Interview: Elie Wiesel

By Miriam Shaviv, September 26, 2008

Acclaimed Holocaust writer Elie Wiesel has found fame with a new generation of readers after Oprah Winfrey endorsed his book, Night.

Several years ago, Elie Wiesel's publisher suggested that he have Night, the account of life in the concentration camps which originally made his name, retranslated from the original Yiddish.

Since its publication in English in 1960, the memoir had sold more than six million copies in the United States alone, been translated into more than 30 other languages, and helped earn Wiesel the Nobel Prize for Peace. Yet this was the first time, in more than 45 years, that Wiesel re-read his masterpiece cover-to-cover.

"It was a very intense moment, to read it again," he says. "It brought back the times when I wrote it, the Yiddish period of my life."

The new translation, by Wiesel's wife Marion, is currently being issued in the UK for the first time, to coincide with his 80th birthday.

According to Wiesel - who sold the world rights to the book for $100 in 1960 - it is far superior to the previous edition.

"When it was first published in English, my English was not good enough to judge. Students who worked on it told me that it did not sing. I'm grateful to the first translator, but feel that my wife's translation is more authentic, more my voice." The new version received massive exposure in early 2006, when Oprah Winfrey chose it for her book club on her talk show. Over a million more copies were printed and, within a month, it was number one in the New York Times best-seller list for paperback non-fiction.

Then, in a television special, Wiesel accompanied Winfrey to Auschwitz, where his mother and sister were murdered, and where he himself was an inmate. He says it will probably be his last visit there. But he is keener to talk about the effect the trip had on the woman who is perhaps the most recognisable face in America.

"It was a very moving experience for her," Wiesel says. "She told people it was not a show, there was no take-one, take-two. There was a huge crew, but it was only she and I. I wanted her to feel differently, to understand differently, and she did - it changed her life, she became more sensitive to certain issues, to my pain."

Curiously, Wiesel is sceptical that Night - possibly the most widely read Holocaust memoir ever - has helped further understanding of the Holocaust in the general population. "Do they understand it?" he
asks. "Does one book help understanding?"

However, while some observers are concerned that memory of the Holocaust is fading as we get further away from the event and as the last generation of survivors disappears, Wiesel is convinced that Holocaust awareness is higher today than ever.

He notes that every year the American government marks Holocaust Day, that the subject is increasingly taught in schools, and that 30 million people have visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington.

Nor does he sense a lack of interest among young Jews, although some claim that the community's emphasis on the Shoah is provoking a backlash among a generation looking for more positive reasons to remain Jewish.

"The third generation of survivors is today more interested than the second generation, the children of survivors whose parents did not talk to them about it," he says.

"People say there is too much emphasis on the Holocaust. What is too much? If the Holocaust was the only subject young Jews were interested in, it would be terrible - we would be a morbid people, and I am against it. Israel, the Holocaust, learning, the Jewish experience in different countries - you can't isolate it to this or that, and say this is what makes me Jewish."

Is the situation different, perhaps, in the UK, where the Holocaust has been politicised to a large extent, with annual rows, for example, over whether Muslim representatives will attend Holocaust Memorial Day? "I don't live here, I don't know. The people I know are all interested in it," he says.

Wiesel received an honorary knighthood in 2006 in recognition of his work toward promoting Holocaust education in the UK, and he emphasises that education is the key to ensuring that the memory of the Holocaust remains alive.

However, he declines to comment on whether a recent government initiative which provides funding for two sixth-formers from every school in England to visit Auschwitz each year is the most effective way to increase Holocaust awareness.

"Should I interfere in an English debate?" he asks. "Is it bad to send two students every year? I can't tell them what to do. I feel that the apparent official concern for education about the Holocaust is good."

Such diplomacy would probably have been a key asset had he accepted Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's offer, in early 2007, to make him the Kadima Party's candidate for President of the Jewish state.

Wiesel says he visits Israel three times a year - on Succot, Shavuot and on Tisha b'Av, "to prove that Jeremiah was wrong" when he lamented that Jerusalem "sat alone" - and that although he does not agree with everything Israel does, he "loves" the country. But he insists he was never interested in the presidential offer.

"Ben-Gurion offered it to Einstein who also refused, because he didn't know Hebrew. I do know Hebrew, but it's not for me, I never lived in Israel," he says. "For six weeks, I was under pressure - I should accept it, it's all been arranged. But I want to continue to be a teacher, I don't want more than that."

In February 2007, Wiesel was attacked in San Francisco by a Holocaust-denier who tried to drag him into a hotel room. He reveals that one of the first calls he received after the event was from Olmert.

"He told me that if I had accepted his proposal, the attack wouldn't have happened."

So what is on the cards instead? As he enters his 81st year, Wiesel - who, in addition to his Holocaust-related activities, lectures at Boston University, raises awareness of the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, and helps run the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity - says he intends to take a "sabbatical to meditate, for the first time in my career".

Not that this sounds particularly restful. "I've just published in Paris my 50th book, a philosophical novel about two generations of Germans confronting each other. I have to write my third book of memoirs, about my teachers and friends. Having written 50 books, I sometimes have the feeling I haven't even begun."

Night is published by Penguin at £7.99

Last updated: 3:02pm, August 28 2014