The Pittsburgh synagogue shooting took place hundreds of miles away in a community where I have no personal connections. Even so, like many Jews, I was shaken deeply. Let me explain why.

When I was a young girl, my mother sat at the end of my bed one night to tell me something important. The next day, we were going to see my Uncle Warren and Aunt Helen. Mom said something bad had happened to Aunt Helen years earlier, that it was somehow connected to numbers on her arm and that I should never ask her about it.

At the time I didn’t understand the significance of what my mother said, but by third grade, I did. My Sunday school teacher that year was the son of Holocaust survivors. He decided that it was his job to open our eyes to the horrors of what had happened to Jews in World War II.

At that time, the early 1960s, the Jewish community was still in the early stages of recovering from the Holocaust. Hardly anyone talked about it, which made it all the more terrifying to a child. The message I got was: This is so terrible that you can’t even put it into words.

Night after night, I had the same nightmare: The Nazis invaded the playground of my elementary school, and I had to find a way to survive.

By sixth grade, I was reading everything I could find about the Holocaust, from Anne Frank’s diary to “While Six Million Died,” a groundbreaking exposé about how our country turned away Jewish refugees escaping the Nazis. The truth of what had happened became embedded in me, as it did in so many American Jews.

One question haunted me: If I lived during the Nazi era, what would I have done? Would I have had the courage to resist?

Decades passed. I grew up, married, became a mother. In 1996, my extended family gathered for our first-ever reunion.

At the opening reception, Aunt Helen gathered my cousins and me, many of us young parents. She handed us three typed sheets that told the story of what the Nazis had done to her and her family. That was the first time she had ever shared with us how she survived the concentration camps.

“Some people claim the Holocaust never happened,” Helen said. She gave us her story to prove otherwise and, if we chose, to share with our children someday.

The Holocaust is the backdrop and lens through which Jews view anti-Semitism. I have had only a handful of times in my life when I have confronted prejudice caused by my religion. But the rhetoric of the right today has made me fearful in a way that I have never felt before.

What does it mean to be courageous today in confronting hatred?

Some have focused on the efforts of those who try to disarm gunmen. But in my mind, bravery often involves a much quieter and more mundane act: speaking up when those around you disparage people because of their race, immigration status, religion.

A friend of mine does this on a daily basis, challenging co-workers at a local business for making nasty, stereotypical comments about immigrants. My friend has paid a price. The people who were once his buddies now razz him and make him feel like an outsider.

We need more people who show that kind of bravery. In the end, it will not be the words of politicians that turn the tide toward decency. Rather, it will be the acts of everyday, ordinary Americans.

May we all have the courage to be those people.

 


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