Sunday, August 15, 2010

Knowing

For Rita and Jackie.

Every once and a while, I can pinpoint what I know to be true to a moment in time. This is the tale of one of those moments.

My first memory of WWII is of a book in our living room that described a German POW camp. There it sat with my parent's wedding album, the family Bible, and other assorted flotsam and jetsom that collects on coffee tables and side tables in living rooms across the country. Spiral bound with a leather cover it is likely the first thing that I read about WWII. It had line illustrations of the camp and us kids knew that our father had been in one of those camps after being shot down over Germany during WWII. He never really talked about that time -- we knew this because we had the book. I read that book in the hope that I would learn more about him from its pages. And I did.

So there was the beginning of an understanding of World War II. The real life version of "Hogan's Heros" and life was not so pretty as a German POW but as an officer, my father probably fared ok. He embodied an American tale -- fighting soldiers gone to war, shot down, force marched back from the front lines. Over time, I layered in the french resistance, the blitzkrieg over Britain, and the terrible end of Hiroshima as I learned about the "great war".

I can't remember when I first read the Diary of Anne Frank or began to learn about the Holocaust. I do know that I read about Hitler's final solution -- adding facts as if that would somehow help me to understand the terrible atrocities that had been committed. Those facts swirled around in my head with that dashing picture of my father and his crew in their leather jackets -- together but distinct.

One cold night in college, Elie Wiesel read to us from Night in a slow, wavering voice that filled the college chapel. "Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky."

And I understood a bit more this parallel story of the great war. I understood but it was still distinct from my story -- which was of a heroic father who had flown off to war. I always wonder if called whether I would have gone. To this day, I don't know the answer.

One day, after college, when I picked up my cleaning from a dry cleaner that I'd been going to for a couple of years instead of the young girl who usually took my cash and handed me my clothes, it was an older man. My father's age. He asked me about my name -- noting the bj -- wanting to know where I was from. "Mostly Irish," I said, "with a little French and German thrown in but the name is Danish and I guess I'm a typical American mutt." He slowly rolled up his sleeve to show me a number stamped on his arm. And, although I don't precisely remember what he said the gist was that Denmark had done well by its Jewish citizens in WWII. I left basking in the reflected glow of my bloodline. And, the next time I was at the library, I looked up just what those Danes had done and found that they had supported their fellow citizens and helped them to escape the Nazi death camps. I knew a little bit more but yet again found myself wondering if I would have been as brave as the Danes had been -- would I live up to that bloodline that meant so much to the survivor at the dry cleaner?

If you've met Jackie, you know that she is a bit of a force of nature. She sped through high school and college graduating early and landing in New York city where she worked at Columbia University in the office of development. She would come to visit me in my little office (where I struggled to write grant proposals for a boss who liked to edit sentence by sentence rather than proposal by proposal) and we would chat as office mates often do. Chatting turned into dinners, movies, and adventures with the two Bills and other assorted friends. Since those early days, we've eaten our way through New Orleans -- visiting all the white table cloth restaurants -- and toured Las Vegas and the Mall of the Americas with the ladies. There are smaller road trips along the way -- up to Disneyland and to Laguna Beach for the art festival and all around San Diego from Hillcrest to North County. More importantly, we've been there for each other through lives little and big trials. She knows all my ticks as I know hers. It's been a pleasure to watch her kids grow .

I was Jackie's maid of honor at her wedding to Don and, wow, was I an ornery maid-of-honor -- I'm still not sure why she didn't fire me. The wedding had to be the weekend before my brother's or the weekend after (so I could use my free flights) and could I please just wear a dress of my own choosing? This was, after all, the last wedding I was going to agree to be in -- might as well go out with a dress I already owned and could use again. It was only later (about ten years later I think) that she confessed how much she hated that dress. By then, I had earned my stripes as having rescued the top tier of the cake before it totally slid off and fixed the remaining two tiers as her other friends distracted her. We were so good that eagle-eyed Jackie did not even notice the problem until she and Don were viewing their wedding video. With the video as proof, in typical Jackie fashion, she got a discount on the cake.

I think that is when I first spent time with Rita, Jackie's mom. She was the quiet and steady presence in the midst of the tension that can only come from out-of-town family, a wedding that included lots of bride and groom personal touches (while, make that bride), and a dad with a camera (did those flowers actually fall off the pedestal?). When Arlene (Jackie's mom-in-law) burnt the sleeve of her dress, Rita figured out how to fix it so that it wouldn't show -- deflating the big bubble of hysteria that was about to emerge on all sides of the bride. Like Jackie, Rita is a collector and her house is full of things that make her happy. An animal lover, she is a regular fixture at the zoo where she takes weekly walks. She is a wonderful artist -- electing vibrant colors that make me smile (you can see her art at Jackie's online store -- www.peaceloveandshopping.com/THEartgallery). She is, above all else, Jackie's mom. Mother of my friend.

