Elie Wiesel was a Romanian-American Jewish writer, professor and the author of more than 50 books. He won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to show the world its moral responsibility to fight hatred, racism and genocide. The Nobel Prize committee called him a "messenger to mankind." Among his many honors, he was knighted in Britain, received a U.S. Congressional Gold Medal in 1984 and the National Humanities Medal in 2009. He devoted his life to defending human rights and established the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity which campaigned for oppressed peoples such as the Miskito Indians in Nicaragua, Cambodian refugees, victims of South African apartheid and of famine and genocide in Africa.
He died on July 2, 2016 at age 87, most likely from heart disease possibly started by being infected with helicobacter, the stomach-ulcer-causing bacteria that he probably acquired while being held in the cruelest conditions as a teenager in Nazi concentration camps and made worse by the medicines to treat his severe stomach symptoms.
He was born in 1928 in a farming town in what is now part of Romania. His father had a grocery store and his mother was the daughter of a farmer. Because of his deeply religious family background, he was exposed to books early in life and learned to speak Yiddish, Hungarian, Romanian and German. In 1944, the Nazis marched into his town and sent its Jewish inhabitants to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. His mother and one of his three sisters were killed there. He and his father were sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp where his father died from the brutal slave labor conditions and starvation.
Life after Auschwitz and Buchenwald
On April 11, 1945, Buchenwald was liberated by the U.S. Third Army. Sixteen-year-old Wiesel was put on a train with 400 other orphans and was sent to France to live in a private home in Normandy. His early education helped him to be accepted to the Sorbonne where he studied literature, philosophy and psychology. Still in his teens, he got a job as a journalist for the French newspaper L'Arche and in 1949, he was sent to Israel as a reporter. All this time, he never wrote or spoke a word about his experiences in the holocaust, and often considered suicide. In 1952 he met François Mauriac, the French Catholic writer who was the 1952 Nobel Laureate in Literature. They became close friends, and Mauriac told him that he must write about the holocaust so the world would never forget the horrors of the Nazi regime.
In 1955, at age 27, he published an account of his suffering in Yiddish and then in French, and called it La Nuit. He moved to New York as foreign correspondent for the Israel daily, Yediot Ahronot. In 1960, La Nuit was published in English as Night and became a best seller. It was eventually translated into 30 languages and has never been out of print. In 2006, Oprah Winfrey had him on her talk show which added three million more copies to a total 10 million copies sold. He was now the most famous chronicler of the holocaust in the world and he wrote more than 50 more books, many on the same subject.
In 1963, he became a U.S. citizen. In 1969, at age 41, he married Marion Erster Rose who was also a holocaust survivor and the perfect woman for him. They had many common interests. She edited and translated many of his books, supported him in his many charitable efforts and took care of him for the rest of his life.
He became a Distinguished Professor at the City University of New York and the Andrew Mellon Professor of the Humanities at Boston University, where many of his students were children of Holocaust survivors. He was appointed the Henry Luce Visiting Scholar in Humanities and Social Thought at Yale University and Visiting Professor of Judaic Studies at Barnard College of Columbia University. He received more than 90 honorary degrees from colleges and universities worldwide
In 1986, he won the Nobel Peace Prize "for concern about the global crisis of humanity." He was chairman of the Presidential Commission on the Holocaust, which resulted in building the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. He and his wife founded the Elie Wiesel Foundation "to combat indifference, intolerance and injustice through international dialogue and youth-focused programs that promote acceptance, understanding and equality.”
One of Madoff's Victims
Wiesel and his wife lost their life savings and their foundations lost $15.2 million to the Ponzi scheme run by New York financier Bernie Madoff who ran the largest, most fraudulent scheme in U.S. history. Investors lost an estimated $18 billion. In 2009 Madoff was sentenced to 150 years in prison, the maximum allowed, but that brought little comfort to his many investors.
Health Problems and Death
No cause of death was given in his obituaries, but the most likely cause would be heart failure or a heart attack. Wiesel wrote a book Open Heart, telling about the quintuple bypass surgery he had to save his life in 2011. He was certainly not the typical heart patient. He did not smoke or drink and was never overweight. In the book he described his history of migraine headaches and terrible belching and burning in his stomach that he had most of his life, which was diagnosed as acid reflux disease. In the horriblly unsanitary conditions of the concentration camps, Wiesel was likely to have acquired Helicobacter pylori, a bacterial infection that would have caused his acid reflux disease and could have been cured with antibiotics. The discovery that stomach ulcers were caused by an infection was not made until 1983, by another Nobel Prize winner, Barry Marshall. Helicobacter can also cause heart attacks and other blood vessel diseases or liver disease.
I have never seen his medical records, but acid reflux disease is usually treated with proton pump inhibitors (such as Prevacid, Prilosec and Nexium) to decrease stomach acid secretion. Each year, people spend more than $13 billion dollars worldwide and doctors write more than 113 million prescriptions for these drugs. A follow-up of 300,000 U.S. adults with acid reflux disease found a 16 to 21 percent increased risk for heart attacks with the use of these drugs (PLOS One. June 10, 2015). Other heartburn drugs such as H2-blockers (Zantac, Pepcid and Tagamet) were not associated with increased heart attack risk. This study does not prove cause, it only shows association. Drugs that block stomach acids are known to decrease absorption of magnesium, calcium and vitamin B12 and increase risk for osteoporosis and bone fractures. They can also decrease the anti-clotting effect of Plavix (clopidogrel). More recent studies show that proton pump inhibitors can interfere with widening of blood vessels by reducing production of nitric oxide.
Migraine headaches are also associated with increased risk for heart attacks (British Medical Journal. June 17, 2016).
Effects of Long-Term Starvation
Survivors of the starvation of the Holocaust do not appear to have shorter lifespans than those who have never had such suffering (Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, March 2008;56(3):470–477) unless they gain excess weight later in life. Ellie Wiesel was never overweight. However, people who survive long periods of starvation are at increased risk for cancers. In 1942 and 1943, the Nazis tried to starve three million Russian citizens of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) to death during the terrible 1000 day siege. Years later, there was a significant increase in breast and prostate cancer deaths among the survivors (International Journal of Cancer, March 15, 2009;124(6):1416–1421). So far, Wiesel's family has chosen not to announce the cause of his death, but if it is reported later I will update this history.
September 30, 1928 – July 2, 2016
September 30, 1928 – July 2, 2016