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What is indifference? Etymologically, the word means "no difference." A strange and unnatural state in which the lines blur between light and darkness, dusk and dawn, crime and punishment, cruelty and compassion, good and evil. (20-22)
"Indifference," as Elie Wiesel defines it, is nuanced and complicated—and not at all innocent.
On the surface, the definition is pretty straightforward, but as you dive in and peel back some of the layers, it becomes easy to see how tempting it is to exist in between good and evil—which, according to Wiesel, is where indifference lives. The trick is choosing to move beyond that place and take action to be compassionate and good—and that's not an easy thing to do.
Of course, indifference can be tempting—more than that, seductive. It is so much easier to look away from victims. It is so much easier to avoid such rude interruptions to our work, our dreams, our hopes. It is, after all, awkward, troublesome, to be involved in another person's pain and despair. Yet, for the person who is indifferent, his or her neighbor are of no consequence. And, therefore, their lives are meaningless. Their hidden or even visible anguish is of no interest. Indifference reduces the Other to an abstraction. (28-35)
Caring about people is hard. It's neither comfortable nor fun, but, according to Elie Wiesel, it's part of being a good human.
He believes that ignoring a person's misery makes it easier to look at that person as something less than human. Indifference has the power to make entire populations "less than," which is what happened to him and millions of others during the Holocaust. "The Perils of Indifference" is a not-so-gentle reminder of the negative consequences of indifference, and how important it is to take an interest in the anguish of others, even when it's tempting to look the other way.
Indifference, after all, is more dangerous than anger and hatred. (51)
According to Elie Wiesel, being indifferent to another person, or another group of people, reduces them to nothing—as if their problems or their suffering just doesn't matter. It's a static feeling because nothing changes. How can it, if you're pretending what's going on simply isn't happening?
Indifference is not a beginning; it is an end. And, therefore, indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor—never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten. (62-63)
In "The Perils of Indifference," Elie Wiesel talks about how indifference is seductive because it's the easy choice. It doesn't put a crimp in your style. But that doesn't solve anything. In fact, it exacerbates the problem because by ignoring the victims and what they're experiencing, you're making their suffering worse. You're affirming their belief that no one gives a fig about them—and as a result, you end up helping the bad guys.
The depressing tale of the St. Louis is case in point. Sixty years ago, its human cargo—nearly 1,000 Jews—was turned back to Nazi Germany. And that happened after the Kristallnacht, after the first state-sponsored pogrom, with hundreds of Jewish shops destroyed, synagogues burned, thousands of people put in concentration camps. And that ship, which was already in the shores of the United States, was sent back. I don't understand. (81-85)
The Jewish refugees on board the St. Louis were turned away from Cuba, and then from the United States, before they were accepted into various countries throughout Europe, including the United Kingdom, France, and Belgium.
But both France and Belgium eventually fell to the Nazis, and some 254 refugees from the St. Louis ended up being murdered—which means the U.S. government's choice to turn their backs on the passengers, to be indifferent to their experiences, led to the loss of innocent lives.
In a way, to be indifferent to that suffering is what makes the human being inhuman. (50)
According to Elie Wiesel, when you make the choice to stop relating to other people, to stop understanding them and what they're going through, you lose the part of you that makes you human.
It isn't always easy, but empathy is part of being human. Losing that means losing touch with what humanity really means.
The political prisoner in his cell, the hungry children, the homeless refugees—not to respond to their plight, not to relieve their solitude by offering them a spark of hope is to exile them from human memory. And in denying their humanity, we betray our own. (64-65)
Defining humanity may not be simple, but in terms of basic rights, it's pretty clear that all people deserve certain things just because they're human—and one of those things is a recognition of their worth.
Ignoring starving children and refugees means telling those populations they're worthless and they don't matter, that their situation is hopeless. And no one deserves to feel they're without hope.
But then, there were human beings who were sensitive to our tragedy. Those non-Jews, those Christians, we call the "Righteous Gentiles," whose selfless act of heroism saved the honor of their faith. Why were they so few? (93-95)
Elie Wiesel acknowledges the Righteous Gentiles as people who weren't indifferent, who did everything they could to help the Jews and other persecuted populations during the Holocaust. The Righteous Gentiles were a bit of a light in the darkness. But the question remains—why did so few people step up to try to help?
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? (109-111)
Elie Wiesel is a big fan of rhetorical questions, but they always serve a purpose. In this case, with an audience on the verge of a new century, he wants them to seriously think about their answers, and part of that means thinking about humanity and the responsibilities of being human. Have we really learned from what we've seen and done, and do we have the knowledge necessary to make better choices in the future?
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 a profound fear and extraordinary hope. (123-125)
You might notice that the end of "The Perils of Indifference" looks pretty similar to the beginning, and Elie Wiesel does that on purpose. At the start, he sets the scene to reminds his listeners of the very worst humanity had to offer—the Holocaust, Buchenwald, millions of people dead simply because of their race or religion.
But when he finishes, Wiesel returns to the same scene to remind his audience that despite everything, part of being human means being innately hopeful. So, if the young Jewish boy from the Carpathian Mountains could still believe in the very best, anything is possible.
Though he did not understand their language, their eyes told him what he needed to know—that they, too, would remember, and bear witness. (7)
You've undoubtedly seen the images from various concentration camps throughout Europe. They're unbelievably difficult to look at, and the part of your brain designed to protect you from unpleasant things probably has you wondering if the pictures could really be real. Because how could something so horrible have actually happened to millions of innocent people?
