Wiesel: ‘Do not stand idly by’

Holocaust survivor and human rights activist tells graduates to address injustice during WUSTL’s 2011 Commencement

Elie Wiesel addresses the Class of 2011.
Elie Wiesel addresses the Class of 2011.

Do not stand idly by if you witness injustice, Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and human rights activist, told the Class of 2011 during the 150th Commencement ceremony at Washington University in St. Louis.

“You must intervene. You must interfere,” Wiesel told the approximately 2,700 degree candidates gathered before him May 20 in Brookings Quadrangle on Washington University’s Danforth Campus.

Wiesel, winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize, has worked on behalf of oppressed people for much of his adult life. His personal experience of the Holocaust has led him to use his talents as an author, teacher and storyteller to defend human rights and peace throughout the world.

“You are now going into a world which is hounded, obsessed with so much violence, often so much despair,” Wiesel said. “When you enter this world and you say the world is not good today, good! Correct it!

“That’s what you have learned here for four years from your great teachers. Go there, and tell them what you remember. Tell them that the nobility of the human being cannot be denied.”

Wiesel was born in 1928 in Sighet, Transylvania, which now is part of Romania. He was 15 years old when the Nazis deported him and his family to Auschwitz.

His mother and younger sister perished; his two older sisters survived. Wiesel and his father later were transported to Buchenwald, where his father died shortly before the camp was liberated in April 1945.

Wiesel said that, despite all he had endured, “I still have faith in humanity,” sparking the crowd of approximately 15,000 to burst into applause.

“I have faith in language, although language was perverted by the enemy. I have faith in God, although I quarrel with Him a lot of time,” Wiesel said.

“I believe that the human being — any human being of any community, any origin, any color — a human being is eternal,” he said. “Any human being is a challenge. Any human being is worthy of my attention.”

After World War II, Wiesel studied in Paris and later became a journalist. During an interview with the distinguished French writer Francois Mauriac, Wiesel was persuaded to write about his experiences in the death camps.

The result was his internationally acclaimed memoir, Night (La Nuit), which has since been translated into more than 30 languages and has sold millions of copies since its 1958 publication.

Together with his wife, Marion, Wiesel created The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, an organization to fight indifference, intolerance and injustice.

Wiesel, who received an honorary doctor of humane letters degree from Washington University during the ceremony, began his remarks by congratulating graduates and advising them to use the knowledge gained during their education at WUSTL.

“What you have learned here should not stay only in memory,” he said, “but you must open the gates of your own memory and try to do something with what you have learned.”

As graduates move onto new jobs, new cities and new universities, they must avoid repeating the previous generation’s mistakes.

Calling the 20th century “one of the worst centuries in the history of humankind,” Wiesel recalled the political and racial fanaticism of the 1900s.

“What is fanaticism? Perversion. You can take a beautiful idea — like religion in the Middle Ages — but fanaticism can turn it into something which is anti-human because a group of human beings decide that they know who is worthy of life, who is worthy of redemption,” he said.

“We must do whatever we can to, first of all, unmask (fanaticism). Second, to denounce. And, of course, to oppose fanaticism wherever it is.”

Wiesel also advised the crowd to embrace others with different backgrounds, beliefs or appearances.

“We are not alone in this world,” he said. “God alone is alone. Human beings are not. We are here to be together with others.”

Some people are suspicious of the other. Don’t be, Wiesel said.

“I see the otherness of the other, which appeals to me,” he said. “In fact, it is the otherness of the other that makes me who I am.

“I am always to learn from the other. And the other is, to me, not an enemy, but a companion, an ally, and of course, in some cases of grace, a friend. So the other is never to be rejected, and surely not humiliated.”

At the same time, Wiesel said, graduates must be true to themselves.

“We must be before we give,” Wiesel said. “We must shield and protect the identity, the inner identity that we have and that makes us who we are.”

Wiesel closed his speech by paraphrasing Albert Camus’ novel The Plague: “There is more in any human being to celebrate than to denigrate.”

“Let’s celebrate.”

This was Wiesel’s fourth appearance at WUSTL; he previously visited in 1970, 1978 and 1992.

For a full transcript of Wiesel’s Commencement address, visit news.wustl.edu/news/Pages/22353.aspx.

To view a video of Wiesel’s Commencement address at Washington University in St. Louis, visit youtube.com/watch?v=votSq2u7jFA.