INCIRLIK AIR BASE, Turkey --
“You must be the change you wish to see in the world,” said human rights activist Mahatma Ghandi.
During the Holocaust Days of Remembrance, I was given an opportunity to affect the change I wanted to see at the Sacrifice by Fire event, hosted by the Outspoken organization at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey. I spoke on the experiences of Freddie Knoller, Austrian Holocaust survivor and author of “Living with the Enemy.”
Although I am not Jewish and didn’t have to endure the hardships of the Holocaust, I have had my own share of hardships growing up. After hearing about Knoller’s story of resiliency, I had a renewed appreciation for the freedoms we so often take for granted.
Since I was little, I have always believed in the equality of all human beings. I grew up in the middle of Arkansas in a town where racial equality and human rights progress still hadn’t reached the ears of everybody. If you were different, you didn’t belong.
I managed to keep my head low for the most part, but there were some instances that earned me an occasional bullseye on my back.
I was close with three of my cousins, who are half African-American and half Caucasian. They were my best friends growing up, but everybody else didn’t always see it the same way I did.
Sometimes I heard the names the other kids were calling them, sometimes I was called those names and sometimes children would throw rocks when they saw us waiting at the bus stop.
Later in my teenage years, I was faced with another hardship. I began to realize that I liked girls, and this, along with being a part of an interracial family, brought many challenges. Out of fear, I hid my attraction for a long time. When I finally came out there were mixed reactions. There was an outpouring of support from my closest friends and family, but hateful messages, dirty looks and unkind words from people I used to go to school with and strangers who barely knew me.
Because I grew up in an environment with closed-views, I became very empathetic to others and I vowed that one day, I would do my part to educate others to help put an end to ignorance and hate.
When I came across Knoller’s story, I was 19 and in college trying to make ends meet. I’d seen his documentary “Surviving the Holocaust: Freddie Knoller’s War,” and his refusal to accept defeat touched me. He was resilient and I remember thinking, “I want to be like him.”
I felt connected to him because we both felt a sense of not belonging. I grew up in my town in a time when differences weren’t always accepted, yet my situation wasn’t illegal and I could tolerate the bullying. If it weren’t for Knoller and countless others who pioneered the way forward, we wouldn’t have the rights we have today, or the understanding of why upholding and defending them are so important.
The Nazis didn’t just discriminate against the Jewish people, but also those who did not conform to their way of thinking. That could’ve easily been me, had I been born in a different time and place.
Looking back, I feel that it was those experiences that lead me to choose to represent Freddie Knoller at the Sacrifice By Fire event. I was able to relate to him on a personal note because, despite all the adversity he faced for being different, he never lost the will to keep moving forward. Getting to speak from his point of view was, in a way, getting a glimpse into his world and a better understanding of it.
We all have parts of ourselves that are different from everybody else and perhaps most of us just want to fit in and coexist with each other peacefully. This coexisting is possible because of the many brave men and women who endured and survived hardships like the Holocaust. Thanks to their stories, we have progressed and learned the hard way on how not to treat people. This is how we remember and honor their sacrifice.
I believe that everyone should do their part to put an end to hatred and foster a culture of peace and acceptance. In remembering the Holocaust, we never forget the past. In never forgetting, we can be the change we wish to see.