Like many of you, I have been taken aback by the events in our country over the past few weeks. What happened in Charlottesville a few weeks ago and continued again in Berkley was a statement that hate and anger seem to be more prevalent than peace and understanding in more than just a few of our fellow citizen hearts. For me, it started at the gym while riding the recumbent bike on a Saturday morning as I pedaled up and down virtual hills. I found myself locked into 4 different news feeds (trying to keep my perspective objective) with my eyes scrolling across the monitor and my heart welling up with fear and sadness. I watched helplessly throughout the day, continuing in amazement at what I saw. Was this really the new America? Is our country so divided that extreme hate groups have now taken center stage as a viable vehicle for those who are disenchanted with their state in life? I thought to myself what could I do? What could mLevel do to help?
Was this really the new America?
To be honest I am not sure I have all the answers, but last night I may have found a clue through my wife who, luckily is very involved in the community and giving of her time. Because of that, she has made a great friend, Norbert Freedman. Norbert is a Holocaust survivor and was invited to participate in an event called Concert for America. Norbert is not a singer, but last night he did share a personal story that brought both tears and joy to my heart at the same time.
Norbert sat on stage at the age of 93 next to his son in his wheelchair and proceeded to tell us about a personal experience from a concentration camp over 70 years ago. I’ll spare you the details (listen for yourself here – (https://youtu.be/cl2Yk21za8Q) but the gist goes as follows: Norbert had just come to Myritz Concentration camp and was told that his father was with Commandant Herring and set to be executed. As Norbert describes it, he immediately made a beeline for the barracks where the Commandant resided, broke past the guard and slammed open the door only to find his father being beaten and tortured to near death by this unsavory individual. His instincts and love of his father must have taken over as Norbert rose up in defiance. The Commandant went to strike his father again but this time Norbert interrupted the blow and begged the man to stop and instead take him.
What happened next was simply a miracle. The Commandant did stop and then sent Norbert’s dad and the guard out of the room. That meant Norbert was now sitting one on one with this individual whose reputation for killing caused his rise through the ranks of the SS. He asked Norbert why he was willing to sacrifice his life for his fathers? He wanted to know if he was brave, stupid or both. The answer Norbert gave was simple, “he is my father and I love him and would do anything for him” reassuring the Commandant that in his position he would do the same as well. The Commandant replied that he had no father and began to tell Norbert his story growing up in an orphanage; how he was selected by the German army to join the SS and how that allegiance grew to become the only family he had known. As their conversation continued over a good bit of sherry he asked Norbert many questions about his life growing up. As Norbert answered and wondered when the Commandant’s charade would end and the killing would begin, something amazing happened. This Commandant who had been known as a ruthless, heartless killer of Jews began to show humanity and seemingly embraced Norbert’s defensive reaction to the threat of his father’s life. Later that day Norbert left that office personally escorted by Commandant Herring, back to his barracks with the assurance that he and his father would not be harmed while he remained in power.
This story is sad, happy, and an amazing testament to the power of education and learning.
Because the Commandant took the time to learn about Norbert, he was able to open his mind. He was able to put himself in Norbert’s shoes and see things from another point of view.
The lesson it taught me is knowledge can be powerful, information can be dangerous, and education may be the answer to relieving some of the tension that exists in our world today.
As a CEO of a small company in the education space I feel it is my responsibility to advise my fellow leaders to use any tool or means necessary to educate their teams about each other.
This means embracing diversity and providing educational tools which allow employees who come from backgrounds where race, ethnicity, gender, religion or sexual preference are considered reasons to hate, to learn they are not.
Simply removing oneself from their “bubble” and objectively learning about other cultures and ways of life can implement a sense of respect.
Norbert’s poignant story proves that bringing awareness to the diverse paths that life offers can remove people’s predisposed conceptions. And that awareness can shift one’s perspective from their isolated lens of exclusion and hatred to one that embraces inclusion. I’m convinced that is what will drive real change in our world.
I will conclude by asking the same question I opened with…”Is education the answer to our problems?” And if your answer is yes, how do we as business owners collaborate to provide a platform to help individuals learn to embrace others with an open heart and mind vs expel them with a tiki-torch or tear gas? I welcome all constructive dialog.