I feel rather certain that if my grandmother and grandfather had stayed in Slovakia rather than coming to the United States, their lives would have been disastrous compared to the freedoms they enjoyed here. My grandmother had a bout with mental illness when she was in her early forties which would not have served her well once Germany invaded Czechoslovakia. The Nazis were prone to eliminating the mentally ill from the ranks of society, so my beloved grandmother may well have ended up in a concentration camp only to be exterminated. Additionally, my DNA profile on ancestry.com indicates that I have a somewhat large percentage of characteristics that indicate that I am a descendant of Eastern European Jews. That alone might have sent my mother and all of her siblings to a camp as well. I’m thankful that my grandmother and grandfather had the foresight to leave their homeland when they did.
I think of these kinds of things because I have always wondered when I should speak out against prejudice, injustice and other societal wrongs. I’d like to think that I am courageous enough to stand up and make my beliefs known when there are explicit and implicit evil practices being exhibited. Sadly, like so many, I prefer living quietly and peacefully rather than stirring up trouble. History, however, tells me that simply looking the other way can lead to horrendous acts that might have been prevented if enough people had spoken out against them. The consequences of failing to act have so often been dire.
Today there is a misconceived notion that every single aspect of history must be given an equal hearing. While this is usually a fair way of including our collective voices, there are some ways of thinking and doing things that can only be thought of as evil. For example, there really is no argument that is capable of finding any form of good in the conception of concentration camps and murder of individuals for no other reason than the color of their skin or on the basis of their religion. Yet today we have people arguing that teachers must be willing to provide the alternative viewpoints of slaveholders and Nazis and members of the Ku Klux Klan.
Somehow I can’t find any kind of reasonable way to justify hanging a man from a tree only because he was black or gassing a woman because she was a Jew. What differing points of view might I possibly use to make my discussions of the Jim Crow era or Nazi concentrations camps fair to all parties? Doing such a thing not only seems absurd, but also terribly wrong. Why would we want our children to think that there is anything worthy of even the smallest excuse for such violent and despicable acts? Somehow such a method of presenting the most horrendous episodes of history feels cringe worthy.
So how do we know when it might be okay to talk about differing sides of a disagreement? Surely there may be some merit in noting that most of the British soldiers who fought the patriots in the American Revolution were simply doing their jobs. Many colonists tread a thin line in remaining loyal to the crown of England while their neighbors fought for freedom. That might indeed be an interesting and enlightening truth for young people to learn, but somehow gassing people to death is not in the same category. To move beyond the despicable nature of some historical events is to give young people the idea that there is nothing that is all bad.
Knowing what happened in the Holocaust and realizing that it might well have affected members of my family has made me an advocate for justice. It did not make me feel hatred for the German people in general, but rather disgust for those who committed the acts and for those who knowingly looked the other way. It made me aware of the importance of understanding when to protest. It helped me realize how silence can be as evil as murderous actions. Fear should never be an excuse for allowing horrors to take place.
While my normal and preferred stance would be to quietly live unnoticed, I also believe that sometimes that is a selfish way to be. I had to speak up when our Black citizens were vying for their civil rights back when I was a high school and college student. I thought it to be morally wrong to be silent. Thus I have inserted myself into many controversial moments in the history of our nation during my lifetime. I feel a duty to support those who are being abused.I know that I would want good minded people to come to my aid if ever I were to become the victim of inequity or suppression. It is important that we teach our children the truth about horrendous events so that they will recognize despots when they misuse their power to hurt innocents. Each of us must know when to screw up our courage and do the right thing. That begins with learning some very difficult truths about those who have come before us. Such revelations are not harmful to our young, but they actually help them to become better thinkers and advocates for fair play.
While there is an appropriate time and place for revealing the harsh aspects of history to our children, we need not censor all mention of the most horrific truths. It does no good to hide and pretend that everything about our ancestors and our country has always been about apple pie and unicorns. Admitting our mistakes is the best way of assuring that we will not make them again. Awareness that human nature sometimes leads to dark places keeps us watchful for trends that might result in suffering for ourselves or the people around us. It’s important that we slowly teach our children about such things as well as how they might prevent them from happening again. Suggesting that we have to also give excuses for evil acts is absurd.
I am an advocate for children, teachers, the underserved, those who are shunned because of race, religion, sexual preference. I fight for my democracy and for equal justice for all. I will not be silent about the health and well being of my fellow humans. I want to be able to say that I will always do my best to face down the devils who would harm the people and the government of my beloved country or nations across the world. Admittedly there is still so much work to do. I will look up. I will see.