Wiesel, traumatized by the horrors he witnessed, did not share his story at first. Nor did millions of other survivors who struggled with the enormity of what they had endured.
"In the beginning, survivors didn't speak because people refused to listen," he said in an interview with The Atlantic in 2012. "When I began to write, it was to tell other survivors to write. All we have is words."
After studying at the famed Sorbonne, Wiesel began to write as a journalist for French and Yiddish publications in the newly founded Israel and in Europe. While living in Paris, his friend Francois Mauriac, a noted French author, encouraged him to write about his experiences. The ensuing 100-page book was titled La Nuit for its French publication in 1958.
An English translation followed in 1960, titled Night. The short but unsparing work, recounted in chilling detail from Wiesel’s experiences, was one of the first literary works to seriously address the Holocaust and ponder its implications for humanity. It was also a commercial success, eventually selling 10 million copies. Wiesel moved to the United States and eventually became an U.S. citizen in 1964, taking up residence in New York City and immersing himself in the epicenter of American Jewish life.
With the prominence that came from his writing, Wiesel also turned to activism. His efforts often focused on oppressed groups throughout the world, ranging from South Africa under apartheid to Jews living in the Soviet Union. During the March for Survival in 1980, a Medicins Sans Frontieres protest in Thailand that hoped to draw attention to a humanitarian crisis in neighboring Cambodia, a reporter asked Wiesel why he had joined the cause.
“I came here because nobody came when I was there,” he replied.
His efforts eventually led to a Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. Wiesel used the opportunity to praise dissidents, including Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa, and Andrei Sakharov. He also highlighted the plight of beleaguered minority groups throughout the world.
“We must remember the suffering of my people, as we must remember that of the Ethiopians, the Cambodians, the boat people, Palestinians, the Mesquite Indians, the Argentinian ‘desaparecidos’—the list seems endless,” he said after the announcement.
In these groups and others, Wiesel saw echoes of the genocide he survived. But he also frequently cautioned against casual comparisons to it. As the Holocaust became more prominent in the collective consciousness—a cultural shift in which he played a major role—Wiesel also grew concerned about its portrayal. By the 1980s, he criticized what he saw as a “period of general de-sanctification of the Holocaust” in television and film.
“Auschwitz represents the negation and failure of human progress; it negates the human design and casts doubts on its validity,” he wrote in a 1989 essay. “Then, it defeated culture; later, it defeated art, because just as no one could imagine Auschwitz before Auschwitz, no one can now retell Auschwitz after Auschwitz. The truth of Auschwitz remains hidden in its ashes.”