wrote and lectured at universities including Yale, Columbia, Boston University and City University of New York.
In 1978, President Jimmy Carter named Wiesel to the commission that created Washington DC’s Holocaust Museum, whose entrance bears his words: “For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.”
In 1985 Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan, awarded Wiesel the congressional gold medal at the White House, where Wiesel denounced the president’s plan to visit a German cemetery holding the bodies of Nazi officers.
“That place, Mr President, is not your place,” Wiesel told him. “Your place is with the victims of the SS.”
Wiesel confronted another president, telling Bill Clinton in 1993: “I cannot sleep for what I have seen” in the former Yugoslavia.
“As a Jew I am saying that we must do something to stop the bloodshed in that country!” he said. “People fight each other and children die. Why? Something, anything must be done.”
In 1986, the Nobel committee called Wiesel “a messenger to mankind”. He accepted the peace prize with characteristic grace.
“I have tried to keep memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget,” he said in his acceptance speech, “because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.”
“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.”
Wiesel was given an honorary knighthood by Britain, granted the rank of Grand-Croix in France’s Legion of Honor, and awarded the Israeli president’s medal of distinction.
In 2012 he returned a medal to Hungary, in protest against what he called the government’s “whitewashing of tragic and criminal episodes in Hungary’s past, namely the wartime Hungarian government’s involvement in the deportation and murder of hundreds of thousands of its Jewish citizens”.
In the 2000s he continued his advocacy work, joining the actor George Clooney at the United Nations to speak about Darfur, signing a 2006 open letter with other Nobel laureates to denounce denial of the Armenian genocide by the Ottoman empire, and continuing to speak out about repression in South Africa, Bosnia, Argentina and other countries.
He often returned to the theme of remembrance, travelling with Barack Obama and Angela Merkel to Auschwitz in 2009.
Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, called Wiesel a “master of words” in a statement released Saturday. “In the darkness of the Holocaust, Elie became a powerful force for light, truth and dignity. His life and work were a great blessing to the Jewish people, the Jewish state and to all humanity,” Netanyahu said. “I feel fortunate to have known him and to have learned from his prodigious wisdom.”
Wiesel is survived by his wife, a son, a stepdaughter and two grandchildren.