The Perils of Indifference
Holocaust-survivor and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Elie Wiesel, delivered this speech on 12 April 1999, at the White House, as a part of the Millennium Lecture series. An edited version of his address.
Fifty-four years ago to the day, a young Jewish boy woke up, in a place of eternal infamy called Buchenwald. He was finally free, but there was no joy in his heart. 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.
Gratitude is a word that I cherish. Gratitude is what defines the humanity of the human being.
We are on the threshold of a new century. What will the legacy of this vanishing century be? Surely it will be judged, and judged severely. These failures have cast a dark shadow over humanity: two World Wars, civil wars, senseless assassinations—Gandhi, the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, Sadat—bloodbaths in Cambodia and Nigeria, India and Pakistan, Ireland and Rwanda; the inhumanity in the gulag and Hiroshima. And, on a different level, Auschwitz and Treblinka. So much violence, so much indifference.
What is indifference? Etymologically, the word means ‘no difference’. An unnatural state in which the lines blur between light and darkness, cruelty and compassion, good and evil. What are its inescapable consequences? Is it a philosophy? Can one possibly view indifference as a virtue? Is it necessary at times to practice it to keep one’s sanity, live normally, as the world around us experiences harrowing upheavals?
Of course, indifference can be tempting—seductive. It is easier to look away. 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 despair. Yet, for the person who is indifferent, his or her neighbour are of no consequence. And, therefore, their lives are meaningless. Their anguish is of no interest. Indifference reduces the other to an abstraction.
In a way, to be indifferent to suffering is what makes the human being inhuman. Indifference, after all, is more dangerous than anger and hatred. Anger can at times be creative. One writes a great poem, one does something special for the sake of humanity because one is angry at the injustice that one witnesses. But indifference is never creative. Even hatred at times may elicit a response. You fight it. You denounce it. Indifference elicits no response. Indifference is not a response.
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. 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.
Indifference, then, is not only a sin, it is a punishment. And this is one of the most important lessons of this outgoing century’s wide-ranging experiments in good and evil.
In the place that I come from, society was composed of three simple categories: the killers, the victims and the bystanders. During the darkest of times, inside the ghettoes and death camps—we felt abandoned, forgotten. All of us did.
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, surely those leaders would have moved heaven and earth to intervene. They would have spoken out with great outrage and conviction.
And now we learnt, we discovered that the Pentagon knew, the State Department knew. What happened? I don’t understand. Why the indifference, on the highest level, to the suffering of the victims?
There were human beings who were sensitive to our tragedy. Why were they so few? Why did some of America’s largest corporations continue to do business with Hitler’s Germany until 1942? It has been suggested, and it was documented, that the Wehrmacht could not have conducted its invasion of France without oil obtained from American sources. How is one to explain their indifference?
And yet, good things have also happened in this traumatic century: the defeat of Nazism, the collapse of communism, the rebirth of Israel on its ancestral soil, the demise of apartheid, the peace accord in Ireland.
And then, of course, the joint decision of the United States and NATO to intervene in Kosovo and save those victims, those who were uprooted by a man whom I believe that because of his crimes, should be charged with crimes against humanity. But this time, the world was not silent. This time, we do respond, we intervene.
Does it mean that we have learnt from the past? Has the human being become less indifferent and more human? Are we less insensitive to the plight of victims of ethnic cleansing and other forms of injustices in places near and far? What about the children? Oh, we see them on television, we read about them in the papers, and we do so with a broken heart. Their fate is always the most tragic, inevitably. When adults wage war, children perish.
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.