He turned 11 today. My only boy. And before we'd even planned his once-every-5-years birthday bash, we knew where we'd be on his birthday. It was his choice. My only boy.
He wanted to hear my friend Paul's story. Although he and I have only been together in real life a handful of times, Paul is one of my top 4 favorite men in the world. Paul and I instantly connected when I met him after having taught his little granddaughter, Lauren, may years ago. I looked into his eyes, and I felt depth. Warmth. Acceptance. Love. And I saw how he loved his wife Judy, his daughter, and his granddaughters, and I knew he was precious. Based solely on that, I instantly loved him. And then one day, I witnessed Paul share his story with an auditorium full of wide-eyed, mesmerized middle schoolers. And I understood.
So today, I pulled my only boy out of school early, and we got his favorite birthday lunch, and we braved the rain and the chill so we could sit in this man's beautiful presence and hear his story.
Paul is a Holocaust survivor. I can't do his story justice, except to say that several acts of grace and mercy -- even in the middle of a time and place led by hate -- had to take place to spare him from a tragic fate. What he witnessed and experienced was horrific enough, but the fact that he is here, to share with all of us, his story, is nothing short of a miracle.
Paul took us to a little room next to the soon-to-be renovated Holocaust Museum in Suffern, NY and sat Ryan down and shared his story. It was story of a very little boy, his mother's only boy, who, over the course of a year or two, had his whole world torn upside down, his whole family torn apart, all because of hate.
I hope you get to hear Paul tell his story in real life some day soon. (You don't really "hear" the story, you feel it.) But this teensy tidbit of history stayed with me:
Leading up to the Holocaust, as Paul told Ryan today, the Germans were fed up with their government. They had just lost World War I, and morale and the economy were desperately miserable. Adolf Hitler rose to power by promising the Germans that he would make their country strong again. He played on their desperation for jobs and money, and he played on their discontent with the government. Once he rallied their disgust for how things currently were, he blamed the people least like himself for the state of affairs at the time. The different ones. The misunderstood. All of the Jews. All of the gypsies. All of the disabled. That was scary, for sure. But what's scarier, is that free thinking people believed him.
Paul spoke of comfort, too, of how he and his mom held hands for comfort, and how she saved his life. There were tiny moments of calm - never peace for that 9 year old boy - but calm - and there were always good people somewhere to be found.
Paul reminded Ryan of that. My only boy. My only boy knows, now, that no matter what hell he or others may endure, he knows that most people are good. Even some people who were trained to kill were capable of mercy and compassion. Paul said so, and it must be true! And he knows that life experiences that have every right to harden us and makes us hate, can be the exact same experiences that teach us to love, and to forgive, and to find the good in even the most hardened enemy.
So on a day when Ryan, my only boy, could have been focused on a new Star Wars figure or the latest WWE Elite wrestling guy, Ryan met a real life hero. And instead of talking all about how much stuff he has, and how much more he wants, he heard about the most prized possession in a concentration camp. A bowl. A tin bowl that an emaciated prisoner would guard with her life because she knew that if she didn't have a bowl to hold out at feeding time, she wouldn't eat.
My only boy, Ryan, he has plenty of toys and he had a great party with his buddies this year, too. But what he received this afternoon, on March 14, 2016, was an irreplaceable gift. Time. Time and love and attention from an invaluable resource. My friend Paul. One of my 5 favorite men in the world. (I know, I know I said 4 men before. But with Paul's story and Ryan's wide open heart, I think my only boy grew up way past his 11 years this afternoon....)
Blessings to you, Paul. Times a million. I love you.
Ryan is discussing a realistic fiction book he read with his class, Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry.
As soon as Paul's family learned that the Nazis would likely soon occupy Slovakia, where Paul was living, they hired a professional photographer, knowing this would likely be the last time the entire family was together. This is Paul's original photograph. This is WHY I do what I do.
We need another day to explore all of this! It was amazing, and yet all the technology and all of the artifacts in the world can't compare to having a real-life survivor, who happens to be a sincere, gifted storyteller available to us. Such an amazing gift to both of us! To the world....
I snuck into a photo! My only regret was that I didn't lean a little closer into Paul and give him a little hug!