Elie Wiesel’s 2011 Commencement address at Washington University in St. Louis Titled ‘Memory and Ethics’ May 20, 2011

My selected excerpts from a powerful speech by one my personal heroes…

What else have we learned? That we are not alone in this world. God alone is alone. Human beings are not. We are here to be together with others, and I insist on the others — which means, in some places, in some groups, they are suspicious of the other. Don’t. I see the otherness of the other, which appeals to me. 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.

What else? I quote from the Bible, I continue, because after all that is my study — that’s my upbringing. The greatest commandment, to me, in the Bible is not the Ten Commandments. First of all, it’s too difficult to observe. Second, we all pretend to observe them. My commandment is, “Thou shall not stand idly by.” Which means when you witness an injustice, don’t stand idly by. When you hear of a person or a group being persecuted, do not stand idly by. When there is something wrong in the community around you — or far way — do not stand idly by. You must intervene. You must interfere. And that is actually the motto of human rights. Human rights has become a kind of secular religion today. And I applaud it — I am part of it. And therefore wherever something happens, I try to be there as a witness.


What do we know now? A new trend is hanging upon us, and the name is fanaticism. We must do whatever we can to, first of all, unmask. Second, to denounce. And, of course, to oppose fanaticism wherever it is. 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.


Now, a story. A man is lost in the forest. And he tries to find the exit and fails. It takes him hours in night and day, and he’s still lost in the forest. On the third day, he notices that someone else is in the forest. He runs to him and he says, “Ah! I’m so glad to meet you. Show me the way out.” And he said, “I am like you — I am lost in the forest. One thing I can tell you: You see that road there? Don’t go there. I have just come from there.”

I belong to a generation that tells you that. Where you now can start your life, and you’ve of course entered a lot of roads, cities, maybe new universities, and remember, there is something that you must remember: Don’t go where I come from.


I want you to know, with all that I have gone through in life: I still have faith in humanity. I still have faith in humanity. 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. I don’t know whether he feels upset or not, but I do. Why? Because I don’t want to break the chain that links me to my parents and grandparents and theirs, and theirs, and theirs.

And furthermore, I believe that the human being — any human being of any community, any origin, any color — a human being is eternal. Any human being is a challenge. Any human being is worthy of my attention, of my love occasionally. And therefore I say it to you: When you are now going into a world which is hounded, obsessed with so much violence, often so much despair — 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.

I’m sure you have learned French literature. I’m sure you have learned about Albert Camus, the great philosopher and novelist. In his famous novel, The Plague, at the end Dr. Rieux, who was the main character of the novel, sees a devastated city, thousands and thousands of victims from the plague. And this doctor at the end says, it’s true, all that is true.

But nevertheless, I believe, he said, there is more in any human being to celebrate than to denigrate. I repeat: There is more in any human being to celebrate than to denigrate.

Let’s celebrate. Thank you.


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

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