Elie Wiesel a beacon for human rights

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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.

"Since lightning hardly ever strikes twice, I was a bit stunned," said Hendrickson, 68, who is on the faculty of the creative writing department at the University of Pennsylvania. "I know how many deserving books are out there. To have won it twice is something that humbles me and at the same time makes me feel that all the years of doubt and fear were somehow worth it."

In "Hemingway's Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961," Hendrickson chronicles the tumultuous events in Ernest Hemingway's life and how they swirled around a primary anchor: his treasured boat Pilar. Hendrickson's research, which took him across the world, constantly brought him back to where Hemingway's journeys began: the Midwest.

"Chicago/Oak Park were always touchstones, anchors," Hendrickson said. "Literally, they were fonts of research. The Ernest Hemingway Society of Oak Park was extremely helpful. … As for water (which is a crucial part of the text), I discovered early that the Des Plaines River — a mile or so from Ernest Hemingway's front door as a boy — was something I had to get to know deeply. … Always, no matter where I went in search of this book, I came back to Oak Park, to Hemingway's beginnings.

"And not incidentally in this 'locating' was the fact that I am a Midwesterner. I grew up in firstly Kankakee and then Wheaton. So in some spiritual sense, in coming back to Hemingway's roots, I was coming back to my own."

Ford's Heartland-winning novel "Canada" tells the story of a teenage boy who finds a kind of refuge north of the border, after his parents are imprisoned for bank robbery. But terrible outcomes await him there.

The Heartland Prize represents the completion of a circle for Ford, who won a Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award for "Independence Day."

"When I was a college boy, I went to a job interview with the Tribune," said Ford, 68, who lives in Boothbay, Maine.

"They actually offered me a job writing (obituaries). And I thought that was OK, but I didn't want to write obits. I imagined it would've been in the basement of a cold building with dim lighting. Winning this award has what Walker Percy would call the value of rotation. It makes me think I made the right decision to not write obits. It took almost 50 years for that rotation to come around."

Ford, who has penned seven novels and four short story collections, lived in Chicago in the 1970s and again in the late 1990s, when he taught at Northwestern University. Along the way, he developed a fascination with the city.

"I thought it was a thrilling place," he said. "Chicago, to me, was the ur-American city."

On Nov. 11, the Tribune will honor the three authors: Elie Wiesel will receive the Chicago Tribune Literary Prize 10 a.m. at Symphony Center Stage, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; Paul Hendrickson will receive the Heartland Nonfiction Prize 2 p.m. at Harold Washington Library, 400 S. State Street; and Richard Ford will receive the Heartland Fiction Prize 6 p.m. at Northwestern University School of Law's Thorne Auditorium, 745 N. Fairbanks Court. For details on ticketing, visit chicagohumanities.org.


Printers Row Journal will have more coverage of the Tribune's annual literary prizes. To learn more about subscribing, click here.


hreich@tribune.com

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