NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, August 27th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: another in our occasional series—“Notable Speeches.”
Today, Elie Wiesel.
As a teenager in 1944, Wiesel and his Hungarian parents were deported by the Nazis to Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. Later, as the Russians drew near, the Nazis sent him by open train car to Buchenwald in Germany. While there, his father, mother, and younger sister all perished. American forces liberated Wiesel and the other remaining prisoners at Buchenwald in 1945.
EICHER: Wiesel eventually became a journalist. In 1960, he published an account of the Holocaust experience in the book titled: “Night.” He helped found the United States Holocaust Memorial and wrote dozens of other books.
Today we feature a portion of his speech: “The Perils of Indifference,” delivered on April 12th, 1999, at the White House. In this speech, he offers a warning about the lack of empathy and action on behalf of those who suffer.
ELIE WIESEL: Fifty-four years ago to the day, 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. 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.
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. 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 abstraction.
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. One does something special for the sake of humanity because one is angry at the injustice that one witnesses. But indifference is never creative.
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 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.
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?
What about the children? Oh, we see them on television, we read about them in the papers. Do we hear their pleas? Do we feel their pain, their agony? And so, once again, I think of the young Jewish boy from the Carpathian Mountains. He has accompanied the old man I have become. And together we walk towards the new millennium, carried by profound fear and extraordinary hope.