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By my calculations, at the mid-point of the school year, many World History classes are studying World War II. Should these classes want to increase their use of an informational text in English or Social Studies curriculum, I suggest Elie Wiesel’s noteworthy speech The Perils of Indifference.
Wiesel delivered this speech to Congress on April 12, 1999. The speech is 1818 words long and connects Wiesel’s experience at the concentration camp at Aushwitcz with the genocides of the late 20th Century using a single powerful word: indifference.
In his speech, Weisel states clearly:
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.
Our English Department has used this speech in the past as a complement to Wiesel’s memoir Night which has been a used as a whole class read. This year, we are giving Night to the Social Studies classes. They will adopt this memoir in order to increase the assigned informational text reading in their discipline mandated by the Literacy Common Core State Standards in History and Social Studies (CCSS). The English Department will still offer supplemental texts that students can choose to read independently.
When he gave this speech, Wiesel had come before the US Congress to thank the American soldiers and the American people for liberating the camps at the end of World War II. Wiesel had spent nine months in the Buchewald/Aushwitcz complex. His mother and sisters had been separated from him when they first arrived: “Eight short, simple words… Men to the left, women to the right”; these family members were killed in the ovens. He and his father survived starvation, disease, and the deprivation of spirit. His father eventually succumbed, and Wiesel guiltily admits at the end of the memoir that at his father's death he felt relieved.
Eventually, Wiesel felt compelled to testify against the Nazi regime, and he wrote the memoir Night to bear witness against the genocide which killed his family and six million Jews. His speech was delivered 54 years after he was liberated by American forces.
His gratitude to these American forces is what opens the speech, but after the opening paragraph, Wiesel seriously admonishes America to do more to halt genocides all over the world. By not intervening on behalf of those victims of genocide, he states clearly, we are indifferent to their suffering:
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.
My students have always been struck by Wiesel’s juxtaposition of anger and creativity. More than one has agreed pointing to making a “good” creation: an amazing song about an ex-boyfriend or a painting slapped together with passion. They also do not want to be treated indifferently. Yet, Wiesel makes them think beyond themselves:
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.
I remember several years ago, one student in my English 10 class, Rick, was particularly bright, fun, and full of daring. He also had an exceptional understanding of math and statistics. That January, I introduced the memoir Night as I had in previous years by providing a little background information.
“Six million Jews were killed during the Holocaust,” I recited off from my list of facts.
“What?” a startled Rick looked up. “Six million?” He was aghast. “That can’t be right.” He looked around at his classmates. “Six million?” They looked at him blankly. “Come on,” he was looking for some support, “That can’t be right.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Do you know how many six million things are?” He was indignant.
“Six million people,” I responded.
“People, yes. People, six million is a lot of people….” Rick was clearly operating with a different level of understanding from his more placid classmates. He understood six million as quantity; he did understand what six million things would look like if stacked up. Other students stirred in their seats. “No way....six million,” he repeated growing more agitated. “How? How did anyone let this happen?” he asked; he was half-rising out of his seat. “Did we know?”
“Yes,” I remember saying. I do remember explaining that, yes, America did know that Hitler had concentration camps, and that more documentation collected after the war indicated that many of our military and political leaders knew about these camps. That is one of the points from Wiesel's speech.
I pointed out to the class that the Holocaust was only one example of genocide; that there were others. In fact, that there was recently a genocide in Darfur. Rick sat down; he was overwhelmed. He was capable of understanding numerically the devastation of the Holocaust, and he was clearly upset. “Why do we let this happen?” he asked. I remember his voice was so sad, so full of disbelief.
In The Perils of Indifference, Wiesel asks
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?
Wiesel’s rhetorical questions echo Rick’s “Did we know?” In trying to respond, Wiesel makes the reader uncomfortable the way Rick was uncomfortable. Creating this kind of emotional impact on a reader is the reason Wiesel's speech should be taught.
The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) demand that students read informational texts but does not require specific texts. Wiesel’s The Perils of Indifference contains the information and rhetorical devices that meet the text complexity criteria of the CCSS. More specifically, Wiesel’s message is necessary if we want our students to confront the conflicts in this new 21st Century. Our students must be prepared to question why “deportation, the terrorization of children and their parents be allowed anywhere in the world?“
Our humanity should demand nothing less.