Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel dies: Yad Vashem

Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel in a file photo.
Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel in a file photo.PHOTO: AFP

JERUSALEM (AFP) - Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor, renowned writer and Nobel peace laureate who worked to keep alive the memory of Jews slaughtered during World War II, has died aged 87, Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust centre said Saturday.

A spokesman for the centre, Simmy Allen, confirmed Wiesel’s death to AFP, saying late Saturday that “he did pass away several hours ago”.

The New York Times reported that he died at home in Manhattan.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a statement called Wiesel a “beacon of light and an exemplar of humanity that believes in man’s good”.

“The state of Israel and the Jewish people bitterly mourn the death of Elie Wiesel,” Netanyahu said.

“Elie, a master of words, expressed in his unique personality and fascinating books the victory of human spirit over cruelty and evil.

“In the darkness of the Holocaust, in which six million of our brothers and sisters perished, Elie Wiesel was a beacon of light and an exemplar of humanity that believes in man’s good.”

Wiesel, a Romanian-born US citizen, was perhaps best known for his memoir “Night” detailing his experiences in the Auschwitz concentration camp.

He won the Nobel peace prize in 1986, described as having “made it his life’s work to bear witness to the genocide committed by the Nazis during World War II”.

He was called at the time “the world’s leading spokesman on the Holocaust”.

Wiesel said in his acceptance speech that the award “both frightens and pleases me.

“It frightens me because I wonder: do I have the right to represent the multitudes who have perished? Do I have the right to accept this great honour on their behalf?

“I do not. That would be presumptuous. No one may speak for the dead, no one may interpret their mutilated dreams and visions.

“It pleases me because I may say that this honour belongs to all the survivors and their children, and through us, to the Jewish people with whose destiny I have always identified.”

While Wiesel’s focus was the Holocaust and the plight of the Jewish people, he was also a rights activist on other subjects.

He had long served as a professor of Judaic studies and the humanities in the United States.

Soon after he won the Nobel prize, Wiesel and his wife Marion founded The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity with a mission to “combat indifference, intolerance and injustice through international dialogue and youth-focused programs that promote acceptance, understanding and equality”.

Throughout his life and career, Wiesel continued to speak out for victims of oppression across the world.

Tributes poured in following his death.

French President Francois Hollande in a statement said his country “salutes the memory of a great humanist” and a “tireless advocate of peace”.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin called Wiesel “a hero of the Jewish people, and a giant of all humanity”.

Wiesel, born Eliezer Wiesel on September 30, 1928, grew up in a small town in Romania.

He was raised with three sisters – two older and one younger – by their mother and father in a Jewish community until they were all detained during the Holocaust when he was a teenager.

His mother and younger sister were killed in the gas chamber at Auschwitz, according to his biography on the Nobel website.

His father later died of dysentery and starvation at Buchenwald, where Wiesel was freed by US soldiers at the age of 17, it said.

He was later reunited with his two older sisters in France, and Wiesel eventually studied at the Sorbonne.

Wiesel’s internationally acclaimed “Night” was originally published in 1956 and has been translated into more than 30 different languages.

It was later expanded into a trilogy with “Dawn” and “Day”.

Wiesel travelled back to Auschwitz in 2006 with US talk show host Oprah Winfrey. He also accompanied US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on a tour of the Buchenwald camp.

In 2007, Wiesel was attacked by a Holocaust denier. Although Wiesel was not injured, his attacker was arrested and sent to prison.

In 2014, Netanyahu reportedly sought to convince Wiesel to be a candidate for Israeli president, a largely ceremonial role.

Wiesel refused, reportedly saying “it’s not for me”.