Sunday, November 9, 2008

Delight, Despair

Have you noticed the Change? I don't know, maybe it's just me, but it seems to me that there has been a collective sigh of relief, and people are now thinking that there IS hope, it really is worth looking ahead. President Obama (isn't that delicious?) is taking the reins of an abused animal, and it's going to take a while before he can soothe it and begin to heal it, but I think he's the man for the job. I'm saving newspaper articles and stuff, because some day I'll give it to my brown grandsons to prove that this really IS an historic event; I imagine they'll wonder what's the deal? That's just what we were all hoping when we linked arms and sang "We shall overcome". (Evangeline doesn't know what the big stir is about, either, but wonders if the new President will legislate Tuna in Every Bowl...)

I always tell the children on my Museum tours that one reason it's important to know History is because it gives us a good opportunity to learn from the past, so we don't make the same mistakes. Oh, each generation can make new ones for their descendants to learn from, but hopefully we won't make the same ones again.

Sweater worn by Auschwitz Survivor

on display at our State Historical Museum

But today - and tomorrow (November 9th and 10th) is an anniversary of an historic event that was unequalled in human recorded history. What I speak of, of course, is the 70th anniversary of "Kristallnacht" , "The Night of Broken Glass."

Youngsters (that would be anyone under about age 45) may read about it and shake their heads - "That must have taken place in the Middle Ages, what a terrible thing." Well -- let me put it in a bit of perspective: there are survivors of Kristallnacht alive today, and they are not extremely old. It happened well within the lifespan of many of our senior citizens, and I venture that a visit to a retirement center would produce a group of people who remember hearing of it or reading about it at the time.

I've stated before: if asked "what I am", I reply that I'm Jewish, and indeed I was raised in a Conservative Jewish household. NOTE: "conservative" in this instance means neither the strictness of Orthodox Jewry nor the more casual and modern Reform branch.....has nothing, I repeat nothing to do with politics. Having said that, I also add that I consider myself an ETHNIC Jew, as opposed to religious. Judaism is a religion, true, but it's also an ethnic group - and there are candles burning all over the world where knots of scholars discuss this definition and its consequences until the crack of dawn.

What it means to ME is, when my children were little (and today) I celebrate Chanukah, Passover, and the High Holy Days (Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement). Part of being an ethnic Jew is the food....and those holidays have the best food (well, except Yom Kippur, which has no food at all - one fasts, *entirely*, from sundown to sundown).

But even ethnic Jews are aware of the history, and Kristallnacht was the match held to the candle that became the Holocaust, and illuminated a period of history that showed, clearly, the lengths that Man's Cruelty can go to. Again, reading of the Holocaust sounds - even to me - like events of that nature must've happened early in the Dark Ages.

My mother was known for her elegant dinner parties, and while I didn't attend (I was a little kid, and not the sort parents trot out for the admiration of their friends) I got to meet the guests before going up to my room. (Oh, hey - my sister and I got to eat the great food, don't get me wrong.)

There were newspaper dinner parties, comprised of journalists and newspapermen who worked with my father (and admired him - did I ever mention that my daddy is in Who's Who in American Journalism? Did I ever mention that I digress?)

And there were Just Friends dinner parties, and they, of course (being the 1950s, &c) were comprised mostly of Jewish friends. I remember occasions where two people in particular remained in my mind, though their names are forgotten to me, along with their faces and their relationship to my parents: one was a woman with a long, dark, purple number on her forearm. My recollection is that she wore a long-sleeved sweater, but I was shown the number. The other was a man, whom I remember thinking was very handsome, who had a leather glove on his left hand. (I also remember him as having an eye patch, but I think that's the romanticism of my little-kid self, to tell you the truth.)

I was told that he wore the glove because his hand was made of iron; he had lost his "meat hand" in Germany, and he was Israeli. He had an ACCENT! I mean, does it get more exciting than that? A tall man (ok, I'm only 4'11" now; I was a kid then; he might not have actually been tall at all) with an exotic foreign accent, described as Israeli - and with an IRON HAND!

Well....I remember asking Mom what was the deal with the number on that lady's arm, and I remember that she answered me and I don't doubt that her answer was age-appropriate, but I imagine it didn't really mean much to me.

When I got to junior high school, I hit a Jewish Phase (have I mentioned that I was a trial to my mother? Ooooh yeah). I bought a large beautiful carved Mexican sterling-silver Star of David on a fairly heavy chain and determined to wear it always. My mother forbade it! I was horrified...and realized, years later, how that must have made her perhaps terrified as well las uncomfortable; her generation practiced their religion openly - but didn't go out of their way in their daily lives to draw attention to it. That's one thing for which I mean to apologize when we meet in Heaven or whatever happens. I was put out, but didn't wear it.

