Yesterday I had the opportunity to chaperone my son and his 3rd grade classmates as they visited the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center. It was made clear to parents long before field trip day that the children would not spend time at any of the exhibits that focused on the atrocities of the Holocaust, but, within the education center, would focus on the concept of bystanders and upstanders.
Our docent did an incredible job of explaining the act of “taking a stand” and becoming an upstander in the face of bullying, but also in larger social and political matters. She referenced “Mr. Hitler” and asked the kids what they knew about what happened in Europe during World War II. The kids had a general understanding.
The docent (Hi, Renee!) then encouraged some critical thinking skills when the kids offered that Hitler had dropped bombs, set up concentration camps, and used gas chambers to kill Jewish people. Through a back and forth, the kids were able to identify that “Mr. Hitler” did not act alone. Despots are not made in a day.
Initially, the kids identified that soldiers were the people who enabled Hitler to do those terrible things, but with more discussion and questioning, the docent was able to help the kids understand that citizens who looked the other way were also a necessary step in Hitler’s rise to power. By the time, she said, that Hitler’s intentions were clear, it was too late and he was too powerful to stop.
The moment felt profound to me, both as a mother and as an American who is struggling, mightily, with an administration that is increasingly favoring authoritarian regimes and bashing allies.
The kids took it all in stride, moving from activity to activity, absorbing and discussing what they were seeing and learning. I could not stop the obvious connections between what happened in Europe between the 1920s -1940s and what is happening in America today from popping up in my head.
At one point, the kids were brought to a different gallery that displayed an exhibit called, “Where the Children Sleep.” There is a long hallway with stunning, glossy photos of Syrian refugee children sleeping and resting in their beds, wherever those beds may be. The children are photographed alone. Some have stuffies or blankets to bring them comfort, others do not. Some have clean sheets and walls, others have uncovered mattresses lying on the ground in the streets or the middle of a forest.
I don’t know how any American could have walked through that gallery yesterday and not made the connections between those Syrian refugee children, with their big eyes, alone, many full of fear, and the new American policy to separate children from their parents on the southern border. One sizeable difference is that Syrian refugee children are allowed to remain with their parents and families. They were photographed alone, but somewhere close is a mom or a dad who cares for and comforts them. But not in America.
Today in America, it is policy under this administration to separate children and families for those crossing the border illegally into America. This is a policy crafted by President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. They blame the Democrats, they claim it is the law, they use the Bible to justify it. Those are all lies. And too many damn Americans are happy to go along with this policy, believe those lies, and cheer on this practice. Or, like many average citizens of 1930s Germany, ignore, turn their heads, not acknowledge the willful tragedy for what it is.
During the field trip, the docent asked the children what they do when confronted with wrongdoing — are they a bystander or an upstander? She asked the upstanders in the crowd to raise their hands. Joyfully, looking around to find me, my boy raised his hand.
Over the past two years I have done more, donated more, read more, and protested more than I ever have before. My sons see their mom and dad doing all of this. They have walked with me in marches and used markers at the kitchen table to make signs for science or against guns. We are a family of upstanders. I was proud in that moment. Proud of myself and proud of my son and proud of my family. I saw in his eyes the connection he made between why we march, why we read, why we discuss, why we speak up, and what can happen when you don’t.
Except later, I realized (after I was done patting myself on the back), I haven’t always been a great upstander under this Trump administration. I’ve practically stopped writing my blog because I find that the only thing I ever want to write about anymore are the horrors of this administration and how America is transforming, in real time, into a place I don’t recognize. I am angry a lot of the time. When I’m not angry I’m worried or fearful or trying to lose myself into whatever series will allow me to escape on Netflix or Amazon.
There are little things that come up with my boys and in my mothering that I think, “Huh, a year ago I would have written a blog post about this.” Not today. Increasingly, it feels indulgent and insignificant to write about the cute and sweet moments in my life while our country and our world are reckoning with a new world order that is frightening.
So, yeah. That’s where I’m at. That’s where I’ve been. Good times, folks.
Yesterday, chaperoning those children at the Illinois Holocaust Museum, was a moment for me. Being an upstander takes work. I need to get back to work. I need to speak up, again, and continue speaking up. I hope you join me.
Interested in visiting the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center? Here are details.