When I wrote my blog about Elie Wiesel’s memoir Open Heart, I had no idea that in less than half a month he would be dead. Wiesel died today at the age of 87.
In our lifetime, we have figures who stand at the finish line of tragedy and teach the world to learn from it. Wiesel is one of those men, having survived the Nazi forces at Auschwitz, witnessing the death of his parents and sister at the hands of barbarians.
Wiesel was born in Sighet, Transylvania on September 30th, 1928. His parents nurtured their son and guided him in the Jewish Tradition, urging him to learn Hebrew, read The Torah, and experience as much literature as he could. He had three sisters, the youngest Tzipora being the only one who didn’t survive the War. Wiesel, in his legendary book Night, catalogued the horrors he witnessed in Auschwitz at age 15, including the shame he felt at not being able to help his father, who he could hear being beaten every night. Wiesel was liberated from the camp by US Forces on April 11th, 1945. He was soon reunited with his sisters, the only two remaining members of his immediate family.
Wiesel soon came to be a prolific journalist, publishing about 60 books in all. He was lauded with about 21 honorary degrees from prestigious institutions, as well as over 30 major awards. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. His life was dedicated to helping the world heal, both from the horrors of war, but also from the evil of the world in general. He advised presidents and world leaders on affairs in Israel and the well-being of the Jewish community around the world.
Wiesel was a very learned man, his writing a rich landscape of personal insight and strength. I remember reading Night in high school and being floored by the sheer emotional depth of his prose, my heart sinking and rising in short bursts. His work alternates between disconnected, icy contempt and warm, lush love for the world as a whole. He was a man, despite the horrors he was subjected to, who believed that there will always be more love in the world than hate.
I have decided to share with you three of my favorite quotes of his and a short commentary on each, to illustrate both my personal connection to his work and his brilliance as a philosopher:
1. “For me, every hour is grace. And I feel gratitude in my heart each time I can meet someone and look at his or her smile.”
In a world that is stricken with carelessness toward our fellow men, Wiesel urges us to see the people around us and connect with them. The people we see on the street are all flawed beings, going through their own trials and joys, experiencing life and death as any human does. A smile towards a person on the street can change their whole perspective, brightening their lives in such a pure, simple way. To quote Blanche DuBois from A Streetcar Named Desire, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”
2. “That I survived the Holocaust and went on to love beautiful girls, to talk, to write, to have toast and tea and live my life – that is what is abnormal.”
When a human being experiences an event that not only changes their life but devastates it, said person can become numb to the world and bitter. Wiesel went on to live a full, rewarding life after the pit of despair he was thrown into against his will, against the will of his people. In our lives, we should live each day with a real zest, reveling in the ecstatic beauty of living. The act of being alive is thrilling, so enjoy every moment.
3. “I write to understand as much as to be understood.”
This quote holds particular significance for me. As a writer, I write to understand myself and the world around me. I don’t write in a daze, letting nothing seep into the essence of my being. I write to make sense of the often disparate act of living, learning what makes the people around me tick. Writing focuses the mind on the small details that evade our eyes, bringing a sharp light on things we often try to hide. Wiesel wrote about his life, his experiences, and his faith to put them into the perspective of the portrait of his life.
Wiesel’s life is an utter inspiration, an example of a life that was born into tragedy, but rose to the greatest heights a life can scale. His death is like ripping a seam out of the fabric of existence. His insight, his intellect, and his drive to teach the world has inspired millions, including a little boy in the suburbs like myself, reading Night for the first time and being swept into a world where great tragedy can befall us at any moment.
Elie Wiesel taught me that the soul is made of love, if only we believe it exists. It is up to us to make that choice.