Elie Wiesel’s first literary award was two bowls of soup. A fellow inmate at the Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald had started a story-telling contest, and Wiesel, a half-starving teenager, won it with an account of a sabbath meal. When he tasted his prize, he later wrote, “I had the oppressive feeling that it was my story itself I was swallowing—a story impoverished and diminished for having been told.” Wiesel, who lost his mother, father and a sister in the death camps, is still, after 18 books, grappling with the challenge of conveying the truth of the Holocaust without diminishing it. “You must speak,” he explains, “but how can you, when the full story is beyond language?”
Recently, as chairman of a 34-member Presidential Commission on the Holocaust, Wiesel has had to face the challenge again in a mandate from President Carter to create a memorial to victims of the Nazis’ genocide. In August Wiesel and his fellow commissioners made a grim pilgrimage to Treblinka, Auschwitz and other concentration camps, and last month Wiesel presented an 81-page recommendation to the White House: that a national museum be established as a repository of books, photographs and films on European Jewish life before and during World War II. Funded mainly by private donations and a $1 million federal grant, the museum would also be an archive to commemorate the Gypsies, Poles, Russians and other groups slaughtered by the Nazis. Mistrustful of such fictional commemorations as the NBC miniseries Holocaust, which he calls “untrue, offensive and cheap,” Wiesel believes that the historical evidence is the best reminder to the world. “The only way to stop the next holocaust—the nuclear holocaust—is to remember the last one,” he says. “If the Jews were singled out then, in the next one we are all victims.”
Now 51, Wiesel is haunted relentlessly by the Holocaust. Before the war shattered his Transylvanian village of Sighet, he was the only son of a grocer, and an avid yeshiva student. “If it hadn’t been for the war,” he says, “I would still be studying the Talmud there and helping in the grocery store.” But in April 1944 the Nazis rounded up the Jews of Sighet and packed them on cattle cars bound for Birkenau, the Auschwitz reception and extermination center. Wiesel’s mother and younger sister were killed the night they arrived. Elie and his father were transferred to Auschwitz, then to Buna and finally to Buchenwald, where the elder Wiesel died. What kept Elie alive? “I will never know,” he says. “I was always weak, I never ate, the slightest wind would turn me over. In Buchenwald they sent 10,000 away each day. Each time I was in the last hundred near the gate, they stopped. Why? For what purpose? This is why all of the survivors feel this strange gratitude for every minute we live.”
Liberated from Buchenwald when he was 16, Elie went to Paris and found work as he could: as choir director, translator, Talmudic tutor. As a journalist, he interviewed the French Catholic writer François Mauriac, who persuaded him to write an account of his experiences in the death camps after his 10-year self-imposed vow of silence on the subject. The result was the classic Night, published in 1958, and in the years since, Wiesel has written novels, essays and plays on biblical and Jewish themes—including the 1972 best-seller on Hasidic life, Souls on Fire—in a distinctive aphoristic style. He has lived in New York since 1956, but still writes in French with a translator close at hand: Marion Rose, 47, his wife of 10 years and the mother of their 7-year-old son, Shlomo Elisha. Once a week Elie flies to Boston University, where he is a professor of humanities. But most of his time is spent writing. Over his desk hangs a photograph of his family’s house in Sighet. “I always look at it as I’m working,” he says.
Returning to Sighet 20 years after his deportation, Wiesel found that the Jewish population of 15,000 had been reduced to 50. Stopping by his old house, he dug up the Bar Mitzvah present from his parents that he had buried in the garden. The gold watch was rusty and decayed, but it was still there—”in its way, a survivor.” Explaining his sense of kinship with that stubborn artifact, Wiesel says, “I belong to that strange, dying category known as survivors. We believe that if we survived, we must do something with our lives.” With his books—and, he hopes, a new museum—Wiesel fulfills that admonishment by remembering. As he puts it: “The first task is to tell the tale.”