Lessons From My Father: Lesson #1

Last week I spoke to a group of mostly seniors, residents of Finlandia Village, for Reading Town. Coincidentally, it was the day after International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and only a few days after the seventy-first anniversary of my father’s liberation from Stutthof Concentration Camp.

In the days before the talk, I thought about what I would focus on. Sometimes at these events I discuss the method of interviewing my father, the process of writing and rewriting, the stumbling blocks and challenges we faced along the way, or the stories surrounding the stories.

This time, my mind circled back to the lessons I’d learned while working with my father, so I started making a list. The list grew and grew until I was overwhelmed with choices. Because my list is so lengthy, I’ll share one of the most important lessons with you here.

Be kind. It sounds so simplistic, doesn’t it? And isn’t it one of our earliest lessons? Didn’t our parents and teachers tell us to share our things and be nice to others?

It seems to me that most of us value kindness, but it’s sometimes a rarity in our everyday lives. Perhaps our daily lives have become so busy that we don’t take the time to help someone else or we just don’t realize how much impact our words and actions have on the people around us. It’s not that we don’t recognize it in others or crave it for ourselves. Perhaps it’s the reason  we hunger to view and share clips of people doing nice deeds on social media. Do we need to remind ourselves that compassion exists? Do we need to witness simple acts of benevolence to remind us of our shared humanity?

When my father was imprisoned in Stutthof Concentration Camp as a young man, he was faced with the cruelest and most abusive aspects humankind. He suffered both physically and emotionally as a result of his treatment, and continues to suffer the repercussions today.

While he shared his darkest moments during our interviews, I was struck by the number of times he shone light on those precious moments when he encountered kindness. Gifts of food from a Red Cross package, a stolen pair of jackboots, salve for a burn wound, and other simple things, became as significant in his memory as the abuses he withstood. In a place where cruelty is the norm, and thoughtfulness a rarity, those simple acts endured in his memory for more than seventy years.

Perhaps my father’s generous spirit and willingness to help others over the years is a result of seeing the worst in people and being determined to give his best. Time and again I’ve witnessed him drop everything to help someone in need, respond to a friend’s call, help a stranger. With every act of kindness, a huge smile brightens his face. Simon Wisenthal said, “For evil to flourish, it only requires good men to do nothing.” Perhaps the opposite is true. For goodness to flourish, we need to do something. Maybe we should start with kindness.

It sounds so simple. But there is one caveat: kindness requires us to act. For my part, I’m determined to live by my father’s example. No one deserves less.

 


 

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