Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Same Team: Breaking a Cycle of Hate

"Do you want to know what team I'm on?" he asks in between bites of chicken, eyes shining at me from across the table.

"Of course, buddy," I reply, not really knowing what he means. There is no preface to this question, though we'd been discussing his day at camp earlier. They had been learning about constellations. The instructor had the same favorite constellation that Max and I love, Orion's Belt. It was something we all had in common, him, and me, and the teacher I'll probably never meet.

"I'm team Germany," he tells me, "because my friend is from Germany."

"Oh, the World Cup," I say, and he nods. The conversation ends there, at least out loud. I don't know anything about the World Cup really, only what I've gleaned from reactions posted to my Twitter stream. I have nothing more to add on the sporting matter.

Germany, however, I could go on. And I almost do go on, instinctually ready with a quip or a put down. But I recognize the name of his friend, a lovely little girl that he met in kindergarten, and I stop myself. I make a conscious decision not to say something hateful, and with that choice, I feel the weight of previous generations on my shoulders.

My Grandpa Max, and my questioning son Max’s namesake, was a survivor of the Holocaust. My grandmother, who died before I was born, was a survivor too. That simple fact has threads that are so deeply woven into the path of my life that it’s hard to name a single major decision where its influence can’t be found. They aren’t threads, actually, more like tentacles with suction cups that grasp on so tightly it can make it hard to breathe sometimes. I do not take the freedoms I have today lightly. I know what my grandfather lost, what the grandmother I never got to know lost, and I very clearly feel the responsibility of honoring all of that as I raise my children, these fourth generation survivors of the Holocaust.

Part of that responsibility, which was deeply ingrained on this third generation survivor, was that Jewish people do not like Germany. We don’t buy German cars, don’t shop in German stores, don’t make German friends. We don’t trust Germany, and while I can’t be certain it was ever said outright to me, I internalized that I should hate Germany. The idea never sat that well with me though. I remember thinking as an older kid, after hearing these arguments, “but how can I hate what I’ve never seen?” Then I studied the Holocaust more, and while I never truly achieved a level of hate, I could at least empathize with the message. So when I heard that Germany was going to the World Cup finals, well, it was another reason for me to have less interest in watching.

My children go to public school here in Massachusetts, and the level of diversity in their classrooms is extremely high. Many kids grow up speaking another language at home, and their class lists read like a visiting delegation from the United Nations. Our state is at the forefront of embracing gay marriage, and I’ve taught my children that families can be formed in as many different combinations that can be created. We’ve discussed differences of religious opinion for years, frankly as soon as Santa Claus entered their consciousness. In every careful discussion, it’s been clear to my children that we are all human beings who deserve to be respected and cherished regardless of what we might look like, where we come from, or who we love. Knowing all that, how can I, now, say anything disparaging about Germany?

I can’t, and I don’t.

Children aren’t wired to see the world and its inhabitants in the context of their prior crimes. Without that knowledge, children don’t look for the things that divide us, they look for the things that unite us. They look for the favorite constellations. They look to the teacher who teaches a class of kindergartners, some just learning English, to sing along to the same song.

Tonight, the discussion ended quite simply. “I’m on the same team as my friend,” he said. As he should be.

1 comment:

  1. This was interesting on several levels. First, though it sounds kind of "obvious," I've never heard someone actually verbalize that there's a sort of expectation that Jewish people will hate Germany. It really is strange how we inherit those prejudices or inclinations... And it explains so many situations in the world where new problems arise out of old ones (if you look closely enough) because that same pain was never truly healed but survived long enough to morph into something else and find a new direction to send itself. It is nice to see you recognizing that cycle and putting a stop to it for your son.