Our children need to hear about the teacher and the fireman who would not run from evil

The shrillness of this presidential campaign continues 24/7. If you’re like me, you worry about the impact of the cynical, bare-knuckled, in-your-face political season is having on our young people.

Kids need heroes to look up to and emulate. They aren’t going to find them in Washington anytime soon.

But I would like to suggest that families pause to reflect on two real life heroes who remind us what values are worth living and, if necessary dying for.

America just paused to mark the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist outrages. There were so many heroes that day that we know about and many more whose heroism can be written down and commemorated in the Heavenly Court.

We owe it to our children to teach them that life is about choices, big and small and that there are true heroes in each generation to remind us of our capacity to stand up to evil; people like firefighter, Stephen Siller and teacher, Jane Haining.

As I drove from my mom’s apartment to Manhattan, through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel this week, I thought of the incredible humanity of Fireman Stephen Siller.

On September 11th, 2001, that Staten Island resident had gone off duty and exited the tunnel enroute to home, when he heard about the attacks.

He tried to turn his truck around but was stopped at the entrance. Manhattan was already sealed off.

No one would have questioned Stephen if he had then gone home to await further instructions. Siller instead strapped on 60 pounds of gear and ran from the Brooklyn side of the tunnel directly to the World Trade Center.

He died pushing back against evil, while trying to help the innocent.

And then there is the remarkable legacy of another person who chose, not to flee evil, but to fearlessly confront evil while trying to protect and reassure the innocent.

New documents and photos were unearthed recently in a Scottish Church presenting us a full picture of a person whom the Nazis reduced to a number, 79467, but whose humanity they failed to extinguish, even in her final days. 

Jane Haining was 47-years-old when she died at Auschwitz, but unlike the millions of Jews, Gypsies, Poles, she could have avoided being deported there in the first place.

Jane Haining was not a Jew, Gypsy or Pole.

She was a teacher from Scotland who volunteered for service as a missionary in 1932, becoming matron of the girls’ home at the Scottish Mission School in Budapest. Haining looked after 50 of the school’s 400 pupils (most of whom were Jewish), and quickly became fluent in Hungarian. Throughout the first years of WWII, she managed to keep her students safe.

In 1944, even when the Nazis moved on Budapest, she refused to return home to the safety of Scotland.

She insisted on staying with her girls, “If the girls need me in the days of sunshine, how much more do they need me in the days of darkness,” she asked.

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Haining was eventually taken from the school, arrested and accused by the Gestapo of eight “offenses”, including working among Jews, weeping when seeing the girls attend class wearing yellow stars and visiting British prisoners of war.

Haining was deported to Auschwitz, where she died with some of the girls from the Jewish Mission School.

It should come as no surprise that her last letter, written in the shadow of death and dated just two days before her murder at Auschwitz dealt mainly with her concerns not about her tragic fate but rather about the welfare of others.

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As parents, our first instinct is try to protect our children from harsh realities of the world. But like it or not, everyone is going to be confronted with the ugliness and treachery of evil.

While most of us probably would never choose to put our own safety at risk to save others, we live in a world where young people watch their elders as they too often choose to avert their eyes and shut their mouths when confronted by evil doers.

We owe it to our children to teach them that life is about choices, big and small and that there are true heroes in each generation to remind us of our capacity to stand up to evil; people like firefighter, Stephen Siller and teacher, Jane Haining.

May their selflessness and sacrifices inspire generations to come.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. Follow the Simon Wiesenthal Center on Facebook and on Twitter.



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