The following is a speech given by Greg Pollock about his personal experience in the wake of the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre. Greg is a good friend that I met at a Disability:IN conference several years ago and have worked with while he was at Dow and now PNC. The massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue was a horrific event that was devastating to all of Pittsburgh, regardless of faith. We must all make the decision to stand up against injustice and hate.
Let Freedom Ring
Transcript of a speech presented to Rochester Institute of Technology by Greg Pollock on 1/21/2019
I find no comfort in sharing my story because what I have to tell you is not necessarily new. I’ve lived one life and in my mind there are fragmented stories of lives that were once described to me. Though I can never re-tell those stories in the same vividness in which they were shared with me, I am here to remind you of an experience that connects us all and tell you why it matters today. I share this and do not expect it to immediately make sense… but like all great lessons, they are strengthened by the stories that accompany them.
I was born Greg Pollock, my Hebrew name is Abraham. I first learned about hate very early in my life. I was very young when I happened across a book in my father’s library titled, “Smoke and Ashes”, that captured and documented the horrors of life in Hitler’s concentration camps.
Throughout the book there were vivid photos of the smoke from the ovens and the mass graves of starved people. My relatives: aunts, uncles, and cousins were sentenced to die as if they were cattle in an open grave. It deepened my appreciation for the magnitude of the event. Here was a legalized system created by human beings. Seemingly normal soldiers, doctors, dentists, and builders went along with the systematic annihilation of an entire population in a modern age.
Of course, I was terrified; I was a little boy seeing all of this for the first time. The night I got the book, I cowered under the blankets in my bed. I don’t remember if I was sobbing, but at one point I called for my father who came and climbed into the bed with me.
“Daddy, what happens if U.S. soldiers come for us? What will we do?”
My father rubbed me on the back and consoled me. “It can’t happen again. Never.” Shortly after that, I dozed off. For months that followed, I was obsessed with the Holocaust. It was a young boy’s quest to understand the nature of human hatred and why Jewish people were at the center of it. And despite my father’s claims that the Holocaust would never happen again, I remained terrified of Nazis.
Every time I heard heavy footsteps, I immediately associated them to the thunderous goose-steps of Nazi soldiers marching in sync… One evening, I was standing at the top of a set of stairs leading down to the dark basement of a synagogue. I heard the unmistakable boom of a set of shoes coming up the stairs. Like a frenzied deer, I turned to run only to smack into my father’s belly and fall flat backwards. I turned back, heart pounding, to see that it was only a group of affluent, well-dressed women wearing derby hats. Imagine that, a child bested by his own imagination.
That synagogue was Tree of Life. On October 27th, 2018 (24 years later) an armed anti-semite man gunned down Cecil Rosenthal on that same stairwell as he screamed, “All Jews must die!" Cecil’s brother, David was killed rushing to help him.
What was their crime?
What judge, jury or government has determined that one’s very existence necessitates a murder sentence? Cecil and David, what were they guilty of? How does one construe in their mind that it is their responsibility to take into their own hands the murder of Bernice and Sylvan Simon, Jerry Rabinowiz, and Joyce Feinberg?
If you asked me 25 years ago, I would have told you… “bad people.” But today, my response is a bit more complicated. You see, after graduating from RIT, I lived in world of compliance… I spent a great deal of time investigating internal cases for a Fortune 500 company, tracking down violations of federal and state laws whether they were intentional or not. And what I can tell you is this… everyone believes they are the good guy.
The German soldiers that once pulled the triggers on dozens of Jewish men, women, and children probably have tombstones that read “Loving Father, Grandfather, and Husband.” The doctors that experimented on Jewish prisoners lived lives as complex as our own. To me, it’s infallible, they were bad people. That will always be my reality. But to their friends, family, and peers, they were perfectly normal people who were doing the right thing. The main difference was that their hearts were filled with hate.
The gunman that killed Rose Mallinger right next to her daughter at Tree of Life performed his deed out of hate. He viewed the world through a lens that portrayed Jewish people as ‘invaders’ and found frustration at the inaction of our authorities in mitigating the so-called issue. If this sounds familiar to you, it should.
Hate is gaining momentum again… and its renewed confidence is allowing people to act out without fear of repercussions. Just as they did in Orlando and Charlotte, nationwide we’re seeing a 12% jump in hate crimes since last year. The complacency of our government is painting a very real blueprint of the events that once made hate systematic. I know it’s scary. It reawakened a fear I long thought dormant.
The thing about these shootings is that every time they occur… you hear the news, you see a number, and that’s all it is – a body count. The shooting happens, we look at the number of deaths, grieve briefly, and move on. And we’ve become so numb by these constant occurrences while rival factions remain fiercely gridlocked on how to deal with this epidemic.
None of us ever think it’s going to happen to us… but today, we have a choice. We can choose today to care or become indifferent until that choice is no longer available to us. Richard Gottfried and Daniel Stein were trapped in an open kitchen with no place to hide. Their fate was sealed the minute the gunman spotted them. In that moment, the gunman stripped them of their ability to control their situation. No amount of thoughts and prayers could save their lives. Would you be indifferent if you know that two months from now, someone is going to barge into a room and take the life of someone you care about? If you had the chance today, to choose to act – what would that action be?
The gunman’s bullets did more than rip into the flesh of his victims. They ripped into my own reality. Next to the kitchen is a classroom I spent hundreds of Sundays in. My innocent memories of those victims, the classrooms, and basement stairways are forever skewed… But my personal victory is that my anger lasted only a moment. I dressed my hate with a thirst for action. Difficult as it may be, I’ve come to understand and accept that our realities are not as simple as good guys versus bad guys. Although justice will have its say, we can choose to find strength in forgiveness. Dr. Martin Luther King would say look upon any person and as you seek to hate him, find the center of goodness and place your attention there and you will take a new attitude. Everyone has a critical mass of goodness in them somewhere. Finding it is an important part of moving on.
