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Elie Wiesel Poetry, Epigrams, Quotes and Essays

Eliezer "Elie" Wiesel (1928-2016) was a Romanian-born American Jewish writer, professor, political activist, Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor. He was the author of 57 books, written mostly in French and English, including Night, a work based on his experiences as a prisoner in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps. He was a professor of the humanities at Boston University, which created the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies in his honor. He was involved with Jewish causes, and helped establish the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 and was a founding board member of the New York Human Rights Foundation. He died on July 2, 2016 at age 88.

This page was compiled by Michael R. Burch, an editor, publisher and translator of Holocaust poetry. Please click here to read his essay: What I learned from Elie Wiesel and other Jewish Holocaust Survivors, about achieving World Peace.

There is divine beauty in learning,
just as there is human beauty in tolerance.
—Elie Wiesel

Even if only one free individual is left,
he is proof that the dictator is powerless against freedom.
But a free man is never alone; the dictator is alone.
The free man is the one who, even in prison,
gives to the other prisoners
their thirst for, their memory of, freedom.
—Elie Wiesel

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.
Never shall I forget that smoke.
Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.
Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever.
Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.
Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.
Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.
—Elie Wiesel

The truth simply and plainly stated is poetry, and that makes Elie Wiesel a poet. A forgettable poem is not a poem at all, while the best words are memorable because they refuse to allow us to forget them:

That day I encountered the first American soldiers
in the Buchenwald concentration camp.
I remember them well.

Bewildered, disbelieving, they walked around the place,
hell on earth,
where our destiny had been played out.

They looked at us,
just liberated,
and did not know what to do or say.

Survivors snatched from the dark throes of death,
we were empty of all hope—
too weak, too emaciated to hug them or even speak to them.

Like lost children, the American soldiers wept and wept with rage and sadness.
And we received their tears as if they were heartrending offerings
from a wounded and generous humanity.

—Elie Wiesel, from "The America I Love"

Elie Wiesel was born in 1928 in Sighet, Transylvania, now a part of Romania. He was fifteen years old when he and his family were deported by the Nazis to Auschwitz. His mother and younger sister perished, his two older sisters survived. Elie and his father were later transported to Buchenwald, where his father died shortly before the camp was liberated in April 1945.

After the war, Elie Wiesel studied in Paris and later became a journalist. During an interview with the distinguished French writer, Francois Mauriac, he was persuaded to write about his experiences in the death camps. The result was his internationally acclaimed memoir, La Nuit or Night, which has since been translated into more than thirty languages.

Elie Wiesel is the author of more than forty books of fiction and non-fiction, including A Beggar in Jerusalem (Prix Médicis winner), The Testament (Prix Livre Inter winner), The Fifth Son (winner of the Grand Prize in Literature from the City of Paris), and two volumes of his memoirs.

For his literary and human rights activities, he has received numerous awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal and the Medal of Liberty Award, and the rank of Grand-Croix in the French Legion of Honor. In 1986, Elie Wiesel won the Nobel Prize for Peace. A few months later, Marion and Elie Wiesel established The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity.

There is divine beauty in learning,
just as there is human beauty in tolerance.
To learn means to accept the postulate
that life did not begin at my birth.
Others have been here before me,
and I walk in their footsteps.
The books I have read were composed
by generations of fathers and sons,
mothers and daughters,
teachers and disciples.
I am the sum total
of their experiences, their quests.
And so are you.

—Elie Wiesel, from "Have You Learned the Most Important Lesson of All"

Heroes and martyrs become the pride of their people
by fighting with a weapon in their hand
or a prayer on their lips.
In a thousand ways, each proclaims
that freedom alone gives meaning
to the life of an individual
or a nation.

—Elie Wiesel, from "What Really Makes Us Free"

The Jews who lived in the ghettos under the Nazi occupation
showed their independence by leading an organized clandestine life.
The teacher who taught the starving children was a free man.
The nurse who secretly cared for the wounded, the ill and the dying was a free woman.
The rabbi who prayed,
the disciple who studied,
the father who gave his bread to his children,
the children who risked their lives by leaving the ghetto at night
in order to bring back to their parents a piece of bread
or a few potatoes,
the man who consoled his orphaned friend,
the orphan who wept with a stranger for a stranger—
these were human beings filled with an unquenchable thirst for freedom and dignity.
The young people who dreamed of armed insurrection,
the lovers who, a moment before they were separated,
talked about their bright future together,
the insane who wrote poems,
the chroniclers who wrote down the day's events
by the light of their flickering candles—
all of them were free in the noblest sense of the word,
though their prison walls seemed impassable
and their executioners invincible.

It was the same even in the death camps.

Defeated and downcast,
overcome by fatigue and anguish,
tormented and tortured day after day,
hour after hour,
even in their sleep,
condemned to a slow but certain death,
the prisoners nevertheless managed
to carve out a patch of freedom for themselves.
Every memory became a protest against the system;
every smile was a call to resist;
every human act turned into a struggle
against the torturer's philosophy.

... The executioner did not always triumph.
Among his victims were some who placed freedom
above what constituted their lives.
Some managed to escape
and alert the public in the free world.
Others organized a solidarity movement within the inferno itself.
One companion of mine in the camps
gave the man next to him a spoonful of soup every day at work.
Another would try to amuse us with stories.
Yet another would urge us not to forget our names—
one way, among many other, of saying "no" to the enemy,
of showing that we were free, freer than the enemy.

