Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Power of “Why?”

There’s nothing like an inquisitive nine-year-old to make you clarify your beliefs. And to make you humble to realize that you’re not a history scholar or a studied theologian, that you know only what you’ve heard or read about, and that there are some things in the world that just honestly make you doubt the ability of the human race to understand real love.

Somewhere, Eiledon heard about the book (now a movie) The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. She asked if I’d heard of it and I said I had.

“What’s it about?”
I attempt to explain, at a bare minimum and in as non-upsetting a fashion as possible, the basics of the Holocaust. Eiledon is, understandably, a little upset.

“Why did they do that?”
I briefly touch on the end of World War I, the demoralization of the German people, the human instinct for dumping downward and the dangers of national pride.

“But, why?”
I talk a little about World War II, Hitler and the Nazi party, the dangers of NOT having separation of church and state. Eiledon is surprised to find out that the Lutheran Church (in which she is being raised) had a key role in the victimization of Jews, Catholics, homosexuals and other groups. I reassure her that there were people, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for example, who challenged what the Nazis were doing ostensibly in the name of religion. I tell her that even though we are Lutheran Christians who believe in the authority (though not the inerrancy) of the Bible NO ONE can limit God. No one can say they know what God is or how God thinks or what God’s will is for others.

“Then why did they kill all those people?”
I try to make sense of what happened. I talk about racism, mob mentality, looking the other way, denial. I finally come around to fear. I explain, in as simple terms as possible, what I have learned in my 12-step program: that all defects of human character originate with one of two fears: the fear of not having enough or the fear of not being enough. The situation surrounding the holocaust was rife with both.

“So basically, fear leads to hate.”
Yoda would be so proud of my little padawan!  I encourage my daughter to be unafraid of people, to try to see things from other perspectives. To accept and embrace those who are different, to learn from them and to love without fear. I tell her that even though there are some people who want to pretend the Holocaust never happened, we can never ever forget that IT DID HAPPEN. Not because we should dwell on the past, but because if we don’t learn from the past, history will repeat itself in the future.

When all was said and done, I think Eiledon “got it” as well as she could. A few thoughtful moments after our conversation she said, “Can I sleep with you? I’m really kind of freaked.”

“About the Holocaust?”

“About all the people they killed.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I can understand that.” I hugged her and handed her a pillow.

I have had the privilege of hearing two holocaust survivors speak. The first, Michael Guonari, when I was in high school, and the second, Elie Wiesel, who gave the commencement address at my sister’s college graduation (a college, I might add, of the Lutheran Church.) But it won’t be long before we have no direct contact with anyone who lived through the horrors of this genocide. And it is up to us to make sure our children can accept the potential for unbelievable evil in humankind without being paralyzed by the facts to the point where denial just seems easier. I certainly hope I did an adequate job of covering the topic at a 9-year-old level, unafraid of the truth of the past but with hope for a different future.  

May we never forget that we need to keep asking "Why?"