2011 Commencement Keynote Address by Dr. Helen N. Fagin

Delivered by Dr. Helen N. Fagin on May 20, 2011, for New College of Florida’s 45th Annual Commencement

President Michalson, Honorable Trustees, Distinguished Faculty, Parents, Guests — and the Class of 2011 Graduates: Congratulations to you on reaching this special day.

Dr. Helen N. FaginIt is customary for a commencement speaker to begin his or her remarks by saying what a great honor it is to address college graduates as they begin their new journey. For me, however, to simply state that I feel honored, would be a gross understatement. I feel this honor so very deeply, and I am so very humbled as I face this distinguished gathering that I find it difficult to absorb the fact that I am actually standing here, addressing graduates of an honors college, in America, in the year 2011!!!

You see, decades ago, this scenario could not even have been a figment of my wildest imagination. I was not supposed to be here, to live this life; indeed, I was not supposed to LIVE …

I vividly remember another summer’s day many decades ago, at the end of World War II, when left homeless, parentless and stateless, I was standing worlds away at a Displaced Persons Camp in Austria, with another group of young men and women contemplating our future, even as you do yours today. It would have NEVER occurred to me THEN to even dream, to hope or to dare imagine me standing here with you, the 2011 New College graduates, under present circumstances.

But, gratefully, humbly, and somehow miraculously, here I stand to share with you some thoughts, which emerged from my life’s experiences that shaped the long life I have been privileged to live in this land of promise, of opportunity and of longed-for freedom.

Yes, I wish for you to stop and contemplate, and therefore to appreciate, the meaning of these concepts I just mentioned — of freedom, of opportunity and of promise as seen through the prism of life’s experiences by someone who was deprived of them at the time of her youth — at the very time a young person looks forward to a new life, a new future …

… except that my life and my future were to be denied — not by inadvertent circumstances, but by an insidious ideology created by man — yes, by men and women who — not unlike you — have been privileged in their youth to receive their best education from their best academic institutions.

As a matter of historical fact, the Final Solution of the Jewish Question was considered and decided upon at Berlin’s Wannsee Conference in January 1942, by a group of 15 highly educated high-ranking Nazis, the majority of whom, indeed, held the highest academic degrees from the finest German universities.

And I do fervently believe that this very fact provides the most important lesson we can learn from our recent history. It represents the indelible dark mark on a century which provided us with unthinkable progress in so-called “civilized life”— in technology, in communication sciences, in medicine, and in many other aspects of human intellectual endeavor — and yet this same century offers us also examples of the most barbaric, immoral, dehumanizing behavior by men and women who were willing to suspend all their learned understanding of human knowledge and morality and degraded themselves into becoming pernicious barbarians.

Indeed, you are the inevitable inheritors of that past century — and this, the new 21st century, may conceivably offer its generations similar temptations for the use of today’s incredibly advanced technology — not only toward the improvement of your world, but conceivably for its potential destruction.

Albert Einstein, the father of our modern scientific age, in his premonition of such an egregious possibility, offered the following warning:

Knowledge and skill alone cannot lead humanity to a happy dignified life. The destiny of civilized humanity depends more than ever on the moral forces it is capable of generating.

Einstein’s admonition resonates even more now.

It is you who represent America’s future leadership you are our future decision-makers whose indispensable intellectual tools must first and foremost include sound moral judgment and intelligent critical thinking. These will surely serve as your greatest and most dependable assets!

At about your very age, I faced the greatest dilemma of my life — that is, what to make of my gift of survival, of the gift of life itself. Difficult as it was, it was then that I made a conscious decision not to wallow in my misfortune, but to find meaning in my survival.

To accomplish this goal, I decided to use any means available to me to continue my education, so that someday I may teach and enlighten young men and women about the constructive moral lessons I have drawn from the dark times of my former life.

I was strongly convinced that in every field of education, in every subject matter taught at schools and colleges, one can apply some lessons learned by using the Holocaust as a constructive moral paradigm. Thus, I was determined to translate my personal hell into a positive message.

