This article appeared in the April 12, 2021 edition of the Monitor Daily.

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The power of a story to change assumptions

Mindaugas Kulbis/AP
Holocaust survivor Davidas Leibzonas speaks to the media in the Paneriai Memorial in memory of the Jews of Vilnius killed by the Nazis during World War II during the ceremony marking the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day in Vilnius, Lithuania, April 8, 2021. The Holocaust resulted in the extermination of more than 90% of Lithuania's Jewish community of some 200,000 by the Nazis and their local collaborators.

Last week, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, I attended a virtual discussion with Michael Gruenbaum, a Holocaust survivor. Its framing: “What can we do as individuals and as a society to push back on the forces of hatred and prejudice?”

That question resonates at this moment, from Duxbury High School in Massachusetts, dealing with the aftermath of revelations that  football players used anti-Semitic calls on the field, to workplaces and communities grappling with racial divisions and disparities.

One starting point for healing is listening to the stories of others. 

Mr. Gruenbaum, a 90-year-old Massachusetts resident, shared his family’s experience during 2 1/2 years at Terezin concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. He drew on his 2015 memoir, “Somewhere There Is Still a Sun,” whose title derives from a letter his mother wrote and bears witness to the tenacity of her hope.

The power of personal stories to counter bigotry and indifference – which Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel called a “friend of the enemy” – is well documented. Listening to them, even when it’s uncomfortable, increases respect and empathy, according to researchers whose recent findings drew on 15 studies across multiple issues. For adolescents, hearing moral insights linked to stories about someone experiencing harm drives deeper reflection and growth.

In closing, Mr. Gruenbaum offered one such insight from his life: the need to persevere. That may have been informed by his mother’s relentless example in keeping her family alive. You go to 10 people and find the door closed, he said – but on the 11th try, it opens.

This article appeared in the April 12, 2021 edition of the Monitor Daily.

Read 04/12 edition
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