Questions on Elie Wiesel and the Sorbonne
By Carolyn Yeager
Is Elie Wiesel lying about having enrolled at the Sorbonne University in Paris? Or is he a victim of confused memories?
Elie Wiesel wrote the following in his memoir (1) published in 1995:
With Francois’s help I enrolled in the Faculty of Letters of the Sorbonne. At last I found my vocation.
I have happy memories of my student years. There were lectures by Daniel Lagache in the Descartes or Richelieu amphitheater, and by Louis Lavell at the Collège de France. (2) I devoured books on philosophy and psychology, Plato’s dialogues, Freud’s analyses. I wandered from bookstore to bookstore, from park to park. I remember the silence of the Sainte-Genevieve Library [not at the Sorbonne] and the chance encounters and inevitable rendezvous in the Sorbonne courtyard. Francois, my tutor, guide, and friend, did his best to initiate me into the life of the Latin Quarter, taking me to hear Sartre and Buber, whose lecture on religious existentialism was an event. The hall was packed, the audience enthusiastic. Buber was treated like a phophet. His listeners were elated, conquered in advance, ready to savor every word. There was just one problem. Had Buber spoken in Hebrew, Yiddish, English, or German, there would have been some people in the hall able to follow his address. But he opted for French, and his accent was so thick no one understood him. Everyone applauded just the same. No matter, they would read the text when it was published. But I was delighted to have seen the handsome face and heard the searching voice of the author of I and Thou, one of the great Jewish spiritual thinkers of our time.
According to the book’s index, this is the only page on which the word “Sorbonne” is found in the entire book of 418 pages—twice on page 154. The above is all Wiesel has to say about his “student years” at this historic and revered institution of higher education. Yet in spite of its paucity, this paragraph is seemingly all it has taken for the majority of Elie Wiesel’s followers, biographers, interviewers, and promoters to repeat it without question, as I will show further on.
Wiesel gives no dates for what would be something of a milestone in his life, either—as is in keeping with his penchant for “free-floating memories.” The last date he gives that refers to his own actual life at the time, is way back on page 120: “Fortunately, in 1947 the OSE arranged for a young teacher, Francois Wahl, to give me private lessons.” He says more on the next page, 121:
In 1947, as the underground war raged in Palestine, Francois performed important secret tasks for a Jewish resistance group . The following year our paths diverged. Later, much later, they would cross again.
It was in 1947 that Shushani, the mysterious Talmudic scholar, reappeared in my life. For two or three years he taught me unforgettable lessons about the limits of language and reason, about the behavior of sages and madmen, about the obscure paths of thought as it wends its way across centuries and cultures.”
Francois was only one of many revolutionary Jewish “terrorists” Wiesel was associated with during this period. But more important to our theme is that it seems a strange juxtaposition to me for Wiesel to claim he is learning about the “limits of language and reason” from the most important teacher in his life, by his own admission, while being an enrolled student taking courses at the Sorbonne University. The French Academy has always been known for putting great store in language and reason! We are left with another contradiction in Elie Wiesel’s life story.
Other reasons to be skeptical of Wiesel’s claim
Prof. David O’Connell, a professor of French at Georgia State University, has written unambiguously that Wiesel was never enrolled at the Sorbonne:
Despite his claims over the years about having studied philosophy and psychology at the Sorbonne and doing a two year internship at the Hôpital Sainte-Anne in clinical psychology,(3) he actually never enrolled for any credit-bearing course at the Sorbonne, or any other branch of the University of Paris. Even worse, there is no evidence that he ever earned a French secondary school diploma. Yet, he now earns a huge six-figure salary as a year [sic] as a Mellon Professor of Literature at Boston University, a position that theoretically requires a Ph.D.(4)
After O’Connell’s article was published in 2004, neither Elie Wiesel nor the Sorbonne University provided any evidence to the contrary. Searching for a clue on the Internet, I came only upon evidence of the well-known Internet trend (5) of copying from other sites and sources without the slightest direct research being done. What I did not find was anything from Elie himself, in speeches, writings, interviews, about his “happy years” as a student at the Sorbonne, or anything to do with his education. In the examples listed below, the original source from which the information came is not given, nor is it known in most cases, because it was doubtless copied from someone who copied it from somewhere else. In some cases, the 1995 memoir may have been the source, but it was never cited.
