The Fourth of July has become an annual norm for me - filled with hot dogs and hamburgers, red white and blue. However, this year is a bit different for me. Working at USC Shoah Foundation has opened my eyes, and taught me that this holiday goes far beyond the parties and decorations. Today, as I sit in the office and watch testimonies of Holocaust survivors, I am painfully reminded that not everyone has lived a life nearly as free as mine, and that not everyone currently lives one either.
As the gray clouds begin to part and as the fourth creeps closer, I can’t help but reminisce on my life here in the United States.
I grew up in a very happy home in Charlotte, North Carolina with three siblings and two encouraging and loving parents. I attended a school, where almost all of my friends shared in the same beliefs as I did. Outside of school, I was never judged for these beliefs. The greatest problem I can remember facing in my early childhood involved trying to get out of my swim meets during the summer because they made me nervous and uncomfortable. This seemed like the biggest problem in the world to me at the time.
Looking back at some of my first glimpses into problems and injustices of the world, I am reminded of September 11, 2001. I remember sitting in my first grade classroom and hearing the principal’s frantic voice come over the intercom and fill the room with confusion and fear. I went home early that day to see my family glued to the images that played on repeat across the television. It didn’t turn off for days. I was too young to understand what this all meant, but I was old enough to recognize the hate and anger that had to have caused it.
Years after, I remember sitting at my small desk in Mrs. Kinney’s classroom for World History class next to my best friend. I remember skimming through the pages of my textbook, passing over photos of war and violence. The class took turns pop-corn reading through the facts of the Holocaust as if they were just trivial bullet points in the story of our world’s vast history. Although they saddened me, the events didn’t seem like much more than a definition that I would need to memorize for next week’s test. It seemed irrelevant compared to the more recent event of 9/11 and we seemed to be safe and at peace, so why waste time worrying about it? I maintained a similar mindset for many of my courses during my early education.
One of the most valuable lessons that I have learned during my time at USC Shoah Foundation is the power of a story. Not the sheer facts alone, but the unique and irreplaceable moments that make us who we are, that make us human. I have spent the past several months watching and listening to testimonies, and the things I have learned from these extraordinary individuals who suffered through genocide are infinitely more meaningful to me than the bullet points that I skimmed in fifth grade.
Stories are necessary and these ones must be told. Listening to these stories, I am not discouraged, but I am more optimistic than ever before. These stories are what will change the course of our future. This year, the Fourth of July stands out to me not as a celebration of hot dogs and hamburgers, but as a day to harness the freedom and justice that our nation has as motivation to educate the world with stories of our past in hopes for a peaceful future.