What Impact Can We Have On the Life of Another Person?

I just finished watching the only TV program I watch on a regular basis – CBS Sunday Morning. I appreciate their consistent cavalcade of positive, meaningful stories. Today’s program was no exception. One of the stories today highlighted the life stories of a living legend, Sidney Poitier http://tinyurl.com/bp9qnje .

Sidney Poitier


An integral part of his story, one I had never heard before, was shared. It caused me to reflect afterward, “What impact can I have on the life of another person?” Born as the youngest of a large and poor Bahamian family, he moved to New York at age 17 to become an actor. Washing dishes at a restaurant to  survive, the young Poitier was approached by an elderly Jewish waiter, a fellow employee. The following is from the CBS Sunday Morning account:

“There was one of the waiters, a Jewish guy, elderly man, and he looked over at me and was looking at me for quite awhile. I had a newspaper, it was called Journal American. And he walked over to me, and he said, ‘What’s new in the paper?’ And I looked up at this man. I said to him, ‘I can’t tell you what’s in the paper, because I can’t read very well.’ He said, ‘Let me ask you something, would you like me to read with you?’ I said to him, ‘Yes, if you like.’

“Now let me tell you something: That man, every night, the place is closed, everyone’s gone, and he sat there with me week after week after week. And he told me about punctuations. He told me where dots were and what the dots mean here between these two words, all of that stuff.”

“He took you through high school,” said (Leslie) Stahl.

“Yes, he did. And it wasn’t for long. I learned a lot. And then things began to happen.”

I’m sure this elderly Jewish man, at the time, had no idea the gift he was giving to the world as he offered to help the young man that day. He had no idea that Sidney Poitier’s future would inspire thousands to reach for what was previously out of reach. I believe he did this unselfish act of kindness, teaching a kid to read, because it felt like the right thing to do. I’d even guess it came as a knee-jerk reaction.

So I ask myself, “What impact, then, can I have on the life of another person? What simple act of kindness can I do to change the life of another person?” I believe the answer will appear in my everyday life, perhaps even today. And when the opportunity comes to give, I shouldn’t even think about it. I should just do it…like an elderly Jewish waiter in New York did for a dishwasher who couldn’t tell him “…what’s new in the paper.”

The Butterfly Project

Last night I attended the opening of The Butterfly Project at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden http://umlaufsculpture.org/ in Austin, Texas. I was deeply moved by this incredible Holocaust exhibit made by school children in Austin, honoring the memory of the 1.5 million children who were murdered under Nazi rule. My congratulations go out to Beth McDaniel, a member of our Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) Committee and coordinator of the project. Below is an explanation of the project. I encourage everyone to visit this moving work of art on display throughout the month of April (another “opening” of the project is April 18, if you want to meet Beth).

Of the thousands of butterflies on display, this one caught my eye and took my breath away:


IN MEMORY OF THE 1.5 MILLION CHILDREN KILLED IN THE HOLOCAUST…thousands of Austin area elementary, middle school and high school students created handmade butterflies as a part of Ballet Austin’s Light/ The Holocaust and Humanity Project.  Each student (4th-12th grade) read a biography such as the ones you see here, on a child who perished at the hands of the Nazis.  The idea was to personalize the victims…for the students to realize that these weren’t just a group of people in a different part of the world in a different time.  But rather, these were individuals, each beautiful and special in their own ways…each with his or her own interests, talents, and life story.  Many of the students came to realize the things they had in common with some of the victims.  The students then designed their butterflies with that child victim in mind.  Then, various classroom conversations ensued on topics such as diversity, tolerance, remembrance and issues relating to contemporary genocide.

Younger children engaged in a “Celebration of Diversity” curriculum, in which students were paired up, and together explored those things they had in common with each other and those things that were different from each other.  Those younger children then designed their butterflies for their partners.

44 Austin schools and organizations participated with a total of more than 10,500 butterflies.  Many students wrote messages to the child.  One school included Six Word Memoirs on the back of each butterfly, such as “You deserved a better life, Judith” or “Fifteen years is way too young” or “I like sports and music too”.  Some schools took the project further by developing other curriculum around the topic.  One school wrote letters to their lawmakers in support of genocide prevention legislation.  Another school recorded a video letter to Congress.  Several of the schools read Elie Weisel’s novel, Night or other Holocaust-related literature.

The construction of the exhibit was also a community-wide collaborative effort.  The project sponsors dedicated their time and donated materials.  Crews of students attached butterflies for several days.  Butterflies were attached with bobby pins to preserve them for their next exhibit.  This exhibit could not have happened without these generous sponsors and volunteers.

The butterflies will be on exhibit at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden for the month of April.  Following the exhibit at the Umlauf, the butterflies will make their journey to Houston to be a part of the Houston Holocaust Museum’s 2013 exhibit of 1.5 million butterflies.  The project was inspired by the poem The Butterfly, by Pavel Friedman, written while he lived in Theresienstadt Concentration Camp.  Pavel was later deported to Auschwitz, where he died at age 23 in 1944.

Elie Wiesel – a Conversation I Overheard

It has been said that there have been certain people through history whose presence and energy could be felt when they walked into a room. I felt such an energy from Elie Wiesel http://tinyurl.com/pjkde when he walked into the studio yesterday morning at our local PBS station, KLRU http://www.klru.org/ , for a taping of Overheard with Evan Smith.  This taping was part of the incredible Light / The Holocaust & Humanity Project http://www.balletaustin.org/light/  (more on this project in a future blog post). Being a partner in the Light Project, I was invited to be in the audience for the taping.

Evan Smith did an excellent job facilitating this conversation with Professor Wiesel. There were many things he said that were noteworthy. Here are a few that meant a lot to me:

I was able to ask him a direct question at the end of the interview. I mentioned Edmund Burke’s quote, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” My question was, “I am at times frustrated by friends and colleagues who choose to do nothing when they know injustice is present. What advice would you give to encourage them to do something?” His answer was for me to speak up against the injustice first. He said, “If there is an injustice and I am silent, I am guilty.” Those around me will only speak up if they witness my example of speaking up and doing something against the injustice. Brilliant!

Other questions were asked that had to do with humanity and injustice in the world. One of his closing quotes was, “I am not defined by my humanity unless it is linked to yours.” This man of peace (1986 Nobel Peace Prize awardee) realizes and teaches that it is our link to one another that will cause peace (or harm). It is up to each one of us to accept that responsibility, the responsibility to link to one another, and act upon it, in order to achieve peace.

I encourage all of you to learn from, or be in the room with Elie Wiesel, if given the chance. If you cannot be in the same room with him, pick up and read one of the many books he wrote. You will feel his amazing energy through his words.