“You’ve got to be taught to hate and and fear. You’ve got to be taught from year to year. It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear. You’ve got to be carefully taught.” (From the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “South Pacific”)
I recently had the experience of being invited to a meeting at Oakland Catholic High School. A group of girls attending a party had worn t-shirts displaying swastikas and shared photos of themselves on social media. Rabbi James Gibson of Temple Sinai who has been teaching Judaism at the school for the last eleven years asked me to meet with the girls involved and with faculty members.
The school was in an uproar because of this incident. The girls were suspended for three days. They explained that when they wore those shirts, they had been under the influence of alcohol. Each one of them wrote a statement expressing their remorse for such unthinking behavior. Rabbi Gibson asked me to share with the girls what it meant to me, as a Holocaust survivor, to see the swastika. I gave them a short and vivid review of my experience since I first encountered the swastika in my hometown at the age of twenty-one when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union. One of the first things they did was decree that Jews must wear the Star of David. We could not walk on the sidewalks. The local rabbi and some of his associates were made to drag a cart with flour from the local mill as if they were horses. On a rainy day the Germans ordered all of the men to assemble in the marketplace, sit on the ground, and pull weeds from between the cobblestones. All of these acts were intended to deprive us of our identity as a person and instill the idea that any resistance would be futile. Jews were forcefully isolated in a ghetto, and eventually the entire community was annihilated.
When the girls realized what the swastika really meant for someone who had experienced it, they expressed verbally how sorry they were. Each of them turned to me and apologized individually and personally for their behavior. My final words to them were “Now that you have learned this lesson, you have a mission. The mission is to share your experience with others.”
What is important about this is that the girls were probably pre-disposed to use this symbol. They didn’t just invent it, and the alcohol didn’t just bring it into their minds. It had to be there already as a powerful symbol that they had been taught.
Two years ago when I started this blog, I did not realize that eventually words would become bullets. Atrocities in San Bernardino, Charleston, and more recently the massacre in Orlando prove that I was not pessimistic enough. Messages of hate permeate our media. The internet has enabled instantaneous and world-wide delivery of the words that become bullets. Our young people are absorbing these messages, and some of them are moved to translate the words into violent acts.
The voices of hate amplified online and delivered directly to young people have the potential to override the messages and influences of parents and teachers. The teachers at Oakland Catholic are saying “This is the opposite of what we teach!” Yet these children, in an unguarded moment, exposed what had implanted itself in the deepest recesses of their souls.
I often go out speak with students and tell my story under less stressful circumstances. And these children and young adults respond by writing to me. Here are some of their letters. Reading them gives me hope that words can heal as well as kill.
“Your story inspired me to reflect upon my life and reconsider things I take for granted. Never in my life have I experienced anything emotionally traumatizing. I really respect and admire your courage to speak publicly about dark times. You have taught me valuable lessons and have given me a new perspective on the most despicable acts in modern human history. Thank you for sharing your time with us.” – J. W.
“Thank you for coming to speak for our high school. I really appreciate that you can speak about your experiences in such detail for us. I find it very admirable that you speak about it, even though you’ve been through such hard times. Your presentation has changed my outlook on the world. I will stop taking life for granted so much. Something like the Holocaust really opens your eyes and makes you appreciate life. Thank you once again.” – E. S.
“You taught me very good life choices toward living and what to do in life. I learned to treat life with care because you only get one. I think its amazing that we got to meet you and I think God blessed you so you could escape that hellish place. I am sorry to hear about your wife and your family. You are a teacher and your lesson is your life and I appreciate that. Thank you for teaching me.” – J. D.