STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:
Most of us know Ray Allen as a former NBA basketball player with the Milwaukee Bucks, the Seattle Supersonics, Boston Celtics Miami Heat. He's also the NBA's all-time leader in 3-point shots. What most people probably don't know is that Ray has always been fascinated by the Holocaust. In fact, whenever his team would visit Washington, D.C., to play the Wizards, Ray would make a visit to the National Holocaust Museum.
Recently, Ray Allen decided to see the history in person. He visited the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, and he wrote about the experience this week in The Players' Tribune. We called him at his home in Connecticut to hear more about his trip and some of the unexpected reactions he's gotten. So you write in your essay that you have been fascinated by World War II and the Holocaust since you were a teenager. Why is that?
RAY ALLEN: Well, first, I grew up as a Air Force brat. My dad was a metals technician in the Air Force. And so I lived and grew up in Germany. I grew up in England. So I had opportunity to see things differently. So I've always had this curiosity about the world. And, you know, I had this ability to kind of think outside my own self and put myself in those people's shoes. And, you know, so as I became of college age, I watched "Schindler's List." It was 1993. And it really, like, unearthed a lot in me. And it made me realize that, you know, how much good one person can do and vice versa, how much bad one person can do.
SMITH: And what made you want to visit Auschwitz specifically?
ALLEN: There's so many different stories that have come out of the Holocaust, so many different movies that I've watched that really show the human condition, people's will to survive. And, you know, I always ask myself, if I was in those situations, what would I do? Would I be brave? It's easy for me to say I'm brave now, you know. I'm tall. I'm, you know, strong. I've played in the NBA for many years.
You know, I come from a good family. You know, it's easy to talk about being brave Now in the position I'm in, but would I be brave if I was under those circumstances where, you know, I had to fight for my survival, having not eaten in days, weeks or months? Like, how tough would I have been then? How strong would I have been?
SMITH: Right. I mean, in your essay, you talk about people who hid Jewish families in their basements, risking their own lives to do that. And you ask yourself if you would have done the same. Would you have done the same?
ALLEN: The easy answer is yes. It's easy to say, yeah, I'm going to fight for, you know, someone who can't fight themselves. But, you know, I have five children. And would I put my 5-year-old in harm's way? Like, it's easy for me to say I want to help other people, but in helping other people, would I be killing my own family? Now, a lot of people made that choice. And a lot of people saved a lot of lives.
And I would like to think that I was - I would be that courageous. There's obviously no way to be able to tell, but that is, I think, the ultimate question that we live with every day because there's things that happen every single day now today. And it doesn't result in maybe us losing our lives or family member losing their lives, but are we willing to fight for the next person when it doesn't benefit us?
SMITH: In the piece, titled "Why I Went To Auschwitz," Ray Allen writes about the overwhelming feelings he had as he stood in front of what he called the horror of the history.
ALLEN: (Reading) We walked through the barracks and gas chambers. And what I remember most is what I heard - nothing. I've never experienced silence like that.
SMITH: This is an excerpt where he describes visiting the gas chambers for the first time.
ALLEN: (Reading) Apart from footsteps, the complete lack of sound was almost jarring. It's eerie and sobering. You're standing in these rooms where so much death has taken place, and your mind is trying to come to terms with all that's happened in this space. I stood outside for a while by myself, thinking about everything I experienced. Why do we learn about the Holocaust? Is it just so we can make sure nothing like this ever happens again? Is it because 6 million people died? Yes, but there's a bigger reason I think. The Holocaust was about how human beings, real normal people like you and me, treat each other.
SMITH: Many questions, many reflections, many unexpected emotions - that's what Ray Allen says this journey drummed up in him. The one thing he did not expect? Criticism. When Ray returned home and posted about his trip on social media, some people blasted back. They didn't like the fact that he seemed to be raising awareness for what had happened in Poland to Jews and not using that time or energy to support people in the black community. You got quite a few really strong reactions to your visit to Auschwitz. Not all of them were positive. Why do you think there was that response?
ALLEN: Because, again, the way, you know, we get thrust into these situations in the first place is because people can't see past their own color, past their own hate. And the reason that I brought that up was because people are looking at this as a color issue. You know, you want to talk about this issue and say, well, why are we still talking about this? And why is, you know, why are you supporting Jewish people? And my response has been consistent every time is that this is not about Jewish people. This is about people. You know, just because that's their religion, look at what was done to them. You know, this is a lesson for us in all walks of life.
And there's so many different atrocities that have taken place. This is just the atrocity that we are speaking about right now. We can talk about the genocide all over the world, you know, that's taking place in so many different countries, but we just happen to be talking about the Holocaust. I've studied slavery just the same. And this is slavery just the same. I'm speaking on behalf of people, people who can't speak for themselves, you know, atrocities. You know, teaching kids now - we got kids in school now that don't know what the Holocaust is, you know, but yet, they'll know - they know what a bully is. Bullies turn into dictators. Dictators end up bullying. You know, we can't have that in this world that we live in. We know too much.
SMITH: That was Ray Allen. He played in the NBA for 18 years. His piece on his journey to Auschwitz ran this week in The Players' Tribune. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.