Editor’s Page: Speak Up
Survivors share their stories.
PHOTO: ADAM JUNG
Don’t be a bystander. If you see injustice, speak up. It’s important.”
As we close 2016 and welcome 2017, those words continue to echo through my head. They come from Henry Greenbaum, a Holocaust survivor whom my youngest daughter and I had the honor of meeting in Washington, D.C. several weeks ago.
Greenbaum was answering a question from a teacher who asked what message he could carry back to his students when they discuss genocide as a history lesson. And Greenbaum spoke in the way a kind-hearted professor or uncle might warn you against drinking or smoking too much or neglecting your studies. Not in an ominous or scold-y way but quietly, as someone who’s been there, and hopes others can avoid the same mistakes he’s seen without having to experience the harsh reality he did.
Greenbaum was sitting in the cavernous hall of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum with Martin Weiss, another survivor, both museum volunteers. They spend hours of their days talking about how they—narrowly—escaped death, decades ago.
What’s that got to do with us here in Hawai‘i? Weiss told us and the other visitors who gathered around him that he had refused to talk about the painful and traumatic experience for 55 years. “I didn’t believe it could happen again,” he said with a shrug. Today, though: “It can happen again. I never believed it before, but now I do.”
Being saved from the horror of the mass death that surrounded them during the war left them both grateful, and thoughtful. But here’s what struck me: They are not angry or fearful or outwardly anxious. They are calm, dignified, warm and happy to take time to talk about what happened, what lessons they took from it and what they think about what’s going on in the world around them in years since. Perhaps they listen more closely. So they resist the impulse to dismiss harsh or angry words. “If someone says they have hate in their heart, believe them,” Weiss cautions.
My daughter and I appreciated the time they took to spend with us and the other visitors. And the impact of their words feels more powerful as we emerge from a brutally divisive and tumultuous political season.
PHOTO: ROBBIE DINGEMAN
They were not speaking carelessly, not doing what my dad’s generation used to refer to as “mouthing off.” They were careful and deliberate and kind. And my daughter and I were reminded of another monument and memorial much closer to home: Pearl Harbor. Over the past month, survivors gathered from across the globe to mark that day 75 years ago when Hawai‘i was bombed. We’ve been on school trips to talk with survivors there. And, of course, we’ve heard from family members and friends about their memories of that day. We feel fortunate to speak with survivors willing to share their time and memories so that others might see the events of history through a personal lens.
As we embark on a new year together, we benefit from the wisdom of those who’ve come before us. George Santayana famously said, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We gain so much by listening to one another, showing respect for differing viewpoints—not always agreeing—but coexisting, realizing that, in the end, most of us share the goals of a good life well-lived. And we are all in this together.
Here’s to a new year.
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