History cannot be taken for granted, especially by those who have felt the pain of injustice, Canadian Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella reminded the class of 2017 at Sunday’s commencement exercises. Abella delivered her address to 904 bachelor degree recipients and 884 graduate degree recipients.

“You see before you a justice of the Supreme Court of Canada who is deeply worried about the state of justice in the world,” she said in her remarks, describing her family’s experience during and after the Holocaust. “My parents and thousands of other survivors transcended the inhumanity they experienced … to prove to themselves and the world that their spirits weren’t broken.”

After the death of her two-year-old brother in the Holocaust, Abella was born in a displaced persons camp, with her sister following after. “I think it was a way to fix their hearts,” she said of her parents’ decision to have more children. Her father’s unrealized wish to practice law after the family’s move to Canada — he instead became an insurance salesman to provide for his family — inspired her to go to into law, although her father died just a month before her law school graduation.

In her father’s papers, she found letters from American lawyers, prosecutors and judges who had written to her father to recommend him for provisional legal positions in post-war Europe. In one 1947 letter, an American lawyer had written, “You were battered, but you did not allow yourself to be beaten. You continue to fight for your human rights and for those of your fellows in fate. ”

However, even with the Holocaust more than 70 years past, there are still lessons to be gleaned from persecution, Abella said. “It is time to remind ourselves why we develop such a passionate and … unshakable commitment to human rights,” Abella said, adding, “Indifference is injustice’s incubator. It’s not just what you stand for; it’s what you stand up for, and we can never forget how the world looks to those who are vulnerable.”

Abella, an expert in human rights law, touched on the current state of public affairs, urging the graduates to avoid indifference and take notice. “Here we are in 2017, watching ‘never again’ turn into to ‘again and again,’ and watching that wonderful democratic consensus fragment, shattered by narcissistic populism, an unhealthy tolerance for intolerance, a cavalier indifference to equality, a deliberate amnesia about the instruments and values of democracy, and a shocking disrespect for the borders between power and its independent adjudicators like the press and the courts,” she said.

And yet, she said, “The phoenix that rose from the ashes of Auschwitz was justice. Beautiful, democratic, tolerant, compassionate justice.”

Staying attuned to injustice was a theme University President Ronald Liebowitz also touched on in his remarks. Liebowitz recounted the University’s history as a non-sectarian, quota-less school that welcomed people of all creeds, adding that this openness “must remain a defining characteristic of this University.”

In one of the lighter moments of the commencement exercises, undergraduate student speaker Mercedes Hall ’17 likened her undergraduate career to a basketball game, thanking her fellow graduates for “taking the shot … [and] making it to the championship game.”

“We play hard every game, but we play a little bit better and with a lot more heart when we play at home. At home, we are undefeated. … We all play for the same team,” Hall said, adding, “There is one play that incorporates a strategy to make us winners any and everywhere we go. This play involves making every game played for our next team a home game. Wherever we go, we carry home with us and make it our new home.”

Addressing the audience after Hall, graduate student speaker Vivekanand Pandey Vimal Ph.D. ’17 pulled out a cup of soil, sprinkling it across the podium. “Dear Mother Earth who has given us all life, … we momentarily rest upon the moving tectonic plates of destiny, where we can smell the freshly pressed and compressed perfume of nostalgia, and where glistening all around us is a constellation of celebration,” he said.

Reflecting on his graduate school experience, Vimal asked the audience, “And how many of you have gone to a human party with human music and human connections where you have had to explain your thesis? And after stripping away all the jargon and nuance, a party person has always ended up saying, ‘Isn’t your thesis kind of obvious?’ And the only thing you can say is, ‘I’m going home to eat a microwave dinner,’ and … you ask, ‘Why did I ever even do this?’”

The answer, the reason for all the hard work, late nights and occasional failures, he said, is “because we want to live, and we want to dream, and fall in love with something beautiful. We did it because we want to explore the vastness of the universe and give birth to an idea never before seen in the entire history of humanity.”

—Michelle Dang contributed reporting.