Killers, Victims and Bystanders By: Tessa Lundheim

In Elie Wiesel's speech Perils of Indifference — given at the White House in 1999 — he said, "In the place that I come from, society was composed of three simple catagories: the killers, the victims and the bystanders."

Killers, victims, bystanders. They are all words we've heard before. The question is: who fit into each category during Elie's experience in the Holocaust and what was each group's role during Elie's experience?

My PicCollage represents the three groups of people mentioned in Elie Wiesel’s quote. The killers were the ones to pull the Jews (the victims) down to their deaths. Sure, the killers (the Nazis) were the main reason for the victims suffering, but they didn’t do everything alone. The bystanders (the people who stood and watched the trains full of victims go by) lived their lives convincing themselves that nothing was wrong, when really, nothing was right. The bystanders may have not hurt the victims themselves, but their inaction made it easier for the Nazis to harm the Jews. The bystanders were right there with the killers, figuratively pushing the victims down.

The Killers

In the book, Night, Elie Wiesel had to live among killers every single day. Some of the killers from Elie’s experience include the Hungarian police, the German officers, the Kommandos, and even some of the doctors! It’s clear that the killers were responsible for the mass death of the Jews (and other victims). Without killers, the victims would not be killed and, therefore, would not be in much danger. It’s hard to believe that someone would be capable of torturing and killing living people in such horrendous ways. Some of the killers even seemed to enjoy killing people. After giving Elie 25 whip lashes, Idek told Elie, “‘So much for your curiosity. You shall receive five times more if you dare tell anyone what you saw! Understood?’” (58). This quote shows that Idek likes to cause other people pain because he has no reason to whip Elie and then yell at him. Idek was not only afraid Elie would tell on him, but also he liked the power he had to decide someone else’s fate. Of course not all the killers wanted to kill during World War II (WWII). There aren’t any examples of these people in Night because it’s hard to know what someone else thinks. I’m sure some Nazis were afraid they would be killed if they didn’t comply with their government. However, this does not change the fact that the unwilling killers still went against their morals and killed innocent people.

The Victims

Victims are the targets. In my opinion, the victims are never at fault for the harm that comes to them, but in some situations, they play a part in their journey to become a victim. For example, in a school setting, a victim could be bullied because they don’t try to stand up for themselves. However, Elie Wiesel and the millions of other victims of the Holocaust were not responsible for their treatment at all. Years of hate crimes directed at Jews, massive weapon force, and the government's strategies prevented the Jews from changing their fates. In Night, the victims even tried to prevent their future suffering. A man tried to start a revolt, but of course after a look around at all the guards and weapons, “The wind of revolt died down” (31). The victims of the Holocaust knew that a revolt wouldn’t be worth it. Everyone’s best chance of survival was to blend in and stay compliant because everyone would be slaughtered mercilessly if a fight did commence. In Night, victims were hung, shot, starved, burned alive, whipped, and mistreated in so many other ways. It’s remarkable that in such dark times, the victims were still strong enough and willing to survive.

The victims weren’t only Jews. There were also Jehovah’s witnesses, homosexuals, disabled people, and Roma (Gypsies) in the concentration camps. Eleven million people died in the Holocaust. Six million of these people were Jewish.

The Bystanders

The bystanders don’t stand out as much as the killers and the victims. This is because blending in is exactly what makes the bystanders bystanders. They are the ones who watch everything that is going wrong and do absolutely nothing. In Night, the bystanders were the citizens from each of the towns surrounding the concentration camps. These bystanders saw the trains of people go by and saw the weak people marching through the streets, but they didn’t do a thing about it. They began to accept the suffering that surrounded them, convincing themselves that everything was normal. For that reason, the prisoners of the concentration camps were alone. There was no one to stand up for them or protect them. That’s why, in my opinion, the bystanders play a large role in the suffering of the victims. The fact that they allowed their lives to go on as usual was a crime in itself. As the train Elie rode on drove past some Germans, “ … many Germans watched … showing no surprise” (46). This quote reveals that the Germans were used to trains full of Jews, so of course they shouldn’t have been surprised. Or should they have? Should they have at least felt disturbed? I’m sure the bystanders were afraid to meddle with the Nazis, but they still had a choice. The German girls, “… allowed themselves to be kissed and tickled, bursting with laughter” (46). Meanwhile, “The iron gate closed behind us” (46).

The bystanders even began to view the Jews as animals after ignoring the real problems for so long. A worker threw a loaf of bread into a train of starving victims and, “ … watched the spectacle with great interest” (100). This shows that for some, the Jews almost became entertainment. It’s one thing to quietly observe, but playing along with the killers is nearly as bad as being a killer yourself.

It’s interesting. The victims started out as bystanders. They watched their fellow citizens leave their homes and then, “Little by little life returned to ‘normal’” (11).

There are countless situations in our lives where people can be divided into groups that resemble the killers, the victims, and the bystanders. I’m sure everyone in the world has been in all three of the categories (killers meaning bullies) at some point in their lives, but there is no way to change the past. That’s why it’s so important to remember it. The past may be painful to think about, like in the case of the Holocaust. However, there’s no way to heal and improve without pain. By remembering past mistakes, everyone can learn from them and aim to be their best selves. There will always be killers, victims and bystanders, so why not make a change? Why not choose to be a hero?

Created By
Tessa Lundheim
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Created with images by esiul - "plant nature live"

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