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 American people.
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
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
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
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, 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.
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, just once.
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 flawed.
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
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,
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
Elie Wiesel - April 12, 1999