Have You Learned The Most Important Lesson Of All?
by Elie Wiesel
page was compiled
and edited by
Burch, an editor and publisher of Holocaust poetry.
You can click here to read his essay: "What
I learned from Elie Wiesel and other Jewish Holocaust Survivors, about achieving
There is divine beauty in learning,
just as there is human beauty in tolerance.
Even if only one free individual is left,
he is proof that the dictator is powerless against freedom.
But a free man is never alone; the dictator is alone.
The free man is the one who, even in prison,
gives to the other prisoners
their thirst for, their memory of, freedom.
First I would like to congratulate you. For you
and your parents, the day of your graduation should be marked by joy and
celebration. Your years of study and work have brought triumph, which
rewards you, honors your teachers and brings pride to your families.
And now you are ready to say farewell to your
classmates and face both the privileges and obligations society will feel
entitled to place upon you.
How will you cope with them?
May I share with you one of the principles that
governs my life? It is the realization that what I receive I must pass on
to others. The knowledge that I have acquired must not remain imprisoned
in my brain. I owe it to many men and women to do something with it. I
feel the need to pay back what was given to me. Call it gratitude.
Isn't this what education is all about?
There is divine beauty in learning, just as
there is human beauty in tolerance. To learn means to accept the postulate
that life did not begin at my birth. Others have been here before me, and
I walk in their footsteps. The books I have read were composed by
generations of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, teachers and
disciples. I am the sum total of their experiences, their quests. And so
You and I believe that knowledge belongs to
everybody, irrespective of race, color or creed. Plato does not address
himself to one ethnic group alone, nor does Shakespeare appeal to one
religion only. The teachings of Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. do
not apply just to Indians or African-Americans. Like cognitive science,
theoretical physics or algebra, the creations and philosophical ideas of
the ages are part of our collective heritage and human memory. We all
learn from the same masters.
In other words, education must, almost by
definition, bring people together, bring generations together.
Education has another consequence.
My young friends, I feel it is my moral duty to warn
you against an evil that could jeopardize this generation's extraordinary
possibilities. That evil is fanaticism.
True education negates fanaticism.
Literature and fanaticism do not go together. Culture
and fanaticism are forever irreconcilable. The fanatic is always against
culture, because culture means freedom of spirit and imagination, and the
fanatic fears someone else's imagination. In fact, the fanatic who wishes
to inspire is ultimately doomed to live in fear, always. Fear of the
stranger, fear of the other, fear of the other inside him or her.
Fanaticism has many faces: racism, religious bigotry,
ethnic hatred. What those faces have in common is an urge to replace words
with violence, facts with propaganda, reason with blind impulses, hope
For a while we might have believed that fanaticism
was on its decline. It is not. Quite the contrary, it is on the rise in
our cities, in our country and in our world.
In Western Europe—in Germany and France, Belgium
and Austria—we are seeing a resurgence of yesterday's demons of fascism
and intolerance. In Eastern Europe, ethnic factions are rekindling old
conflicts. In the Middle East, deeply held hatreds seem ever on the verge
of sparking more raging conflagrations. "It's us against them"
has been taken as an essential truth. Strangers are being greeted with
animosity almost everywhere.
Let us look at our own country. As this last decade
of a century, which is also the last decade of a millennium, runs to its
dazzling dénouement, we seem ever more divided. Can't all our
citizens—white Americans and African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians,
Jews and Christians, Jews and Moslems, young and old—live together, work
together and face together their common challenges? Must they—must
we—constantly subject ourselves to useless social tensions and dangerous
ideological conflicts that could turn joy into dust and creation into
We face many difficulties and must find answers to
thorny questions if our nation is to flourish: What has happened to our
economy? What went wrong with elementary and secondary education? Why are
so many youngsters seduced by crime? By drugs? By hate? Why is there so
much bloodshed in so many quarters?
The answers to these questions do not lie with the
clichés, senseless stereotypes and absurd accusations that are being used
to justify religious or ethnic hatred. Evil forces are at work—some, to
my embarrassment, unleashed by my fellow teachers—and something must be
done to heal the effect of their poisonous theories.
In the New York City neighborhood of Crown Heights
last year, a black child was killed when a car driven by a Hasidic Jew
went out of control and jumped the curb. Already strained tensions between
the black and Hasidic communities exploded. A young Hasidic man was
killed, and a black man was arrested for the murder. For days and weeks,
the streets were filled with scenes of violence and hatred. The incidents
left deep scars.
We must ask ourselves if we, as a nation, want to be
reduced to addressing our problems with violent actions. Will we allow
street wars at home to succeed armed conflicts abroad?
As a Jew, I have witnessed the consequences of
anti-Semitism, which is one of the oldest group-prejudices in history. We
Jews have been accused of many sins. Now we are perceived as the group
that wields more power than any other. I have heard good people say
this—decent people, intelligent people. Don't they know that not all
Jews have power? That not all those who have power are Jewish? Haven't
they heard of poor Jews who are unable to make ends meet? Who live on
African-Americans have been subjected to centuries of
racism. Today, some blame the victims for the problems of our country.
Don't they know that most African-Americans are hardworking, good
citizens? That the tragedy that occurred in Los Angeles, born of
injustice, is just that, a tragedy? That important parts of American
culture—from music to language to literature to fashion—have been
created by African-Americans?
I insist: All collective judgments are wrong. Only racists make them. And racism is
stupid, just as it is ugly. Its aim is to destroy, to pervert, to distort
innocence in human beings and their quest for human equality.
Racism is misleading. There are good people and
bad people in every community. No human race is superior; no religious
faith is inferior. We all come from somewhere, and we all wonder where we
I know: You have been tested during your years
in school, more than once. But the real tests are still ahead of you. How
will you deal with your own or other people's hunger, homelessness, sexual
or gender discrimination, and community antagonisms?
The world outside is not waiting to welcome you with
open arms. The economic climate is bad; the psychological one is worse.
You wonder, will you find jobs? Allies? Friends? I pray to our Father in
heaven to answer "yes" to all these questions.
But should you encounter temporary disappointments, I
also pray: Do not make someone else pay the price for your pain. Do not
see in someone else a scapegoat for your difficulties. Only a fanatic does
that—not you, for you have learned to reject fanaticism. You know that
fanaticism leads to hatred, and hatred is both destructive and self-destructive.
I speak to you as a teacher and a student—one is
both, always. I also speak to you as a witness.
I speak to you, for I do not want my past to become