Last week I attended an event where the indomitable Lynne Twist was speaking about commitment and compassion.
She spoke about the Hunger Project work she did in Africa and some of the surprising and disappointing things that happened while working in Zaire during the regime of Mobutu. Mobutu is considered by some to be one of the most cruel, brutal and reprehensible dictators in history.
Understandably, Lynne considered him to be a monster.
During this time she was invited to attend a state dinner in Tokyo. It turned out that the guest of honor was the evil perpetrator Mobutu. She found herself standing in a long reception line (with all the other guests and dignitaries) waiting to shake his hand.
Deeply conflicted, she debated whether to stay in line or risk offending her host (and one of her largest donors) by leaving the line. Just before it was her turn to shake the hand of the monster, Mobutu, she had an epiphany…she realized that something very terrible must have happened to him as a child that had him turn into the villainous man he became. And with that she was able to find compassion for the innocent child in him and shake his hand.
Hearing this story triggered my own memories about stories of a monster and despicable human being I grew up hearing about.
Until I went away to college, we spent every Sunday visiting my paternal grandparents in Miami, Florida. My Grandma Mae would make a big Jewish feast of brisket, noodle kugel, and other delicious food and delectable goodies and treats.
At least once a year we would be joined by our cousins from New Jersey…Al and Carol Lipson…they were holocaust survivors. Every visit they would share the story of how they endured the horrors of the concentration camp, they would show us the numbers tattooed on their bodies, they would tell us about the dozens of other relatives who died in the camps, and then their gripping story would end with the miracle of how they were reunited after the war.
After hearing this scary story, year after year, I asked my parents why they always talked about it and revisited the unfathomable, inexcusable horror. My parents told me if was very important that we never forget how Hitler killed millions of Jews. I grew up with a deep knowing that there was evil in the world and that evil is called Hitler.
Next: How I found compassion for Hitler