I once had the privilege of breathing the same air as Elie Wiesel: humanitarian, Nobel laureate, Holocaust survivor.
He was 82 at the time, still eloquent and gracefully assertive. The occasion was the 2011 Commencement address at Washington University. Many readers know that’s my day job. It’s a fun, stimulating place to work, and comes with a bonus: You never know when you’ll hear words that will resonate with you the rest of your life.
Last weekend, in trying to make some sense of the horrible news of late, of serial bombing attempts and a synagogue massacre — events highlighting deep divides in our nation— I thought about Wiesel. I thought about the day I stood among 10,000-plus in Brookings Quadrangle listening to a man who had quite literally seen the world at its worst, and, at 82, was still smiling.
Just his presence — and that smile — would have been enough. But his words … I found the video of his address and listened again to his words. He began by defining what it meant to him to be Jewish. “It’s not exclusive,” he said. “It’s an opening.”
The more Jewish, he said, the more universal the message. “Anyone else could say the same thing, whether as Protestant, Unitarian, Catholic, Buddhist or even agnostic: We must be before we give. We must shield and protect the identity, the inner identity that we have and that makes us who we are.”
We must be before we give.
I typically stay away from politics. When I don’t, on a few occasions, I have gotten letters from readers who will admonish me to stay in my lane of feel-good and heartwarming. Well, civility and dignity is my lane, too, and there is an alarming lack of it across our political divide.
So what can we do? We can reach out to our neighbors. We can turn down the electronic noise. We can vote next Tuesday. And we can heed the words of a man who, despite all he had been through, still chose to love. The video of Wiesel can be found on the WashU news website (www.source.wustl.edu). Just put “Elie Wiesel” in the search field at the top and it will appear first.
Wiesel died July 2, 2016. What would he say about the state of our country today? He’d likely say what he said to the graduates that day:
“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 … correct it!”
And this: “I want you to know, despite what I have gone through in life, I still have faith in humanity.”