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Elie Wiesel (Hon.’74), Spokesman for Peace and Human Rights, Dies at 87

Auschwitz survivor, Nobel laureate, taught at BU since 1976

Elie Wiesel, a survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, a Nobel laureate, and the most powerful witness for the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust, died Saturday at his home in New York. He was 87 years old. Wiesel (Hon.’74), who had taught at BU since 1976, was the Andrew W. Mellon Professor Emeritus in the Humanities and a College of Arts & Sciences professor emeritus of philosophy and religion.

As a writer, a peace activist, and always most important to him, a teacher, Wiesel embodied, perhaps more than any of his contemporaries, the words “bearing witness.” It was in his second-floor office at the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies, in a once-opulent mansion on Bay State Road, that the beloved professor welcomed a steady procession of students of varying backgrounds and passions and engaged them in Talmudic-style exchanges that helped guide their moral compass long after graduation. They never forgot their time with him.

President Robert A. Brown says the University is grateful and proud that Wiesel chose to teach at Boston University. “In his life of service and teaching, Elie Wiesel bore witness to evil that we would be tempted to describe as unimaginable—except that because of his elegiac and indelible recording and reflection—we are reminded was real,” says Brown. “He did not just describe the past—although that alone would have been a profound service. Because of his erudition and his compassion, he taught us how to live in ways that overcome hate. In his almost four decades on our faculty, his courses and seminars were, of course, highly sought after. And his public lectures were masterpieces of insight. We have lost a giant of our age. We must continue to learn from his example, and we are fortunate that his writings and his speeches will endure and be studied and cherished by future generations.”

Those who worked beside, or studied with, Wiesel carried his teachings and example with them throughout their lives. “Working with Professor Wiesel over the past 18 years has been one of the most meaningful and treasured experiences of my life,” says Wiesel’s longtime friend Steven Katz, the Alvin J. and Shirley Slater Chair in Jewish Holocaust Studies at BU, a CAS professor of religion, and a former director of the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies. “His openness, kindness, and continual concern were, for me, not measurable and could not be expressed in sentences.”

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Wiesel delivering the final lecture in his longtime annual series Three Encounters with Elie Wiesel: The Fascination with Jewish Tales at the George Sherman Union on November 18, 2012. Photo by Vernon Doucette

For decades, Wiesel’s annual fall lecture series, titled Three Encounters with Elie Wiesel: The Fascination with Jewish Tales, would fill Metcalf Hall and an overflow area where those attending could watch on live video. In the sermon-like lectures, Wiesel, a Hasid who managed to be both soft-spoken and powerfully riveting, would use stories from the Torah as springboards for a discussion of the great human questions, covering subjects such as good and evil, love, and fanaticism. His popular course Literature of Memory enthralled students as he engaged them with questions that had no pat answers, but inspired a deep probing of what it means to be human. Stories and questions—these were Wiesel’s tools in a pedagogy his former teaching assistant Ariel Burger (UNI’08) called “an ethical teaching against indifference.”

“Elie Wiesel was a friend,” says Michael Zank, a CAS professor of religion and director of the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies. “I am heartbroken at his passing. I was touched by the care his wife, Marion, brought to him as he was declining. She protected this much-sought-after man like a lioness, and the love between them was deep. Boston University is losing an iconic teacher who brought an incredible intensity to every encounter with students and colleagues. It was a privilege to know and work with him. He will be missed.”

Deeana Klepper, a CAS associate professor of religion, says that beyond his body of work and all his accolades, “Elie Wiesel really was the kind, gentle, and soulful human being you imagined him to be.”

Wiesel “emerged from unthinkable circumstances to live a thoughtful and impactful life,” says Jean Morrison, University provost. “His involvement with our students and our intellectual and academic community over the years is a remarkable and meaningful aspect of our history.”

