In 2001, when Mike and I lived in Germany, we had the privilege of attending a 25th wedding anniversary party for our landlords, Henry and Gisela. The party was held at a castle in Kamien Slaski, Poland, near where our landlords were originally from. This was in the region of Silesia, an unlucky area disputed by Germany, Austria and Poland for centuries. About a hundred guests traveled to the party, and many of these guests were of an age and from a place where World War II changed the course of their lives.
There was a woman who, at the time of the war, was a little girl who's father had been an economist-turned-soldier, who fought and died for his German homeland. After the war, this fatherless child grew up poverty-stricken in a war-destroyed country. There was a couple who now lived in Canada, both of whom had fled their native countries - Hungary and Czechoslovakia. One was orphaned during the war and moved from orphanage to orphanage seeking safety, one had fled from country to country seeking safety with his family. Both had ended up in Canada, where they met and married. There were so many other people there who had been displaced, people who had suffered, people whose lives were forever changed by the circumstances of the politics of the time. The many people we met and the stories they told were almost unbelievable, except that history books prove their truth. It was a formative and humbling experience to meet so many who had been through so much.
During this trip, Mike and I boarded a train and traveled from Wroclaw to Krakow, where we got on a bus and traveled through rolling, sparsely populated countryside to the sleepy town of Oswiecim, home to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Auschwitz was neither the first or the last concentration camp we visited during our years in Germany but it was, however, the most profoundly emotional and horrific place we ever visited.
The Russian forces that liberated Auschwitz recorded finding 350,000 men’s suits, 837,000 women’s garments, and 8.5 TONS (17,000 pounds) of human hair, shaved from the camp’s victims. The camp became a museum in 1947 (in the two post-war years, it fittingly served as a German POW camp), and in the 1950s, an exhibit opened displaying these remnants, stolen from the million+ people exterminated at this one camp. Enshrined in these buildings are rooms full of eyeglasses, mountains of shoes, entire rooms full of infant clothes, and so, so much hair.…all taken from human beings terminated in gas chambers, in ovens, against the brick walls that remain, still full of bullet holes. The horrors still haunt this hallowed ground, the silence deafening, as visitors mentally conjure images of the atrocities that happened here. One person in our group vomited into the dirt, so horrifying is this memorial.
Hitler’s reign resulted in the deaths of more than six million Jews, but “six million Jews” is too broad, too generic, too simplified. Those “six million Jews” consisted of mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, children, infants, brothers, sisters, grandmothers, and grandfathers. There were also non-Jews, the sick, the mentally ill, homosexuals, gypsies, and those in whatever group Hitler deemed unworthy and expendable. People from many nations, all classes. People who were loved by others. People who became victims as a twisted ideology took root and grew into something horrific that changed the entire world, while claiming tens of millions of lives in the process.
Our three years in Germany were a constant history lesson. It is with this personal experience that I look to what happened in Charlottesville earlier this week, and wonder where the disconnect is between the white nationalists of today and the truth of the reality of the past. The people who identify themselves as Neo-nazis, or white nationalists, or whatever terms they choose, are clearly incredibly limited in their grasp of history. They say they want to “take America back,” but America has never belonged to any one type of people. The original Americans — the Native Americans — would argue they are perhaps the ones America belongs to. But then came the first foreigners - white Europeans, who stole and enslaved other foreigners — the Africans, who helped build this country on the strength of their whipped backs. Then came generations of more foreigners, fleeing religious persecution, famine, poverty, tyranny. Each new group of immigrants was vilified and loathed by the people who were here before. Yet somehow, so many people have forgotten that every one of us who has white skin came from someone who was once a foreigner. Except for Native Americans, we are all immigrants, some of us more recent, some of us from generations ago.
While I hold this truth to be self evident, that we are all created equal (and not just Americans, I believe that ALL human beings born ANYwhere are created equal), we are not born into equal circumstance. Because of the color of our skin or our sex or our sexual orientation or the class of our parents or our religion, we will all have differing experiences that will shape our lives and chart our course. Racism exists. Sexism exists. Xenophobia is real. Poverty is its own self-fulfilling problem. I would never presume to assume someone else’s experiences are the same as my own, without having walked a mile in their shoes.
In short, the intention of this letter is fairly simple: Don’t judge. Love one another. Tell other people to do the same. Make the world more tolerant, a better place, by your words and actions. If someone is misinformed, try to help them see the light (this will NOT be easy but nothing worthwhile is). Know history. Travel if you have the ability to. Read. To borrow a quote from Ghandi, be the change you wish to see in the world.