Elie Wiesel: the perils of indifference

By Chris McCarthy

For the person who is indifferent, his or her neighbours are of no consequences. Their lives are meaningless. Their anguish is of no interest. Indifference reduces the other to an abstraction.

Elie Wiesel, Washington D.C., 12 April 1999

For many who survived Hitler’s death camps the harrowing memories were unutterable. Some lacked the capacity to rationalise the organised cruelty inflicted by their fellow man. Others struggled to construct a description that adequately captured the unfathomable horror. For some they neither wanted to understand nor tried to describe their experience; every fresh retelling only brought recycled suffering.

For ten years Elie Wiesel didn’t write about his time in the Nazi concentration camps. Born in 1928 in Sighet, Transylvania [now part of Romania], Wiesel grew up in a Jewish community. In 1944 the Nazis arrived to ‘cleanse’ Sighet and Wiesel’s family were swept up and trucked west. At Auschwitz he was separated from his mother and youngest sister, never to see them again. At Buchenwald he watched his father succumb to malnutrition, dysentery and guard brutality.

In the mid-1950s, just before moving to New York City after a spell as a teacher in Paris, Wiesel wrote about his experience in the camps for the first time in the book Night. He subsequently wrote numerous plays, novels, essays, and short stories and his corpus of work now forms an important part of Holocaust literature. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 in recognition of his message to mankind of “peace, atonement and human dignity”.

In April 1999 Wiesel was invited to speak to President Clinton and assembled guests at the White House. Reflecting on the litany of failures of the “vanishing century” he gave a powerful, poetic and stirring oration about the dangers of indifference towards the suffering of others. Interspersed with his experiences during the Holocaust, the speech is invested with moral authority and emotional appeal.

He opened the address by recalling his state of mind the day after being liberated from Buchenwald, capturing beautifully his sense of numbness. It is told using a detached, third person perspective that gives it a story-like quality:

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 say. 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.

The bulk of his speech is given to exploring the state of indifference and its chilling consequences. It’s more thana tempting condition, Wiesel proposes, allowing us to live normally and enjoy a fine meal as the world around us experiences harrowing upheavals. It’s also a seductive proposition because it’s awkward to be involved in another person’s pain and despair. In a deeply personal reflection, Wiesel recalls how it felt to be the subject of that apathy, and why it was the indifference of God that was the most difficult to reconcile:

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.

At least anger, Wiesel said, can be a creative force or motivate people to fight injustice. Indifference elicits no response and therefore it is always the “friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor.” As Wiesel spoke, with memorable phrasing and eloquence, of the plight of the political prisoner in his cell and the hungry children, you are stirred by hiskinshipwith all oppressed and disadvantaged people:

Indifference reduces the other to an abstraction…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.

Wiesel was accustomed to speaking truth to power. In 1985 he publicly confronted Ronald Reagan at the White House over the President’s planned visit to a cemetery in West Germany where members of the SS were buried. In his 1999 speech he rebuked the late President Roosevelt for his decision to turn back a ship of 1,000 Jews to Nazi Germany after Krisatllnacht. It was a direct challenge to the American leadership present to uphold their responsibilities as the world’s sole superpower:

Roosevelt was a good man, with a heart. He understood those people 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. Why the indifference, on the highest level, to the suffering of victims?

And yet, Wiesel continued, good things had also happened in this traumatic century: the defeat of Nazism, the collapse of Communism, the demise of apartheid, the intervention in Kosovo, and peace in Ireland. In the scholarly manner he had developed over decades of teaching, he posed a list of rhetorical questions that sprung from the juxtaposition of the century’s horrors against its successes: “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 injustice in places near and far?”

He doesn’t answer his questions. Instead, and with touching imagery, he concludes by coming full circle and reminding us 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. 

A remarkable speech, uncomfortable in places, Wiesel uses the moral authority of his own experiences under the Nazis to challenge indifference towards genocide and global injustices. It is a testament to Wiesel’s humanism, his power of expression, and a damning indictment of an international community that said “never again” after the Holocaust.



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