TEN YEARS AFTER HIS SPEECH: ELIE
WIESEL VISITS HIS FATHER'S GRAVE
Perils of Indifference
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Wiesel's Perils of Indifference speech.
Left to right: Elie Wiesel, German chancellor Angela Merkel,
Bertrand Herz (hidden) President Barack Obama, visit to
Buchenwald concentration camp, Germany on June 5, 2009.
It follows the full text transcript of
Elie Wiesel's Perils of Indifference speech, delivered at
the Seventh Millennium Evening at the White House,
Washington D.C. — April 12, 1999.
Mrs. Clinton, members of Congress,
Ambassador Holbrooke, Excellencies, friends:
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.
And now, I stand before you, Mr. President—
Commander-in-Chief of the army that freed me,
and tens of thousands of others—and I am filled
with a profound and abiding gratitude to the
Gratitude is a word that I cherish. Gratitude is
what defines the humanity of the human being.
And I am grateful to you, Hillary—or Mrs.
Clinton—for what you said, and for what you are
doing for children in the world, for the
homeless, for the victims of injustice, the
victims of destiny and society. And I thank all
of you for being here.
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. These failures have cast a
dark shadow over humanity: two World Wars,
countless civil wars, the senseless chain of
assassinations—Gandhi, the Kennedys, Martin
Luther King, Sadat, Rabin—bloodbaths in Cambodia
and Nigeria, India and Pakistan, Ireland and
Rwanda, Eritrea and Ethiopia, Sarajevo and
Kosovo; the inhumanity in the gulag and the
tragedy of Hiroshima. And, on a different level,
of course, Auschwitz and Treblinka.
So much violence, so much indifference.
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.
What are its courses and inescapable
consequences? Is it a philosophy? Is there a
philosophy of indifference conceivable? Can one
possibly view indifference as a virtue? Is it
necessary at times to practice it simply to keep
one's sanity, live normally, enjoy a fine meal
and a glass of wine, as the world around us
experiences harrowing upheavals?
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
Over there, behind the black gates of Auschwitz,
the most tragic of all prisoners were the "Muselmanner,"
as they were called. Wrapped in their torn
blankets, they would sit or lie on the ground,
staring vacantly into space, unaware of who or
where they were, strangers to their
surroundings. They no longer felt pain, hunger,
thirst. They feared nothing. They felt nothing.
They were dead and did not know it.
Rooted in our tradition, some of us felt that to
be abandoned by humanity then was not the
ultimate. We felt that to be abandoned by God
was worse than to be punished by Him. Better an
unjust God than an indifferent one. For us to be
ignored by God was a harsher punishment than to
be a victim of His anger. Man can live far from
God—not outside God. God is wherever we are.
Even in suffering? Even in suffering.
In a way, to be indifferent to that 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, a great
symphony, have done 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. You disarm 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—and I'm glad that Mrs. Clinton
mentioned that we are now commemorating that
event, that period, that we are now in the Days
of Remembrance—but then, 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, we thought, surely those leaders
would have moved heaven and earth to intervene.
They would have spoken out with great outrage
and conviction. They would have bombed the
railways leading to Birkenau, just the railways,
And now we knew, we learned, we discovered that
the Pentagon knew, the State Department knew.
And the illustrious occupant of the White House
then, who was a great leader—and I say it with
some anguish and pain, because, today is exactly
54 years marking his death—Franklin Delano
Roosevelt died on April the 12th, 1945, so he is
very much present to me and to us.
No doubt, he was a great leader. He mobilized
the American people and the world, going into
battle, bringing hundreds and thousands of
valiant and brave soldiers in America to fight
fascism, to fight dictatorship, to fight Hitler.
And so many of the young people fell in battle.
And, nevertheless, his image in Jewish history—I
must say it—his image in Jewish history is
The depressing tale of the St. Louis is a case
in point. Sixty years ago, its human cargo—maybe
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 on the shores
of the United States, was sent back.
I don't understand. 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, a great
country, the greatest democracy, the most
generous of all new nations in modern history.
What happened? I don't understand. Why the
indifference, on the highest level, to the
suffering of the victims?
But then, there were human beings who were
sensitive to our tragedy. Those non-Jews, those
Christians, that we called 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? 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, my friends, 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, Israel's peace treaty with
Egypt, the peace accord in Ireland. And let us
remember the meeting, filled with drama and
emotion, between Rabin and Arafat that you, Mr.
President, convened in this very place. I was
here and I will never forget it.
And then, of course, the joint decision of the
United States and NATO to intervene in Kosovo
and save those victims, those refugees, 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.
This time, we intervene.
Does it 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?
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. We see their faces,
their eyes. Do we hear their pleas? Do we feel
their pain, their agony? Every minute one of
them dies of disease, violence, famine. 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.
I conclude on that.