Shortly after his liberation from a Nazi concentration camp in 1945, a gaunt and grieving survivor made what now seems an uncharacteristic vow. He promised that he would not speak for at least ten years of the horrors he had witnessed. The silence was kept, but when the words finally emerged, they came in a torrent. Novels, essays, speeches and lectures all spoke tirelessly of the need to rescue the Holocaust from the silence of history. Last week Elie Wiesel's words of witness were honored with the Nobel Prize for Peace, which carries with it an award of $287,769.78. From Oslo, the Nobel Committee praised him as "one of the most important spiritual leaders and guides in an age when violence, repression and racism continue to characterize the world. Wiesel is a messenger to mankind: his message is one of peace, atonement and human dignity."
The messenger was awakened with notification of the award by a telephone call at 5 a.m. in the Manhattan apartment where he lives with his wife and 14- year-old son. It was the morning after Yom Kippur, the Jewish high holiday, and Wiesel, 58, lapsed into memories of his childhood in the Rumanian town of Sighet. "I was still in the mood of Neilah, the final moments of the Yom - Kippur service," he recalled. "I saw myself as a child in Sighet, behind my father and next to my grandfather, praying with fervor." The reverie was soon interrupted by the clamor of journalists and international well-wishers. "This honor is not mine alone," Wiesel announced at a press conference later that day. "It belongs to all the survivors who have tried to do something with their pain, with their memory, with their silence, with their life."
Born in a remote town in the Carpathian Mountains, Wiesel grew up with a grounding in both the Torah and humanist literature. But his faith was shaken in the spring of 1944, when the Nazis arrived and deported the Jewish population. Wiesel spent time in Auschwitz, where his mother and youngest sister were killed, and later in Buchenwald, where his father died. "The child that I was," he later wrote, "had been consumed in the flames. There remained only a shape that looked like me. A dark flame had entered into my soul and devoured it."
After the war Wiesel settled in France, where he studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, worked as a journalist and came under the influence of Albert Camus and Francois Mauriac. His first novel, Night (1958), was an indelible account of the Nazi atrocities as seen through the eyes of a teenage boy. The hell inside the death camps is described in austere, intense prose that became the author's emblem: "Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night . . . Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky."
Night was followed by several other fictionalized treatments of the Holocaust -- a term Wiesel brought into currency but which he believes has since been "trivialized and vulgarized." Moving to the U.S. in 1957, he became a hypnotic, increasingly popular lecturer and professor, first at the City College of New York and later at Boston University.