I couldn’t sit idly by anymore. For the past several years, the world has been on fire, sometimes literally, and I’ve talked to people close to me about what I’m seeing. Some agree and understand. Others have tried to tell me that they know more because they’d lived longer and had experienced more as a result. There are things I haven’t commented on, choosing to sit on the sidelines because I wasn’t sure I’d add value.
I can’t do that anymore. I’ve watched my country change too much (some might even say, ‘show its true colors’) over the past few years. The country I grew up in was for everyone. The country I grew up in put this on the Statue of Liberty:
"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
Growing up, I was the kid who heard what my history teachers said when they talked about America’s separation of church and state, and I was taught that in a Catholic school. I was told we were about freedom and justice for ALL. In a Catholic high school, we were encouraged to debate our opinions on things like a woman’s right to choose. I was told by a Catholic priest that it was important for me to be informed, to be able to stand my ground and form my own opinions. I still remember that all these years later.
You know what else I remember? Books. I remember all the books I was able to read as a kid in grade school because I was the kid who loved to read. I was in the fourth grade when I first read books about the Holocaust. Night and Number the Stars were my firsts. Friedrich came next, and yes, I was confused. I was shocked. I had no frame of reference for what I was reading. I was ten years old with a curious mind and a desire to learn. I went to my teachers. Those books were in my tiny, grade school library, and on a list of recommended reading. My teachers taught me about the Holocaust. One of them told me to read The Diary of Anne Frank, and that book changed my life. My teacher talked to me about it. I was in eighth grade and I’d continued to learn about and study the Holocaust, reading every book I could on the subject because I couldn’t understand how we could let this happen. Mrs. Schultz even loaned me another book by Miep Gies. I read it in 2 days and gave it back to her. She was surprised I’d finished it so soon. She probably thought I hadn’t read it at all, but again, we talked about it. I doubt she even remembers this all these years later, but I do.
I read every kind of book I could get my hands on as a kid, and I was never told not to read one, even when it was above my age-level. I had parents and teachers who understood that I was capable of reading and asking questions when I had them. I had parents and teachers who supported me in learning about the world and its history, even though much of it is bad. I had a mother who in the late 80s and early 90s told me what being gay meant and that it was okay. We talked about slavery and wars in school. We debated historical events and had to provide fact-based research from credible and, often, academic or scientific sources. I grew up seeking to understand, to learn. I grew up making mistakes, saying and doing the wrong things, but trying not to repeat those mistakes and always trying to learn.
I know what happened during the Holocaust because of those books. I’ve continued studying it, the events leading up to it, and how we, as a world, reacted to and dealt with the aftermath of it. I have long believed that because of this, it is my duty to not only remember, but to share and teach. Humans have awful and selective memories. Our brains are often telling us to push out the uncomfortable, to forget the mistakes because they were wrong or embarrassing, to not hold others accountable because then, we’d have to address it and to push into our comfort zones – because we like it here. It’s easier here.
I didn’t read Maus until I was an adult. It was given to me as a gift by someone who knew I’d studied the Holocaust for years, and I wish I would’ve had this book as a ten-year-old in school. It uses imagery and conveys what happened in a way that a kid can understand and ask questions. Why would we shy away from letting children ask questions to learn about periods in our own histories? You might say that ten years old is too young. It wasn’t for me, but I’m also not saying every fourth grade classroom should show Schindler’s List.
Although, I did see that movie for the first time around that age, and the image of the girl in the red jacket is burned into my brain because of it. I mean that in a good way. The whole movie is in black and white with the exception of the girl in red who represents the innocence of the men, women, and children being slaughtered. I learned compassion and empathy because I read books about events like this. I learned that people are different from me, and that’s okay. I should try to learn from them whenever I can. I’ve carried that with me my entire life, and no, I am not perfect. I still make those mistakes, but I also still try to ask those questions.
This post isn’t designed to convince anyone to do anything nor am I attempting to stir anything up. I do think that instead of banning, we should look for opportunities. If we’re afraid our children shouldn’t see certain things at a given age, when can they see them? If we think it’s inappropriate, what age would it be appropriate? So, no, I’m not trying to convince someone who may disagree to agree with my stance. I just can’t keep sitting still while I watch us make the same mistakes that led to book burnings and genocide.
When I was in the Czech Republic a few years ago, I visited Theresienstadt, which was a concentration camp, and I had an American tour guide. In the museum there, you walk through a short display that shows the ways misinformation and propaganda was used, as well as the phases of it that led up to the Holocaust. She described what was happening today (a few years ago), and it was terrifying because we’re doing it all over again.
Why? What are we so afraid of? Why are we so intent on holding some people down while we raise ourselves up? Why do some seek power and control over compassion? Why do we shield our eyes to the things we should be remembering and teaching in order to prevent from happening again? When will we ever learn that this isn’t the way?