Something Beautiful Happened
introduction THEY WEREN’T REALLY GONE AFTER ALL
April 13, 2014
It was 1 a.m. when I walked into Nico’s room. His back was to me, but he was still awake. I knew he would be. We all were.
Earlier that day we had gotten a call that didn’t seem real. It still doesn’t, and I imagine it never will. My 14-year-old nephew, Reat, and his grandfather, Bill, were dead.
Bill and Reat had gone to the Jewish Community Campus in Overland Park, Kansas, so Reat could attend a singing audition. They were shot and killed by a white supremacist neo-Nazi as they exited their car. The man who killed them shouted “Heil Hitler!” when he was arrested and said he wanted to know what it felt like to kill Jews before he died. He murdered three beautiful people that day, none of whom were Jewish.
I sat on the edge of Nico’s bed and reached my hand out to stroke his hair. My sweet nine-year-old boy rolled over to face me, his big brown eyes brimming with tears. And then he spoke, breaking my heart for the second time that day.
“I’m so sad, Mom,” Nico said. “I don’t understand. When you told me about our family and what they did, you told me the Nazis were gone and that the people were saved. How could this happen?”
Nico was right. I did tell him that the Nazis were gone. And I did tell him that the family was safe. I’d thought they were. But then I was branded a liar that day, our family’s history rewritten by a hate-filled man on a mission to kill Jews.
Nico knew the story as well as I did. Again and again I’d told him how during World War II, my Greek grandmother, my yia-yia, was one of a group of islanders who helped hide a Jewish tailor named Savvas and his family from the Nazis. Despite the risk, despite the danger, and despite the fact that they were told that anyone found helping Jews would be killed along with their entire families, not one person on our tiny Greek island gave up the secret of Savvas. Not one. Savvas and his girls were saved and they all survived.
For the past several years, Nico had witnessed my personal journey, my search to find Savvas’s family, the girls my yia-yia had risked everything for. After countless dead ends and disappointments, I had finally found them. They were a beautiful family, including five people who are alive today because of what happened on our tiny island 70 years ago. We had celebrated with the descendants of Savvas’s family. We celebrated and cried, because they had survived; goodness had prevailed and the Nazis were gone. That was on Thursday, April 10, 2014.
Three days later, on Sunday, April 13, 2014, we cried again, because Bill and Reat were dead and we realized that the Nazis weren’t really gone after all.
“I don’t understand,” Nico asked. “How could this happen?”
How do you accept that tragic irony is a cruelty reserved not merely for Shakespearean plot twists?
How do you admit to your son that monsters exist outside of fairy tales?
How do you explain to a child something you can’t understand yourself?