Elie Wiesel speech, Opening Convocation
RELEASED: Sept. 22, 2005
DANVILLE, KYFor a podcast of Elie Wiesel's address, click here [http://www.centre.edu/podcast/].
President and Susie Roush, deans, my distinguished colleagues, students of yesterday and today, I belong to a tradition that has always extolled the virtue of gratitude. In my liturgy, the very first prayer one is supposed to utter in the morning when one gets up, when one opens one's eyes, is to say thank you. So, thank you. I thank you for the few moments that you allow me to spend together with you, students, and with you, teachers. After all, I consider myself both a student and a teacher.
You who are just beginning must be aware of the privileged moments that are going to be yours. You will sit in the classroom and, helped by your guides, by your professors, discover truth that has been transmitted from generation to generation in texts, in a poem, sometimes in a play, in a player, or in a story. After all, the relationship between teacher and student is very special. It is as mysterious as between a child and his or her parents, and even more so. Because you don't really know why that relationship has been established and how long it will last. Usually it lasts longer than four years. It will last until the day that you will have children and they will go to college, probably to this one.
(In parentheses, I heard quite a lot about Centre College. And what I heard makes me doubly proud to be with you now, both because of the quality of your teachers, and because of the commitment to learning that you have displayed by coming here for four years. )
I come from a tradition which has taught me, which has almost compelled me, to believe that not only must the student respect the teacher, but the teacher must respect the students. And I believe in that. I have been a teacher for 35 years, and believe me, my great pride is that never has a student been humiliated in my presence. Never. Even when it happens a student says something sillyit happens. Instead of laughing, the friends of the student come to his or her rescue, and that makes me justifiably proud, not because of me but because of them.
So, out of this tradition, and because I have such feelings for you as students, I love students, it's my life, that I must tell you certain things that may disturb you. In a way, I feel sorry for you, not only because this is the first lecture that you are listening to, the first of so many to come, but really because you are at the beginning of a century, and a century which to me, in the beginning, really, which means on December 31, 1999, I was convinced that this century would be a better century. I'm sure you although you were much younger, you remember that night. Champagne bottles were opened, even at your age you drank champagne, and dancing in the streets, and fireworks everywhere, because you had the feeling that we said, "Goodbye 20th century. Go to hell. Enough." Really, after all, it was a horrible, the worst century in history. And really, two totalitarian ideologies, two world wars, and civil wars. My God, and what not? Cruelty has attained a level of absolute that didn't exist before. And so, go, go.
And here we are five years later. And we already have, as you heard, Sudan, my God, Sudan, where people are being killed day after day. And hunger in Africa. And now we have, of course, we have the new plague, which is terrorism, which was born out of fanaticism. And you wonder, what is happening? We didn't even have one moment to breathe after Kosovo, and before that, Cambodia, and before that, you know? What's happening here? And now, if it's not enough what men have done to each other, we have the recent tragedy, my God, the recent tragedy in New Orleans. We watched and we watched, people in despair. And we were wondering, why can't we help them immediately? After all, our country is the only superpower in the world. Its technology is supreme. Our means are infinite. We can go anywhere in the world quickly, and we couldn't go there? What is happening? So I, in a way, really feel sorry, you are starting to learn history, and what you will discover may lead you to despair, which is the last thing we here want.
I was asked to speak to you because I was told that you have here, you classes before, the freshman class, you have studied a period which I know well. "Know" is the wrong word, but I felt, I went through it. And I asked three friends, adults in the college, "What do you want me to speak about?" And they gave me certain questions which I'm sure were your questions, too.
One of course is, how is it possible that it happened? I wrote Night 10 years after the war because I felt it is the duty of a person who goes through an experience to bear witness. If not, we betray it. It isn't much, but that's all we can do, to use words, a few words, hoping that these words will carry enough force to unmask evil. And if not defeat it forever, at least defeat it for the moment. That a person who reads this little book of witness will know that there are certain things a human being cannot do. Just cannot. Must not. And you in the classroom, who study this period, the same thing. There in the corner will always be somebody who will say, "How can I go on listening to these stories without feeling obligated, morally obligated, to do something for those who have been either prisoners of society or victims of destiny? Something." To this day, my very dear young friends, to this day, I don't understand what happened. Believe me. I was there. I don't know.
How was it possible that in those times it was human to be inhuman to such a degree? At one point I was a journalist. I covered the Eichmann trial. Eichmann was the minister of transports. Two million people were brought to those camps by him. And when I came there, I thought I would find a person who will have three eyes, five ears, a kind of surrealistic character, not a human being. No, he was human. He ate well, slept well, defended himself well. He was human. Yes, they were human.
After the war I discovered something which moved me close to give up on educationand again all my life is dedicated to education, I discovered that among the so-called commanders of the Einsatzgrupen, those who were murder squads, who followed the army from town to town killing and killing and killing and killing and killing, not in gas chambers, but with machine guns, most of them had college degrees. At which point I said, my God, no. The leaders had doctoral degrees. Now how can one, I said to myself, study for years and years the beauty of Goethe, the cadence of Schiller, the depth of Bach and Beethoven, and kill children? And go home and behave as a good father to children, and a good husband? How is that possible?
