In 1944, the German army deported the Jewish community in Sighet to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Wiesel and his father were sent to the work camp Buna, a subcamp of Auschwitz III-Monowitz. He managed to remain with his father for more than eight months as they were shuffled among three concentration camps in the final days of the war.
On January 28, 1945, just a few weeks after the two were marched to Buchenwald, Wiesel’s father was beaten by an SS guard. He was also beaten by other inmates for his food. He was later sent to the crematorium, only weeks before the camp was liberated by the U.S. Third Army on April 11.
For ten years after the war, Wiesel refused to write about or discuss his experiences during the Holocaust. However, a meeting with the French author François Mauriac, the 1952 Nobel laureate in literature, and a discussion he had with the Lubavitcher Rebbe were turning points for him. His first memoir, in Yiddish, titled, And the World Remained Silent, was published in Buenos Aires. He rewrote a new version of the manuscript in French, which was published as La Nuit, and translated into English as Night. Wiesel had trouble finding a publisher and the book initially sold only a few copies.
In 1960 Hill & Wang agreed to pay a $100 pro-forma advance and published the book in the United States as Night. It sold only 1,046 copies but attracted interest from reviewers, leading to television interviews for Wiesel and meetings with literary figures such as Saul Bellow.
“The English translation came out in 1960, and the first printing was 3,000 copies,” Wiesel said in an interview. “And it took three years to sell them. Now, I get 100 letters a month from children about the book. And there are many, many millions of copies in print.”
Night has been translated into 30 languages. By 1997 the book was selling 300,000 copies annually in the United States alone. By March 2006, about six million copies were sold in the United States.
On January 16, 2006, Oprah Winfrey chose the work for her book club. One million new paperback and 150,000 hardcover copies were printed carrying the “Oprah’s Book Club” logo, with a new translation by Wiesel’s wife, Marion, and a new preface by Wiesel. On February 12, 2006, the new translation of Night was No. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list for paperback non-fiction while the original translation placed third.
Wiesel was criticized by some in the Orthodox community for what they viewed as his rejection of faith in God after the Holocaust. But Weisel, who studied Jewish religious texts daily throughout his adult life, resented the allegation.
“I have never renounced my faith in God,” he wrote. “I have risen against his justice, protested His silence and sometimes His absence, but my anger rises up within faith and not outside it…. Moreover, the [sacred] texts cite many occasions when prophets and sages rebelled against the lack of divine interference in human affairs during times of persecution. Abraham and Moses, Jeremiah and Rebbe Levi-Yitzhak of Berditchev teach us that it is permissible for man to accuse God – provided it be done in the name of faith in God.”
Among their many charitable endeavors, Wiesel and his wife started the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity. He served as chairman for the Presidential Commission on the Holocaust (later renamed U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council) from 1978 to 1986, spearheading the building of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
He was also a victim of Wall Street financier Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity lost $15.2 million it had invested with Madoff, and the Wiesels lost their personal life savings. The foundation, though, thanks to generous donors, has been able to raise some of the money it lost to Madoff and continues to function.