To this young generation, today’s date (4/20) is synonymous with smoking weed, and I’m sure that there is a story about how that came to be. For old history teachers, though, April 20th carries a far darker memory of events past: on this date in 1889, Adolf Hitler was born. More recently on this same calendar date, two malcontents shot up their high school in a suburb of Denver, CO, and killed over a dozen classmates and teachers. Just missing this date was the OKC bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building by anti-government zealots (4/19/1995). Clearly, the aforementioned individuals changed many lives with their actions.
And yet, through the madness and chaos that people like this created, the work of others shines through the darkness. Adolf Hitler shares his birthday with George Takei, the actor and gay-rights activist who has battled discrimination and hatred his entire life with class, dignity, and a tremendous sense of humor. Uncle George, a natural-born citizen of the United States, spent four years of his youth inside a concentration camp…except that it was called an “internment camp” because it was in the United States. George and over 110,000 others (mostly second-generation Americans of Japanese descent) were moved away from coastal areas in the early weeks of World War II after Pearl Harbor “for their protection” under Executive Order 9066. However, instead of seeking revenge for those that wronged him and his family and others (or those that he FELT had done wrong), George has made it his life’s work to speak out against oppression and bigotry wherever he sees it, as any of his social media followers will attest. The political firestorm (and potential economic boycott) that erupted as a result of George Takei’s statements immediately after the passage of the State of Indiana’s Freedom of Religion law largely influenced the re-writing of the just-passed law just days afterwards.
History shows us that one person can change the world, and today we see evidence of that in a negative light because of men like Adolf Hitler, Timothy McVeigh, and the Columbine murderers. But the darkness from their hearts doesn’t have to be the reason why we remember this day. When I was a little kid growing up on Lakehurst Street in Lakeland, Florida, an older couple moved in next door to my family. They dressed funny (compared to what I was used to, and this was in the ’70s, so you know that it must’ve been REALLY far out), and after a few days their house smelled kind of funny. When I talked to the old man one day, he had a thick accent and a tattoo of six numbers etched across his forearm. He introduced himself as Moses Varro, and he was from Hungary. As a little boy, I found it extremely funny that he was from a place that sounded like a state of physical need, and he laughed, too. He always laughed. He always had a smile when he saw me, and said that I reminded him of his young grandson who lived in an exotic place called “Long Island.” Mr. Varro’s wife was one of the kindest people that I ever met; she always had a treat for me, and those weird smells that emanated from their house were just from her Hungarian cooking. When I was 12, we moved into a new neighborhood several miles north, and I never saw the Varros again…and he never told me where that tattoo came from. I had to find that out many years later…
To have lived through the Hell on Earth that was the Holocaust in World War II Europe, and to have retained any semblance of humanity, let alone joy, when all those closest to you died, and to then have had the love and patience to constantly entertain some little kid’s endless queries about where you were from, and what is that a tattoo of…(I think that he actually told me that it was his locker combination, with a sad far-off look in his eye). Mr. Varro was the first person that I remember patiently showing me a map of the Iron Curtain and the Eastern Bloc, and explaining to me what communism was and why he and his wife were so thankful every day to live in the United States. To this day, one of my favorite things to talk about and read about is the Cold War, especially in the 1960s through the 1980s…and my love of maps. All because of one person. Maybe this is where my compassion and sense of injustice comes from, too.
One person can make a difference, and that difference can be felt for decades, even centuries, afterward. How will YOU change the world tomorrow?