Elie Wiesel’s commencement address (5/18/12)

Elie Wiesel’s commencement address (5/18/12)

Below is the text of the video (above) from the commencement address given by Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel to the graduates of Wagner College on Friday, May 18, 2012:

President and Mrs. Guarasci, distinguished members of the faculty, guests, parents, and of course, above all, you students:

I always believed that life is not made of years, but of moments. At the end, the weight of the moments will be a kind of judgment over what you have done with your life; some will be dark, filled with pain and anguish, others with joy and pride. Well, today, thanks to you, I have such a moment, and this moment, believe me, will remain with me, which means I will not forget it.

When I came, some of you stopped me and said, “I read your book,” in singular. The naïf in me would have asked, “Which one?” But I am generous, and I didn’t. Oh, of course, I knew which one you meant: “Night.” I even heard it in the introduction. In truth, this is one book which is special, of course, in my life. If I had not written “Night,” I would not have written any of the others. And if asked, let’s say, in heaven, “Before, if you could have written any other book, which one?” Surely I would have said, “Night.” And yet, often I have questions about that book.

In 1945, I belonged to a generation that was, strangely enough, very optimistic. We were convinced that now, since it happened, it would not happen again. Many, many, many years later I was invited to address the General Assembly of the United Nations, and I entitled my address, “Will the World Ever Learn?” And having worked on the text, I came out with a pessimistic conclusion. I said, “No, the world will never learn, because it hasn’t learned — otherwise, how is one to explain that, today, there is still racism in the world? Don’t we all know that racism is not only unfair and unjust but stupid? Just stupid! To say that people, only because of the color of their skin, must be worse off — how can we come to such a stupid, senseless conclusion?"

I remember when I first came to America, I was a journalist. I went through the South, and I saw in the South racism not only at work, but also as a matter of law; for the first in my life I felt shame for being white.

Then I went to South Africa. Mandela was still in jail. I began, already then, a few years later, to fight for his liberation. There, too, this was the law.

If the world had learned, how is it possible that, today, there are still wars? Don’t we know that wars always mean slaughter? Wars help only the kingdom of death, always.

If the world had learned, how come today in the world children die, every hour, maybe even every minute, somewhere under the sun a child dies of hunger, of disease, of indifference? Can’t we stop that? It’s so easy. We are spending 2 hours together. One hundred twenty children will have died by the end of this solemn and beautiful ceremony.

If the world had learned, how is one to explain that there is still — as a Jew I speak — anti-Semitism in the world? I asked the United Nations then, if Auschwitz hadn’t cured the world of anti-Semitism, what will and what can?

When you leave this place with some melancholy, I believe, but also with pride, remember that learning doesn’t stop. Go on learning.

In your introduction you mentioned, of course, my little town. Strangely enough, almost to the day, in 1944 — I was so young, younger than all of you — when the ghetto was preparing for its last transport, and we didn’t know where we were going. Had we known, we could have survived. We had a maid, a Christian maid; illiterate, but she was a saint, in the human sense of the word. She came into the ghetto — she sneaked into it — and I remember she talked to my father, and she said, “Mr. Wiesel, I have a hut in the mountains. Come, I’ll take care of the entire family.” Had we known the word, the name “Auschwitz,” we would have followed her, but nobody cared to tell us.

So what do you remember? Try to remember what here you have learned from your friends, your teachers, certain very simple commandments:

Number one: Despair is never a solution.

Remember that hatred is never an option.

But above all, remember: It is all in your hands, always in your hands — the dignity, the role of memory should never separate people. If you read my story, I hope it will bring you closer together and not set you apart.

Remember that, ultimately, it is always up to us to define our humanity. My humanity is not defined by myself to myself; it is by myself to someone else — to you. If I am human in my relations, if I say that neither God nor I are strangers in creation, then I cannot go wrong, nor can you.

I spoke earlier … Of course, one more thing I forgot: The thing not to forget is hope. Remember that hope is not a gift given from God to us; hope is a gift, an offering, that only we human beings can give to one another.

So, with profound gratitude, and hope for you, I say, good luck.