Google Search on Elie Wiesel + Sorbonne:
In 1948, Wiesel enrolled in the Sorbonne University where he studied literature, philosophy and psychology. He was extremely poor and at times became depressed to the point of considering suicide. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/Wiesel.html
After the liberation of the camps in April 1945, Wiesel spent a few years in a French orphanage and in 1948 began to study in Paris at the Sorbonne. http://xroads.virginia.edu/~cap/holo/eliebio.htm
In 1948, Elie began to study literature, philosophy, and psychology at the Sorbonne in Paris. http://www.thefamouspeople.com/profiles/elie-wiesel-13.php
Elie lived in a French orphanage for a few years and in 1948 began to study literature, philosophy, and psychology at the Sorbonne in Paris. http://www.gradesaver.com/author/elie-wiesel/
Where did Elie Wiesel Study? After the war, he studied at the Sorbonne. http://answers.encyclopedia.com/question/did-elie-wiesel-study-101042.html
Elie Wiesel studies at the Sorbonne in Paris. He becomes interested in journalism. http://www.inthefootstepsofeliewiesel.org/about-elie-wiesel.html
In France, Elie Wiesel resumed his Jewish studies, eventually attending the Sorbonne to become a journalist http://www.inthefootstepsofeliewiesel.org/film-locations.html
Elie Wiesel: A Religious Biography by Frederick L. Downing. “With the help of his French teacher, Francois, Wiesel enrolled at the Sorbonne. He took classes on Plato and Freud and wandered through the bookstores.” http://books.google.com/books?id=GzdKZklZ2UIC&pg=PA77&lpg=PA77&dq=Elie+Wiesel+Sorbonne&source=bl&ots=jADPVye9CO&sig=bCo4TwonO3oMzIGQyp6yxzaGePY&hl=en&ei=Mz_bTLzyMsaPnwfOzskW&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=10&ved=0CFwQ6AEwCTgK#v=onepage&q&f=false
ElieWiesel: Spokesman for Remembrance by Linda N. Bayer. “As Elie’s teen years drew to a close, he enrolled at the Sorbonne, where he was quite happy.” http://books.google.com/books?id=IidC8iab6xgC&pg=PA67&lpg=PA67&dq=Elie+Wiesel+Sorbonne&source=bl&ots=In97QVm3I5&sig=YDs8oXNhf8gmUpmByHlsUeZQg3A&hl=en&ei=_kTbTLOcGNC9ngfX7IEX&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=10&ved=0CFoQ6AEwCTgU#v=onepage&q&f=false
After the war, Wiesel attended the Sorbonne in Paris and worked for a while as a journalist. http://www.litlovers.com/guide_night.html
1947 Elie Wiesel enters the Sorbonne in Paris. http://www.cliffsnotes.com/study_guide/literature/Night-Elie-Wiesel-Biography-Historical-Timeline.id-89,pageNum-7.html#ixzz14vnm6Bso
1948 Elie Wiesel studies at the Sorbonne in Paris. He becomes interested in journalism. http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007200
1952 After studying at the Sorbonne, Elie Wiesel begins travelling around the world as a reporter for the Tel Aviv newspaper Yediot Ahronot. http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007201
After learning French, Elie studied at the Sorbonne, a famous university in Paris. After he graduated [!! this writer got carried away – cy] Wiesel taught Hebrew and choir. He decided to become a journalist because of his life experiences. http://www.nobelpeacelaureates.org/pdf/ms_EliezerWiesel.pdf
Gary Hart, “Story and Silence” He had learned French and assumed French nationality by 1947 when he entered the Sorbonne. There he studied, among other things, philosophy and psychology. [Wiesel never became a French national – cy] http://www.pbs.org/eliewiesel/life/henry.html
Sent to Paris to study at the Sorbonne after several years of preparatory schools [Wiesel was not educated at a preparatory school –cy], he became a journalist for a small French newspaper, and supplemented his meager income as a translator and Hebrew teacher. http://www.pbs.org/eliewiesel/life/index.html
The Academy of Achievement: Wiesel mastered the French language and studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, while supporting himself as a choir master and teacher of Hebrew. http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/printmember/wie0bio-1
TIME magazine 1986: After the war Wiesel settled in France, where he studied philosophy at the Sorbonne http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,962649-1,00.html#ixzz14wFTUljN
Encyclopedia Britannica: After the war Wiesel settled in France, studied at the Sorbonne (1948–51), and wrote for French and Israeli newspapers. http://www.britannica.com/holocaust/article-9076939
Oprah! He studied literature, philosophy and psychology at the Sorbonne, http://www.oprah.com/omagazine/Oprah-Interviews-Elie-Wiesel
An analysis of Elie Wiesel’s exact words
From the single paragraph in his memoir, we can extract only one sentence that describes something unique to being a student.