A life devoted to bearing witness to the Holocaust

The Wiesel family lived in the town of Sighet, now part of Romania, where Wiesel was born in 1928. During World War II, he and his family and other Jews from the area were deported to the German concentration and extermination camps, where his parents and little sister perished. He and his two older sisters survived. Liberated at age 16 from Buchenwald in 1945 by advancing Allied troops, he was taken to Paris, where he studied at the Sorbonne and worked as a journalist.

Through writing, teaching, and human rights activism, Wiesel devoted his life to bearing witness to the Holocaust. In 1958, he published his first book, La Nuit, a memoir of his experiences in the concentration camps, where, he wrote “everyone lives and dies alone.” The English edition, Night, published two years later, is required reading in many public schools, and the book, now translated into 30 languages, remains an international best seller.

Leslie Epstein, a CAS professor of English and former director of the Creative Writing Program, says that upon first reading Night, “it seemed clear to me, through the voice of this young writer, still half a child, while bearing the weight of innumerable aged men, that those who had suffered had spoken to him, were speaking to him, and that surely they wished to speak through the voices of others. For me, that slim book, not quite describable, something of a testimonial, a novel, a memory, and a yartzeit candle too, became at once indispensable.”

Elie Wiesel Receives the Nobel Peace Prize, 1986 - pictured with wife Marion, son Shlomo, Egil Aarvik, chairman of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee

Wiesel accepted the Nobel Peace Prize December 10, 1986, in Oslo: Marion Wiesel (Hon.’90) (from left), the Wiesels' son, Elisha, Wiesel, and Egil Aarvik, chairman of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee. AP Photo/NTB/Bjoern Sigurdsoen

Wiesel went on to write nearly 40 books, most of them memoirs and novels, but also essays and plays. Broadening his personal experience to bear witness to the plight of persecuted minorities around the world, from the Balkans to Darfur, Wiesel and his wife, Marion Wiesel (Hon.’90), established the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity soon after he was awarded the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize. The foundation’s mission, rooted in the memory of the Holocaust, is to combat indifference, intolerance, and injustice through international dialogue and youth-focused programs that promote acceptance, understanding, and equality. The international conferences of the Elie Wiesel Foundation, which focus on themes of peace, education, health, the environment, and terrorism, bring together Nobel laureates and world leaders to discuss social problems and develop suggestions for change.

Michael Grodin, a School of Public Health professor of health law, policy, and management and a School of Medicine professor of psychiatry and of family medicine, recalls Wiesel’s address to the first international conference on the Nazi doctors and the Nuremberg Code. “I remember his words,” Grodin says: ‘“We must not see any person as an abstraction. Instead, we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasure, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph.’”

Although he wrote in French, Wiesel was a United States citizen and made his home in New York City. In addition to his affiliation with BU, he had been a visiting scholar at Yale University, a Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies at the City College of New York, and had served on numerous boards of trustees and advisors. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter appointed him chairman of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust. In 1980, he became the founding chairman of the US Holocaust Memorial Council, serving until 1986. More than 100 honorary degrees from institutions of higher learning had been bestowed on him.

For his literary and human rights activities, Wiesel received numerous honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the US Congressional Gold Medal, the National Humanities Medal, the Medal of Liberty, the rank of Grand-Croix in the French Legion of Honor, and an honorary knighthood of the British Empire.

“Sometimes we must interfere”

Most of Wiesel’s novels, essays, and plays explore the subject that haunted him, the events that he described as “history’s worst crime.” Speaking, writing, traveling incessantly, he became a spokesman for human rights wherever they were threatened—in the former Soviet Union, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, South Africa. “Sometimes we must interfere,” Wiesel said in his Nobel acceptance speech. “When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Whenever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that must—at that moment—become the center of the universe.”

In his Nobel citation, Wiesel was described as a messenger to mankind. “His message is one of peace, atonement, and human dignity,” the citation reads. “His belief that the forces fighting evil in the world can be victorious is a hard-won belief.”

