The recent Holocaust Museum shooting and the focus on White Supremacist James W. von Brunn has brought up a lot of memories for me. Being Jewish, I’ve dealt with bigotry a few times in my life. The first time I encountered it was sitting in the hall in school with a friend of mine. He introduced me to another friend of his. This guy, knowing that I was Jewish, starting spouting off some very anti-semetic things such as "Hitler should have finished the job" and such. Now, I’m not usually a violent person, but my friend had to restrain me from decking this guy right in his hate-filled mouth. My friend apologized and tried to claim that the guy was a nice guy despite his views. I didn’t care. I didn’t want to be associated with anyone like that.
My next experiece dealing with hate came from within. I was sitting in my high school Biology class talking with some classmates. We were joking around and I make a joke regarding Jehova’s Witnesses. Someone else in my class turned to me and said "I’m a Jehova’s Witness." Now, I don’t know if he was serious or what, but his words hit home. I suddenly realized that I wouldn’t like it if people were making bad jokes as the expense of Jews. So why was it alright for me to make bad jokes at the expense of someone else’s religion? (Of course, the answer is that it wasn’t.)
This led me to "discover" that my father was quite bigoted. I don’t think I quite noticed it before, but he was. He’d make comments about "modern" (for the time) music being "whites listening to black music when it should be the other way around." He’d see a black man walking in our general neighborhood and wonder "what’s he doing here?" That sort of stuff. He didn’t hate other groups per se. He just thought less of them because they weren’t like him. Growing up with that kind of attitude is infectious. It takes a conscious effort to break the cycle, but after that Biology class remark, I made that effort. I won’t say that I’m 100% free of my father’s prejudices, but I recognize them whenever they try to bubble up (a rare event nowadays) and actively push them from my mind.
My third experience came during college. A friend of mine, who worked for the school paper, leaned over to me during class and told me not to get upset. Apparently, the paper was approached to run an add and they accepted it. The ad, actually a 27 page insert called "The Revisionist", was from a man named Bradley R. Smith and detailed how the Holocaust never happened. He seriously claimed that not a single Jew was gassed to death by the Nazis, but instead Jews made up the Holocaust to gain sympathy. Needless to say, I was enraged.
The paper’s editors tried to justify the printing of the 27 page "ad" by saying that he has a right to free speech and that they were simply presenting both sides of the argument. My response was that, while he had a right to free speech, they had no responsibility to promote his speech. Their decision to do so was their own, not born of any Constitutional necessity. In addition, there are no "two sides" and there is no argument. The Holocaust happened, the evidence for it is clear and its historical authenticity was proven long ago. Would the paper, I asked, run an ad claiming that slavery never happened and blacks were always treated nice by every white guy they encountered because it "would be presenting both sides" and it would be giving the ad’s authors "their right to free speech"?
My college’s Hillel chapter ran a counter-campaign and I, and others, wrote letters to the school newspaper lambasting them for giving a voice to this Holocaust Denier. Some others also wrote letters. One, outragously, claimed that those who died during the Holocaust would be happy to see that we are arguing over whether it actually happened.
During my college years, I also had the opportunity to visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. It had many powerful exhibits like having to walk under the "Work Makes One Free" sign that once marked the enterence to a concentration camp or the room filled with shoes. When I entered one of the cattle cars used to transport Jews to the camps, my mind tried to picture fitting as many people inside of it as the sign indicated the Nazis stuffed in there. It just couldn’t grasp how they all fit in. Of course, I realized, that was because I was thinking of fitting *people* inside. To the Nazis, they were stuffing in beings that were worse than animals so they didn’t care how atrocious conditions were in the car. My mind was being limited by my own humanity. (Thank goodness!)
The most powerful exhibit, however, was surprisingly one meant for children. It was called Daniel’s Story. In it, you walk into the life of a little Jewish boy named Daniel just as the Nazis came to power. His life seems pretty normal as first, but as you progress through his life (by moving from room to room), Nazis intrude into his life. At first, it is just small things like having to wear a yellow star, but you end up staring at the entrance to a concentration camp. The exhibit masterfully connected you emotionally to Daniel, so when the tragic ending occurred, it hit me hard. I’m not one to cry in public, but I was extremely near tears. Only a odd fluke that I found mildly humorous (a letter by a child hanging on the wall who the same name as me) kept me from breaking down completely.
In addition, I found a renewed reason not to hate others different from myself while in the Holocaust Museum. One section described how Hitler approached a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses. To simplify matters, he basically told them to keep out of his way while he killed the Jews and they would be left alone. They, however, didn’t think it was right and opposed him. For their opposition, they were put in concentration camps and killed. From this I learned that, despite your differences with someone, you should always try to find the good in them.
Unfortunately, I just can’t find any good in James von Brunn or in people like him who turn their hate-filled views into violence. I hope he survives his injuries only because he deserves to be tried and convicted of murder and locked away for the rest of his life. My condolences go out to the family of the slain guard and my thanks to out to him and the other guards who kept this tragedy limited to only one life lost. Had they not reacted as quickly as they did, more innocent lives could have been lost to this madman. I think an appropriate response to James von Brunn’s hate is information. Where there is ignorance, hatred thrives. We should all strive to learn more, whether it be about a group of people who are different than us or about an event in history that we don’t know all the details about. The more we learn, the more the light of knowledge shines, driving hatred into the ever decreasing shadows.