‘Why I believe indifference enables genocide’
Romanian-born American Jewish writer who survived the Holocaust. Former adviser to the US government. Winner of the 1986 Nobel peace prize. Founder of the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity.
As Holocaust Memorial Day approaches, the world will pause to reflect on one of humanity’s darkest chapters. In a powerful polemic, a famous Holocaust survivor says indifference to suffering makes us inhuman.
Fifty-four years ago, a young Jewish boy from a small town in the Carpathian mountains 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. He will always be grateful to them for that rage, and their compassion.
The 20th century will be judged severely. Its failures have cast a shadow over humanity: so much violence, so much indifference.
Indifference is not a beginning; it is an end. and indifference is always the friend of the enemy
What is indifference? The word means ‘no difference’: a strange and unnatural state in which the lines blur between light and dark, dusk and dawn, crime and punishment, cruelty and compassion, good and evil.
Is a philosophy of indifference conceivable? Can one possibly view indifference as a virtue? Is it necessary at times to practice it to stay sane, live normally, enjoy a meal and a glass of wine, as the world around us experiences harrowing upheavals?
Indifference can be seductive. It is much easier to look away. It is awkward to be involved in another person’s pain and despair.
Yet for the indifferent person, his neighbours are of no consequence. Their lives are meaningless. Their anguish is of no interest. Indifference reduces the other to an abstraction.
Behind the black gates of Auschwitz, the most tragic of all prisoners were the Muselmanner. They no longer felt pain, hunger, thirst. They feared nothing. They felt nothing. They were dead and did not know it.
In a way, to be indifferent to that suffering makes the human being inhuman. Indifference is more dangerous than anger and hatred. Anger can be creative. One writes a great poem, a great symphony, one does something special for the sake of humanity because one is angry at the injustice that one sees.
But indifference is never creative. Even hatred at times may elicit a response. You fight it. You denounce it. You disarm it. Indifference elicits no response. Indifference is not a response.
Indifference is not a beginning; it is an end. And indifference is always the friend of the enemy. It benefits the aggressor — never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he feels forgotten.
The political prisoner, 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 is not only a sin, it is a punishment.
During the darkest times, inside the ghettos and death camps, we felt abandoned. Our only miserable consolation was that we believed Auschwitz and Treblinka were closely guarded secrets. If they knew, we thought, those leaders would have moved heaven and earth to intervene.
Now we know the Pentagon knew, the State Department knew, and the illustrious occupant of the White House. Sixty years ago, the St Louis’s human cargo — maybe 1,000 Jews — was turned back to Nazi Germany. That happened after Kristallnacht. That ship, which was already on the shores of the USA, was sent back.
President Roosevelt was a good man, with a heart. Why did he not allow these refugees to disembark? Why the indifference, on the highest level? There were human beings who were sensitive to our tragedy. Buy why so few?
The young Jewish boy from the Carpathian Mountains 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.
This is an extract from a speech delivered by the author at the White House in 1999. Elie Wiesel died on July 2nd 2016. Follow the links under Become An Expert to read, listen to or watch the full speech.
- Is indifference more dangerous than anger or hatred?
- Write a list of five questions you would like to ask a Holocaust survivor. Then discuss your choices, and the reasons for them, as a class.
- A range which runs through central and eastern Europe. The author was born there in 1928.
- One of Nazi Germany’s largest concentration camps. A total of 238,980 prisoners from 30 countries passed through it and its satellite camps between 1937 and 1945; 43,045 died there.
- A network of concentration and death camps in Nazi-occupied Poland, where approximately 1.1 million people died.
- A slang term used in concentration camps to refer to those in the final stages of hunger or exhaustion.
- St Louis
- An ocean liner which took Jewish refugees from Hamburg to Cuba and the USA in May 1939. Of its 937 passengers, 620 passengers were sent back to Europe, 254 of whom died in the Holocaust.
- On the night of November 9th 1938, the Nazis launched a pogrom — an organised massacre of members of an ethnic group — against Jews in Germany. Hundreds of Jewish shops were destroyed; synagogues were burned; 30,000 people were sent to concentration camps; and 91 people were killed.
- Franklin D. Roosevelt was US president from 1933 to 1945.