Elie Wiesel engages students during a theology class at Boston University in 1977

Wiesel and students during a theology class in April 1977. Photo by BU Photography

Donated by Wiesel, much of his correspondence, manuscripts, notebooks, and other materials are in the permanent collection of BU’s Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center. Conspicuous by their absence are personal artifacts from Wiesel’s childhood in Sighet. That childhood was stolen by the Nazis in 1944 when the 15-year-old and his family were herded into a cattle car bound for the horrors of Auschwitz.

In a 2012 interview with BU Today, Wiesel spoke about who will bear witness after the last of the Holocaust survivors are gone. “Anyone who listens to a witness becomes one,” he said. “So, therefore, my students are witnesses. Those who read my books have become witnesses. It’s so painful, and I wish they didn’t have to read this, to become the witnesses to the witnesses. It’s not easy. I was invited to speak to the United Nations General Assembly, and the lecture was called Will the World Never Learn?” We should all work harder, Wiesel said. And that work, to which he devoted his own life, “is how to save the victims anywhere, because we remember what happened to my generation, the massacres. We must also protest, or at least raise our voices.” Like he did as a young man, the victims of the Holocaust “felt abandoned,” he said. “They felt that nobody cared. I want today’s victims to know that somebody cares.”

According to Martha Liptzin Hauptman, Wiesel’s longtime assistant, his former students have gone on to become doctors, lawyers, writers, rabbis, cantors, ministers, priests, social workers, teachers, heads of academies, mothers and fathers. “They were taught by a master teacher and role model who had a profound influence on their lives,” she says. “He taught them what it means to be human in the best sense.”

Some of Elie Wiesel’s correspondence, manuscripts, notebooks, and other materials are on display in the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center exhibition Champion for Human Rights: The Life & Work of Elie Wiesel at Mugar Memorial Library, Richards-Frost Room, 771 Commonwealth Ave., first floor. Find more information here or call 617-353-3696. Watch videos of Wiesel’s talks during his tenure at Boston University here.

34 Comments

34 Comments on Elie Wiesel (Hon.’74), Spokesman for Peace and Human Rights, Dies at 87

  • Arthur G Bernstein, (SSW 1970) on 07.03.2016 at 8:17 pm

    Thank you so much. The words for this came from deep within you, and it shows.

    • Richard J. Shemin, M.D. (CLA 1972; MED 1974) on 07.04.2016 at 12:07 pm

      The world has lost a “righteous man”. A soft-spoken person with a pen and message that roars into the ages. Never forget!

  • Anna Manevich on 07.03.2016 at 8:19 pm

    Thank you very much for writing this informative and well-deserve piece on Elie Wiesel!

  • Barbara Ravitz Melinek SAR70 on 07.03.2016 at 8:26 pm

    If I’m not mistaken, Elie Weisel lectured at BU in the 1960s before he joined the faculty. The world suffers a tremendous loss upon his death; may no one Forget! My deepest sympathy to his family…Alev Hasholom

  • Emily Hassan on 07.03.2016 at 8:30 pm

    We have lost an eloquent giant. He shall be forever missed. Like Dr. King, I am proud to be a fellow member of the BU family with Professor Wiesel.

  • Faye Berzon on 07.03.2016 at 8:33 pm

    The world has lost one of the most outstanding persons,, a scholar, writer humanitarian.
    May he rest in peace

  • Isabella Jancourtz on 07.03.2016 at 8:34 pm

    Like Martin Luther King, Jr., Barbara Jordan and Howard Thurman, Elie Wiesel has left Boston University and the world a better place than he found it.
    My condolences to his family and friends.

  • Kim Rosenberg Amzallag on 07.03.2016 at 8:38 pm

    One regret I have is that during my years st BU that I never was able to get into his classes. I later had the pleasure to see him pray and speak with him in nyc at 5yh avenue synagogue and at 92 Y events. Baruch Dayan ha-emet. Only g-d is the true judge. Rest in peace and may your consciousness remain for all time with the works.