It was possible.
And therefore, I was asked, what did you do? Your chairman of the board, Chairman Grissom, spoke about the will to survive. And I had to tell him the truth, and I'm telling you the truth, I had no will to survive. Until my father diedyou must have read it in NightI wanted to live because I knew, if I die, he will die. And he died. And when he died, my life ended. It is a sheer accident that I survived. I did nothing for it. Some people would say it was a miracle. No, oh no. If God performed a miracle for me, he could have performed a few more miracles for others worthier than I.
So the question then that I was asked, what about belief, really, faith? Because those who read Night had the feeling that I divorced God. Finished. I did not. Because in that very story I say, after I said what I said, what you read, was the first night of my arrival, but a few weeks later there was Rosh Hashanah, the high holidays, and we organized spontaneously a collective prayer. And I said prayers, my God, thanking God, praising God.
My problem really became acute later on. After the war, I was liberated by the American army, came to France, had nowhere to go, and there from one orphanage to another. At one point I was thinking of studying music. I listen to the choir, I think I could have been that, because I wanted to study music. At home I studied violin, and in the children's homes I was the choir conductor. And I was thinking a choice between the conservatory and the Sorbonne. I chose philosophy and studied at the Sorbonne. But the real religious crisis I had later was because, to this day, I don't understand the silence of God.
I taught Job, and I'm sure your teachers in religion will teach you Job or have already taught you Job. You know, Job's questions were very powerful questions. "Where are you?" he said. "Where are you?" Job was not angry at God for not existing. He was angry at God for being indifferent. And the moment God answered, Job gave in. And I said, where is God's answer? It would be so easy for a religious person that I was, and in a way I still am, to say, Okay, Mr. God, you deceived me. Thank you. Bye bye.
I cannot do that. The tragedy of the believer is deeper than the tragedy of the non-believer, but I accept it. So, all I could say is, my faith is here, but it's a wounded faith. So what do I do now?
Once I met a very famous Hassidic rabbi, and I said to him, "How can you believe in the almighty God, the God of justice and compassion after Auschwitz?"
And he said, "How can you not believe?"
And I said to him, "Look, if your question is an answer, I don't accept it. But if your question is another question, I do accept it. I don't know what to do."
And here you are, receiving the story, and I'm supposed to tell you what to do.
So my advice to you is, first of all, study. Learn. The four years, learn. Read. Don't stop reading. Go deeper and deeper on every page. And always choose a friend with whom you could discuss the lesson of the day. Choose. And instead of discussing the film, or in addition to the film that you are going to see or have seen, discuss that subject. Study philosophy. I came to philosophy, really, because of the questions. I left it because of the answers. But still I teach philosophy, so I love philosophy. But the same thing when you study, always go beyond. You will study Romeo and Juliet and you will see Romeo and Juliet is not a story of love. It is a story of hate and its consequences. You will study the Bible, Abraham, and you will wonder, what is happening to Abraham and Isaac? How could Abraham do that? Study and you will see the humanity of a man who has to choose, ultimately, not between his faith and his heresy, but between his faith and a deeper faith. You will study the plays, the Greek plays. I love them. Do you know that Sophocles, I'm sure you know from your teachers, Euripides and Aeschylus have written, I think, 300 plays, only 33 remain. What happened to the others? One of you may discover one and get a Ph.D. What does it mean to me? It's possible to forget. It is possible to forget. And woe unto a generation that forgets.
My good, dear friends, if I am here speaking to you today about my past, it is really because I do not want my past to become your future. And the way to do itthere is a wayis to be sensitive. What I teach in class is what you are teaching in the class. You sensitize the student. The student becomes sensitive to mythology or Bible or text or whatever. You become sensitive. And once you are sensitive to one person's pain, to another person's fear, to a third person's joy, then you will remain sensitive to others. My humanity is not determined by the relationship I have with myself. It is determined by my relationship with the other, with you. And so, I wish you, for the next four years, a life of discovery.
When I came to America, I want you to know, I came to America in the late fifties, I was a refugee and a journalist then. And I was offered a ride coast to coast, and I said I have to know the country I'm coming to live in a little bit, at least to write on. And I must tell you, when I came to the South, and when I saw what was happening in the South, the humiliation of a community only because of its color. That it was the law to humiliate a community. It wasn't simply a group of racists. The law permitted to humiliate the black community. For the first time in my life, I felt shame. Not as a Jew. I felt shame for being white. And if later I went to South Africa, fighting apartheid, it's for the same reason.
But remember, it took a few courageous people, it also took the death, the assassination of the president, the death of his brother, the assassination of Martin Luther King, it changed. It is possible to change with words. Provided you reject indifference as an option. Indifference is never an option.
One of my mantras was, years and years and years ago, which I feel is a farewell present to you, I must give it to you. I said then, the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. But it's true of so many other things. The opposite of education is not ignorance, but indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of life is not death, but indifference to life and death. So whatever you do, be sensitive to your neighbor's love or need for love. Be sensitive to your teacher's passion for knowledge. Be sensitive to those who need you, and we all need you.
Again, President Roush, faculty, friends, I thank you.
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