The late Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and human rights activist, addressed approximately 2,700 graduates and their friends and family members during the 150th Commencement address at Washington University in St. Louis in 2011. Wiesel received an honorary doctor of humane letters degree in 2011.
Wiesel delivered three Assembly Series lectures on campus since 1970.
During the ceremony, Wiesel, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University, received an honorary doctor of humane letters degree from WUSTL.
Throughout his life, Wiesel worked on behalf of oppressed people for much of his adult life. His personal experience of the Holocaust led him to use his talents as an author, teacher and storyteller to defend human rights and peace throughout the world.
Wiesel was born in 1928 in Sighet, Transylvania, which is now part of Romania. He was 15 years old when the Nazis deported him and his family 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, Wiesel studied in Paris and later became a journalist. During an interview with the distinguished French writer Francois Mauriac, winner of the 1952 Nobel Prize in Literature, Wiesel was persuaded to write about his experiences in the death camps.
The result was his internationally acclaimed memoir, Night (La Nuit), which has since been translated into more than 30 languages and has sold millions of copies since its 1958 publication.
In 1978, President Jimmy Carter appointed Wiesel as chairman of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust. In 1980, he became the founding chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council.
Soon after he won the Nobel Prize, he and his wife, Marion, created The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, an organization to fight indifference, intolerance and injustice. He then served as president of the foundation.
A devoted supporter of Israel, Wiesel also defended the cause of Soviet Jews, Nicaragua’s Miskito Indians, Argentina’s Desaparecidos, Cambodian refugees, the Kurds and victims of famine and genocide in Africa, of apartheid in South Africa, and of war in the former Yugoslavia.
For more than 15 years, Wiesel and his wife were especially devoted to the cause of Ethiopian-born Israeli youth through their foundation’s Beit Tzipora Centers for Study & Enrichment.
Teaching was always central to Wiesel’s work. Starting in 1976, he was the Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University, where he also held the title of University Professor. He was a member of the Faculty in the Department of Religion as well as the Department of Philosophy.
Prior to that, he served as Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies at the City University of New York (1972-76) and the first Henry Luce Visiting Scholar in Humanities and Social Thought at Yale University (1982-83).
Wiesel was the author of more than 50 books of fiction and nonfiction, including A Beggar in Jerusalem (1968), which won the Prix Medicis; The Testament (1981), winner of the Prix Livre Inter; The Fifth Son (1983), winner of the Grand Prize in Literature from the City of Paris; two volumes of his memoirs, All Rivers Run to the Sea (1995) and And the Sea Is Never Fulll (1996); and most recently, The Sonderberg Case (2010).
He also wrote plays, including Zalmen or the Madness of God and The Trial of God (Le Proces de Shamgorod). His essays and short stories have been collected in the volumes Legends of Our Time, One Generation After, and A Jew Today.
For his literary and human rights activities, he received numerous awards, including from President Ronald Reagan the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal, presented in 1985, and the Medal of Liberty in 1986; the Presidential Medal of Freedom, presented by President George Bush in 1992; and the 2009 National Humanities Medal, presented by President Barack Obama in February 2010.
Wiesel’s work also earned him the rank of Grand-Croix in the French Legion of Honor in 2001 and an honorary Knighthood of the British Empire awarded by Her Majesty, the Queen, in 2006.
Wiesel passed away on July 2, 2016.