CONVOCATION ADDRESS, UNIVERSITY OF LETHBRIDGE,
May 31, 2006.
My very dear friends:
President Cade, Chancellor DeBow, Members of Senate, faculty, graduates and students of the University of Lethbridge,
It is with a sense of immense pride and gratitude that I accept this honour today. I thank you from the bottom of my heart! This honorary degree means more to me than you can know — not only because I am the first Yiddish writer to be honoured in this way by a Canadian university, but also because this doctorate of laws is the very first university degree that I have EVER been awarded. So in a sense, this convocation ceremony this morning is a celebration of MY graduation as much as it a celebration for those of you being granted your Bachelor degrees. In fact, I could never have imagined an honour that more completely answers my innermost wishes, fantasies and desires. Because the sad fact is that I never attended a real university. I never sat in a brightly lit classroom absorbing information from professors who were experts in their fields; I never haunted libraries in search of books to help me write my papers; I never stayed up all night working on assignments, nor studied for exams with my classmates.
My university was the Second World War. My classroom was the Lodz Ghetto, my teachers were my fellow inmates there — and especially the poets, painters and intellectuals of the doomed writers' community, incarcerated between the barbed wire walls of the ghetto, who accepted me at a very early age as a member. So I am a graduate of the Holocaust, of the death camps of Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen. I have matriculated in one of the greatest tragedies known to man. I have a degree from no other university. At least, not until today.
I do not want to dwell on the horrors of the past, but if you will permit me just one more word of homage to my own language, because it too was a victim of the war, and because through me, you are conferring an honour on thus doomed language as well. That language is Yiddish. I write in Yiddish because it was the language of my home in Poland, it was the language of my childhood and my community; it was the language I knew like the map of my own heart. So I wrote my novels in Yiddish out of a sense of loyalty to the vanished world of my youth, out of a sense of obligation to a world that no longer existed.
Little did I realize that in a few short years, Yiddish itself would no longer exist — at least not as I knew it, not as a living and breathing language of day-to-day life. To lose one's language is an unspeakably painful thing, especially for a writer. Writing is always a lonely profession, but the Yiddish writer's loneliness has an additional dimension. Her readership has perished. Her language has gone up with the smoke of the crematoria. She creates in a vacuum, almost without a readership, out of fidelity to a vanished language; as if to prove that Nazism did not succeed in extinguishing that languageπs last breath, and that it is still alive.
And so here I am — a Yiddish writer on the prairies. A Yiddish writer who must depend on translation in order to be read. A Yiddish writer who has longed all her life for a formal education and an opportunity to belong to an academic community. And here in Lethbridge, so far away from where my lifeπs journey began, as if by magic, that wish has been granted to me. Suddenly I have been given the opportunity — at the young age of 83 — that I no longer expected ever to receive, of having a university degree, and what is more, it is a degree conferred on me by this wonderful institution in this peaceful and pleasant city that I now call home.
This degree that I — and you, my dear graduates — are receiving today is a sign of our joining the community of scholars and achievers, of those who have attained an education, an education that is all too often taken for granted in this free country of Canada. Now you might look at me and say, this lady has lived a long life and she has written books and won prizes and made something of a name for herself — all without a university education. But what I want to tell you is that I am living proof of how easily the right to an education can be taken away, of how fragile a thing education is—subject to the vagaries of discrimination and prejudice, to the whims of politics, war and upheavals.
You may be thinking to yourselves, surely this can never happen in Canada and I certainly hope that what I have lived through can never happen here. But then who would have imagined that the devastation and horrors of the Holocaust would have happened in the heart of civilized Europe—and yet they did.
But this is not the time to talk about the horrors of war and the pain of a dying language. This sunny, happy day is really dedicated to celebration, to celebration of achievements and of the future. I wish you all the best, my dear graduates, as you embark on your futures. You have worked hard, you have earned this chance to kick up your heels a little and to face the future with optimism. But please remember that the future grows out of the past and the past too must be remembered, if only for the lessons it has to teach us, namely, what to celebrate and what to fear.
So, I wish you much joy, my fellow degree-holders, much fortitude and good fortune in meeting the cold, cynical, complex, wonderful exciting world that lies outside the walls of this institution.