Intersections – A simple question
My daughter curled up in bed beside me to do her nightly reading. She’s in fifth grade. She’s the oldest. I try to enjoy these moments with her, because more experienced parents warn me that her sweetness won’t last. One day, she will be spoiled like a rotten piece of fruit. One day, she will despise me. One day, I will embarrass her. One day, she will change.
For now, she is the one most likely to comfort me with a hug. She has my awkwardness and optimism. To her the world is a good place. Her friends are all different, and she loves them. I don’t want her to change.
She’s been reading a book called “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.” It’s a book I don’t know. Her class is studying World War II and the Holocaust. The book I read at her age was “The Diary of Anne Frank.” The terribleness of the war was looming, but distant.
“During the Holocaust, what happened to the babies?” she asked.
She has reached a double digit age, and yet she is still my baby. I stopped typing and put an arm around her. I wanted to cement my presence next to her even though I know I can’t, I shouldn’t, keep her my baby forever.
I have seen her homework in recent weeks. They had to make propaganda posters for leaders on both sides of the war. She is supposed to learn what happened and how.
“Do you know what they did to the adults during the Holocaust?” I asked. “What happened to the other Jewish people?”
She knew a lot more than I’d like for her to know at this age.
“They did terrible things,” she said. She leaned against me as her mind pieced together starvation and the gas chamber. There were countless other atrocities.
“But what about the babies?” she whispered.
I didn’t respond. Most days I think I’m passable as a parent because I don’t need quiet, order, or control. I like to laugh. I try to be flexible. I yell to my son, “Go straight up to bed.” He responds, “Can I zig-zag?” And I laugh in return and say, “Yes.” When my kids are being unruly, I discipline them. Parenting should always be that simple.
She asked again about the babies. My optimism, my skin, my hope are stripped away from me.
“They killed the babies,” I said.
This was a terrible bedtime story for a fifth grader. We sat for a long time in uncomfortable silence. She hugged me as she thought about the babies who died. Maybe she was thinking about the mothers, too.
My daughter has seen me cry a lot this year. I have cried more this year than I have all my years combined. She knows it is a new part of who I am, but part of me despises the tears. I hate that I have to explain terrible things to her.
Would I have had to drink out of the colored water fountain? What happened to the babies during the Holocaust? Why did Papa die?
She has to learn eventually, but why now? Suddenly talking about puberty and sex seem so trivial.
Last year, I was chosen to participate in the Glass Leadership Institute, a program through the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). The primary mission of ADL is to stop the defamation of Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment for all.
In a world where labels matter, I do not belong with ADL. I’m not Jewish. I’m not an activist of any kind. When my daughter looked at me with tears in her eyes, I wished I was a better authority on the Holocaust and civil rights.
We live in a world where labels matter to some people. Then I remembered that labels do not matter in my house. Not with my kids. I remembered that being an authority involves a willingness to learn and a willingness to act.
I remember that when she sees me cry, she is reminded that it is okay if she does the same.
I say, “Whenever you learn about history. Whenever you watch the news today. Remember that there are countless people working to be kind, working to fight hate, working to help people.”
Combating hate, civil rights, and education are some of the pillars of ADL. I can easily rally behind anti-bully campaigns. I have young kids. I support the efforts to protect religious freedom for all people. Faith has been an important part of my life.
I spent a year learning about a variety of topics with the ADL. Some uncomfortable, some uplifting. I heard reminders that for every evil in the world, someone is working to do good.
I will not bring up the Holocaust with my daughter again unless she does. I know we are both changed a little because of her simple question.
I wish I could tell her thank you. Thank you for asking about the babies. Thank you for caring about the babies you will never know. Thank you thinking about the boys and the fathers and mothers and girls like you writing stories in an attic. Thank you for not putting labels on your friends. It does matter. That part of you never has to change.
If you know someone ages 25-45 who has leadership potential, initiative and is interested in the mission of the ADL to fight anti-Semitism and all forms of prejudice, hatred and bigotry please click below to nominate them online by May 8, 2015. http://atlanta.adl.org/glinomination/
Nicki Salcedo is a Decatur resident and Atlanta native. She is a novelist, blogger, and a working mom. Her column, Intersections, runs every Wednesday morning.