Hate benefits no one, and what I hope we realize is that hate compounds extremely easily, and lack of forgiveness, indifference, and failure to act will only strengthen that hatred. When it becomes systemic, we risk everything in society. Lines get blurred and are crossed. One of the most relevant examples leads us back to Nazi Germany.
On the eve of November 9th, 1938, a city wide pogrom broke out in the German city of Danzing. During the pogrom, thousands of Jewish homes, hospitals, and schools were ransacked. The riots led to the deaths of over 90 people. During the course of two days, 30,000 people were seized and taken to concentration camps… That night came to be known as Kristallnacht (translated into English as the "night of broken glass"). It all started when one boy assassinated the German Diplomat Ernst vom Rath.
One act of hate led to the persecution of 30,000 people. 30,000. These are people whose lives will forever be a statistic. Their dreams, doubts, fears, and hopes were lost as the authorities as well as the entire population of Germany simply watched. 7,000 businesses, 267 synagogues, and an untold number of homes were destroyed.
Until now, these were simple numbers for me. These events became far too real to me on October 27th. There’s just something about having personal memories tied to the statistics that gives you a sobering dose of reality. The Tree of Life gunman’s actions gave every single one of those 30,000 people a face.
What I can’t condone is the apathy that follows this cycle. A shooting happens, we get into a fierce debate, and then the hype dies down. It’s a vicious routine. It dies down because we made a choice and we have chosen to become numb to it. And because we didn’t choose to act, it continues to occur.
It’s important to me that you understand how dangerous this apathy is. Socially accepted hate breeds off prolonged tolerance. It compounds and multiplies until it’s woven into our day to day experiences. Once it finds roots in government, it becomes legal.
German Pastor Martin Niemöller welcomed the Third Reich with open arms until he met Adolf Hitler in 1934 and learned that his phone had been tapped. This inspired him to write the iconic quote:
“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.” That is why I stand here today, imploring you to help me eradicate this culture of inaction.
Melvin Wax was killed in a closet. And the last of the victims, Irving Younger, a greeter at the synagogue was killed where he stood. I assure you, neither one of them would be asking for thoughts or prayers.
If you’re going to offer thoughts, make them actionable. “This is what I’m going to do.”
If you’re going to give prayers, pray for yourself. “God give me strength to do A, B, and C.”
Don’t just go out and tell people to vote. We vote far too little. Go out and run for office. Find the right people, and Make. Them. Run.
I know it's hard. I know it's so intimidating, but it is that intimidation that is dismantling the power of our people in this democracy. Love should overpower intimidation, just as it overpowers hate. Remember that love is, as Dr. King described, not this sentimental something. And when you "rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems." Remember, it is “love that will save our world and our civilization.”
Hate nearly wiped out my entire family. My father’s grandparents fled to the United States when the war began. The rest of their family stayed behind, and most of those who did were killed. Only two of my great grandmother’s brothers and a single cousin are known to have survived the massacre in Europe. Hate has haunted my family for a long time… yet as MLK said, “We must discover the power of love, the power, the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that we will be able to make of this old world a new one.”
In the days that followed the tragedy at Tree of Life, I wrestled with my feelings. It started with anger, then empathy, then loss, and I’m reminded that at the end of the day – we must give the victims’ stories meaning. We must take it upon ourselves to answer the questions that run through our heads when one of us dies… why?
I will never know who pulled the trigger or turned the valve that ended the lives of my great aunts, uncles, or cousins… But I don’t need to. I find comfort knowing that their lives mean something to me now. The Holocaust was a bitter lesson on the power of humanity at its worst and at its best. And… to be at our best, we must love. And forgive.
Dr. Martin Luther King was a firm believer that the arch of history bends towards justice. And so am I. This climate is a major crisis for all of us. Hate is senseless. In one of his sermons, Dr. King wrote so bluntly that someone must have a little sense, and that’s a strong person. It will be strong people who put an end to this crisis, who will, as he said, “cut off the chain of hate, the chain of evil. …Somebody must have….morality enough to cut it off and inject within the very structure of the universe that strong and powerful element of love”.
Tree of Life was a staple of my innocence. My childhood. Although it’s been years since I last set foot into Tree of Life, it’s unsettling to know that this happened at a place I once called home. The assault on Tree of Life will forever be a symbol of hate’s toxic presence in our society. It infects all of us and alters our very way of thinking. Hate exists to induce fear and confusion among those that differ from its school of thought. And as always, it will fail.
Love reminds us that sometimes we have to look at ourselves in the mirror. When I look in the mirror, I recognize that I am a straight, white man. I recognize that my story is different from yours. I can never presume to understand the pain and suffering you may have experienced throughout your lives. But I promise you this, I will always strive to recognize that there is a perspective beyond my own. Your experiences, your beliefs, your perspectives, will always be worth something to me. I value that understanding.
It is from a place of love that I share this with you. This is where you and I start making the world a better place. We can’t let hate dictate the outcome – only when our actions come from a place of love can we truly prevail. No matter our backgrounds, our beliefs, our gender, or the color of our skin, Dr. King pointed out that we have a moral responsibility to discover the meaning of love-even showing it to our enemies. Love should seek nothing in return, love IS understanding, redemptive goodwill for ALL people.