Commencement 2009: Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel text
May 17, 2009
President and Mrs. Mitchell, provost, my fellow honorary degree recipients, dear distinguished members of the faculty, happy families, and happier students.
May I begin with a short story? In my little town, somewhere in the Carpathian Mountains, a father and son one morning got up very early. It was winter. They had to go, they always had to go to pray in the House of Study. All of a sudden, the father stopped together with his son. Because the son saw a piece, a kind of coin, a gold coin. He showed it to his father. The father said, "You see, my son, if you get up early, you find the gold." And the son answered, "But Dad, the person who lost it got up even earlier."
The moral of the story for you, of course, is, "Get up early." To do what?
First of all, learn First of all, to learn. Whatever you do, learn. May I say to you something which only I and those who know me know?
My passion for learning has sustained me all my life. Before and after, during that tragedy, nothing sustained my life except my father. As long as he was alive, I wanted to live. Afterwards, it wasn't so. When he died, my life was empty.
So what have I learned? I was asked, actually, to prepare the text so they could distribute it to television, radio, who knows what. I suggest to you that you ask for the whole text and you will get it. I will give you the gist and maybe some other things.
What have I learned really? First of all I have learned that the unthinkable can happen, both in good and in bad. And I have seen both.
During the tragedy, what really had hurt us was that we had not foreseen it, although the whole world knew.
500,000 shipped to deaths I come from the Hungarian Jewish community. The Hungarian Jewish community then was the largest in occupied Europe that still was not touched. And in a matter of two months – 1944 – 500,000 men, women and children were shipped off in sealed wagons to their death.
And at one point, in Poland already when my father looked through a little window and he saw the name "Auschwitz," he didn't know what it meant. No one did in the train.
The whole world knew. Washington knew. London knew. The Vatican knew. Switzerland knew. Sweden knew. Even America knew. The American press knew.
We didn't. Had we known, many would have been saved. Because we had an elderly lady, she was our maid but she was a lady. Elderly – she must have been 40. And she worked for us in our home, a member of the family.
She was a Christian, illiterate, but she brought humanity and honor to Christianity. She sneaked into the ghetto and she told us, "Defy the laws. Don't go. I have a hut in the mountains. Please come with me, I'll take care of you."
Had we known, we would have been safe. Others, too, there were others like her.
Haunting to this day But we didn't. Why didn't we? That is haunting me to this day. And whenever I am with the President of the United States, I've met already six. I ask all of them in the Oval Office, "Why didn't we know?"
So therefore, remember. Remember that it is possible – a kind of indifference to do so much to help evil thrive. Never be indifferent.
One of my mottos has been that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference.
That means the opposite of education is not ignorance, it is indifference.
The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, but indifference.
The opposite of life is not death, but indifference. Indifference to life and death.
So whatever you do in your life, indifference is never an option.
Indifference is never the beginning of a process, it is the end of a process.
That is not an option.
What is an option?
Do something with your learning First of all, to do something with your learning. You have received in this marvelous university with such able professors, some inspiring, others inspired. And that has become your baggage. Remember, don't leave it in your bag. Open it from time to time.
Whatever you have learned here with "Romeo and Juliet" will help you, and then you will realize that "Romeo and Juliet" was not the story of love, but of hate. Two families hated one another, and the children died. Learn that, and then you will learn that usually at war, adults wage war, often for stupid reasons, and children die.
Second you will learn – you will also learn that you can do something. You can, even for one person. There must be on this planet at least one person who needs you. One person you can help. Don't turn away; help. Because those who suffer, often suffer not because of the person or the group that inflicts the suffering; they seem to suffer because nobody cares.
I'll give you an example. I've been involved my entire adult life, tried to be involved in human rights merely to help. Why? Because I believe that one must do something if not with suffering then with the memory of suffering.
I could have said, "I've suffered enough, so don't come to talk to me about other people suffering, I already suffered enough." And I'm sure you would have understood.
But I think the proper response was, "It is because I suffered, I don't want other people to suffer." And therefore I was involved.
America in 1956 I'll give you another example. I came to America in 1956. A few months later, I crossed the country. I was a journalist, a correspondent with United Nations. And when I came to the South, and I saw racism, not only the practice; the system worked. But it was the law, the law that was unfair. The law was immoral, the law was inhuman.
What do you mean? To humiliate an entire group of people, an entire community because of the color of their skin? My God, how stupid could they be? At that moment, for the first time in my life, I felt shame. I never felt shame for being Jewish, but I felt shame for being white.
Skip forward. A few months ago I was in Washington, attending the inauguration of Barack Obama. I sat five rows behind the president. And at one point I said, "My God, look what has happened in my own lifetime." I said then, maybe history has tried to correct its own injustice, and here is President Obama. And then I said to myself which I'm telling you now: Life is not made of years, but of moments. Some are great moments, others are sad moments. But at the end, the weight of those moments could actually be a reflection of what you have done with your lives, of what has been done to you.
This is one of those moments. You have studied with good teachers, now you bring them pride. And they find in you hope.
Moral dimension So what else can I tell you in these few moments? Whatever you do, remember the moral dimension. If you study engineering or architecture or the arts or music, literature, whatever you do in your life, remember always that there must be a moral dimension.
Because otherwise you may ask yourself, "Do we know now more than Socrates and Plato, Maimonides and Spinoza knew, or Dostoyevsky – about life and death?"
With all the knowledge which is available to us, and we know so much. We know that we can see the galaxies, my God, we know how the brain works. Do we know what really life is? Or death? Love?
Some humility is important. But curiosity is important. Eagerness to know is important. And we can always learn from one another. We can learn also hope. Only another person could move me to despair. But also only another person could remove that despair and replace it with hope.
So, just a few words in conclusion. You had information here, given to you by the best. Information is not enough. It must be turned into knowledge, which is not the same thing.
Knowledge must be transformed Knowledge must be transformed into commitment and sensitivity. For at the end of my moment with you today, it is. Again, whatever you do, remember these simple words.
You are here on this planet, in this place. Surrounding you are certain people that you love, others that may become better thanks to you.
And remember, always: Think higher and feel deeper. I repeat. Always think higher and feel deeper.
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