Like most children, Elie Wiesel grew up loving stories, especially horror stories that he found funny. He never imagined his writing wouldn’t include those kinds of tales, that instead, his writing would portray real horror.
Expressing his gratitude for receiving the 2012 Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement, Wiesel, 84, described how he still feels “thirsty” for words to relay the horrors of the Holocaust. Despite the countless volumes of literature, despite the six million copy -worldwide distribution of his autobiographical first book, Night, which recounts his experience as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps, Wiesel worries that “what needs to be said can’t be written,” rendering the enemy victorious.
The Holocaust survivor, Nobel Peace Prize winner, prolific author, political activist and college professor wonders if he succeeded. “The truth is I am not sure I can consider myself a true witness. I don’t have the words for my testimony,” he said.
The Kenyon Review, a literary magazine founded at Kenyon College in 1939 by poet and critic John Crowe Ransom, presented the award, in its 12th year honoring writers. The proceeds from the gala dinner benefit the summer Young Writers programs.
Though I’ve met Holocaust survivors, have seen tattooed numbers on forearms, heard stories, and taught the Holocaust to middle school students, often using Night as text, meeting and listening to Wiesel brought me, and many others in the room, to tears. I reread Night the day before; its impact equally as chilling as when I first read it years ago.
Born in Sighet, Romania, (then Transylvania), Wiesel and his family were removed from their home in 1944 and transported first to the Auschwitz concentration camp and then to Buchenwald. Night chronicles his experience. He was separated from his mother and sister who perished, and struggled to remain with his father, who he witnessed being beaten to death shortly before Wiesel’s liberation by the U.S. Army in April 1945. Wiesel, 16, was relocated to Paris, where he studied and became a journalist.
Publishers initially rejected Wiesel’s book, written in Yiddish and titled “And the World Remained Silent,” saying people didn’t want to read about such horrors, he said. Subsequently translated into French and English and renamed, the book’s initial 3,000 copy print run took five years to sell.
Wiesel concluded reaffirming his belief in literature, in how art reflects truth, even if that truth is filled with horror. He spends much of his time fighting intolerance and indifference around the world.
In his Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech, December 10, 1986, Wiesel said:
“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim… Whenever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must become the center of the universe.”