Throughout my youth, my maternal grandfather bestowed his personal philosophies on me through tales of his experiences in Europe. A survivor of the Holocaust, he often recounted life as a Jewish partisan in Eastern Europe, and the kind gestures of gentile friends and strangers who saved his life by offering him food or shelter.
One of his stories in particular stands out in my memory, a story that began before the breakout of World War II when, as he would recall, God gave him the medicine he needed before he was sick.
As a young man in the Ukraine, my grandfather was the director of a petroleum wholesaler, rationing out gas and oil. Once, a woman came to him asking for more than her ration allowed. At first he turned her down, but then – not knowing why – he changed his mind and gave the woman a barrel of oil.
When war came, he was hidden in attics and basements and given food by former employees and friends, and he moved in and out of the ghetto, planning and hiding in the surrounding forests. One day with almost a year left before Soviet liberation, as he and another man moved from house to house looking for safe haven they arrived at a home with a familiar face: the gentile woman once in need of oil.
While she asked my grandfather’s companion to check on her cow in the barn, she quickly told my grandfather that she remembered him and his past generosity. She then hid him in her home among her two daughters and grandson for the remaining nine months of the war.
Of the few thousand Jews who lived in the area before the war, only a hundred or so survived. My grandfather attributed his survival to luck and the reciprocated kindness of friends and strangers.
After the war, he met and married my grandmother, who survived the Holocaust with her mother and sisters in Poland, and began a new family, immigrating to the United States in 1949.
Once their children and grandchildren were old enough to understand, my grandparents told us their personal stories of the Holocaust, hoping that we would understand the power of hate and kindness to do evil or good. My grandfather was not a religious man, and he had not been allowed to attend Hebrew School before the war in the Soviet Union, but he believed in a living God – one who gave him the sense to offer kindness that would save him in his eventual time of need.
The most American thing you can do is stand up for someone else. — Eboo Patel
Two decades after the surrender of Nazi Germany, Robert F. Kennedy gave a speech in South Africa at the University of Cape Town, warning the students in attendance against the “danger of futility: the belief there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills – against misery and ignorance, injustice and violence.
“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself,” Kennedy continued, “but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.”
He pointed out that thousands of unknown men and women in Europe resisted the occupation of the Nazis and many died, but all added to the ultimate strength and freedom of their countries.
“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice,” he said, “he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
Near the end of the first chapter of Sacred Ground, the 2016-17 UConn Reads selection, Eboo Patel recalls the actions of John Tateishi, the executive director of the Japanese American Citizens League, who worked to protect American Muslims following the attacks of 9/11 by recalling a sense of gratitude towards the people who had stood up for Japanese Americans during World War II.
“The most American thing you can do,” Patel concludes, “is stand up for someone else.”
The philosophy of kindness and courage exhibited by my grandfather and his protector, by Robert F. Kennedy, and by John Tateishi can be the legacy of America, a nation of immigrants, refugees, and the once- and now-marginalized peoples of the world, dedicated to improving the lives of others, resisting the waves of hate and ignorance and fear, and striving always for a more perfect union.
Brandon Murray is on the staff of the Provost’s Office and is a member of the UConn Reads Steering Committee.