I cannot believe it’s already been two weeks.
My government class today was held in North Lambeth at Britain’s Imperial War Museum. Our assignment: walk into the museum. Look at what we wanted for the amount of time we wanted. Leave. And yet it turned out to be one of the most difficult classes I have ever or will ever take.
The enormous missiles were cool, but there were three exhibits in the museum that I will never forget. You see, IWM is set up through the eyes of those experiencing the history, not the historians studying it. I think a few of those people I met yesterday and their stories will haunt me forever.
“A Family in Wartime” was first. In this, visitors can read the Allpress family members’ bios, see their personal effects, and experience a model of their home, all set up to give viewers a lens through which to see World War II in Europe. Back in America, we learn about the war through history books and looking at the ways it politically affected different nations around the world. To us, at least to me, The Blitz was just another key term in Chapter 14 of World History in twelfth grade. But the people here did not read about it. They lived through it. They survived these endless nights of relentless bombs for months. 60,000 of their neighbors and friends died, 200 million of the buildings and homes they loved were destroyed, and all the lives they lived before were shattered. They lived in constant fear of Hitler’s coming, carrying their gas masks everywhere and sending their helplessly young children out of London into the English countryside. They abandoned their trades, their lives, to do what had to be done to prepare for the war. I suppose the stories just aren’t real until you’re standing in the lives of people who were there.
The art collection was next. While many of the pieces awed me, there was one series that, as I would tell my friends, “kind of ate my soul.” Albert Adams, who died in 2006, finished a “Man and Ape” series in 2004 that hung on the walls in the back room of IWM’s exhibit. I looked at it, noting the implications that humans have “evolved” too far, that we were superior as apes, and was suddenly hit by the state of the world, of humanity. We say we are superior to apes, that we are superior to all others as a species. We say we, as homo sapiens, are superior. Maybe that’s true. I could buy that. I could get behind that. If “we” were actually a WE.
But we are nothing. There is no we. In this world, there are Chinese people and Catholic people and rich people and political people and redneck people. There is no we. There is only separation and conflict, a never-ending struggle to be the best. Hitler once said, Ruthless racial struggle is natural and drives human progress. Ironic, isn’t it? That WE HUMANS are trying to progress, and yet WE believe progress is achieved by killing OUR own kind. Last I checked, the apes of the world haven’t been involved in too many Crusades-like incidents over time. In fact, let’s swing that bat a little closer to home. When’s the last time the apes sent inspectors into other prides to see if they were building nuclear weapons? When’s the last time the apes then sacrificed thousands of ape lives to just make sure nothing got started over there on the other side of the river? Wouldn’t want those less-sophisticated apes getting any ideas. Are you laughing? “That’s ridiculous! They’re all just apes!” You’re right. But aren’t we all just people?
This brings me to the next part of IWM, the Holocaust exhibit. This exhibit was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Photos of young children at the camps, being tortured and abused before they were killed. Letters young prisoners wrote and threw out the windows of the impossibly cramped trains, hoping their last words would make it back to their loved ones. A full-size model of Auschwitz, complete with smoking flesh and tiny people, waiting to be put to death.
Did you know Albert Einstein was a Jew?
As I walked through this exhibit, starting with Hitler’s rise to power and going all the way through the mid-twentieth century in Europe, I began to feel a sick sort of sympathy for Adolph Hitler. As we watched the live footage of citizens supporting him, of people being tortured, of a world being destroyed, I came to the realization that no one, no human, is capable of such heartless destruction just for the sake of power. To sleep at night, I must believe Hitler actually felt what he preached was the right thing. He felt, to save his country and his people, this was the only way.
Maybe he didn’t. Maybe he just wanted to be in charge. But I absolutely cannot reconcile that with my existence, and so I feel sorry for him. I feel sorry for Hitler and his followers that they were so afraid, so ill-equipped to handle the political and economic situation in Germany following WWI, that they destroyed the world.
We, as humans, divide ourselves. We tell ourselves it is because of our skin colors and our languages and our religions, but really it’s not. We divide ourselves because the world is large. We do it because the concept of learning and knowing and loving the whole world is just too much for us to handle. We do it because we are afraid.
Maybe our evolution really has gone one step too far. But maybe our evolution has just gotten a little stuck along the way and it needs a push to keep going forward. Either way, we have lost our ability to love. We have lost our ability to deeply understand one another. We have lost our ability to believe in peace.
Fear and love. They are not German or Jewish, Muslim or Christian, English or Spanish. They are human. While we historically have chosen to fear one another, to create fear for the sake of power and control, I think it’s time to try patience. I think it’s time to try understanding. I think it’s time for us all to start loving one another.
I implore all of you across this here world wide web to please not relay any of this to my father. He’s already convinced I’m going to be driving a tiny vegetable oil car around and chaining myself to trees after I graduate from college. Every Christmas I get to hear the story of my five-year-old self crying while he knocked down a tree in our backyard. He doesn’t need any more material.
Lightening things up a bit, I went to the market after class to grab a baby cake, a few candles, and a HAPPY BIRTHDAY banner for my amazing host mother, for whom we had a big family dinner to celebrate another year of her. I got home just before she arrived with my London big sisters (Liz and Tash), my London little brother (Tash’s son, Ezra), and two of Sandra’s dear friends, Stephen and Sylvie.
As I dined with the marvelous crowd over champagne and veggie lasagna, I felt I was having an out-of-body experience. Though I had been distraught over the state of the world just a few hours before, sitting at that table with all these amazing people made me feel like the entire universe was perfect. It made me feel that people do go on loving people and that everything is going to be okay.
I soaked in the thick English accents being thrown around the table and tried to pick up a few new phrases. Stephen taught me some winners, including “sandwich short of a picnic” (the English version of “not the sharpest tool in the shed”) and “chip short of a butty” (which is along the same lines). I also learned that a butty is a delicacy of northern England involving two slices of bread, ketchup, and chips. It’s basically a carb sandwich. Delectable.
I should take a moment here to describe Stephen Yates, as he is one of the most entertaining characters I have ever encountered. Stephen coaches clients on business etiquette and such, turning hopeless messes into future Donald Trumps. He is hilarious in every way you can imagine with a personality far larger than Buckingham Palace. I couldn’t even tell you what we discussed throughout the night, but I can tell you every bit of the conversation was delightful and that I cannot wait to do it all again.
Before his departure, Sandra’s 11-year-old grandson, Ezra, and I planned a “British telly” night, during which Ez has agreed to give me the crash course in English television and explain all his favorite shows while we eat Ben and Jerry’s. Words cannot describe my excitement.
I felt the luckiest girl on earth on Tuesday night, having the privilege to sit with Sandra’s family and feel so very much a part of it. I had my big sisters asking me about boys at school, my little brother telling me about his favorite ice creams, my fun uncle describing SoHo restaurants to me… I didn’t think it possible to feel so welcome. Not only someone else’s home, but in someone else’s life. I don’t know how I will ever thank Sandra and these amazing people for all they are giving me through my time here.