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Nobel Prize Winner Elie Wiesel Addresses the BWL Community
 
 
Elie Wiesel spoke at the 2013 BWL graduation ceremony and was introduced by Philip S. Sassower, Chairman of The Board of Trustees. Their remarks follow, along with select reactions from faculty and graduating seniors.

Introduction from Philip Sassower, Chair of BWL’s Board of Trustees
Ladies and Gentlemen, Birch Wathen Lenox faculty, parents and guests, and the class of 2013, it is both my great pleasure and great honor to introduce our guest speaker, Professor Elie Wiesel.

Nobel Peace Prize winner and Boston University professor, Elie Wiesel 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 a teacher and a storyteller to defend human rights and peace throughout the world. He is the author of more than 60 books, including the extraordinary memoir Night, which, since its initial publication in 1956, has been translated into over 30 languages and has been read by millions.

Elie Wiesel was born in 1928 in Sighet, Transylvania, now a part of Romania. He was 15 years old when he and his family were deported by the Nazis to Auschwitz. His mother and younger sister perished. His two older sisters survived. Elie and his father were later transported to Buchenwald, where his father died shortly before the camp was liberated in April 1945. After the war, Elie Wiesel studied in Paris and later became a journalist. During an interview with the influential French writer Francois Mauriac, he was persuaded to write about his experiences in the death camps. The result was his internationally acclaimed memoir, Night.

A devoted supporter of Israel, Elie Wiesel has also defended the causes of Soviet Jews, Nicaragua’s Mosquito Indians, Argentina’s so-called “Disappeared Ones,” Cambodian refugees, the Kurds, victims of famine in Africa, victims of apartheid in South Africa, and victims of the war in former Yugoslavia.

Teaching has always been central to Elie Wiesel’s work. Since 1976, he has been the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University, where he also holds the title of University Professor. Elie Wiesel has received over 120 honorary degrees from institutions of higher learning in the United States, Europe, and Israel. We are very privileged to have Elie Wiesel as our commencement speaker this year. Please join me in welcoming Professor Wiesel as we celebrate the accomplishments of the class of 2013.

Graduation Remarks from Elie Wiesel
Thank you so much for your words and thank you all for being here. In truth, I have rarely addressed a graduating class such as yours; I have usually spoken to colleges, where you will be next year. I like it.

I don’t like to speak, yet I like to teach. Teaching, of course, means sharing. Who is a teacher? A teacher is he or she who does something with what he or she receives. Education is an act of generosity. If we speak about Plato, or Socrates, of poetry or philosophy, it is because we see each other as fellow students or those who are here or anywhere under the sun giving words to ideas and offering ideas to those who try to do something with their lives and turn an experience into knowledge. This is what you have been doing for so many years in school.

I must confess to you that because of circumstances, I only went, I think, two years to high school. I went quickly afterwards to the university, not even as a student, but as a teacher. So I missed the privilege that was yours – meeting each other, loving one another, quarrelling with one another, always with books in hand. There is nothing more enriching than that – to take a book, a story, and idea and sit and discuss it. Don’t forget, now that you leave the school, to do that. Always choose an idea, an event, and just find the words, and the words will become bonds.

What do I believe in as a teacher? First of all, I believe that what I have to offer is something that I have received from my teachers, and the chain goes from generation to generation to generation. I love it. I am a writer, it’s true, but mainly a teacher because I remain a student, a think a good one. I read and read and read to this day. At least, I have one student here, whom you heard earlier (Reverend Daniel Lennox, who offered the invocation) and he will tell you I am the best listener in my class. I love it. To listen means to give the dignity to the one who speaks, to say that every word matters.

In Paris, there is a place called Palais de Chaillot – maybe some of you have already been there, which became the center for the liberal arts. In the front, these words: “Passerby, it depends on you whether I be tomb or treasure, whether I speak or be silent. Passerby, do not enter this place without fervor.”

Do not open a book without fervor. Do not go into a classroom where one day you may teach without fervor. Fervor is something that gives you not only pleasure, naturally, it gives you meaning; it gives you a thirst for knowledge, a thirst. If I were to ask God to give me something for the few years that remain, it is to keep in me the thirst of knowledge. I am thirsty, thirsty all the time. I always think I have not read enough, not enough books of philosophy, which is my field, after all. Not enough poetry, not enough novels. I haven’t read enough, and yet I spend my time reading more than writing. I write in order to read.

