COMMENCEMENT

Elie Wiesel

Elie Wiesel
Commencement Address
May 30, 1982

Mr. President, distinguished members of the faculty, colleagues, and above all, students of the graduating class. With your permission, I will tell you a few stories and perhaps quote a few sentences from other books and other writers and then see what the meaning of our meeting today could be.

Mr. President, before anything else, I want to thank you and the Board of Trustees for the honor that you have bestowed upon me. I am moved, and I must tell you why. I am a teacher. Even in m writings, I try to be a teacher. To me, teaching is the noblest profession that exists in our society. I come from a tradition, the Jewish tradition, where the special relationship between teacher and pupil even involves the God/man relationship. Ultimately, we are told, the creator Himself is studying Torah, is studying the Law. What we are doing is, we try to hear his words and perhaps inspire ours with His ideas, His visions. So I thank you for having me her today at this very special occasion for you students. Because it is so special to you, it is special to me.

This is a watershed. From now on, whatever you do, you will be on your own, and there is something in your life that will be influenced by this day. Today you brought together parents and students, teachers and other teachers, children and their grandfathers - - so many generations, so many ambitions, so many achievements. So be proud of this day. We are proud of you.

However, in my tradition, whenever there is joy, we know that joy is never absolute. After all, we live as human beings in a human society. There is always an element of sadness in our joy; otherwise, the joy wouldn’t be real. Therefore, I should speak to you not only of your achievements, but I shall try to share with you my concerns for the world for which now you are becoming responsible.

You are entering into a society which is not ready to receive you. You must know that. I know that. You are going to look for positions or careers or other schools, and suddenly you will realize that there is a limit to what words can do. You, for four years, were convinced that everything could be transmitted in words - - philosophy, history, ethics, literature; it’s in words. Not true. There are experiences that cannot be transmitted in words, and I know something about it. I have written many stories. I’ve explored many others. I have tried to devote my life to bear witness and yet I know that what I wanted to say, I did not say, cannot be said, and therefore, must be said. Hence the paradox, the dialectical drama which is ours.

Forgive me if I share with you something that is even more personal, because it happened here, to me, this morning. I came last night, trying to feel what could I tell you that you don’t know yet. To give you ready-made Commencement address is unworthy of you. You deserve something true, unique, and therefore I spoke to your teachers, I spoke to some of you students, a few friends.

Elie Wiesel

This morning, I got up very early, thinking again of the words, the only words that I could use. I have with me a French Paper, and in the paper, in Le Monde, I read a story that broke me up. It’s a story about a man whose book perhaps you have read, and if not you should have read. The man’s name is Piotr Rawicz, and he wrote a book some 15 years ago or more called Blood from the Sky, a kind of memoir of his life in the same camp where I had been. It’s an extraordinary book: true, vibrant, full of compassion and philosophical laughter. This man had everything going for him; he was talented, compassionate, always ready to help, and now I read in Le Monde that Piotr Rawicz took his life. I read it, and I remembered that so many others have taken their lives.

In the 19th Century, after Geothe wrote Werther, readers committed suicide. I belong to a generation, my friends, a generation that is different: writers commit suicide. I could give you so many names, that if I were to call the roll here, it would be long and painful. Why? Why did a woman in Israel called Rivka Guber, the mother of orphans in Israel, at the age of 80, why did she commit suicide? Why did Paul Celan, the poet, commit suicide? Why did Tadeusz Borowsky commit suicide? So many of them and more.

You know why. They suddenly felt that words have no power, that words cannot communicate what they have lived through, what In have lived through - - and yet all my life and all their life is bent towards that destiny in process of becoming creation.

I am telling you these stories not only to recall Piotr Rawicz’s memory, but also to teach you something about it: that this is not the way. I understand the despair; I understand Piotr Rawicz’s sadness, but despair, my friends, is not the solution. Despair is the question.

Let me tell you a few arguments, and you will understand why. Many, many years ago, I lived in a kingdom of darkness where everything was challenged: faith in God and faith in man and one because of the other, faith in culture, faith in civilization. I was younger than you are now when I arrived in that kingdom, and I remember that I, with my background of a son of the Jewish people, was deeply, deeply religious. All I knew about the world was what I read in religious books. I had almost no secular education, and here my first contact with reality was the world of absolute evil, of incommensurate brutality and cruelty.

