One night when I was 8 years old, I was invited to eat supper with my friend Ilona Lobel. She and I were in the same class in school, and I had been playing at her house all afternoon. Ilona’s parents both spoke with an accent, and I remember thinking that this was very exotic. In the small N.C. town where I grew up, the only accents I ever heard were on television. This was the first time I had been invited to eat a meal at Ilona’s house, and I was hoping the food would be as intriguing as the way her parents spoke.
Mr. Lobel came in from work, sat down at the head of the table and in his rich accent announced that he would bless the food. As was the custom in the Lobel household, everyone joined hands. I was sitting on Mr. Lobel’s right, and as he reached for my hand, I noticed several numbers written in dark ink on the inside of his wrist, visible just under the cuff of his shirt. He must have noticed that I saw the numbers, because after the blessing, he asked me very gently if I would like to know what they were.
Since my 8-year old mind was full of Nancy Drew mysteries, I imagined that the inked numbers had to be connected to some secret code from his work, or to some mysterious project he was working on. The story of Mr. Lobel’s wrist tattoo, however, turned out to be far more sinister than anything I could have conjured. He told me in the gentlest, most straightforward way that the numbers were tattoos that he had been given when he was captured by Germans from his home in Poland and taken to live in a place called a concentration camp during World War II. For the duration of the meal, Mr. Lobel explained the Holocaust to me.
Before that evening, World War II had been a war in which my dad had fought, a conflict that the United States had won. I had no clue about the persecution of the Jewish people, or the horrors of the camps. I listened to my friend’s kind father trying to explain to me how man could treat his fellow man with such malevolence. Mr. Lobel ended the story by telling me that I might have noticed that neither he nor Mrs. Lobel ever scolded Ilona very much. His explanation was simple: He said that he could not bear the sound of a child crying because his memories were still redolent with the cries from children in the concentration camp all those years earlier.
Mr. Lobel taught me one of the most valuable lessons of my life that night at his dinner table. He taught me not only about the bitter reality of unbridled bigotry and cruelty but also, and much more importantly, about how to look for goodness in life to help you get beyond unfairness and inhumanity. He told me that whenever he caught a glimpse of his tattoo, he made more of an effort to be extra kind to others.
We have been having a post-flag-removal discussion in our state about how to move forward with the spirit of cooperation and understanding that helped marshal the efforts to bring the Confederate flag off the State House grounds. We have been looking for ways to keep the openness and collaborative atmosphere flowing. And most of all, we have been seeking ways to keep the dialogue ongoing among all South Carolinians. I think we have seen this summer that when we make a genuine effort to understand and appreciate the feelings of those who might be different from us, positive substantive things happen.
We must continue to have open forums, new windows for dialogue, new opportunities to learn about each other as people. Gov. Nikki Haley has said that her time spent with the families of those killed at Emanuel A.M.E. Church helped her gain deep understanding. The time is right for us to find more ways to bring both black and white citizens together, for each of us to learn on a more personal level the life stories of one another.
Mr. Lobel taught me lessons that came from his own experience, lessons learned at his dinner table one evening. We need to be motivated to find a metaphorical way to sit down to dinner together as South Carolinians. What we learn about one another could change our future.
Ms. Beasley is an educator who lives in Columbia; contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.