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It was fairly impossible for Wiesel to use anything but pathos in his speeches. The man had lived through hell, lost most of his family, and then dedicated his life to exposing the horrors of the Holocaust over and over.
Basically, even if Wiesel had made his speech in list form, pathos would have been part of the equation. And since Wiesel was an immensely eloquent man and a talented public speaker, pathos is front and center in "The Perils of Indifference."
"The Perils of Indifference" is supposed to make you wonder how it's possible that we didn't learn anything from the Holocaust. It's supposed to make you horrified that millions of people are still dying due to genocide and ethnic cleansing. You're supposed to feel heartbroken for the young Jewish boy at the beginning and end of his speech, the kid who saw such horrible things and believed, on the day of his liberation, that the world would learn from what he'd been through.
Wiesel believes that indifference, "after all, is more dangerous than anger or hatred" (51) because it's not an active emotion. It's the exact opposite—when you're indifferent to someone, you just ignore what they're going through. He wants the audience to be really affected by what they hear because that is when they will do something: stand up, fight back, and choose not to be indifferent.
And because he was brilliant, he makes the listeners do most of the work.
Sure, Wiesel wrote the speech and had to stand up in front of a room full of important government folks. But for most of it, he just lays out the facts.
He talks about civil wars, world wars, assassinations, border disputes, genocide, ethnic cleansing—and that's just in line 17.
He also touches on a few not-so-shiny moments for the good ol' U.S. of A., like that time FDR and the American government turned away a ship full of Jewish refugees. And that time U.S. corporations continued to do business with Hitler even after Pearl Harbor.
Yeah, it's about here that your sadness should be mixed with a bit of guilt.
Wiesel wants the audience to be uncomfortable, wants them to feel a mix of grief and remorse, so that when he starts asking the tough—and rhetorical—questions, they'll really take the time to think about them:
Does this mean that we have learned from the past? Does it mean that society has changed? Has the human being become less indifferent and more human? Have we really learned from our experiences? Are we less insensitive to the plight of victims of ethnic cleansing and other forms of injustices in places near and far? Is today's justified intervention in Kosovo, led by you, Mr. President, a lasting warning that never again will the deportation, the terrorization of children and their parents, be allowed anywhere in the world? Will it discourage other dictators in other lands to do the same? (107-113)
Wiesel isn't going to provide an answer, and he doesn't. So, now it's up to the audience to decide, and to take action and choose not to be indifferent so society really will change.
Elie Wiesel uses a clever structure—he brings together both his personal recollections and facts about the atrocities of the 20th century to allow the audience to both pick up the information he's laying down and empathize with the various victims of a century of horror.
Wiesel talks about how fighting indifference is everyone's responsibility and how as human beings we have a responsibility to one another to do better. As proof, he mentions civil wars and world wars, genocide and ethnic cleansing, and suffering from all over the world. He brings together all the evidence he can.
And this evidence is sandwiched between his brief recollections of his own experiences with the consequences of indifference. It's impossible to read/listen to this speech without vividly imagining the horrors of the events he's describing…and that's exactly the effect Wiesel has in mind.
Elie Wiesel began a number of his speeches with a story, and "The Perils of Indifference" is no different. He talks about his liberation from Buchenwald 54 years earlier and why he was—and still is—so grateful to the Americans.
According to Wiesel, it might seem both easy and harmless to ignore atrocities, but the effect is anything but banal.
History is full of the consequences of indifference: the Holocaust, genocide, ethnic cleansing, and civil war…to name a few.
During the Holocaust, people fit into one of three categories: killer, victim, or bystander. As a result, people like Wiesel—the victims—felt alone and abandoned by the rest of the world because few people reached out to help them.
It turns out that the Pentagon had information on what Hitler was doing to Jews over in Europe, and FDR and the Allies chose not to intervene. Even worse than that, U.S. companies continued to do business with Hitler well into World War II. It's hard to explain away that kind of indifference, and it's unacceptable.
The 20th century was filled with horrors upon horrors. But despite all he'd experienced and all the things he'd seen, Wiesel is still hopeful that things will get better.
Wiesel is not messing around with poetic or cutesy titles. He doesn't have the time—what he has to say is serious business, and he needs to be crystal clear about one thing:
There are some serious perils to indifference.
