Throughout my time in Springfield, I’ve written my children a letter every day that I’m away from home. It’s a little way to stay connected and remind them I’m thinking of them even when I’m somewhere else.
I spent all weekend trying to decide how on earth to talk to my children about the nightmare that unfolded in Charlottesville. So I wrote a letter, and I wanted to share it with you as well.
Dear Elliot and Theodore,
When I was about your age, I noticed that my grandmother had a blue number tattooed on her wrist. I asked her what it meant, and she told me that she would explain when I was older.
Many years later I learned about the rail car she and her siblings and parents were crammed into, in the spring of 1944. It took them from their town on the Hungarian-Romanian border to the concentration camp Auschwitz.
My grandmother was tattooed with a blue number and immediately put to work. My grandmother’s parents were sent directly to the gas chambers.
Thanks to incredible personal strength and a lot of luck, your great-grandmother survived and was eventually able to have a happy life and a healthy, loving family.
Because of this family history, a Nazi salute like the ones we’ve seen in images from Charlottesville doesn’t feel to me like a picture from the past. It makes my blood run cold, reminding me that only a stroke of luck enabled the two of you to be alive today.
Not everyone has this history, and so for some people the Nazi salute is just another historical picture. There are those who can look at that gesture and avoid the knowledge of personal, existential risk.
At the same time, you have extraordinary privilege that many of our fellow citizens lack. A picture of a mob of white supremacists marching with torches does not conjure up a memory of your ancestors bound in chains or hung from a tree, life and dignity wrested from their bodies — because your ancestors were not the victims of those mobs.
Even more importantly, in today’s society that is so blemished by social and economic racial inequalities, your skin color unfortunately confers you with privilege. You cannot stop this from being the case, but you can live up to the responsibility that comes with this privilege.
By the end of her days in this world, your great-grandmother talked enthusiastically about the good life she had had. And she taught me that human nature is a complicated tapestry made of many strands. It includes strands of love and openness and generosity — but also strands of division, hatred, and racism. And she understood instinctively that each of these strands exists in all of us.
This can be scary to contemplate but I hope it’s also inspiring. Inside of you lies the capacity for evil that defines history’s worst moments, but also inside of you lies the capacity to overcome evil with openness and love. And most importantly: inside of you lies the choice of which of these two qualities will define the life you lead.
I think about this choice every single day. Your mother and I are trying to teach you to do the same.
Neither of you ever saw your great-grandmother’s tattoo. Neither of you ever heard the urgency or intensity in her voice when she talked about the circumstances that put that ink in her arm.
That generational distance gives you a different relationship to the events of 1944 and 1945 than I will ever have, but it shouldn’t prevent you from learning the lessons of those terrible years. I hope you know that rather than wait for some external hero to repair our world, you can take a step toward that reparation, by calling hatred and bigotry what they are, by exhibiting zero tolerance for them regardless of how difficult or uncomfortable it might be.
The world is a beautiful and terrifying place. But as frightening as life may sometimes be, please never doubt that each one of us has the power, through our own actions, to build a better world.
It is my greatest joy to watch you do that every day. I love you.