What shook us up was suddenly the realization that there was a system. Somehow, the killers established their own system, and the system worked. The killers killed, the victims perished, the onlookers remained neutral, and it worked - - as though some were born to die just as others were born to kill. And then we found out that the killers were men of culture. When I discovered later that most of the commanders of the Einatzkommandos had college degrees, I felt open to madness. I didn’t understand: How can one sit for 12 or 15 years in school and absorb the beauty of a cadence by Schiller or music by Beethoven or paintings by Rembrandt, Goya - - how can they accept beauty and kill children?

My friends, I could live my whole life and tell you only one sentence again and again, that one million Jewish children were killed. If I and you together would do nothing else but read their names, we would die before coming to the end of the list. Why? I don’t know why. All I know is it happened.

Therefore, learn something from it, my friends. That culture is not enough, civilization is not enough; there must be an ethical dimension to whatever you study. Never accept abstraction as the ultimate truth. There is no such thing. If you take a human being and you turn that human being, him or her, into an abstraction, you will have no respect for that human being. Ultimately, you have already discarded her or his exitance. On the contrary, take abstract notions and bring them closer to life to the living, to all living. As a Jew, naturally I am deeply concerned with whatever is happening to Jewish people, because of my traumatized past: with Israel; with Jews who are threatened in Russia, Arab countries, other countries; anti-Semitism - - but that does not exclude my concerns for other causes. I am involved in every cause you can mention. I went to Cambodia, I went to Thailand, I was involved in Biafra - - because I feel that this is the only way for me to justify every minute of my life, and I have to justify it because I could very well not have stood here or I could have very well chosen the way of Piotr Rawicz 20 years ago, 30 years ago. But, because I know that it was sheer accident, I must do something with my life. Every moment is an offering, and every day is grace - - and, therefore, every gesture is important and every smile must bring another smile and not tears.

My good friends, we live in times that are critical. In a way, I feel sorry you, as I feel sorry for my students. You are now being made for a world that you have not created, that I and my peers have created for you, and maybe even destroyed for you. And, now you must go and build on ruins, but build you must. You must justify the hope that I have in myself. You must justify the hope that I have in mankind and in its creator. It’s up to you. What to do? Whatever you do, but do it in the name of humanity. Be involved. Don’t look only for careers, it won’t work. Life will come to you, into your family, into your home, into your dreams. There is so much hunger in the world; try to do something about it. There is so much bigotry in the world; try to do something about it. There is so much fanaticism in the world; fight it, for God’s sake.

And, ultimately, there is a danger which threatens us all. The ultimate danger. The nuclear catastrophe. I don’t know whether your teachers are as concerned, as aware, as I am; I’m sure they are. I am physically afraid, because I know now that the impossible is possible. I know that the unthinkable can come to pass, and I don’t want it to, and therefore we tell the tale and therefore we bear witness with such urgency, to save this planet and save humanity by saving one person and one and one and one.

In conclusion, what else can I tell you? I can tell you that in 1945, if I had known that the world would look the way it does now, perhaps I would have preceded Piotr Rawicz. But I had hopes then. Strangely enough that generation was the most hopeful of all generations in recorded history. You were so young. You weren’t born. Your teachers weren’t even born. But, in 1945, we were convinced that because of what happened to my people - - and to other people, but differently - - a change,  a mutation, a metaphysical change will occur. There will be no more wars among nations, because we know what they mean, what they can do. There will be no more anti-Semitism, no more racism, no more colonialism. Something will have to become a lesson for all of us.

Open you newspapers today and you will see: on one hand you have a bunch of mentally, morally deranged people who, while I and my peers are alive, dare to tell us it never happened. But then where is my people? Where are our teachers, our parents? I wouldn’t even dignify those people with a debate, but it hurts.

On the other hand, you have civil wars, dangerous wars in the Falklands, medieval wars in Ireland, and so many evils threatening us, but my young friends, it is up to you. It is up to you to change, disarm evil. In spite of what I lived through, I do have faith and in spite of the fact that I know I cannot talk, I must talk, I must talk; I must share. I must tell you how great, how compassionate, how just the human being must be. It is our only hope.

This day will be a special day for me, because it is a special day for you - - and for this, I give you my gratitude.

 

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Elie Wiesel
Commencement Address
May 30, 1982

Preparing Students to Lead Lives of Consequence.