But also at that time, I started reading some books, taken from our shelves at home, about the Holocaust, and I came to realize something, which I believe today. (This is my opinion, based on nothing resembling research, &c)

I think there are two kinds of Jews: one kind reads everything they can on the Holocaust, studies it, discusses it, researches it. The other kind acknowledges it, mourns it - but doesn't want to see any pictures or hear any first-person memories. And guess what? I'm both.

I read a lot - but given the chance to tour the famous Holocaust Museum (it's in Washington, D.C., I think) -- my initial feeling is, I won't. I'm sensitive to historical artifacts; I get misty-eyed at our Museum looking at Abraham Lincoln's shawl and the rock thrown through the window of a black woman in Little Rock, AR with a note tied to it reading "Next time it'll be dynamite...KKK".

So walking through a boxcar - seeing (as I understand it) piles of gold taken from people as they entered the chambers....I don't think Icould. Or would. Truth to tell, I don't know. Given the chance (I've never been to DC!) I might try and have to flee; I might not even try; I might go through it, probably sobbing.....I just don't know.

Well, boys and girls, humanity has given over atrocities, we haven't got the whole message from Kristallnacht or from the Holocaust (and I say "we", but of course now, as then, it's the few who somehow lack 2/3 of their hearts and 3/4 of their brains, but still....). There are new ones, or the same old ones performed with modern technology.

But now the world knows of Kristallnacht, and it's mentioned on NPR and in the newspapers, and it must be mourned afresh. I am mourning it afresh - but through my tears, I still feel optimistic. CHANGE, especially as it relates to human beings, is painstakingly slow. But the turtle won the race. So will we; if not in my lifetime, perhaps in my grandchildren's?

I'll end with another memory, one I might have mentioned before: I remember lying on the floor, coloring in my coloring book, while my parents sat listening to the big radio. It was 1948, and I was five years old. It was some dull recitation and I wasn't really listening - but suddenly my parents both cried out, and when I looked up, they were BOTH weeping. I didn't know daddies COULD weep, it was unthinkable! And they said "It's passed the UN, Israel will become a Jewish State." I had no idea what that meant - but it's now one of my most-cherished memories. Advancing age provides an exquisite appreciation for history.


Anonymous said...

I imagine that moment when Israel became a state equates pretty well to 11pm EST when NBC and perhaps others called the election for Obama. Lots of amazed and relieved and happy and encouraged tears in both cases.

Thank you for this post. Although of course I had heard of and read of Kristalnacht I don't know a lot about it. I shall now rectify that omission.

teabird said...

I think there are two kinds of Jews: one kind reads everything they can on the Holocaust, studies it, discusses it, researches it. The other kind acknowledges it, mourns it - but doesn't want to see any pictures or hear any first-person memories. And guess what? I'm both.

So am I. I used to avoid everything about the Holocaust because I saw my face, and my grandmother's face, and my mother's face in every picture.

I still believe that the question isn't "how did that happen?" but "why hasn't it happened more often?"

I started to read about the Shoah when a friend gave me The Nazi Officer's Wife and urged me (for two years) to read it. When I did, I became so immersed that I had to read more.

There is so much in this post that describes me as well - but so much better than I could have said it.

Joy said...

Thank you for a very thought-provoking post!

I think what you said about two kinds of Jews applies to other things as well: my Mom lived through WWII (always in the US). She was aware of it all as it happened, and she avoids museums, documentaries or reading *about* it now.

Shan said...

"What I am" is not Jewish, but I do recall reading quite a bit of the book The Holocaust when I was a freshman in high school. Not because it was an assignment, but because I came across it and couldn't put it down... until I couldn't bear to hold it any longer.

Last year my son took part in a tolerance studies program at his school. It involved a trip to the Museum of the Holocaust in L.A. I went with him because I'd always meant to go and because I couldn't have him experience that without me.

Our docent was a survivor, a wonderful man with a way of telling stories in his booming voice (necessary at times with a bunch of independent study kids). The trip through the "gas chamber" was quite possibly one of the worst experiences of my life, and I knew that I was coming out of it alive. But the stories we heard and the videos we watched while in there broke my heart over and over again.

I do believe you're right about there being an easing of tensions and people looking forward/up again. Of course, I voted for Obama, so my perspective may not be everybody's (when is it ever?).

Shan :+)

MollyBeees said...

Great post DH! Your writing is so descriptive. Are you coming to dish cloth night tomorrow night? I have a couple of books for you.

Yarnhog said...

I enjoyed this post a great deal. I am in a unique position regarding this issue, I think. My father is Palestinian, and his family lost everything in 1948. As a teenager, I spent a year in Germany as a foreign exchange student and lived with a German family. In college, I studied German history and literature and wrote my senior thesis on Nazi propaganda. And I am married to a Jew whose family fled Russia in the early 1900's and Poland in the 1930's. I agree that history provides us with the best possible opportunity to avoid repeating our mistakes; isn't it a shame that so few of those in power seem to have any sort of grasp of it?