I have happy memories of my student years. There were lectures by Daniel Lagache in the Descartes or Richelieu amphitheater, and by Louis Lavell at the Collège de France.
[Image: Richelieu amphitheater]
First, he says he was a student for “years,” which means at least two. The Descartes and Richelieu amphitheaters are large lecture halls where the professors give their lectures to students enrolled in their course. Daniel Lagache held the chair of psychology at the Sorbonne beginning in 1947; during the war he was active in the Resistance and had been imprisoned. This would make him especially attractive to Wiesel. I believe that one could manage to attend lectures when there was space without being enrolled in the course. Note that Wiesel carefully writes “There were lectures …”, not anything suggesting he was a student of Daniel Lagache.
At the Collège de France, which was not the Sorbonne, lectures were open and free to the public. Louis Lavell was a religious philosopher recognized as a forerunner of the psychometaphysic movement.
Conclusion: If Wiesel were a real student at the Sorbonne for at least two years, it’s a certainty he would have more to say about it than that he remembers lectures given by one professor in the amphitheaters. What was his course of study, who were his teachers, how much time did he spend studying and what kind of grades did he get? Who were his fellow students?
Instead, he substitutes that he “devoured books” of an assorted nature, which only means he read a lot. He “wandered” among bookstores and parks. He “remembers the silence” of a library [the Sainte-Genevieve, which is not at the Sorbonne] and “chance encounters” in the Sorbonne courtyard. This all sounds enchanting, but it doesn’t sound like a hard-working student … and he would have had to work hard at that university.
The rest of what he wrote, in spite of his remembering Freud and Martin Buber, is just more open lectures, now in the Latin Quarter. This is the description of a dilettante taking advantage of what was available in the great city, picking and choosing what interested him, not fitting into any strict discipline of real schooling. There is no doubt in my mind, under our present knowledge, that he was not a student; thus it’s no wonder he remembers his “student years” in Paris as happy; he was basically doing as he wished. Remember, he was a student of the mystic Shushani during this time.
What we find in this instance is totally reminiscent of the single paragraph by which he described in his memoir another important undertaking in his life—the writing of his first manuscript after his 10-year vow of silence [Or was it actually nine years? He jumped the gun by one year, according to his memoir]. The reason he has so little to say? It’s pretty obvious it is because there was nothing there for him to remember.
But these few lines in his 1995 memoir cannot be the origin of the belief that he was educated at the Sorbonne, because Time magazine wrote in 1986, after Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, that “After the war Wiesel settled in France, where he studied philosophy at the Sorbonne…” Where did Time magazine get that information? What is the earliest source of it? It would be interesting to know this, but it’s not essential because we know that Wiesel’s own brief mention, written in 1995, is not convincing. Thus any earlier mention of it would not be convincing either. I don’t doubt that it’s possible Wiesel may have actually enrolled for one course at the Sorbonne, and maybe even one more course the following year—something like that. But that does not equal an education, or “studying at the Sorbonne.”
Has damage control on the Sorbonne question begun?
Here is another odd fact.
