Some years ago, I wrote an illustrated children’s book about the underground railroad. In it, a family of slaves seeks refuge with an immigrant Jewish family from Germany who had never intended to serve in the dangerous role of harboring escapees. Noticing the Jewish family’s Menorah lamp burning brightly in their window one night in celebration of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, the slave family mistakes the lights for the lights of a safe house beckoning kindly to people running from plantation owners and slave hunters. Caught in a web of accidental circumstance, fear and suspicion, the story’s four parents are prodded by their four quick thinking children into devising a plan for hiding their friends that night. The plan works, the two families celebrate Hanukkah together, and the Jewish family helps its new friends escape to freedom the next morning.
The book never got published, partly because of a contract dispute with a small publisher. Each time the illustrator and I pitched it to subsequent publishing houses, we came up empty handed and finally gave up with our pitches. I wrote the book to help young readers imagine the extraordinary potential of ordinary human beings, children especially, to act with courage and compassion in times of great fear, danger and hatred. With its emphasis on interracial allyship, its repudiation of racism and its ever-popular Festival of Lights background, how could the book not get published?
Though no one who took a pass on the book ever said this, I realize in retrospect that this historical fiction I wrote for kids was itself based on a dangerous fiction. Even if unintentionally, I bought into the white savior complex, the mythology that Black Americans need White Americans to protect and redeem them, a more subtle yet insidious brand of racism. Though there were certainly White Americans who were active on the underground Railroad, we now know that a lot of the movement was steered by slaves and former slaves. Further, though some American Jews before and during the Civil War were active and prominent abolitionists and railroad activists, most of the community was a tiny, politically passive minority that kept its head down by playing almost no role in helping slaves.
My failed attempt notwithstanding, true stories abound concerning courageous rescues of oppressed people by their own people or by others who risked their lives to do so. Many school children read Lois Lowry’s award- winning Number the Stars, a historical novel which tells about the rescue of Danish Jewry from the Nazis by the Danish resistance. Fourth and fifth graders are introduced to the Underground Railroad, and its narratives of bravery in the face of brutality become commonplace to them. Many of our children watch all or part of Schindler’s List in middle school or high school. It is only a matter of time before similar accounts of courageous compassion emerge from Cambodia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, Darfur, and Yemen to be woven into our children’s educations and our everyday language. Inspiring as these stories are, they stand out precisely because they are exceptions to the human apathy, cowardice, and –at times- willing complicity with the evildoing of those in power. Too many people, it appears, will at the very least avert their eyes with guilty rationalization as their neighbors are dragged from their homes, never to be seen again.
I find it troubling to contemplate all of this and I wonder: if a knock came on our door in the middle of the night and our neighbors begged us to hide them from state sponsored terror, would we and our children find the courage to let them in? Until recently, this question was much less urgent for Americans than for people in repressive, less socially diverse societies. Right now, at this juncture in American history, it feels much more urgent to me. All the more reason for Americans to keep asking it, to learn those stories of courageous compassion, and to model for future generations steadfast respect for all human life and a firm commitment to protecting it. As we reel from the shock of George Floyd’s murder and its tumultuous political aftermath, we would do well to remember that for all our advancement as a society, America’s state sponsorship of slavery and segregation in the past continues to poison our moral and political waters. Remembering the past, which is not so past at all, so that we and our children are not doomed to repeat it, is a sacred national obligation. Telling those stories about the men and women who risked their lives to save the oppressed is a vital discipline of collective conscience: a way of teaching ourselves and the world that we have the strength and the obligation to give one another refuge.
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama. (Jewish Publication Society, 2020)
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