Don’t Fence Me In

October 14, 2017

I do not understand why we don’t learn from our history. Unfortunately, hate speech is covered by the Constitution – doesn’t mean I have to like and it sure as heck doesn’t mean I have to celebrate it. And, yes – monuments mean something. We should be learning from the mistakes of the past. I am grateful everyday for my right to free speech, so when I see Nazis chanting in the streets (of my own country!) I have the right to freely scream right back at them.

Every American needs to read the book Don’t Fence Me In, by Barry Spanjaard. I was blessed to attend a speech by Mr. Spanjaard at my high school in my freshman year of high school. His talk literally changed my life. Before that day, I had never heard of the Holocaust, or hate speech, or things like anti-semitism and prejudice. I had no idea people could do the things that they do to each other, or that a country and an ideology could exterminate 11 milion people, all in the name of hate. 

Mr. Spanjaard was born in the United States, but he moved with his family to Holland as a small child. He forgot all of his English, as his parents were not American citizens, but spoke Dutch in the home of his youth. Barry and his parents were Jewish and they were imprisoned by the Nazis, first in a holding camp in Holland and then in a concretation camp – Bergen-Belsen. 

The book is amazing because he wrote it after he returned to the U.S. as a teenager and then subsequently stored it away and tried to forget about its contents until his wife discovered it and insisted that he publish it. So, the author’s voice is that of a teenager, and it is vivid, inspiring, and horrifying.  

Mr. Spanjaard is alive today quite simply because he was born in the U.S. The Germans kept him alive, along with his parents and others in his situation, so that he could be “traded” at some point for German POWs. And, that’s exactly what happened – after several years in concentration camps. Sadly, his father died 2 days after they left Bergen-Belsen. 

The Nazis systematically tortured, starved, beat, and exterminated basically everyone Mr. Spanjaard ever knew or loved. He and his family had no community in which to return. He was lucky because he was born in the U.S. so they took him and his mother in after their liberation from Bergen-Belsen. Most Jews were not so lucky at the end of the war. The U.S. and Britain wouldn’t take in refugees, so many were forced to go to Palestine and elsewhere. Tragically, Germany tried to destroy them, and nobody else wanted them either. 

Barry’s story is important. He doesn’t try to cover up what they did and he certainly doesn’t try to excuse the behavior of any of the participants. We can never bring back these 11 million people but we can learn something – we can learn a lot of things. Endorsing hate speech is not okay. Systematically segregating people leads down a path of something wicked.  

I am forever grateful to Mr. Spanjaard’s memory for taking the time to speak at my high school. My eyes were forever opened. I hope and pray that others can similarly learn from his story. 

Do the right thing. Every time.

1 Thessalonians 5:15 (NRSV): See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all.

Serve all with love.

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