Thursday, April 07, 2011

Being Human Beings

This week I had the pleasure of enjoying my last spring break in Washington DC and Philadelphia visiting some college friends. Traveling always makes me think about being in Europe and it was fun to compare DC with a European city--centuries of history on the streets and in the buildings. Not only was I wearing my Czech Backpack and Czech Shoes, but I also had to find my Czech legs as we walked, and walked, and walked some more. I think I will need to practice more before heading to CZ this summer;) I'll write more about that as my July trip gets closer!!!!!

Besides connecting with old friends, eating lots of chocolate and making faces at a two year old, the highlight of my trip was visiting the Holocaust museum. I won't go through it all, because I feel like it would spoil the experience if you are expecting certain things. One experience that I felt compelled to write about, though, was a reflection on how we treat other humans. The Nazi's singled out the Arian race as particularly superior to all others and saw those "inferior races" as lesser humans and they treated them that way, in denying them rights, declaring them as deficient, treating them as slaves and then killing them in the most inhumane ways possible. The exhibit showed piles of left over shoes and hair as "witnesses" to how the Nazis took these and other things(including dignity) from those they forced into the "showers" which turned out to be gas chambers.

There was a walkway between buildings which revealed the names of communities where the entire presence of Jews was wiped out in the final movements of genocide. I was saddened to find the names of Czech towns I know very well: Svitavy, Litomyšl, and Polička. I sort of expected the names to be there, but I think that made it all the more heartbreaking. The displays also told how at one point in Warsaw there was one group of Jews who attempted to fight back. I was shocked to read that one of their slogans was "Let us fight and die like humans." They were speaking for men, women and children who were being boarded onto the trains heading for the "reform camps", where they would be treated and killed as anything but human. That's what got me to thinking about what it means to treat someone as a human, so much so that even in dying they feel like a human.

Towards the end, I saw a video of testimonies from the liberations of the concentration camps. In one of the stories, an American male soldier and a German Jewish woman from the camp were giving their experiences of their first meeting. The man was observing different people in the camp, watching some men drinking from a fountain, when he saw her leaning against a building. He asked if she spoke English or German, and she replied in German, "We're Jews, you know," as if making sure he knew he should know better than to help them. After a few seconds, he said, "Me too." She was shocked at this and yet he continued to say strange things, like "Where are all the other ladies?" She couldn't believe her ears since this was an address they had not received in quite some time. She replied that they were inside and when he asked her to join him, she didn't know what he meant. Then he opened the door and invited her to go first and she said, "It restored all sense of humanity and dignity in the world." I started to think about what it means to treat someone else as human in the sense that we are all in this together and made of the same stuff.

Could it possibly be this simple? Greeting one another with respect and inviting others to join us or go before us? It's something more than just saying, "Hello, howareya?", it's acknowledging the precious presence of the other person in the world, seeing someone as important and valued in life. It's been interesting for me, as I pass hundreds of people on the buses, trains and planes over the last several days, and reflected on what this looks like. I had no problem looking at little Luke as a gift of joy, but it was a little different with the security officers or busy businessmen and women speeding by. With a little kindness, I did get a few smiles and happy greetings. It was a fun little project. Try it yourself. I think it's different in different contexts, so it's kind of interesting to experiment and give thanks for the people we meet. Feel free to comment if you have a response or if you try it yourself. Let us know what happened to you:)