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Jewish Writer-philosopher and Two Jewish Scientists Receive Nobel Prizes

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A leading Jewish Holocaust survivor, author and human rights activist was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize Tuesday and two Jewish scientists shared a Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for their contributions to the study of cell growth and tissue development.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize to Elie Wiesel citing his unceasing efforts on behalf of “human dignity.”

The Nobel Assembly of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine to Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini, who holds dual American and Italian citizenship and Dr. Stanley Cohen, an American. Cohen, a biochemist, and Levi-Montalcini, a developmental biologist, “Opened new fields of widespread importance to basic science,” the Nobel Assembly in Stockholm announced Monday.

“As a direct consequence, we may increase our understanding of many disease states such as developmental malformations, degenerative changes in senile dementia, delayed wound healing and tumor diseases,” the announcement said.

CONTRIBUTIONS TO SCIENCE

Levi-Montalcini, 77, is a senior scientist at the Institute of Cell Biology in Rome, and Cohen, 63, is a professor of biochemistry at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tenn.

Together at Washington University in St. Louis in the 1950’s, the two worked under a renowned American biologist, Viktor Hamburger, and conducted significant basic research on cancer, brain disorders, nervous disorders and birth defects.

Last month, they shared the highest American honor in biomedical research, the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award for 1986. This month, the two will share the approximately $290,000 Nobel cash prize.

Levi-Montalcini grew up in Turin, Italy, and received her medical degree in the university there. She worked in the University of Turin until 1939 when the fascist government of Benito Mussolini prevented her from working in the university or practicing medicine. She continued her cell research in her bedroom with a makeshift laboratory until the Nazi occupation of Italy drove her and her family underground. The family fled to Florence and remained there until the occupation ended. She returned to Turin after the war and in 1947 moved to the United States. Among the two scientists’ major breakthroughs were a discovery by Levi-Montalcini in the 1950’s of a protein growth factor that stimulated nerve cell development and a subsequent discovery by Cohen of an epidermal growth factor related to the nerve growth substance.

Their work has the potential to help combat Parkinsons Disease, cancers and Alzheimer’s Disease among other ailments. One future use of Cohen’s discovery might be the quicker repair of skin wounds or cornea wounds after injury or surgery, according to the Nobel committee.

WIESEL’S ACCOMPLISHMENTS ARE LEGION

Elie Wiesel’s name and his accomplishments are perhaps much more familiar to both the Jewish and non-Jewish world communities. He is an acclaimed spokesman for Holocaust survivors who has championed civil rights and human rights for peoples of the world, including the Cambodian boat people, the Meskito Indians of Nicaragua and the Blacks of South Africa.

He has published some 30 novels, many of them biographical accounts of his own dramatic survival of the Auschwitz and Buchenwald death camps as a teenaged boy.

Wiesel is currently a professor of humanities at Boston University, a lecturer at the 92nd Street YMHA in New York and chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council.

Before Wiesel made the painful decision to write his testimonies of the Holocaust, he worked as a correspondent for the Israeli daily, Yediot Achronot, in Paris and New York in the 1950’s.

‘TODAY I WILL BE HEARD’

In a press conference in New York Tuesday morning, Wiesel, who said he shuns publicity and “the limelight,” stated that he wanted to take the occasion to voice his views on important issues because “today I will be heard.”

Wiesel said he was “profoundly grateful” to the chairman of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee. “Today, thanks to the very great honor I have received, I feel these words will have a stronger future,” he said. The prize, Wiesel said, would allow him to speak louder and reach more people.

Wiesel said he shares his honor with all the survivors of the Holocaust. “It belongs to all the survivors who have tried to do something with their pain, with their suffering, with their lives.”

The survivors are an example of “how not to succumb to despair,” Wiesel said. He said he has tried to use his suffering to prevent further suffering. “I have developed a romance with many causes… Soviet Jewry is surely one of the most exalting of all.”

A PLEA TO GORBACHEV

Wiesel, one of the founders of American activism on behalf of Soviet Jewry in the 1960’s, said the Soviet Jews are “an example of courage and nobility.”

He made a personal plea to Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev to release Yosef Begun, Ida Nudel, Andrei Sakharov and several other imprisoned dissidents.

Wiesel has received a visa and plans to visit the Soviet Union for five days starting Tuesday, October 21. He is going officially to meet with Soviet representatives for an upcoming international conference on non-Jewish victims of the Nazis.

Wiesel spoke briefly about faith after the Holocaust. “I have never lost faith in God,” he said. “I never left God although he might have left me.” Wiesel said he came from a religious Jewish heritage and called himself a “yeshiva bocher from Sighet,” a small town located in the Transylvania region of Rumania, where Wiesel grew up. The prize Wiesel said, has special significance coming the day after Yom Kippur. “I believe that in Jewish history, there is no coincidence.” The prize, coming the day after Yom Kippur, “means that some of my friends and I have prayed well,” Wiesel said.

Wiesel, 58, said he did not think the prize would change his life; he will continue his teaching, his publishing and his activism for human rights.”

“I decided to devote my life to tell the story because I felt that having survived, I owe something to the dead. They left me behind … That was their obsession — to be remembered. Anyone who does not remember betrays them again. That is why I devoted my life to tell the story,” Wiesel said.

WORLDWIDE CONGRATULATIONS TO WIESEL

Israeli Premier Shimon Peres sent a telegram to Wiesel congratulating him on the award and praising him for teaching a “holy lesson” to the world and preserving the memory of the six million Jewish victims of the Nazis.

“You are ceaselessly striking the bells of collective memory, the pain of the murdered Jews,” Peres said in the telegram. “Without forgetting our people’s isolation in the darkness of the Holocaust, you teach us untiringly a holy lesson,” Peres said.

Yitzhak Arad, chairman of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem said, “Doubtlessly, the prize serves the promotion of the knowledge and awareness of the Holocaust, but Wiesel also promotes such knowledge as a warning to the whole of mankind against hatred and racism.” Wiesel is the honorary chairman of the International Society of Yad Vashem.

French President Francois Mitterrand and dozens of French celebrities cabled their congratulations to Wiesel, who lived in Paris from 1944 until 1956. Wiesel has written all his books in French. A French writer and philosopher, Francois Mauriac, reportedly encouraged Wiesel to write his first autobiographical novel, “Night.”

Richard Krieger, executive director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, said “Elie Wiesel is not only the chairman of the U.S. Memorial Council. He is its prophet, its guide, its inspiration and its soul. I cannot think of any instance in history in which an organization of the U.S. government has been so associated with the spirit and character of one man.”

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