Do not forget: Be thirsty. Thirsty for justice. As long as there is one person in the world who, for all kinds of wrong reasons – the color of the skin or the condition of his or her life, or the origin of the family – if there is one person who feels victimized by society, or is a prisoner of destiny, that person should know that you are his or her ally. The worst that could happen to a victim is not only the suffering, it is to be forgotten.
Whenever the torturer (the tormentor) tries to discourage and vanquish the victim (the prisoner), it’s always “Why? Why are you still stubborn? Nobody cares about you! Don’t you know that? They will have forgotten you.” Therefore, I have chosen to devote my life to defeat that kind of argument on the lips of the tormentor. Any person who is a victim – anyone – must know there are a few men and women who think about him or her. And that you can do. It’s so easy. Choose, choose honor.

Of course we hope what you have learned here will remain with you. I’m sure you have good teachers, inspired ones. And I’m sure you developed friendships. I’m sure that, furthermore, you have already ideas of what you want to do with your lives.

I didn’t have that choice. When I was you age, I came to France, to Paris. When I came, I didn’t know the first word in French. At home, I spoke Yiddish. And furthermore, my little town, Sighet, when my father was born, was part of Austro-Hungary. When I was born, it was Romania; when I left there, it was Hungary. I never knew, really, how to sing a national anthem. That was the worst part of it – to learn a new national anthem overnight. So what really happened to me is so special.

I came to Paris after the war and began learning. The passion for learning has never abandoned me. If I have to define myself as a teacher as a writer, it is by my passion for learning. A new book, a new poem, a new experience, or a story of life… I love my students -- I love them, and therefore, I see every one of them alone. Occasionally, I am moved to tears. It happened to me once. More than once. Verily, I was withholding my tears because the stories I would hear would be so filled with sorrow, pain, hunger.

Listen. You have learned here to listen. Continue. Listen to the other. Remember that the otherness of the other is what should fix your attention. What makes another person other? And what can you do, then, for those who need you?

So I know whatever I tell you you have learned from your teachers, but I am only their colleague. And therefore, I can tell you what I have tried to do with my life. Oh, I could have done all kinds of things after the war. But I simply chose not to give in, nor to give up. I had all the reasons in the world, in 1945, to give up on humanity. I did not. I had all the reasons in the world to give up on culture when I discovered that, among the killers, there were cultured men, educated men. Should I have I given up on culture? Of course not.

Don’t give up. Ever. Whatever you do, you will remain. But do it not for yourself, always for someone else. I determine myself not by myself, but by any one of you. Because, after all, I spoke about solitude and loneliness … we are not alone in the world. God alone is alone. We are not. Remember that. To the graduating class, I wish you many more years of learning. Let them remain a source of thirst for you always. Remember what you have learned. Keep up the friendships. But above all, remember that sometimes the smile on your lips can bring consolation and joy and meaning to the person next to you. Good luck. Thank you.

Reactions from Faculty and Graduating Seniors
It is important to see that such an important man still values the importance of "listening " and not giving up, no matter the circumstance.
--Agnes Bajela, Middle and Upper School French

I did have the opportunity to speak with him and was struck by his ability to focus totally on what I was saying and respond in kind. His message of choosing life is, of course, the basis of the Jewish religion. For our students to contemplate his experiences, and to see what he has made of his life in spite and because of them seems to be an unbelievable message.
-- Maryann Gelula, Chair, Art Department

Despite his copious accolades and unparalleled success as a human rights advocate, Mr. Wiesel told us that he still views himself as a student, striving to quench his thirst for knowledge. He also admonished us to avoid living our lives with indifference. I left his address understanding that the antithesis of magnanimity is indifference, not malignity.
 --Jonathan Goldstein ‘13

What inspired me most about Elie Wiesel was his dedication to making life better for all people.  He clearly spoke from the heart.  He had a deep sincerity that few people have.
--Alexandra Lyons, Upper School Math

It was not a didactic message. It was inspiring and moving. Questioning and learning is his way of relating to the universe, to God, to life. How fitting a message in a room of students, teachers, and school administrators. When he spoke one could feel his emotional and intellectual candor. There was a sense of urgency about his message. While he urged the graduates to read for personal meaning in their lives, I also heard between the lines that each student’s intellectual development was necessary for the movement of society in a more sane direction. After his address, I thanked him for speaking from the heart. He said the students deserved it.
--Roselle Mironer, Middle and Upper School Spanish

He inspires me to go out and be "thirsty for knowledge," as he said. His presence was uplifting and what he has accomplished in his life motivates me to want to know more and learn more, because education is crucial for being successful and happy in the future.
--Emma Shimony ‘13

My favorite part of his speech was when he talked about the importance of listening – that as teachers, we learn from our students, as well as teach them. And, of course, the importance of reading.
--Marilyn Schulman, Middle and Upper School History and English

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