Study Guide

The Perils of Indifference Themes

By Elie Wiesel

  • Indifference

    Shocker, we know, but indifference is a major theme in a speech called "The Perils of Indifference."

    This speech acts as a huge warning about being indifferent to suffering and injustice. Elie Wiesel understood better than most people the consequences of ignoring what's happening around you.

    But more than that, he wanted his audience to recognize that being indifferent is not the same as being innocent—in fact, being indifferent or turning a blind eye to bad things makes you part of the problem.

    Questions About Indifference

    1. Define "indifference" in your own words. Have you experienced indifference in your own life? Have you seen it in the world around you?
    2. In line 52, Wiesel says, "Indifference, after all, is more dangerous than anger or hatred." What evidence does he give to support that statement?
    3. What is the connection between indifference and humanity, according to Wiesel? Do you agree with him? Why or why not?
    4. Wiesel says in line 125 that he's filled with "extraordinary hope" as the world moves toward the new millennium. After all his experiences and all the events he touched on throughout his speech, what gives him so much hope?

    Chew on This

    According to Elie Wiesel, "indifference" is defined simply as "no difference." But it's actually much more complicated and nuanced, especially when talking about indifference toward human suffering throughout the world.

    Elie Wiesel sincerely believes the only way to stop the evils of the 20th century from bleeding into the 21st century is to choose not to be indifferent.

  • Humanity

    Here's the thing Elie Wiesel wants you to understand both about the Holocaust and all the other genocides that have happened since: people are making them happen. Not mythical monsters or Disney villains, but flesh-and-blood people.

    Which means that flesh-and-blood people can put a stop to these things by refusing to play a part—and that includes refusing to be indifferent.

    Questions About Humanity

    1. Why does Wiesel begin and end his speech with mention of "a young Jewish boy"? Who is the boy? What do you think he's trying to accomplish?
    2. In line 7, Wiesel says, "Though he did not understand their language, their eyes told him what he needed to know—that they, too, would remember, and bear witness." Think of how Wiesel defines "humanity" throughout his speech. Why was he so grateful that the American liberators would remember and bear witness?
    3. "Gratitude is a word that I cherish. Gratitude is what defines the humanity of the human being" (9-10), he says. Do you agree? Why or why not?
    4. In line 68, Wiesel mentions that the world is in the Days of Remembrance, commemorating the Holocaust and that entire time period. Why is it so important to remember what happened to him, and so many millions of others?

    Chew on This

    On the surface, humans are complex creatures, and what defines humanity is also complex. But Elie Wiesel's experiences throughout the Holocaust, when the struggle to survive was his only focus, forced him to simplify what it means to be human.

    In many cases throughout the Holocaust, as well as in other conflicts and genocides around the world, choosing to help the victimized populations made the helper a target, too. It's hard to blame indifference entirely on a lack of humanity when fear is also a likely motivation.

  • Legacy of the Past

    You know how people are always saying that history repeats itself? Well, that's exactly the opposite of what Elie Wiesel wanted to happen, especially after a century as full of suffering as the 20th.

    Millions of people died in the century's genocides, civil wars, and world wars. Wiesel gave "The Perils of Indifference" on the verge of a new millennium in the hope that people would remember all the atrocities and learn from what he had to say so the next century wouldn't be filled with similar kinds of suffering.

    Questions About Legacy of the Past

    1. In line 17, Wiesel mentions the moral failures of the 20th century. What was he trying to accomplish by naming the various conflicts and assassinations? Do you think it was effective?
    2. Throughout his speech, Wiesel references Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Birkenau, but he never mentions the Holocaust by name. Why do you think that is?
    3. In line 125, Wiesel says, "And together, we walk towards the new millennium, carried by profound fear and extraordinary hope." What is significant about ending with that particular word?
    4. According to Wiesel, what is the most important lesson from the 20th century? Do you believe we've learned that lesson?

    Chew on This

    There was no shortage of war and genocide throughout the 20th century, and while remembering such history is difficult, acknowledging it happened is the only way to honor the victims and prevent the tragedy from repeating itself.

    Many people choose to look at history as something separate from their own experiences. However, when that happens, it's all too easy to forget the lessons of the past and make the same mistakes all over again.

  • Responsibility

    The Nazis are blamed for the Holocaust and, while that's totally accurate, it's also fair to say that they couldn't have killed millions of people all on their own. They were aided by global indifference.

    Throughout "The Perils of Indifference," Elie Wiesel stresses that part of being human means being accountable to other humans. In other words, we have a responsibility to take care of each other, especially if we see one group trying to victimize another. Ignoring the problem and being indifferent to it doesn't absolve us of responsibility, and that's the lesson people need to take with them into the new century.

    Questions About Responsibility

    1. In lines 2 and 75, Wiesel mentions events that occurred 54 years ago. What is he trying to accomplish in doing that?
    2. "In the place that I come from, society was composed of three simple categories: the killers, the victims, and the bystanders" (67). Based on this speech, who does Wiesel consider responsible for the suffering of so many people? Do you agree with him?
    3. How do you feel after reading about the St. Louis and U.S. corporations doing business with Nazi Germany well into World War II? Does it change the way you view FDR and American actions during that time period? Why or why not?
    4. Toward the end of his speech, Wiesel takes time to mention some of the good things that happened in the 20th century. How does he use these positive events to emphasize the various responsibilities of the rest of the world?

    Chew on This

    Elie Wiesel believes indifference and human suffering go hand in hand. To ignore the misery of another person perpetuates the problem, and only by choosing not to be indifferent will suffering stop.

    Throughout the 20th century, millions of people were killed in world wars and civil wars, in genocides and ethnic cleansing. It's easy to place blame solely on the groups of people who did the killing, but Elie Wiesel believes the rest of the world had to speak out and take action to stop the suffering…or else they are responsible, too.

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