In fact, the perils of indifference greatly outweigh the ease and the cursory feeling of the safety of indifference. Sure, behaving in an indifferent manner might seem simple, but it comes at a huge cost. Innocent people perish at the hands of an indifferent public. And, if that's not motivation enough to start caring, Wiesel states that the act of being indifferent erodes the humanity of the person being indifferent.
Indifference is perilous through and through. In fact, the only way to keep the dark history of the 20th century from repeating itself is to kick the indifference habit for good.
Fifty-four years ago to the day, a young Jewish boy from a small town in the Carpathian Mountains woke up, not far from Goethe's beloved Weimar, in a place of eternal infamy called Buchenwald. He was finally free, but there was no joy in his heart. He thought there never would be again. Liberated a day earlier by American soldiers, he remembers their rage at what they saw. And even if he lives to be a very old man, he will always be grateful to them for that rage, and also for their compassion. Though he did not understand their language, their eyes told him what he needed to know—that they, too, would remember, and bear witness. (2-7)
"The Perils of Indifference" is a narrative of the 20th century from the point of view of a man who survived one of the most horrifying parts of it. Elie Wiesel uses the opening lines of his speech to contextualize his experiences in all the genocide and war and tragedy that characterized the 1900s, and to emphasize the importance of remembering it all.
The last line of this opening is perhaps the most vital. Wiesel remembers how important it was for him to realize that the American soldiers liberating Buchenwald would remember what they had seen. The act of remembering can be juxtaposed with the idea of indifference—where indifference is easy but ultimately damning for both the person being indifferent and those to whom s/he is indifferent, remembering is difficult but ultimately healing for all involved.
Some of them—so many of them—could be saved.
And so, once again, I think of the young Jewish boy from the Carpathian Mountains. He has accompanied the old man I have become throughout these years of quest and struggle. And together we walk towards the new millennium, carried by profound fear and extraordinary hope. (122-125)
Throughout "The Perils of Indifference," Elie Wiesel highlights the many atrocities of the 20th century, but when he ends his speech the same way he starts it—by reminding the audience of his own horrible experiences—his intent is to pass the torch.
Wiesel spent much of his adult life speaking out against genocide and war, and the last lines of his speech are a classic call to action. In other words, the fate of the next century is on us. We have to remember all the things that happened, and we have to choose not to be indifferent to them—and despite everything, Wiesel believes we can do it.
Elie Wiesel keeps it simple in terms of the writing and the transitions—you always know where you stand, and you always know the steps that got you there.
But the challenge comes in the beginning—in line 17, Wiesel mentions a whole lot of places and names that may be unfamiliar. It takes a little bit of extra detective work to find the exact details and figure out why they're relevant to the overall point Wiesel is trying to make.
But, hey, that's why we're here.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (2)
President Bill Clinton (1, 8, 101, 112)
Hillary Clinton (1, 11, 68)
Ambassador Richard Holbrooke (1)
Mahatma Gandhi (17)
John F. Kennedy (17)
Robert F. Kennedy (17)
Martin Luther King Jr. (17)
Anwar Sadat (17)
Yitzhak Rabin (17, 101)
Auschwitz (18, 36, 70)
Treblinka (18, 70)
Days of Remembrance (68)
Adolf Hitler (70, 97)
The Pentagon (74)
The State Department (74)
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (75)
St. Louis (81)
Righteous Gentiles (94)
Yasser Arafat (101)
Carpathian Mountains (2, 123)
Ireland (17, 100)
Kosovo (17, 103, 112)
Chmiel, Mark. Elie Wiesel and the Politics of Moral Leadership. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001. Print.
Page, Clarence. "Perils of Indifference—and of Action." Chicago Tribune. 14 April 1999. (Source)
The Clintons hosted Millennium Evenings at the White House to toot America's creative and innovative horn. Elie Wiesel was one in a pretty impressive group of speakers. (Source)
Elie Wiesel won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, and the speech he gave was immensely powerful. Take a look. (Source)
While Night is undoubtedly Elie Wiesel's best-known work, he's published quite a few stories and memoirs. They're all worth a read. (Source)
President Obama awarded Elie Wiesel the 2009 National Humanities Medal for his efforts in educating the public about the Holocaust. (Source)
When Elie Wiesel passed away in 2016, plenty of people took to Twitter to say goodbye. (Source)