  • claire holcomb on 07.03.2016 at 8:52 pm

    Mr. Wiesel’s deal leaves me feeling sad. I was once again reading one of his books this week never thinking he would die so soon. I feel a loss of one of the too few moral forces I need to know are in the world. His death makes me want to be a better person. That is a tribute. I so wish I could have studied with him. I went to BU in graduate program in l973. Was he there? If so, what a loss.
    Blessings on his family and those to carrhy on his message. In my own small way I hope to do that also. He was a great man and I love his white hair and open smile even there was no belly laugh. We should all wwrite the writers we love before they die. Twice this month learning this. Claire Holcomb

  • Harriet Besman on 07.03.2016 at 9:08 pm

    As a graduate of BU (1963) I takes me proud that a man such as Elie Wiesel chose to teach there for so many years. People like Mr Wiesel who managed to survive the Holocaust and to use the horrific experience they endured as a means to help make others understand that this should never happen again to anyone any where Were and are a gift to humanity. To me this ability to touch so many lives for good is nothing short of miraculous. I had a friend who felt that because she survived, carrying a photo of her parents in the hem of her dress for six unimaginably horrible years, it was her mission to do good works. She was national president of the Literacy Council, nationally active with the Red Cross and Hadassah and when she began to speak publicly she was a force of nature. People like this are obviously extraordinary, but must also be Angels. Their minds and their hearts not embodying bitterness and hatred, but love and life and a burning desire to move humanity forward and help people to choose good rather than evil. Mr. Wiesel will be missed by all mankind.

  • Lorraine Hurley SED '67/'69 on 07.03.2016 at 9:37 pm

    Yes, I remember it well.How proud I was to be a BU grad when I heard about Elie
    Weisel’s affiliation with Boston University. Just think, we walked Commonwealth
    Avenue together.

  • Richard Jamieson on 07.03.2016 at 10:42 pm

    I graduated BU in 62 and sorry that I never met him

  • Linda Catalan Sklar on 07.04.2016 at 12:09 am

    The one time I got to hear Elie Wiesel speak left an indelible impression on me. II was an encounter with a man who lived and breathed the humanity that he beckoned us to delve deep within to find, to access and to act on. Thank you for this most beautiful article. May Elie Wiesel’s memory be for a blessing and may we each in our own way continue his work and life mission.

  • Arlene Rubenstein on 07.04.2016 at 2:20 am

    What a beautiful man. I graduated B.U. one year before he came to be staff member. I remember a friend telling me about it and I’m only sorry I wasn’t born a bit later …so that I could have studied with him!

  • William Kleh LAW '71 on 07.04.2016 at 6:15 am

    For many years my wife Patty and I have hosted an annual speakers series here in London. This annual event was motivated in large part by the desire to share with the broader London BU community the knowledge and views of the University’s many talented professors. We had Elie Wiesel in mind when we launched this initiative. Professor Wiesel was our distinguished lecturer on October 23, 2002, during the run-up to the second Iraq War.
    His talk, “Imagining Peace, Against Indifference” was well-received by a large audience at Freemasons’ Hall here in London – an audience which included then president John Silber. Patty and I had the good fortune to enjoy an evening with Elie and his wife Marion at the theatre on the evening preceding his talk, and we were able to join him for a small dinner gathering following the lecture. Our then twenty-year old daughter Erin remembers well her conversation with Professor Wiesel, and his emphasis on the importance of remaining engaged as citizens during times of crisis. Elie Wiesel’s death represents a huge loss, particularly at this strange time in American and British political life. I am sure that most of your readers will agree that his message will continue to resonate in a world constantly beset with crises when anxieties and petty misunderstandings can often give rise to prejudices which in turn can determine the course of events.

