This week of family celebrations is also a time to remind each other that many different life styles and traditions are enjoyed around the world, traditions that are being disrupted by war and hatred. The destruction of Coptic Christian churches stirred me to re-read Night by Eli Wiesel.
He was born Eliezer Wiesel in Sighet, Romania (1928). He grew up in a Hasidic community and learned to love reading by studying the Pentateuch and other sacred texts. When he was 15, he and his family were rounded up and deported by cattle car to the concentration camps at Auschwitz, Poland. Wiesel lied about his age and was sent to a labor camp with his father, while his mother and a sister went directly to the gas chambers. Wiesel survived eight months at Auschwitz, then Buna and Buchenwald. Between camps, his father died from dysentery and exhaustion. Near the war's end, the guards stopped feeding the prisoners and started killing thousands a day. On the morning of April 11, 1945, an uprising took place within the camp, and it was liberated later that day.
While hospitalized upon his release, Wiesel sketched an outline for a book on his experiences but found it unbearable to face and he put it aside, telling himself he'd return to it someday. He was sent with other orphans to live in France, and a chance photo of him in the newspaper reunited him with his two surviving sisters. He stayed in France and began to study literature and psychology at the Sorbonne. He struggled mostly and was at times suicidal until coming across a militant Jewish organization in Palestine that needed writers for their paper. He began reporting for them and soon found a niche for himself as a foreign correspondent for various French papers.
Finally, a mentor, François Mauriac, persuaded Wiesel to write about the war, and over the course of a year, he wrote in Yiddish an almost 900-page memoir, called And the World Was Silent. He found a publisher in Argentina who trimmed the book down to around 300 pages, retitling it Night (1958). Wiesel said: "There is a difference between a book of two hundred pages from the very beginning, and a book of two hundred that is a result of an original eight hundred pages. The six hundred are there. Only you don't see them." Though it initially sold just a few thousand copies, Night has since been translated into 30 languages and has sold roughly 10 million copies worldwide.
For the next decade, Wiesel put out almost a book a year, including Dawn (1961), The Town Beyond the Wall (1962), and A Beggar in Jerusalem (1968), all dealing with the Jewish experience before and after the Holocaust. In 1986, Wiesel received the Nobel Prize in literature for his writing and teaching. He was instrumental in establishing the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and he has campaigned against violence and racism in Darfur, Bosnia, and South Africa.
He said: "Words can sometimes, in moments of grace, attain the quality of deeds."