Indifference: Worse than Hatred
Elie Wiesel is a man who could have lived a life filled with anger and hatred because he was a victim of the worst kind of anger and hatred. Wiesel is probably the most famous of the Holocaust survivors. Wiesel was born in Romania in 1928. He was 15 years old when he and his father, mother, and three sisters were rounded up with his town’s other Jews and deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. Ninety percent of the people sent there were exterminated on arrival. Wiesel’s mother and younger sister were murdered immediately. Wiesel and his father were picked to perform manual labor as long as they could before they too would be killed. Months later they were transferred to the concentration camp at Buchenwald. In the book he later wrote, “Night”, Wiesel recalls seeing his father beaten and being unable to help him. One night he went to sleep on an upper bunk with his father sleeping below. When he awoke the next morning, there was another man in his father’s bunk. He never saw his father again.
Buchenwald was liberated by the US Army in April 1945. Wiesel survived, as did his two older sisters. He went on to be a journalist, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, a winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, founding Chair of the United States Holocaust Memorial, and a defender of human rights around the world. He wrote 57 books and delivered many speeches about his experience, trying to teach people to understand how and why the unthinkable was possible. As the 20th Century came to a close, Wiesel was invited to the White House by President Clinton in 1999 as part of the Millennium Lecture series to talk about the darkness of the past, and to illuminate our journey into the new century. Wiesel said it wasn’t so much anger and hatred that led to the monstrous crimes of the Holocaust. It was indifference.
He called it “The Perils of Indifference”.
“...indifference can be tempting-more than that, seductive. It is much easier to look away from victims. It is 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.”
Most of us can think of times in our lives, when we’ve been guilty of this feeling.
Wiesel addressed the issue of anger and hatred:
“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. 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.”
Wiesel told the story of the American indifference to the concentration camps. Wiesel said prisoners in the camps thought the outside world didn’t know about the mass murder taking place, or they surely would have come to the rescue, even bombed the railways that carried millions to their deaths. But, President Roosevelt, the State Department, and the Pentagon did know. Roosevelt felt he couldn’t spare the resources to go after the camps, as he tried to defeat the Germans. There were anti-Semites in the State department who didn’t care.
Wiesel also told the story of the St. Louis, a German ocean liner carrying over 900 Jews seeking asylum in 1939. The ship first tried to land in Cuba. The United States tried to get the Cubans to accept the refugees. Cuba refused. The captain then tried to dock in the US. Secretary of State Cordell Hull urged Roosevelt not to accept the Jews. Several European countries finally accepted the refugees. It was determined after the war that 254 of those passengers died in the Holocaust.
He died in 2016 at the age of 87. Elie Wiesel was one of the victims and observers of the worst in us. Toward the end of his speech he asks if we learned from the past. Did society change? Have we become less indifferent and more human? This is what we should be asking ourselves as a country and a society. What will we do when people are suffering? What will we do when the desperate come again seeking safe haven? We should remember Wiesel’s warning:
“...indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor-never his victims, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten...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.”