But they were real, and Elie Wiesel understood better than anyone the consequences of underestimating those images. He and millions of Jews throughout Europe had suffered for years because the rest of the world didn't want to believe the rumors of death camps in Nazi-occupied countries. But when the Americans liberated Buchenwald in 1945, Wiesel could see their horror as they realized the rumors were true, as they realized just how many millions of people had suffered and died. And he knew they'd help him tell the story, to be sure future generations would never try to deny the Holocaust.
We are on the threshold of a new century, a new millennium. What will the legacy of this vanishing century be? How will it be remembered in the new millennium? Surely it will be judged, and judged severely, in both moral and metaphysical terms. (13-16)
They say hindsight is 20-20, and it's a cliché for a reason. The 20th century was filled with all sorts of horror, and Elie Wiesel asks his audience to take a moment and consider how history will look back on it. Millions of innocent people died in concentration camps throughout Europe, but genocides were occurring in Rwanda and Kosovo. Millions more were killed in World War I, World War II, and Vietnam, and still countries were using violence to solve their problems.
According to Wiesel, our very humanity depends on doing whatever we can to help people suffering around the world, to protect them from governments and groups of people intent on erasing their existences simply because they are different. History is going to judge us for our actions, so we better be sure the legacy we leave is the right one.
And yet, my friends, good things have also happened in this traumatic century [...]. This time, the world was not silent. This time, we do respond. This time, we intervene. (100, 104-106)
Elie Wiesel does acknowledge that the 20th century wasn't all bad. The century saw peace treaties, the collapse of totalitarian governments and communist regimes, and major social progress.
Wiesel wants to be clear that, in some cases, people did learn from the Holocaust and World War II. They acted when they saw bad things happening around the world, and even though it didn't put a stop to all the trauma and suffering, taking action, on a small scale or on a large scale, will always be incredibly important.
Does this mean we have learned from the past? Does it mean society has changed? (107-108)
Yup—those are the million-dollar questions.
One of the most profound things about Elie Wiesel's speech is that he asks a lot of questions…and doesn't provide any solutions. Maybe it's because he wants people to think about the answers themselves, or maybe it's because he simply doesn't know what those answers are.
What he does know is how many people suffered and died throughout the 20th century, and he also knows that a lot of the bad stuff seems to still be happening all around the world. "The Perils of Indifference" is a call to action, to remind everyone that they have a duty to respond to indifference and intolerance because their legacy—as well as their humanity—depends on it.
In the place that I come from, society was composed of three simple categories: the killers, the victims, and the bystanders. (67)
Sure, the killers were obviously the really guilty, and the victims were the innocent party—but what about the bystanders? It becomes clear throughout his speech that Elie Wiesel sees the folks who stood idly by as being part of the problem. Wiesel believes that indifference is on par with what the Nazis did—sure, the bystanders might not have killed anyone, but they also didn't try and stop it.
And he wasn't the only person who feels that way. In fact, after the Americans liberated Buchenwald in 1945, they forced locals to march through the camp to see what had happened there and what they'd ignored. It's pretty powerful footage, so take a look at it here.
And our only miserable consolation was that we believed that Auschwitz and Treblinka were closely guarded secrets; that the leaders of the free world did not know what was going on behind those black gates and barbed wire; that they had no knowledge of the war against the Jews that Hitler's armies and their accomplices waged as part of the war against the Allies. If they knew, we thought, surely those leaders would have moved heaven and earth to intervene. They would have spoken out with great outrage and conviction. (70-72)
Millions of people, including Elie Wiesel, were forced to endure hellish, inhumane treatment at the hands of the Nazis. And throughout it all, they believed the rest of the world had no idea what was going on. Imagine their collective sense of betrayal when they realized that world leaders had known what was going on…and did nothing.
Roosevelt was a good man, with a heart. He understood those who needed help. Why didn't he allow these refugees to disembark? A thousand people—in America, the great country, the greatest democracy, the most generous of all new nations in modern history. What happened? I don't understand. (86-91)
Elie Wiesel is talking about FDR's response to the St. Louis (which we discuss in the "Timeline" section). When the ship of Jewish refugees arrived in Cuba and was turned away, the captain turned to the United States for help. But FDR and his government didn't help, and while the passengers were eventually granted refuge in various countries in Europe, some 200 were murdered at the hands of the Nazis.
America was built by folks searching for religious freedom, and Wiesel doesn't understand how such a place could turn its back on 1,000 people looking for that same freedom—especially when they'd heard whispers about the kinds of horrors happening in the Nazi-controlled parts of Europe.
But then, there were human beings who were sensitive to our tragedy. Those non-Jews, those Christians, that we call the "Righteous Gentiles," whose selfless acts of heroism saved the honor of their faith. Why were they so few? Why was there a greater effort to save SS murderers after the war than to save their victims during the war? Why did some of America's largest corporations continue to do business with Hitler's Germany until 1942? (93-97)
Elie Wiesel paints a vivid and disturbing picture of the suffering and tragedy that occurred throughout the 20th century, and he repeatedly mentions how very few people stepped in to try and stop it.
But Wiesel does give a shout-out to the Righteous Gentiles, non-Jews who saw what was happening around them and took a stand against it. According to Wiesel, the selflessness and heroism of the Righteous Gentiles is the kind of behavior the rest of the world needs to emulate going into the next century. That way, if and when horrible things happen, larger populations step up and fight for the victims who can't fight for themselves.
But this time, the world was not silent. This time, we do respond. This time, we intervene. (104-106)
The horrors Elie Wiesel and millions of others experienced during the Holocaust weren't the result of a single person, or even a single group. Multiple factors contributed to the Holocaust—including mass indifference to the suffering and the killing simply because it was easier to feign ignorance than to fight against atrocity.