I had been thinking about forgiveness, and gratitude, and certain aspects of my own personality that are maddeningly perverse, and how boring I’ve become, and how hard it is to install a new piece of software, and how much we miss the dogs, and novelistic structure, and how we need to fill the January getaway, and the books I’m reading which I have opinions about, and how we are going to enjoy Thanksgiving, and all kinds of things. And now, after writing this column, all that just seems kind of frivolous. For again, as has happened often in the 12 years of writing this column, a reader has proposed a vexing and painful moral problem and I have responded but do not feel at all equal to the task.
The only thing I believe with confidence is that children are born innocent of the crimes of their forbears. This I believe, though even this I cannot prove. Perhaps babies can be criminals. Perhaps I don’t understand evil. Perhaps children bear a historic burden to right the wrongs of their ancestors. Perhaps I don’t have a large enough consciousness to see that. But what I see is the innocence of the child. It seems to me that we must treat children as innocent of the crimes of their forbears.
You know how they say that “life can be stranger than fiction”? What I’m about to tell you is no joke, and it’s eating me up inside. About 12 years ago, I returned to college as an adult, and enrolled in a class whose subject matter covered World War II, and the Holocaust in particular. I came away from the class very disturbed.
I’m not sure what disturbed me more, the fact that the Holocaust happened, or seeing my younger classmates casually eating their lunches while we watched a devastating and graphic film that left me badly shaken. In fact, after the term ended, I became so severely depressed that I could barely get out of bed for months. I had many revelations when I was deeply depressed, and to this day, I’ve never quite seen people, or the world, in the same way.
Fast forward 12 years later, and my daughter has begun dating a boy around her age. I have recently found verifiable evidence that the boy’s German grandparents participated as Nazis during Hitler’s regime. In addition, the grandfather emigrated to the U.S. and was employed by a highly respected university after the war where he worked in research. All of his children also went to the best schools in the U.S. which makes me sick.
Cary, I’m not Jewish, but I have a strong emotional connection to the Jewish people, and to anyone who has ever suffered at the hands of another person. My daughter’s boyfriend is now applying to some of the best schools in the country, and I’m very angry that this family can enjoy their advantages like nothing ever happened. As unbelievable as this sounds, last week, the boy came over to spend some time with my daughter and handed me some baked goods from his parents. When I unwrapped it I found a piece of challah bread and a Bavarian pretzel.
I was so shaken when I saw it, that I almost vomited. (I can provide a picture to prove that this actually happened.) For some reason, God or the universe has dropped this into my lap and I don’t know how to deal with it. I want my daughter to be happy, but I feel myself slipping into another depression.
What should I do?
What you should do is meditate on the fact that we are born innocent. We are born innocent to parents not of our choosing. We are born innocent of the crimes of our parents and grandparents and of the state crimes in which they were implicated. A baby knows nothing of its parents’ crimes and later in life is powerless to undo those crimes, not only for the obvious reason that those crimes are now historic facts and cannot be undone but also because the filial bond is so strong that to oppose the parent or grandparent, to condemn them, to sever ties with them is so psychologically difficult that it is rarely attempted and even more rarely accomplished.
Consider your own birth. Consider how many ancestors you have, stretching back into human evolution. Consider the long string of successful births, matings and pregnancies, births, matings and pregnancies, births, matings and pregnancies … that eventually resulted in your own birth, your own mating and your own pregnancy and now the approaching adulthood of your own child, who now meets a child who also is the product of a different but also unfathomably deep chain of being.
Imagine what crimes and also what glorious victories lie in your unknowable lineage and also in his. Imagine all the descendants of all the bloody tyrants of all time. Imagine all the descendants of rapists and murderers and child molesters throughout our long evolution. Where are we to draw the line? Who among us can claim with certainty to have no criminals in his or her lineage? And what importance are we to assign to one’s lineage, anyway? At a certain point does it not sound like the very classifications by lineage that underlay the philosophy that resulted in the Holocaust?
You took to heart this film. It scarred you and awakened you. It was both a gift and a burden. You are now vexed by the horrors it bequeathed to you. But maybe there is some gift in this. What gift can you give the world as a result of taking all this to heart? Compassion and forgiveness are gifts. You can give the gift of compassion and forgiveness. For as long as we assign blame to innocent people based not on their behavior and their character but on the acts of their forebears, such social crimes as slavery and the Holocaust will happen again. Only when we greet each individual as an innocent child deserving of love will we eliminate crimes against humanity. Humanity means all humanity, not just those who can claim a lineage unblemished by crimes known at the time or discovered later. We extend our love to the descendants of Nazis and the descendants of slavers and the descendants of murderers and rapists and all whose acts we term foul and repugnant.
Otherwise, we will continue to persecute people for where they come from and who their daddy was and what their people did.
The dream of America is that we start out innocent. Children also start out innocent. This boy your daughter is dating is just as innocent as any child gassed in the Holocaust.
I don’t want to say anything trite. I don’t want to suggest that we all just forgive and forget.
But this child your daughter is dating brought you an innocent gift of bread. Perhaps it was a mistake on his part. But it sounds like an innocent mistake.