Faith is at the core of Elie Wiesel's life. He says his childhood in Romania was blessed with love and hope and prayer -- until World War II began. In 1944, at age 15, Wiesel was deported to a Nazi concentration camp. He endured forced labor, starvation, disease, beatings and torture.
A year later both his parents were dead. Wiesel and two sisters survived. It was not until more than a decade later that Wiesel, then a journalist living in France, opened his pain to the world with Night, an agonizing memoir of death camp horror.
"Never shall I forget that night, the first time in camp, which has turned my life into one long night seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke, the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into reeves of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never should I forget those flames, which consumed my faith forever."
Wiesel disagrees with readers who interpret that passage, and the book itself, as a chronicle of his break with faith and with God. "I never divorced God," he says. "I was angry [with] God and I still am. But my faith is tested, wounded, but it's still here. So, whatever I say it is always from inside faith, even when I speak the way I occasionally do about questions I have [and] the problems I have. Within my [Jewish] tradition it is permitted to question God, even to take him to task."
Wiesel often says his body of work - more than 40 books, essays and plays, poetry and Biblical commentary - all compliment that first novel, which has been translated into more than 30 languages.
When Wiesel received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, he was called "messenger to mankind," for his unyielding stand against violence, repression and racism. An early opponent of apartheid, he remembers when he brought world leaders together in 1990 for a symposium on "the anatomy of hate."
"[Nelson] Mandela came. I invited a minister of the apartheid government. At one point the young minister of the apartheid government turned to Mandela and said, 'Nelson, I grew up in apartheid. My dream now is to attend its funeral.' And it was so beautiful that I put them together and that was the beginning of the end of apartheid."
Wiesel is tireless in his fight for human rights. He is deeply engaged with questions of good and evil, peace and war. Most recently, he has spoken out against genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan, and he is deeply disturbed about the cycle of terror and bloodshed in the Middle East. "My priorities are Jewish priorities, Jewish hopes, Jewish fears, Jewish struggles. But they are not exclusive," he says. "That is why I try to be involved with every cause possible dealing with human rights. But I cannot help terrorists. It is something that I oppose with all my heart. It is this terrorism rooted in fanaticism."
In a 1978 essay, published as an open letter to a young Palestinian, Wiesel writes: "I am irritated by your threats, but overwhelmed by your suffering. Your behavior is conditioned by Arab suffering and mine by Jewish suffering. These two sufferings should unite us. Instead they divide us."
Wiesel says he could write that letter today. "I can say in truth, I would feel all the sympathy in the world for the young Palestinians who want to live in peace and have a state. And peace is not a gift that God is giving us. It is something that we give to each other."
Elie Wiesel became an American citizen in 1963. He headed the U.S. Holocaust Council, which led to the creation of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1993. He also established the Elie Wiesel Foundation dedicated to combating indifference, intolerance and injustice.
When asked how he maintains his sense of faith in the face of the horrors of daily life, Elie Wiesel replies, "I think of the killer and I lose all faith. But then I think of the victim and I am inundated with compassion."
This article is based in part an interview with Elie Wiesel conducted by American Public Media's "Speaking of Faith." To hear the complete interview visit their website. http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org/programs/wiesel/index.shtml