I took my motto from my favorite American poet, Walt Whitman, who spoke for me in his epic poem, Song of Myself:

“The pleasures of heaven are with me / and the pains of hell are with me, / The first I grasp and enlarge upon myself, / the latter I translate into a new tongue.”

Indeed, after suffering “pains of hell,” I have been granted many “pleasures of heaven“ — foremost among them was the opportunity to live in this country of opportunities, where I would have a chance at personal happiness and enjoy this country’s privileges and freedom.

In my post-Holocaust reflections, I recall this yearning for such an elusive state of being — of knowing happiness and of being free TO BE FREE:

In times of suffering,
Happiness was the hope
And the promise
Of no more sorrow …

If this be called Happiness …
Then, for me, happiness was:
Being with my loved ones yet another day,
Being alive after a day’s sheer terror …
Eating a potato — a real potato,
Not potato peels.
Washing up with soap,
Real soap…
A book read in secret
And springtime lived again —
Just lived …
Spotting a friendly plane overhead,
Offering a glimmer of hope …
And after all that …
True basic happiness is
A chance of Life in Freedom …

I arrived in the United States with no possessions and no knowledge of the English language and embarked upon pursuing this very hope for Life in Freedom and this country’s promise.

The most important principles that guided my new path emerged from both, my early upbringing and from my life’s experiences. The past thus became my foundation and the source from which I drew my values and my basic principles of conduct.

First and foremost was the strong conviction that personal integrity, a sense of human justice and a profound commitment to eradicating the evils of prejudice must serve as my guides in this new phase of my life.

I received my American Naturalization papers on the very day I brought home my first-born daughter. I remember how I proudly pronounced that my new daughter would no longer have as her mother “a refugee girl” (as I was hither-to referred), but a proud bona-fide American citizen!

And I have carried this pride every step of the way on this, my American journey. Throughout the years I had the great honor and the privilege of making meaningful contributions to several significant national projects in the service of my adopted country. I have unabashedly become a proud American patriot and my heart still wells up while saluting the American flag or reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

When in February 2008 I completed writing what I called “My American Journey,” my last entry was the dedication of the Fagin Holocaust Collection at the Cook Library of New College.

I considered this event to have been one of the proudest legacies of my professional and personal life and called  it “my last hurrah” — hoping that this important honor would culminate my decades-long road to giving meaning to my survival by enlightening generations of students about the evils of genocide and prejudices of any kind, any place in the universe.

Thus, the Helen Fagin Collection has been dedicated not only to the study of the Holocaust, but also to issues of global Genocide and Humanitarian Studies. This, indeed, was surely to become my final legacy.

I was most proud that such a worthwhile project was made possible by a prestigious educational institution in my own community, the honors college of Florida, our New College. Little did I expect then that I would become so closely connected with New College and that my involvement and connection with New College would become such a great source of pride and an important component of my present life — and that this special relationship would culminate for me into today’s incredible moment.

Whenever I have had the occasion to lecture to New College students, I simply suggested to them that the critical thinking they have developed as part of their New College experience must include a personal moral compass as a guide in their decision-making process, in fighting intolerance, and in an honest open discourse.

Any lessons — be they derived from literature, history, the sciences, politics, medicine, sociology, philosophy or theology — must address their potential implementation into real life situations where the integrity of man may become critical. In all the courses I have taught, I concentrated on the moral existential value of the work we studied — whether discussing the concept of human justice in Aeschylus, the conflict between human and divine laws in Sophocles, the constructs of virtue and sin in Dante, or the moral and philosophical dichotomies in Dostoyevsky.

Similarly, at every chance I have, I admonish the would-be scientist to refuse inventing a gas whose only possible use would be the extermination of innocent human beings. I appeal to those who plan to become medical doctors to refuse conducting medical experiments on emaciated inmates, or assist in euthanasia — the euphemistically called “mercy killings”of the mentally ill and of retarded children.

