By Alex Lazarus-Klein
Only a few days removed from the Nazi and white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., where 32-year-old Heather Heyer was murdered when a car deliberately crashed into a crowd of counter-protesters, I learned that my children’s playground at Windermere Boulevard Elementary School was vandalized with a swastika and a crude Star of David. It felt like a double blow. Not only was my country struggling with its worst impulses, the evil had infected the very neighborhood I lived.
Many in my wife’s family are Holocaust survivors. Her maternal grandparents narrowly escaped the Nazis, boarding one of the last ships out of Europe. Nearly all of their relatives were murdered. The swastika and all of the Nazi symbols have left deep scars that will be felt for generations. And, perhaps, because of this we are sensitive about talking to our children, ages 9, 7 and 4 (the older two are students at Windermere) about that horrific period of time.
The events in the news and at the school playground forced us to have that conversation. “Why would someone do that?” our kids asked. “What do those symbols mean?”
We told them that while most people are good, there are bad people in the world as well. There are people who will hate you just because you are Jewish, or Muslim, or black, or gay, or lesbian, or have blue eyes, or blond hair, or eat different foods, or dress differently. Luckily we live in a place that is safe and where everyone is welcome.
That conversation happened on the way over to Windermere the following afternoon. The response to the graffiti was swift. Within two hours of it having been reported, the maintenance staff at the school had painted over the writing. And less than 24 hours later a form of protest had been organized. Through email and Facebook, the word went out. Instead of running away from the incident, we would run toward it, gathering to show our solidarity and to renew the school’s commitment to respect for all of its students, no matter their background or belief.
A debt of gratitude goes out to Anthony Panella, the superintend ent at Amherst Central Schools, and to the amazing principals at Windermere, Mary Lavin and Julie Flanagan, who spoke out against hate to all of those gathered. Not only were the news media there, and concerned citizens from around the area, but children, dozens of them, sliding down the same slide that had been vandalized the night before.
Standing there with my wife and children beside me, I felt proud to be an American, and I felt proud to be a Buffalonian. This is a community that is there for one another. While the graffiti was directed at the Jewish community, everyone felt the slight. We knew we were in this together.
And while this was a difficult lesson for our children to learn, I am grateful that they learned they can have voice, even when someone is trying to take theirs away. Yes, there are bad people in this world; there always will be. But it does not take away from the goodness that is all around us, and its ability to offer love and support in truly trying times.
I pray that my children will never have to see a swastika again, except in a history book, but if they do happen to come upon one, I know they will know how to respond – with love and not with hate, with forgiveness and not with anger.
Thank you to the community that stood with us on that day. Thank you to our children’s school and all it represents. And thank you to the people of this region, who take care of one another, embrace differences and fight bigotry and oppression.