On a Friday afternoon in 1957 I was a little girl in the second grade waiting for the parish priest to arrive for his weekly religion class. This time was different. He set up a screen and a slide projector, then he began the lesson.
During World War II the United States fought Germany and Japan. At the beginning of the war thousands of people in California, most of them United States citizens, were forced from their homes and placed into concentration camps. They were descendents of Chinese immigrants but since they looked Asian, like the Japanese, they were treated like the enemy. On the other hand, the priest was a German citizen. But since he looked like most Americans he was free to go about his business. He said that he even could have been a German spy.
Then he showed the slides. They were photographs of Nazi concentration camps. Most of the photos were taken by the Nazis to document how efficiently they were getting rid of the Jews. Some were taken by United States military personnel when the camps were liberated.
I saw a long line of naked women and children going into a gas chamber. There were large doors on the other side of the building and bulldozers cleared out the heaps of dead bodies. There was a photo of one of the showerheads that sprayed the poison gas into the chambers.
I saw barracks with bunk beds that housed the prisoners. The priest told us that many people were too sick to get to a restroom. Human waste and vomit from those in the upper bunks dripped down onto the people below.
One photo showed a pile of little chunks of gold that had been pried from the mouths of dead bodies. There were mounds of hair shaved from the victims’ heads that would later be woven into blankets. All very efficient.
I saw a person so emaciated that he looked more like a skeleton than a person.
After the photos were shown the priest told us that what we had just seen is the logical, end result of prejudice and discrimination. He said that if people look different from us, or wear a different kind of clothing, or eat different foods, or go to a different kind of church it does not make us better than them. It just means they are different.
After almost fifty years these words and images are still seared in my brain. In fact, it was over forty years before I could even bare to speak of it. In my deepest core, in my very essence, I believe that racism and bigotry are among the worst curses of humankind and I will speak out against them whenever and wherever they occur.
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