In every walk of life, we must try to eradicate human behavior based on blind prejudice and bigotry, and replace it with human decency. In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl suggests that there exist only two races of men — and all men and women of all nationalities, all religions, all colors and all races belong but to one of these two groups — they are the “race” of decent and the “race” of indecent men.

It will become your task to be ever watchful of signs of uncivilized discourse, ignorance and even hatred creeping into the fabric of our social and political life. You know the signs. Take advantage of your personal potential and the many great opportunities that lie ahead for you to make this a better world for your generation and for future generations of Americans and, indeed, of the entire world.

These are not empty, glib words — for we know from our early American history that it is individuals with vision, patriotic idealists with a sense of purpose and intellectual integrity who made a difference in what their America would eventually become. It is they who gave us the gift of democracy you came to enjoy generations later. And it is intelligent men and women like you who have, in your life time, the potential of contributing your talents and the necessary wisdom, by how you think, by what you believe, by what you do, by who you aspire to become.

There is a big universe waiting for you out there, and I am confident that every one of you will find your proper niche within that universe and that you will shape your professional lives according to your abilities and your talents.

But there also exists another universe — within you — your spiritual universe. And that universe has no boundaries; it allows you to dream, to hope, to imagine — to conjure up great ideas in your mind, perhaps to silently compose great music, to write a poem, to dream the impossible dream and even, as the song says, to reach the unreachable star.

Although life may have some unexpected ups and downs in store for some of you, eventually you’ll overcome those physical hurdles, as long as you are spiritually and morally strong.

Remember, no one can limit your spiritual freedom, no power could deny your own gift of creativity and no propaganda or indoctrination can affect your own sense of what is right or wrong. There exists no physical power that could diminish that inner strength which makes your spirit soar. Keep that spirit alive — Let it soar, let it soar to ever greatest heights!!!

Your New College diploma is your badge of honor — carry it with pride and integrity, and do your best to fulfill the promise your parents and the four years you have spent in this honors institution of learning have invested in you.

And who knows, maybe some decades from now, some of you may be invited to address the graduating class at — then, not so new — New College of Florida and deliver your best advice based on your life’s experiences to that year’s generation of New College graduates!! To use your generation’s favorite expression, wouldn’t that be awesome??!!

And don’t forget to give your parents their due — they brought you along to where you are today, and they will surely stand by you in who you wish to become in all the tomorrows.

Finally, may I strongly recommend for your consideration one of life’s noblest professions — the teaching profession. The fruits of one’s professorial labor may not always provide the greatest material gains, but they will bring you the incredible satisfaction of having shaped young people’s minds and their characters. Take it from me — there is no greater gratification than your students’ gratitude when years or decades after their graduation they remember you with a note of thanks and appreciation.

Some of the greatest rewards of my life came from my many students, one of whom unexpectedly appeared on this very campus, in January of 2008, at the dedication of the Fagin Holocaust Collection, carrying a gift and handing me a six-page handwritten letter recounting his most memorable experiences in my classes he had attended at the University of Miami.  The last paragraph of David’s letter reads:

“And thank you, Dr. Fagin, for making me a better student, a better teacher, a better doctor, a better Christian, and a better human being.” What better reward could one wish for a lifetime’s work?!

Enjoy your life’s journey, using your talents and your moral compass as a guide. And make sure you give your own life the kind of meaning, that when looking back at your life’s accomplishments, you may honestly say to yourself, “well done.”

I thank you for bestowing upon me the honor of addressing you on this important day in your young lives, and I wish for all of you a meaningful and a fulfilling journey.



New College of Florida is a national leader in the arts and sciences and is the State of Florida's designated honors college for the liberal arts. Consistently ranked among the top public liberal arts colleges in America by U.S. News & World Report, Forbes and The Princeton Review, New College attracts highly motivated, academically talented students from 40 states and 25 foreign countries. A higher proportion of New College students receive Fulbright awards than graduates from virtually all other colleges and universities.