Bill Clinton will deliver the 2007 commencement address at Middlebury College, but the former prez isn't the only high-profile speaker visiting Vermont this spring. On April 25, writer and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel will address University of Vermont students and community members. UVM Hillel, the Jewish student group, is sponsoring Wiesel's appearance as part of its Holocaust Remembrance Week.
Wiesel has written more than 40 books of fiction and nonfiction, but the 78-year-old author is most famous for his first book, Night. The slim, harrowing volume chronicles his experiences in Nazi concentration camps during World War II.
Wiesel grew up in Sighet, Transylvania. He was 15 years old in 1944, when German soldiers forced him and his family from their home and deported them to Birkenau. Wiesel and his father were later transferred to Auschwitz, and then to Buchenwald. The future writer and his two older sisters survived their ordeal; their parents and a younger sister did not.
After the war, Wiesel moved to Paris and eventually to New York City. He currently teaches at Boston University and lives with his wife in Connecticut.
Since its publication in 1958, Night has been translated into more than 30 languages. Its popularity has not diminished over the years; in 2006, Oprah Winfrey chose Night for her book club. She later televised her interview with Wiesel at Auschwitz.
In addition to his literary endeavors, Wiesel has played a prominent role in keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive. In 1978, President Carter appointed him chairman of the President's Commission on the Holocaust; he later became the founding chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. Wiesel won the Congressional Medal of Freedom in 1985 and the Nobel Peace Prize the following year.
An outspoken human-rights activist, Wiesel has advocated on behalf of a variety of groups, including Cambodian refugees and South African victims of apartheid; he recently spoke out against the genocide in Sudan. Even so, his critics have complained that the devoted supporter of Israel has not done enough to draw attention to the humanitarian crisis in Palestine.
UVM Hillel's executive director, Susan Leff, says Wiesel's continuing activism enhances his appeal as a speaker. "He has an old message," she says, "but also a new message."
According to Leff, a student orchestrated Wiesel's appearance. Senior Meredith Burak is minoring in Holocaust Studies and is involved with Students Take Action Now: Darfur(STAND).
Leff stresses that UVM is still finalizing the details of Wiesel's appearance. More details will be available in a few weeks.
One thing certain at this point: Hillel will have to raise more funds to pay for Wiesel's appearance. Though the Jewish group is partnering with STAND, Students for Peace and Global Justice and UVM Student Life, Leff says about $50,000 is needed Ñ all of which, she notes, will be donated to charity.