  • Prof. Donald F. Megnin, S.T.B., PhD. on 07.04.2016 at 8:08 am

    Your presentation of his life, history and tragedy suffered by all persons during the Second World War was and is a graphic report which needs to be read over and over again from one generation to the next. Thanks for the presentation.

  • Prof. Donald F. Megnin, S.T.B., PhD. on 07.04.2016 at 8:13 am

    As one whose family left Germany in 1927, we escaped the savage bestiality of the Nazi regime. Had we stayed there we too would have been taken in as “partial Jews” (my Grandfather was the product of the rape of a great aunt) by a Jewish professor from Heidelberg.

  • Cheryl Heller on 07.04.2016 at 8:20 am

    In 1977 i was a student in Elie Wiesels class. Through his lectures- which at that time were 30 students and so i had the priveledge of being in a class like environment- he shared the horrors of what people are capable of phychologically. This must have been hard to relive his whole life- but i thank him for giving me the mental framework and language to never forget- to bear witness-to carry on his mission-as best i can with my children and friends. He provided a moral compass for generations to come. His passing has made it even more evident that it is now our generations responsibility to set a moral compass and right where we see humanity go wrong. Thank you professor Wiesel.

  • Samuel Ihemdi, MD, MPH. & Hania Dawani, DNSc, MPH. on 07.04.2016 at 10:29 am

    Prof. & Nobel prize laureate Elie Wiesel has clealy shown what a human being can accomplish from man’s humanity to man, teaching, hohesty and integrety, forgiveness and peace and the basic human rights to mention but few. I and my wife are alumni and while he was not our professor, we certainly knew, heard and read about all his contribution to Boston University. We are proud of him and glad to be associated with him through BU. Thanks to BU for adding Prof. Wiesel to the list of what makes BU ring bells from Martin Luther King to Wiesel and so on. Looking at the life of this man from Holocaust to present day, its time for the world to say ‘ Nevver Again ‘. On behalf of my family and friends, may his soul rest in peace and may God comfor his family and BU.

  • Mark Phillips on 07.04.2016 at 11:07 am

    Elie Wiesel’s life exemplifies the resilience of the human spirit. His legacy of tolerance, active opposition to prejudice and inhumanity, and a deep respect of human rights is reflected in the lives of the many people he touched. Mr. Wiesel showed that one person can make a difference.

  • david on 07.04.2016 at 12:47 pm

    One voice reverberated as tho 6 million were able to speak up. When Elie Wiesel spoke wrote or lectured he brought forth the story of all who perished or suffered in the Holocaust . Would that the world would remember when confronted with the savagery ocuring in the middle East and beyond.

  • Connie Austin on 07.04.2016 at 1:13 pm

    I am profoundly moved by his life and testament. At 83 yrs old, I remember at age 12, 1945 first seeing pictures of concentration camps and the inmates. That was the end of childhood for me. Those hideous crimes happened . let no one deny it.

  • Henriette Langdon on 07.04.2016 at 2:11 pm

    I am sad to learn about Professor Wiesel’s passing. As daughter and granddaughter of Holocaust survivors in Poland I was introduced to many of the topics discussed in Professor’ Wiesel’s books and lectures from early childhood. The horrors endured by innocent people included not only Jews but others from different political and ethnic groups. I do hope that Professor Wiesel’s legacy and contributions to highlight peace and understanding will live for ever in our complex world.

  • Daniel Litowsky Ducasa on 07.04.2016 at 9:24 pm

    Elie Weisel is most definitely a example of not only how one person can make a difference in changing the world but how to make all those who either read, listened or had privilege to sit with him, to become missionaries as consciousness change agents in their own way. He was jarred in his youth by hate and death yet lived to jar the soul of the world from disbelief into believing there is a place for each one of us on this planet.