Even in a climate of oppression,
men are capable of inventing their own freedom,
of creating their own ideal of sovereignty
What if they are a minority?
Even if only one free individual is left,
he is proof that the dictator is powerless against freedom.
But a free man is never alone; the dictator is alone.
The free man is the one who, even in prison,
gives to the other prisoners
their thirst for, their memory of, freedom.

—Elie Wiesel, from "What Really Makes Us Free"

As another THT page attests, God sometimes moves in Mysterious Ways. At the end of "What Really Makes Us Free," Elie Wiesel relates: I went to the Soviet Union for the fourth time last October. In a private apartment somewhere in Moscow, in a crowd of 100 or so Refuseniks, a man still young addressed me shyly: "A few years ago," he said, "I decided to translate your first three books in samizdat [the illicit publication of banned literature in the USSR]. Friends and I distributed thousands of copies, but I knew I would meet you someday, so I kept the first copy. Here it is." Blushing, he held it out to me, and I felt like embracing him in thanks for both his courage and his devotion. An hour later, in the same apartment but in a different room, an older man came up to me: "I have something for you," he said, smiling. "A few years ago, I translated your first three books. I kept one copy. I knew I would meet you someday." I took him by the arm and introduced him to the first translator. They fell into each other's arms, crying. Yes—joy makes people weep. Freedom does too.

—Elie Wiesel, from "What Really Makes Us Free"

Hope is a key word in the vocabulary of men and women like myself and so many others who discovered in America the strength to overcome cynicism and despair. Remember the legendary Pandora’s box? It is filled with implacable, terrifying curses. But underneath, at the very bottom, there is hope. Now as before, now more than ever, it is waiting for us.

—Elie Wiesel, from "The America I Love"

Should you encounter temporary disappointments, I pray:
Do not make someone else pay the price for your difficulties and pain.

Do not see in someone else a scapegoat for your difficulties.
Only a fanatic does that—not you, for you have learned to reject fanaticism.

You know that fanaticism leads to hatred,
and hatred is both destructive and self-destructive.

I speak to you as a teacher and a student—
one is both, always.

I also speak to you as a witness.
I speak to you, for I do not want my past to become your future.

—Elie Wiesel, from "Have You Learned the Most Important Lesson of All?"

I would say that an idea becomes fanatical the moment it minimizes or excludes all the ideas that confront or oppose it. In religion, it is dogmatism; in politics, totalitarianism. The fanatic deforms and pollutes reality. He never sees things and people as they are; his hatred makes him fabricate idols and images so ugly that he can become indignant about them. In his eyes he, and only he, has the right to put his ideas into action, which he will do at the first opportunity. One can encounter fanaticism in the framework of all monotheistic religions—Christian, Jewish, Moslem—and extremism in any form revolts me. I turn away from persons who declare that they know better than anyone else the only true road to God. If they try to force me to follow their road, I fight them. Whatever the fanatic's religion, I wish to be his adversary, his opponent ... Yes, the fanatic is passionate. But his passions can be dangerous. In religion, love is neither the problem nor the solution. The problem is exaggerated love, fanatical love, which turns religion into a personal battlefield that is dangerous to others and demeaning to the very faith it professes to cherish. If religious fanaticism hides the face of God, so does political fanaticism destroy human liberty. In fact, there are some who, seeking to combat religious fanaticism, battle it with another kind of fanaticism that is equally evil. We cannot yield to fanaticism of any type. Fanaticism is a basic element of every dictatorship. In science, it serves death; in literature, it twists truth; in history, it tells lies; in art, it creates ugliness. The fanatic never rests and never quits; the more he conquers, the more he seeks new conquests. For him to feel free, he must put everyone else into prison—if not physically, at least mentally. In doing so, he never realizes that he himself is in jail, as a guard if not as a prisoner. A fanatic has answers, not questions; certainties, not hesitations. In dictatorial regimes, doubts were considered crimes against the state. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche expressed it this way: Madness is the result not of uncertainty but certainty. Substitute the word fanaticism for madness, and the equation holds.

—Elie Wiesel, from "When Passion Is Dangerous"

How can the fanatics be brought back to moral sanity? How can the killers and suicide warriors be disarmed? If there is a simple answer, I do not know it. All I know is that, as we embark on this newest century, we cannot continue to live with fanaticism—and only we ourselves can stem it. How are we to do this? We must first fight indifference. Indifference to evil is the enemy of good, for indifference is the enemy of everything that exalts the honor of man. We fight indifference through education; we diminish it through compassion. The most efficient remedy? Memory. To remember means to recognize a time other than the present; to remember means to acknowledge the possibility of a dialogue. In recalling an event, I provoke its rebirth in me. In evoking a face, I place myself in relationship to it. In remembering a landscape, I oppose it to the walls that imprison me. The memory of an ancient joy or defeat is proof that nothing is definitive, nor is it irrevocable. To live through a catastrophe is bad; to forget it is worse.

—Elie Wiesel, from "How Can We Understand Their Hatred?"

Sometimes we must interfere. 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 place must — at that moment — become the center of the universe.

—Elie Wiesel

A related page is:

What I learned from Elie Wiesel and other Jewish Holocaust Survivors, about achieving World Peace

Links to complete essays by Elie Wiesel:

What Really Makes Us Free

Are We Afraid Of Peace?

When Passion Is Dangerous

Have You Learned the Most Important Lesson of All?

The America I Love

How Can We Understand Their Hatred?

We Choose Honor

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