On Elie Wiesel’s Wikipedia page, there is no mention of his attending the Sorbonne University, let alone being enrolled there–or at any school or university. Yet, it was previously there and has been removed. It currently says:
After World War II, Wiesel taught Hebrew and worked as a choirmaster before becoming a professional journalist. He learned French, which became the language he used most frequently in writing. He wrote for Israeli and French newspapers, including Tsien in Kamf (in Yiddish) [and] L’arche.(6) [Both are Jewish newspapers, the first being Zion in Kamf in English -cy]
But on the previous Wikipedia page found at : http://web.archive.org/web/20080804112451/http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elie_Wiesel dating from Aug. 2008, found at a web archive, it was there. [See comment #1 below.] And I think it was there up to 2010; during this year the page was updated. It read:
After the war, Wiesel was placed in a French orphanage, where he learned the French language and was reunited with both his older sisters, Hilda and Bea, who had also survived the war. In 1948 he studied philosophy at the Sorbonne.
Why was it removed? Only one reason: Because someone at Wiki, or someone who can direct someone at Wiki, knows that Elie Wiesel did not study at the Sorbonne, and they would like it to appear that they never said he did. This is what is called Rewriting History because it’s done without telling readers what has been changed, and why.
A serious charge? Or do many of you accept it without complaint. Many of us know that the life history of Elie Wiesel was partly made up to begin with, so adding and subtracting parts of it, as research into his life uncovers some of the lies, may simply appear understandable damage control.
Yet, what about the “why”? Whose bright idea was it to pretend that Wiesel had “studied” at a famous university rather than tell the truth that he has never been a registered student since he left his hometown in Sighet at age 15. We have to believe that Wiesel himself began saying and implying this to give himself better credentials. He has never disputed it or set the record straight. Therefore, until we hear from him, we have to conclude that Wiesel thinks nothing of committing fraud – while he constantly points the finger of blame to so many of the rest of us.
The Wikipedia page for his book Night still mentions the Sorbonne:
From 1947–1950, he studied the Talmud, philosophy, and literature at the Sorbonne, attending lectures by Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Buber.(7)
This appears to be taken from his memoir, but is confusingly written, perhaps on purpose. Confusion abounds around the narrative of the life of Elie Wiesel, as this entire website Elie Wiesel Cons The World shows. You’re probably already familiar with the quote of Wiesel to the Rebbe that some things are true that never happened and vice versa. On another occasion Wiesel revealed how his mind works. This is from Elie Wiesel: Conversations by Elie Wiesel and Robert Franciosi. Wiesel responds to a question about one of his books:
In this book “One Generation After” there is a sentence which perhaps explains my idea: “Certain events happen, but they are not true. Others, on the other hand, are, but they never happen.” So! I undergo certain events and, starting from my experience, I describe incidents which may or may not have happened, but which are true. I do believe that it is very important that there be witnesses always and everywhere. (8)
From this, the reader can judge for him/herself what kind of a witness Elie Wiesel is. My judgment is that Wiesel really missed out by not getting an education at the Sorbonne, which might have grounded him in reason and precise language. As it is, he lives in a mystical realm wherein things are true because he says they are … leaving him satisfied, his peace undisturbed.
1. Elie Wiesel, Memoirs: All Rivers Run to the Sea, Alfred Knopf, 1995, pp. 154-55.
2. Collège de France is a separate institution across the street from the historical campus of La Sorbonne at the intersection of Rue Saint-Jacques and Rue des Ecoles […] What makes it unique is that each professor is required to give lectures where attendance is free and open to anyone, even though some high-level courses are not open to the general public. The motto of the Collège is “It teaches everything;” its goal can be best summed up by Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phrase: “Not preconceived notions, but the idea of free thought.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coll%C3%A8ge_de_France
3. Updated Dec. 2. Prof. O’Connell says that Wiesel made this statement in his interview book with Brigitte-Fanny Cohen entitled Qui etes-vous, Elie Wiesel?, Lyon, La Manufacture, 1987, p. 63: “For two years, every morning, I took classes at the Hôpital Sainte-Anne and observed the patients.” Please read Prof. O’Connell’s comment below [#3] and my reply. A portion of this interview was included in Elie Wiesel: Conversations, ed. by Robert Franciosi, University Press of Mississippi, 2002.
4. “Elie Wiesel and the Catholics,” Culture Wars magazine, Nov. 2004. Online at http://www.culturewars.com/2004/Weisel.htm
5. This phenomenon is not limited to the Internet; historians also quote from the published work of other historians without knowing the truth of it. It’s enough for their source to be from a recognized scholar or writer from a recognized university.