Upper Canada College IB2 student Alexander Green addressed the Upper School assembly on Feb. 10 with an “I believe” speech about the need for kindness. Here’s his message:
“This past summer, myself, along with about 120 other teenagers went on a trip to Poland as part of a program with my summer camp. Upon our arrival, we were divided into three buses and we spent seven days travelling to and around Krakow, Lublin and Warsaw to see various sites of importance to Jewish life there. The toughest days of this trip were the days we went to various concentration camps and death camps. Each of them was different.
“We first went to Majdanek, where approximately half-a-million people were sent and 80,000 died — 75 per cent of which were Jews. After its liberation, W.H. Lawrence, a reporter for The New York Times and a visitor to the camp in 1944, opened his article on Majdanek with the words, ‘I have just seen the most terrible place on the face of the earth.’ The weirdest part of that visit was that everything still stood. The buildings, the guard towers, the electric fences … all of it.
“We later went to Sobibor, a camp entirely meant for the extermination of those who opposed the Nazi ideology. There, very little stood. The Nazis burned down the camp, intending for no evidence to appear, and all our group could see were a set of old train tracks, a few monuments and a plaque at the entrance of the memorial carved with the words — in English, Hebrew, Polish and French: ‘There existed a Nazi death camp where 250,000 Jews and approximately 1,000 Poles were murdered.’
“Finally, we went to Auschwitz-Birkenau, an impossibly large compound where about 1.1 million Jews, 140,000 Poles and 20,000 Romani died. We spent the entire day there. Sitting on a bench very far inside the Birkenau section of the camp, the part that was entirely devoted to extermination, we went around our group all talking about how our families were impacted by the Holocaust. In Hebrew, the name for the Holocaust is ‘Shoah,’ which means catastrophe. On those benches deep inside Birkenau, few people had nothing to say, and many talked about how their grandparents, great grandparents and other relatives had walked in the very same place that we had on that day many years ago.
“That was the final place we went and, after spending that emotionally and physically exhausting week in Poland, we flew to Israel. And on the same day that I had walked on Polish land, I was walking towards the Western Wall, the most sacred site in all of Judaism. It was a weird feeling to say the least. To this day I have difficulty describing how I felt when I was there. There I was, standing in front of a place that I had known about all my life as a place that I ‘had to go to,’ and yet I had been in a place of incomprehensible atrocities so shortly beforehand.
“Now I bet you’re wondering where I’m going with this, so I’ll tell you. This is what I believe: In a world of so much senseless violence and hatred, the best and perhaps only thing that can be done is fill it with senseless kindness and love.
“What I mean by this is that hatred can be found everywhere. It can be seen throughout ancient history. It can be seen in literature, art and theatre. It can be seen through the Holocaust and it can be seen today in small and large ways. This is why we need to be kind. Having looked at all of these plaques and monuments that wrote of inconceivable victims and people who did nothing made no sense. We hear nothing of this level of kindness in history.
“We always curse the red lights but never laud the green lights. We’re always quick to judge those for their bad transgressions rather than their good. Mark Twain said: ‘Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.’ So why do we leave people void of their senses? It’s a hard thing to do — I know that — and I can’t say that I’m always being kind. But I try my best and I believe that you should too. Smile, sing, dance, hold doors for people, always be the second person to let go of the hug. These are the little things that become big things that become a changed world.
“I’m sure you’ve all heard this quote, but I’d like to say it nonetheless. ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’ — Edmund Burke. When I left Poland and was standing in front of the Western Wall with my bus of friends, I didn’t feel like the world was a pointless place — a lost cause. I looked up at this wall that had been built in 19 BCE by people long gone and forgotten for a reason far above themselves. And instead of thinking of what I couldn’t do, I knew that there was something I could do for each and every person. Be kind.