Thursday, January 26, 2012

Please Read This Post--One Book Thursday

My daughter, Grace

This is not a post I wanted to write.  I like things that are bright, and shiny, and beautiful.  I like uplifting, encouraging posts. 

This is not one of those.   

A few days ago, I finished reading The Book Thief.  I know, I know, I'm waaaay behind the times.  The book was published several years ago.  That's what having four kids does to you. 

If you don't know, The Book Thief  is about a young girl living in Nazi Germany.  Appropriately enough, the book is narrated by Death.  The Book Thief is full of tender, beautiful moments juxtaposed against the horrifying backdrop of Germany during WWII. 

I could not read this book in one sitting.  I would read a little and have to walk away.  But just as much as I had to walk away, I had to come back. 

Let me tell you why. 

A few years ago, I spent two weeks in London.  I toured fascinating places like the British Museum, Westminster Abbey, Harrods Department Store (hey, I like to shop!)...and The Imperial War Museum (IWM). 

Touring the IWM is difficult.  The exhibit showing how children were evacuated from London during the Blitz made my throat swell shut.  What if that had been me and I had to send my children away to keep them safe.  Could I do it? 

Honestly, I don't know.

Then came the Holocaust Exhibit.  I knew it wouldn't be easy.  My mother taught history.  I grew up in a house where we talked about the past as a way to prevent such horrifying things from happening again.  Dear Reader, I thought I could handle it. 

I was wrong.

The lights were dim as we entered the exhibit.  No one spoke.  I wound past a pile of black discarded shoes.  Survivor's stories.  Newspaper clippings.  A wooden funeral cart with use-worn handles. 

Across from the funeral cart was an impossibly white, child sized dissection table.  Above the table was a picture of a naked boy.  His body curved like a question mark.  His eyes were spaces a bit too far apart.  His tongue lolled from his mouth.  His stomach had caved in on itself. 

He was five. 

A plaque next to the picture explained that he was taken from his mother and sent to an institution.  Later, his mother received a letter saying he had died of a "respiratory illness".  The dissection table with the drain in the middle said a respiratory illness did not cause his death. 

He looked like my daughter, Grace. 

I looked from the table to the picture of this boy, so like my daughter, and I cried.  In the middle of the room, I sobbed for this boy someone labeled broken, worthless.  I cried for his mother who never got to hold her child again.  He wasn't worthless to her. 

This child was one only boy among millions killed because someone decided they were "wrong".  Jews.  Homosexuals.  Romas (Gypsies).  Slavs.  Dissenting Clergy.  Jehovah's Witnesses.  Anyone deemed "undesirable". 

People with physical and/or mental disabilities.  Like my daughter.

250,000 mentally and/or physically disabled people were murdered during the Holocaust.  People like Grace. 

So why am I telling you this?  Because I'm concerned, Dear Reader.  I'm concerned about the way we talk to each other in this country.  One both sides of the political aisle we are labeling each other.  Look at the list of people above who were rounded up and killed during the Holocaust.  It contains people vilified by the American Left and people vilified by the American Right. 

Dear Reader, Nazi Germany started with words.  As Markus Zusak writes in The Book Thief: "The words.  Why did they have to exist?  Without them, there wouldn't be any of this.  Without words, the Fuhrer was nothing."

Words have power.  The power to build up and the power to tear down.  In our rush to win, to be right, we seem to have forgotten this.  We choose the words that come out of our mouths, and too often we're choosing to wound instead of heal. 

It hurts my heart.  And it scares me.  The anger in this country--this country that was built on the freedom to be different, to disagree with each other--terrifies me.  It needs to stop.  Right now.  Not after the election.  Not tomorrow or the next day.  Right now. 

 We are not enemies.  We are brothers and sisters.  Mothers and fathers.  We are different, but different is a good thing.  Different makes us strong.  Different is why people from all over the world come here.  Because they believe in the dream of a place where all men are created equal.  All men.  Not all men who agree with you, or look the same as you, or speak the same language you do.  All.  Men. 

Dear Ones, we need to stop.  We must stop.  And it's so easy.  Really, it is.  I'm not asking you to change your opinions, or agree with someone you disagree with.  As I said above, our differences (including our differences of opinion) make us great. 

I am asking you to think about your words.  I'm asking you to choose words that heal.  Words that build up.  Words that create.  Leave behind words that destroy and tear apart.  If you agree with this post, please pass it along.

Remember the boy at the IPW.  He died because of someone's words.  Let's stop hurting each other.



  1. Beautifully written post. Was having similar thoughts as I listened to the most recent This American Life podcast. They talk about the financial crisis in Germany that led to Hitler eventually coming to power- and then launch into a discussion on the current crisis in Europe. When you think of the blame game and partisan politics of the current financial crisis in the U.S., one wonders if we in danger of folding back the pages of our own history book.

  2. @Michael, Thanks. I'm glad I found your blog today!

    @Lauren, Yes. The financial crisis factors into things also. It's so frustrating because things like this don't have to happen. If we would just treat each other with some basic kindness and respect it wouldn't be a problem.

  3. Powerful piece of writing! 'The Book Thief' touched me more than any book had in a long time. I couldn't put it down. And I also experienced a terrible but terribly needed time going through the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. Among so many disturbing displays was a room filled with the most beautiful black-and-white photos of weddings, festivals, families and family dinners, children on their birthdays--everything you'd expect to find in a Paradise. They were all taken by a single photographer in a single village, his Jewish village in the Ukraine. Placards in that museum room told how on a particular day the SS troops came and killed them all. Every man, woman, and child whose smiling faces I was looking at in those photos were slaughtered simply because of who they were. The reason the photos existed--the only record left of the life that had pulsed in that village--was that a relative of the photographer's from another village came afterward and found his copies among his household effects. You're right! It does need to end before it ever begins. And the beginning of that end lies with each of us.

  4. Wow, Doug. Sometimes our capacity to do evil astounds me. Fortunately, I believe we have the same capability to do good. The difficulty lies in choosing good when no one around us is.

    1. Yes, we do have that capacity for good. And I've been guilty of holding back at crucial times, waiting for someone else to go first in reacting to something that should never be tolerated. One good thing about getting a little older, though--I care less and less about what other people think of what I say or do. Quite liberating at those moments when I know I should act. More often than not now, I do. Probably just come across as an angry old man, but who cares...:)

  5. Doug, I've been thinking about your reply and I wonder if one reason why as Americans we haven't spoken up yet and demanded that this craziness stop. We're still such a young nation (every time I'm in China or Europe I'm reminded of this) that I wonder if we haven't matured yet? Maybe we all need to grow up a little and become "angry old men"! I do think you're right though, as I've aged speaking out becomes easier and easier. Much like wearing black socks with sandals, which is next on my list.

  6. Stephanie, I have both chills and tears pricking my eyes. This is such a wonderfully written (and thought-provoking) piece. I think our country has been slowly inclining towards a living, breathing, dystopia and people are so consumed with fighting each other over differences of opinion, they aren't noticing. Thank you for putting into words (so eloquently) the things that should matter most.