For more than 50 years, Elie Wiesel has provided a moral compass for the world, writing and advocating on human rights issues in the wake of his tragic experiences as a survivor of the Holocaust.
His book "Night," recalling the terrors of the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps and the near-destruction of his family there, has been translated into more than 30 languages and remains a pillar of Holocaust literature.
In recognition of Wiesel's vast contributions to the art of the printed word, which includes more than 50 works of fiction and nonfiction, he has been named winner of the 2012 Chicago Tribune Literary Prize.
He will receive the honor, a Chicago literary tradition dating to 2002, during the Chicago Humanities Festival in a Nov. 11 ceremony at Symphony Center. Also on that day, the 2012 Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize for Nonfiction will be presented to Paul Hendrickson for "Hemingway's Boat" at the Harold Washington Library Center; and the 2012 Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize for Fiction will be given to Richard Ford for "Canada" at Northwestern University School of Law's Thorne Auditorium.
Though Wiesel's resume overflows with honors — including the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal — he said he found particular meaning in this latest recognition.
"First of all, the Chicago Tribune is one of the greatest papers in the world," said Wiesel, 83, from his New York office. "I've been a journalist for so many years before that I know how to appreciate (journalistic) greatness.
"Second, when people give you compliments, sometimes you are too busy to say thank you, and I am not. I believe in gratitude.
"And thirdly, I have in Chicago very good friends. … I used to come there every year for a series of lectures."
The decision to present Wiesel an award that previously has gone to Arthur Miller, August Wilson and Joyce Carol Oates, among others, was itself a privilege, said Chicago Tribune Editor Gerould Kern.
"We are deeply honored to bestow the Chicago Tribune Literary Prize upon Elie Wiesel, a man revered around the world as a living symbol of human rights," Kern said. "Drawing upon his personal experiences as a Holocaust survivor, Mr. Wiesel's words have passionately and powerfully fought injustice and intolerance. He is a champion of the human spirit's capacity to overcome evil."
Wiesel's stature as author and activist has grown inexorably since the publication of "Night" in France (as "La Nuit") in 1958, his writings on genocide and its aftermath influencing generations and leading him to champion Soviet Jews, Nicaraguan Miskoto Indians, South African victims of apartheid and others through the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity.
"It's fair to say that there is not a single individual on this Earth today who better embodies the pain, the humanity, the hope and the unwavering belief in the power of good over evil than Elie Wiesel," said Rick Hirschhaut, executive director of the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie. Wiesel spoke at the museum's opening, on April 19, 2009.
"There's no one who challenges the conscience of humanity more than Elie Wiesel. By so doing, he has … personally transformed the history and legacy of the Holocaust into a mandate for all of humanity to recognize and respond to contemporary atrocities and human rights (abuses)."
Born in Sighet, Transylvania (now in Romania), Wiesel lost his mother, father and younger sister in the Holocaust; his two elder sisters lived. After the war, he worked as a journalist in France for Yiddish and French publications. The noted French writer and Nobel laureate Francois Mauriac urged Wiesel to write his Holocaust memoir, and Mauriac "went from one publisher to another," said Wiesel, to persuade them to take on Wiesel's book.
At first, "Night" generated little interest, and the English-language publication in 1960 "sold 5,000 copies in three years," Wiesel said. "And the same thing, by the way, in France — everywhere."
Why was the world slow to recognize the book's value?
"Maybe it needed — the world itself needed maybe a whole generation for readers to realize that they must know something more" about the Holocaust, Wiesel said.
He has further explored such themes in his books "Dawn" and "Day" (published in "The Night Trilogy") and in his memoirs "All Rivers Run to the Sea" and "And the Sea Is Never Full."
The Chicago Tribune Literary Prize and the Heartland Awards for Nonfiction and Fiction "reflect the Tribune's dedication to literature and the spread of ideas and enlightenment," Kern said. "We are truly honored to recognize the work of writers who have made such enormous contributions to our culture."
Hendrickson's Heartland Prize for Nonfiction is his second — he also won the 2003 prize for "Sons of Mississippi," which also took the National Book Critics Circle Award in general nonfiction.