Elie Wiesel, 82-years-old, has pain that he thinks is in his stomach or esophagus, perhaps caused by his chronic acid reflux.  After tests, however, doctors diagnose cardiac illness and insist on immediate surgery. Reluctant to go to the hospital, Wiesel dawdles in his office. When he does go, doctors believe a stent will do the job. Instead, the intervention becomes a quintuple bypass.

This brief memoir—a scant 8,000 words—presents the “open heart” of a gifted writer as he contemplates his open-heart surgery, his past life, and the future. He asks himself basic, even primal questions about life, death, and the nature of God.            

Although a man with an extraordinary career—prizes, fame, honorary doctorates, friends in high places, professorships—Wiesel experiences and describes ordinary feelings of anxiety, pain, and doubts about his cardiac emergency and possible death. His stylistic gifts describe frankly and vividly a patient’s fears. As many have observed, patients with a serious disease have two difficulties, the disease itself and their emotional responses to that disease.  As Wiesel is wheeled into the OR, he looks back on his wife and son; he wonders whether he will ever see them again.            

He writes that his “thoughts jump wildly; I am disoriented.” He recalls a friend undergoing similar surgery; she died on the table. He says he can’t follow the jargon of physicians. The texture of the prose is rhapsodic, jumping from the present to memories, many of them about war, his past surgeries, or important family events. This short book has 26 “chapters,” some just half a page; they are like journal entries.

As he slowly recovers, he feels pain and has visions of hell, including the concept of ultimate judgment. “Evidently, I have prayed poorly…; otherwise why would the Lord, by definition just and merciful, punish me in this way?” (p. 38).  Because he has a “condemned body,” he feels he must search his soul. In the longest chapter of the book, he reviews several of his writings.

Wiesel asks some of the questions from his famous novel Night (La nuit, 1958).  If there is a God, why is there evil? Auschwitz, he says, is both a human tragedy and “a theological scandal” (p. 67). Nonetheless, he affirms, “Since God is, He is to be found in the questions as well as in the answers” (p. 69).

At the end, he still has some pain but feels much gratitude for his continuing active life and for his grandchildren.


Open Heart is a crisp patient narrative; it can be read in less than an hour, but its richness and clarity make it worth rereading. It is a story of an illness and recovery (technically a “pathography”) that is useful for showing a patient’s inner emotions and thoughts. Some of these, like pain and suffering, are universal. These are basic mammalian responses to physiological distress, whether the disease itself or the medical interventions. The book makes these clear and vivid. (One passage reads like a transient ICU psychosis.) Humans share similar bodies, and these are vulnerable to injury and illness. All humans, no matter how well educated or professionally successful, are mortal.

Beyond the basic responses, patients’ interpretations may vary widely. Wise caregivers will try to understand at least some of these in order to give compassionate care, even though patients often don’t volunteer them. On the operating table, Wiesel asks the surgeons to wait, but he doesn’t tell the surgeons the reason that he wishes to say a prayer.   

Indeed, Wiesel’s deep religious faith and his philosophical impulses are the basic lenses through which he views the world, past, present, and future. Bodily awareness has not been important to him, except for intruding illness or injury; he writes, “I discover things my body has kept secret all my life. Do I really need to know them?” (p. 59).  He speaks of his body as “an enigma” which “often refuses to cooperate” (p. 55).

The book mentions famous people Wiesel has known and worked with in his public life, but, during his illness, as reported by the book, his social contacts are his immediate family and, more distantly, his doctors. He is grateful to his doctors, listing them by name on an “Acknowledgments” page, but there is no mention of nurses, physical therapists, or others who surely participated in his recovery.  One passage mentions friends visiting—one sharing a joke—but these were on a different occasion over 50 years ago. As a result, there is a haunting sense of loneliness as Wiesel wrestles with himself about his recovery, whether his life has been adequate, and the mysteries of God’s justice or lack of justice. 


This book was first published in France as Coeur ouvert in 2011; the English translation is by Marion Wiesel, Elie Wiesel's wife.


Alfred A. Knopf

Place Published

New York



Page Count