This is the second part of a three part post.
Click for the first — One summer’s reading group: Preface
Click for the third — One summer’s reading group: Postscript
Every summer a group of about twenty high school students, mostly Jewish, from Bayonne, Jersey City and Hoboken met every day on the beach at Tenth Avenue in Belmar. One year, 1966?, someone started reading holocaust stories out loud. I took the photo above. That’s not me front and center.
I knew about the Holocaust. I had read Anne Frank and had seen the movie. My father, he’s on the left, and uncles had fought in the war, although none in Europe. Family of friends had numbers on their arms.
Distant cousins would write to us periodically telling us about their lives and asking us for financial support. They had escaped from Hitler — I do not know if they were in the camps or not — but they had made their way to Israel. There were two girls, Tamara and Shulamith, about my sister’s and my age. That is them to the right in Tel Aviv 1954. My mother always got upset when these letters came, and there would be whispered conversations between my mom and dad.
My mother always made me feel as though it could happen again — Jews being rounded up and imprisoned or killed, anytime, anywhere. It is true that one morning we woke up to a swastika drawn with snow on the gate to our backyard. We believed but never were certain that the children who lived on the corner and who attended St. Andrew’s did it. After all, the nuns at St. Andrew’s used to walk their students to the corner after school to make sure they didn’t stop at “the Jew” Lennie’s candy store.
Mom distrusted anyone who was not a member of the tribe. She spoke of Jews not being served in restaurants, not getting jobs. We knew of families who had changed their names. I’d come home from school during the McCarthy era to find her glued to the television set, and many evenings I would hear her talking to my father, who was the token Jew in his department in the Civil Service Commission. She feared he and some of their friends would be called up before the committee. Who knew what to think? I was young.
I was sucked into the Holocaust readings with fascination and horror, and felt we were doing something that our parents — at least mine — would not approve. Even many years after that summer, my imagination was filled with images of blond, blue-eyed men and women with thick accents opening up my stomach to see if the monkey sperm with which they had tried to impregnate me had created a monster. Or they would take away my glasses and since I was minus 16 in one eye and minus 18 in the other I would be useless and they would send me to the showers.
As my life became more my own these nightmares disappeared. My mom relaxed too. She welcomed into the family a “very nice” Protestant son-in-law with parents who, she was surprised but relieved to discover, had similar values and life-style to hers. There she is with my husband’s mom at the our wedding. She lived in senior communities with few Jewish neighbors and fewer if any Jewish staff on which she grew to depend. She sang the Jewish holiday songs and relished the holiday meals and lit the Sabbath candles. She sang Christmas carols and enjoyed the lights on the Christmas trees. I hope her heart softened and she was less afraid.
But now I think mother might have been right, and I was naive.
It would do us all good to spend a summer reading about the Holocaust and the millions killed in genocidal wars in Korea, Rwanda, India, the Ukraine, Algeria, the Congo, and, and, and. We might read about how self-righteous white men in our own country treated the Native Americans, and how they pulled Africans from their homes and made them slaves, and how they now, every day during this tedious primary season, spew hate and bigotry as a mainstay of America’s exceptionalism.
Oh dear, I’m ranting. Forgive me.
Our world is diverse. Let us one day rejoice in these differences and recognize the infinite possibilities they offer. Let us one day work together for the benefit of all mankind and this remarkable, beautiful, rich world we live in.