PEABODY — In a world where some arguments never seem to end and ethnic feuds are timed in centuries, it’s easy to get the impression that life never gets any better.
Paul Breines, a retired Boston College history professor, brought a somewhat-brighter perspective to last night’s Holocaust Center Boston North’s Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust memorial, as the featured speaker at Peabody High School.
Born in Queens, N.Y., Breines could have been anyone from anywhere when his family moved to upscale 1950s Scarsdale. In other words, with his nondescript last name and his mannerism — “I didn’t talk so much with my hands,” he said with a laugh — for a while, he didn’t have to advertise his Jewish heritage.
“I had my time as a bystander.”
But his attitude changed after a classmate was turned away from a girlfriend’s “coming out” ball at the Scarsdale Country Club because he was Jewish. It was an era “not that far away from the Holocaust,” Breines recalled. Moreover, he began to see a connection between what happened to his friend and what was happening in states like Mississippi and Alabama, where so-called Freedom Riders had appeared in efforts to end the segregation of black people.
It was an easy connection for Breines to make. He had studied “obsessively” the photos promoted by radical groups, pictures of blacks lynched by mobs of triumphant whites. Eyeing the victims, he decided, “I am with them. I can’t let that happen again.”
Eventually, all this moved him to become a Freedom Rider, joining a movement whose members practiced nonviolence but were targeted and even killed in response.
“I guess I was an ‘upstander’ in 1961,” he told the gathering, using the word coined by Holocaust Center co-founder and survivor the late Sonia Weitz, “along with a whole bunch of others who couldn’t stand the way Negroes were treated in the United States.”