By Derek Penwell
Tiles made by children adorned the walls. Some of the tiles had religious symbols on them, some had stick figures with tears rolling down their cheeks, some had pictures of a sunrise. The two tiles that struck me, however, sat close to each other; they said: “Never forget!” and “I’m sorry!” The first was painted by a sixteen-year-old boy, and the second by an eight-year-old girl.
I visited the U.S. Holocaust Museum some years back. It's tough to get tickets. You have to call in advance, since the place is always packed. But I managed to secure some, and I went.
As I looked at the exhibits, I found myself overwhelmed by the amazing capacity of human beings have for inflicting cruelty—the beatings, the shootings, the intentional starvation, the gassings, etc. With tears that seemed incapable of truly expressing my profound sadness at the horror I beheld, I saw the pictures of human beings acting like monsters by treating other human beings like cattle. I found those images disgusting, appalling.
But what affected me even more than the horrifying violence of the Nazis (and the equally horrifying apathy of the rest of the world) was an eleven-year-old boy in a yarmulke standing next to me in front of the wall. He just stood there, silently overcome by his own tears.
It was the tiles that held us transfixed, the young boy and me.
Can you imagine? A sixteen-year-old boy, who probably had trouble remembering what he had for breakfast, made a solemn vow never to forget what happened over a half century before his birth.
Can you imagine? An eight-year-old girl apologizing for something that happened before her parents were born?
And me, a middle-aged man, standing next to an eleven-year-old boy in a skull cap—both of us in tears over something that happened years before either of us was born.
I couldn't stand there long. Indeed, it took more strength than I could muster to continue to stare at the innocence expressed by those tiles, surrounded as they were by unspeakable evil. That kind of hope in the midst of hopelessness is a beautiful and necessary thing. But it's also exhausting, like trying to hold a beach ball underwater—you can do it for a while, but then you tire. The inexorable forces that push against you always seem to win out in the end.
Finally, I shook my head and left. But the young boy continued to stand, fixed in place, a sentinel against the return of the night, tears streaming in silence.
I was struck by the fact afterward that these tile-makers were kids, that someone had taught them that life didn't begin when they were born, nor will it end when they die. Someone taught them that they bear a certain responsibility for remembering, for standing guard against the horrors that human beings can inflict on each other. Someone taught them that they are a part of a huge tapestry that spans human history—not just the tiny scrap of time they are there to see. Someone taught them to remember.
I say someone taught these children to remember because we have to be taught to accept our share of responsibility for things that happened before we were born (if only because the people who perpetrated these crimes were our fathers and mothers, our cousins and friends, and if we'd been there we might have been the ones closing the doors to the gas chambers); we have to be taught to weep because both the people who died and the people who killed are us; we have to be taught not to forget.
This remembering, this plea for forgiveness strikes me as especially important just now as I think about America's own special brand of violence, which it visits upon those forced to live on the periphery of what we've convinced ourselves is an otherwise polite society: the horrors of the three young Muslims murdered in Chapel Hill, Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohamad Abu-Salha, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, or the tragic deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice, or the suicide of Leelah Alcorn. We have our own victims to whom we need to pledge our memories, sins for which we must also ask forgiveness.
Are we teaching our children the role they must play in this drama? That's the real question.
Because if we're ever going to have any chance of bequeathing to future generations a less violent world, we have to take responsibility for being honest with our children about who we've been, and what we've done, and how we want them to be better than we've been.
The writer of Deuteronomy says it this way: "But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children’s children" (Deut. 4:9)
If you ever get to the Holocaust Museum, go to the tile wall and look for a little eleven-year-old boy in a skull cap, tears engraving timeless tracks in his cheeks. I’d be willing to bet he’s still there. Maybe he'll be the one who won't get tired of standing the presence of hope.
The world is counting on it.