Nobel Journeys: Eliezer Wiesel

The following is an excerpt from Nobel Journeys, a story collection that chronicles the extraordinary lives of Nobel Prize Laureates from the past and present, from all over the world, and from every Nobel Prize category. All 10 stories focus on important moments of discovery in the Laureates’ lives that helped them choose their unique pathways to success. And every tale reinforces the notion that education is an essential ingredient to a bright future.

Nobel Journeys is the first of many joint initiatives from the Nobel Prize Museum and EF Education First, two global organizations dedicated to bringing learning to life for students. Download a free copy of the full book and accompanying lesson plan for your classroom, and show your students that great ideas can come from anyone, at any time.

Eliezer Wiesel was 15 years old in May 1944. Never in his worst nightmares would he have imagined himself standing shoulder- to-shoulder with his family in a cattle car – along with 80 other Jews from Sighet – headed for God only knew where. They had been traveling non-stop for four days through southern Poland, yet the Nazis had only given them a couple of pails of water and a few loaves of bread to share. The heat inside the cattle car was suffocating. There wasn’t even enough room for them all to sit down; they had to take turns.

The train finally pulled up to the front gates of a gigantic prison camp called Auschwitz. But no one let them out. Elie, his parents, his three sisters, and his grandmother stood in fearful silence for hours. Just before midnight, the train moved forward to a different part of the camp called Birkenau. The cattle car doors flew open. Everybody out! Leave everything inside! Elie saw a chimney off in the distance, spitting flames. The stench of burning flesh was overwhelming. In that moment, he knew he should have listened to Moishe.

Back home in Sighet, Elie had attended a school for Jewish children, taught by the rabbi of his synagogue. He was a bookish kid who loved to read and preferred playing chess to sports, so his closest friend was actually an elderly man, a traveling teacher, named Moishe. In late-1942, the Gestapo had loaded all foreign Jews, including Moishe, onto a train and expelled them from Sighet. Elie didn’t think he would ever see Moishe again. A few months later, though, Moishe turned up outside the synagogue and told Elie a terrifying tale: As soon as he and his fellow deportees had crossed the Polish border, they were herded off the train, transported by truck to a nearby forest, and forced to dig huge trenches – their own graves. They were then all shot and left to die. Moishe was the sole survivor. He had only been hit in the leg, and had played dead in the trenches until the Gestapo left.

Moishe had gone from house to house to warn the Jews of Sighet what the Nazis were doing. But no one had believed him. Elie hadn’t believed him. They had all thought Moishe had just gone mad.

Elie had forgotten about the incident until April of 1944, when German tanks began rumbling into Sighet to occupy the city. Suddenly German SS officers were everywhere. They soon began arresting leaders of the Jewish community, and forcing any others to wear a yellow star. At first, Elie didn’t care. He was proud of his Jewish heritage. But then the SS forced all the Jews in Sighet to abandon their homes and move to one of two fenced-off ghettos. Elie’s father had to close his grocery shop. They had all reassured themselves the situation was only temporary. The Russians would soon liberate them and end the war.

They didn’t. Instead, the SS announced a month later they would be emptying the ghettos. Elie and his family needed to be ready to leave by 8:00 am. They could only bring one small bag of belongings, a change of clothing, a little food, and nothing more. Elie’s family quickly buried their valuables in the backyard. Elie buried the only thing he cared about – his grandfather’s gold watch. They were then marched at gunpoint toward the cattle cars by the SS.

Everybody out! Leave everything inside! Back at Auschwitz, the SS soldiers were now sorting men to the left, women to the right. Elie didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye to his mother, sisters, or grandmother. They were quickly marched into the night. Elie’s father Shlomo grabbed his hand, as the males were arranged in ranks. An SS officer shot an old man before their very eyes. He told them only those who were fit to work could remain in line. One of the camp’s skeletal prisoners spoke to Elie from the darkness. He asked Elie’s age. Elie said 15. The prisoner advised Elie to tell the SS officer he was 18; Elie’s father should say he was 40, not50. The prisoner then disappeared. Elie and his father lied about their ages. They remained in line. They were taken to a barracks where they were stripped, shaved bald, disinfected, and assigned a wooden bunk. Another SS officer informed them they were now in a work camp. If they refused to work, they would be sent to the crematorium – the choice was theirs. They all chose to work.

The next day Elie was tattooed with a number on his left arm: A-7713. “From then on, I had no other name,” Elie would later recall. He and his father were soon transferred to Buna, a sub-camp of Auschwitz, where they rose at 4:30 am, moved brick blocks for 12 hours, non-stop, and at a dead run. Elie asked his father how, in a civilized world, this could happen. Shlomo said the world must not yet know.

The new year came and went. In mid-January, Elie was recovering from frostbite in the infirmary when he learned that the Russians were indeed finally coming. Sick prisoners would be allowed to remain at Auschwitz, but all the healthy ones were being moved. Elie knew what the Nazis would do to any prisoners left behind. So he chose instead to leave with his father. He marched for 12 miles through a snowstorm – with a frostbitten foot – to another work camp called Gleiwitz. Along the way, all he had to eat was the snow off Shlomo’s back. At Gleiwitz, they boarded a transport for Buchenwald, a work camp in Germany. They were both immediately sent to the infirmary. Elie’s foot began to heal, but Shlomo had developed a severe case of dysentery. It got worse and worse. Shlomo’s mind started to wander. He shouted Elie’s name, begging for water. A guard told him to shut up. He wouldn’t. The guard flew into a rage and struck Shlomo in the head. Still, Shlomo called Elie’s name. Elie didn’t respond, for fear he would be beaten too.

He drifted off to sleep, wishing his father would shut up. The next morning, Shlomo was gone. The guard had removed his body and replaced it with another sick prisoner. Elie later wrote: “[My father’s] last word had been my name. And I had still not responded. I shall never forgive myself.”

Elie sank into a deep depression. His father was dead. He was fairly certain his mother, grandmother, and youngest sister had all been gassed on arrival at Auschwitz. He had no idea if his two elder sisters who were old enough to work were still alive. He walked like a zombie through his days – work, eat, sleep. He should have rushed to his father’s side, said he was there, taken his hand, told him he loved him.

Finally, on April 11, 1945, the prisoners of Buchenwald revolted. The Nazis fled the camp, and a few hours later, the Americans liberated it. Horrified, the US soldiers shared their rations with the skeletal prisoners. For two weeks, Elie was nursed back to health in Buchenwald’s hospital. He was then invited to live in an orphanage in France. On the train journey, Elie vowed to himself he would never speak of what he had been through, not until he could find the words. That would take almost a decade of working and living as a journalist to do.

One day, Elie was sent to interview the French writer, François Mauriac. Mauriac said he was haunted by how the Nazis had tortured innocent Jewish children in the death camps. Elie admitted he was one of them. Suddenly it all came pouring out – his whole horrifying story – which moved Mauriac to tears. That’s why I don’t talk about it, Elie said. Precisely why you should, Mauriac replied. This gave Elie the courage to try. He might never forgive himself for the senseless death of his father. But he could make sure the world never, ever forgot it happened.

Download a free copy of the full book and accompanying lesson plan for your classroom.

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