Through his eyes and his words, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel made the world remember.
In 1960, the Holocaust did not exist.
Fifteen years after the war's end, the phrase itself was absent from the mainstream vocabulary; the horror it encompassed was not part of the public imagination. The extermination of Jews had become a taboo topic, remembered vaguely, in media and textbooks, as one of the many atrocities that had formed the backdrop to the greater drama of the Second World War. For the countless Jews who had seen their families gassed or worked or starved to death only years before, the horror was simply inexpressible, beyond the capability of words.
It was Elie Wiesel, more than anyone else, who broke that silence. The publication of his memoir-novel Night, which first appeared in English in 1960, began a decade-long public awakening. The language it used to describe his Auschwitz ordeal was plain and unsparing enough to be achingly specific, yet cast as a universal narrative, the story shared by six million murdered souls. It was the story that taught us what the trains and gas chambers and work camps really meant, and it was his early insistence on popularizing an old scriptural term that led us all to call it the Holocaust.
By the time Elie Wiesel died on July 2, 2016, at age 87, he had become such a significant and beloved public figure, the winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize and almost every other major world honour, that it was too easy to forget the silence that came before, the harsh resistance to the publication of Night, the long years during which few people read it—and the jarring slap in the face it delivered to so many North Americans and Europeans.
For Jewish readers, it was the shock of finding an explicitly spiritual meaning and shape in the unmentionable chaos of their family past. In the Canada of the 1960s, Night "was passed around among my hip Jewish friends at McGill with unusual sincerity," remembers the scholar Bernard Avishai. "Most of our families were immigrants from Eastern Europe, and his past was ours, only worse and more perfectly articulated…Wiesel became the author of our passion play: unspeakable cruelty, common indifference, God's forsaking, the sacrifice of his innocent chosen."
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