  • Sarahi Lim Baro on 07.04.2016 at 9:49 pm

    It was an honor to have met Professor Wiesel and to attend his lectures at BU. I still hear his voice, so passionate and resolute, in the midst of such horror, pain. Remember, he repeated. Witness.
    The most memorial part of my BU education was Dean George Makechnie, Rabbi Polak, and Professor Wiesel. Thank you and rest in peace Professor Wiesel.
    Sarahi Lim Baro (CAS ’96).

  • Andrew Wolfe on 07.05.2016 at 7:16 am

    May Mr Wiesel now rest in peace.

  • Mara Koven-Gelman on 07.05.2016 at 7:43 am

    Like many of you I was fortunate enough to take the class with Professor Wiesel. I was a graduate student at Brandeis and was able to take a “consortium school course” on the Book of Job in 1989. One of the highlights of the class was an optional 20 minutes in a one on one discussion in Professor Wiesel’s study. Students could bring any issue, any topic. Thinking back on that time, I feel incredibly lucky to have gleaned many life lessons from our collective mentor and teacher. Please keep sharing.

  • Sandra Murray Carman, CAS '72, GSM '85 on 07.05.2016 at 9:39 am

    This man touched my life when I first heard him speak at the 1974 graduation ceremonies. Saturday was my birthday. To think that I was out celebrating “my day” and my retirement when he passed from this world saddens me. Your article is a wonderful testament to an incredible man. He’s in my prayers although I’m not sure he “needs” them.

  • Maria A. Crudele, SED '02 on 07.05.2016 at 9:57 am

    A very well-written piece honoring a most noble man, Ms. Seligson. I am extremely grateful to my high school English teacher who made Prof. Wiesel’s memoir Night a required reading in our class over 30 years ago thereby “introducing” me to this remarkable man. It is one of the first texts which left an indelible mark on me as an adolescent. Thank you, Prof. Wiesel. May you rest in peace.

  • Rev. Dr. Robin Olson STH-86 on 07.05.2016 at 10:56 am

    I chose BU School of Theology in the 1980s in large part for the opportunity to study with Prof. Wiesel. I had just returned from a year in Israel living on a kibbutz founded by Holocaust survivors; I was delving into roots of Christian anti-Semitism and deeply disturbed by my research. As I journeyed towards ordination, Prof Wiesel was a patient, kind, and passionate listener who supported my vocational wrestling matches. I had two or three classes with him, and count him as my great mentor in faith, ethics, and pastoral care. Much of my own professional life has been devoted to interfaith dialogue, with tribute to my beloved teacher.

  • Hans Kornberg on 07.05.2016 at 3:15 pm

    If I may presume to add to Susan Seligson’s heartwarming article, it is to pay tribute to Elie’s additional important role in BU’s University Professors Program (UNI). He not only taught to standing room-only classes but provided warm support and always wise counsel in the administration of that Program. And,as I fondly recollect our meetings over mid-morning cups of tea, he frequently leavened his remarks with unexpected shaft of wit and impish asides…I mourn the passing of a truly great man and a good friend. In piam memoriam, Elie..

  • Jonathan Krivine on 07.06.2016 at 9:12 pm

    Throughout the 1950s, literature on the holocaust, both fiction and non-fiction, was scant and bland. But with the publication of Elie Wiesel’s “Night”, in 1960, the world changed. No longer could European politicians and intelligentsia sweep the murder of 6 million Jews under a rug. No longer would America Jews be naive about the near extinction of their people. More than anyone else, Professor Elie Wiesel put western civilization on notice that the Jewish people will never forget and never surrender. Boston University was his home and for that, we should all be grateful and proud

  • Donald E.Denniston on 07.08.2016 at 4:22 pm

    In gratitude, thank you!!!

  • Erin E. Lynch, SED '02 on 07.09.2016 at 1:46 pm

    Thank you so much for this thoughtful piece. We should all strive to leave the world a better place than we found it, and no one embodied this ideal more than Professor Wiesel. Hearing him speak during my time at BU was an enormous privilege. The world feels the sudden loss of your wisdom, kindness, and pureness of heart acutely, sir.

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