The Defenders

Elie Wiesel

“We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

Elie Wiesel’s life was defined by the year he spent imprisoned by the Nazi regime during World War II. Elie was born during the period between the two World Wars. He had a relatively normal childhood, his father encouraging him to study literature and his mother encouraging him to read the Torah, which is the Jewish book of scripture.

In 1940, the town where Elie lived, Sighet, came under Hungarian control. At the time, Hungary was an ally of Germany. In 1941, Germany began what it called “The Final Solution to the Jewish Question,” a code name for the systematic, government-led slaughter of all Jewish people in the territory controlled by Germany and its allies. The Jewish people call this event the Shoah, Hebrew for destruction, which is translated by English speaking historians as the Holocaust.

Elie’s family included his father Shlomo, his mother Sarah, and his three sisters—Beatrice, Hilda, and Tzipora. The family avoided the first deportation of Hungarian Jews in 1942. However, in 1944, when Elie was 15 years old, the Germans took direct control of Hungary. Between May 16 and 22, all 13,000 of the Jewish people in Sighet were deported. They were told that Germany needed more workers to support its war effort. In reality, the Jewish people were taken to concentration camps, places designed to gather this population in one place, where they were to be murdered or worked to death.

Elie’s family was packed into a train car with 80 other people, and the doors were nailed shut. They were given very little food or water along the way. Finally, the train reached its destination: Auschwitz-Birkenau. When they arrived, they were forced at gunpoint to surrender all valuables. Elie and his father were separated from his mother and sisters. Although Beatrice and Hilda would eventually reunite with Elie after the war, Sarah and Tzipora were killed with poison gas that night, along with most of the women and children too young to work. The Nazis destroyed the bodies in large furnaces that burned all day and night.

Elie and Shlomo worked in starvation for several months. As Germany began to lose the war, the Nazis retreated from Auschwitz-Birkenau, shooting any prisoners that couldn’t travel and forcing the rest to march to Buchenwald, another concentration camp. The march was too much for Shlomo. One morning, Elie woke up to news that his father had been taken to the furnaces during the night.

Left for dead by the fleeing Nazis, Elie was liberated when Russian soldiers took Buchenwald. Although it took years for him to recover from this terrible experience, Elie began working as a journalist in France when he was 19, but he refused to write about his experiences. Eventually he was convinced to do so by a fellow author. Elie wrote a 900-page memoir, And the World Remained Silent in 1952, which he shortened and edited in 1955 to create his most famous work: Night. Elie spent the rest of his life using his writing to help those neglected by government and society, fighting against the combination of hatred and indifference which had led to the Holocaust.


The Holocaust is an example of a genocide: a systematic attempt to destroy a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. Genocide is the ultimate violation of human rights. It attacks the very idea that a group has the right to exist. Six million Jewish people were killed by the Nazi regime during the Holocaust, as well as 11 million other “undesirables,” including homosexuals, the Roma (derogatively called gypsies), Eastern Europeans, people with terminal illnesses, and the mentally and physically handicapped.

There are two major misconceptions about genocides. The first misconception is that they are very rare. Some people think that the Holocaust was the only genocide of the 20th century. Unfortunately, there have also been genocides in Bosnia, Rwanda, China, Ukraine, Cambodia, East Timor, and Turkey. One of the most recent genocides is the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar, which occurred in 2016.

The second misconception is that genocides are the result of abnormal psychology or intense emotion. Historically, this isn’t true. While the killing of an ethnicity based on emotions does occur, genocides are almost always politically motivated. Genocides are impossible to achieve without a rational system put in place to organize and attempt to justify the killing, and this system is protected by the indifference of other unaffected populations.

The first step of any genocide is de-humanizing those who are to be destroyed, denying their claim to basic human rights. An important part of preventing future genocides is to remember that human rights are universal. It is always wrong to deny them to any group for any reason, and we have an obligation to speak out when we see human rights being violated.


  • Read the United Nation’s definition of genocide here.
  • This gallery contains pictures of several concentration camps, as well as pictures of survivors at the end of the war. Elie is in one of the pictures.
  • A summary of the events during the genocide taking place against the Rohingya people in Myanmar can be found here. If you or any of your friends have experienced discrimination, or if you have been particularly disturbed by news about discrimination, write a story about it and submit it to a local newspaper.


Discovery Education has teamed up with Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, Humanity United and Fund II Foundation to bring Speak Truth to Power to the classroom. Speak Truth to Power, a global initiative dedicated to sharing the stories of human rights defenders around the world, provides compelling content for a set of flexible, standards-aligned digital resources, designed to educate, engage and inspire the next generation of human rights defenders.

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Mission Statement

Led by human rights activist and lawyer Kerry Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights has advocated for a more just and peaceful world since 1968. We work alongside local activists to ensure lasting positive change in governments and corporations. Whether in the United States or abroad, our programs have pursued justice through strategic litigation on key human rights issues, educated millions of children in human rights advocacy and fostered a social good approach to business and investment.