We are coming to that moment now where facts became knowing. Somewhere, among our many journeys (physical, emotional, life), Jackie and I went to DC together. I asked her this week when that was and we think it was circa 1996 -- when Jackie was pregnant with Danielle. Don was there for work and among the activities Jackie and I undertook was to see the Holocaust Museum. We showed up at the appointed hour and received our identities. Here is a museum that asks you to walk in the footsteps of those who have gone before. We set off on our separate journeys.

It is a powerful museum, it walks you through the Holocaust, layering new knowledge about Hitler's final solution with every turn. Black and white, sepia photos of smiling families who are no more, shoes, a lone boxcar and a gas chamber, oral histories, and film come pouring out at you the way the water pours of the rims of the world's great falls. Together, they tell a most horrific story. Lest we forget. Underneath it all, there is a hope that by telling the story, we will not let this happen again. Yet we do. Armenia. Cambodia. Argentina. Chile. Darfur. Rwanda. Different yet the same.

Jackie and I journeyed through the Holocaust Museum -- sometimes together and sometimes apart. And I learned more. I remember reaching the end and being over-full -- of images, of facts of pain. Yet, I still did not know.

At the very end, we landed in front of an ordinary wall filled with names. Just plain black type marching along on a white wall. Name after name after name. These were the righteous -- those who had stood up to be counted. Who, like the Danes of my ancestary, had helped strangers and friends alike to escape. Who had hidden them in attics and barns and beneath the floorboards. A silent army of the courageous who with everything to lose themselves, still stretched out a hand and said come here. Let me help.

And that is the moment -- in front of that endless wall of black type on white that it became real that my dear friend Jackie was the daughter of a little girl who had been hidden during that war -- the great war with the dark underbelly.  A little girl named Rita and not Anne. A little girl who would grow up to be a vibrant woman with a love for animals and an artistic streak. A little girl who would give birth to another little girl named Jackie who would give birth to two more little girls named Danielle and Jessica.

And that is the moment that knowledge became knowing as I looked at my friend and imagined a life without her. That is the moment that I cried as we searched for the name of that long ago family that had saved her Mom. That is the moment that I finally knew why we all need to remember that time, those events -- to remember that number tattooed on the left forearm of a dry cleaner in Connecticut. To remember two little girls named Rita and Anne. One who escaped and one who did not. To remember and honor those who took a risk to save a child, a family, a stranger, a friend.


May 2012 Coda:  I've updated this piece based on a newsletter article from the LA Times thet Jackie unearthed -- Holocaust Survivor and Saviors Reunited:  Lithuanian Couple Sheltered Rita Feitler and Her Mother.   It is funny the way our memories glide over certain events and highlight others -- I remember Rita coming to NY for this event but I don't think it impressed upon me the way that day in the museum did.  Or maybe that day is the essence of knowing -- when you feel it in your gut and in your heart as well as knowing it in your mind.

We owe a debt of gratitude to the Yonas and Stasia Ruzgis.  How brave they were.  Courage comes in many forms -- theirs was selfless.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Of Fedoras and Bunions

"Daddy, do you have your hat," I can hear Grammy's voice as she and Grampy would prepare to sally forth. She in her mink with a perfectly coordinated silk scarf and he in his fedora. Somehow, I ended up with the scarf, the fedora, and for a time the mink. I can remember wearing the fedora around college and then around town. At some point I jettisoned the mink and more recently the fedora went out the door. The scarf remains -- a mix of oranges and golds tucked away in a box with various other scarves acquired during my life. Scarves that I no longer wear but somehow can not bear to part with.

Somewhere there are pictures of my grandfather wearing that fedora and my grandmother in that mink. I know that she used to wear it as she caught the sun in Elinor Village when they wintered in Florida. The fur was damaged as a result -- with the shoulders and collar turning the color of straw and feeling just a tad rough (under the arms was just as soft as could be). Somewhere there is a picture of a younger me wearing that fedora -- jauntily tipped at just the right angle. An article of clothing that could at once make me feel like a cool girl but also could just bring a smile to my face because it was grampy's.
He and I never had the easiest of relationships. I was the kid who was reading Deliverance (scandalous!) at too young of an age. I remember his voice drifting up to the bedroom in Washington, CT where I lay curled up with a book -- that book. "How could you let her read that, he said to my mother. She kind of laughed and told him she had stopped trying to screen what I read once I started to check books out of the adult library. Things got a bit heated and I started to read faster (who knew, maybe she'd take it away, see his side of things). To this day, I wonder if she had actually read Deliverance at that point -- did she know what was causing him to make such a ruckus? Did she know that I also devoured Valley of the Dolls up in Maine? I think for her, it just mattered that I was an omniverous reader -- constantly with a book. Seems kind of funny now -- those books being scandalous that is.

Grampy was quite something -- feisty and climbing trees well into his 70s. He could bring my aunt Monica to tears of frustration (and use of valium) just by the way he gave directions to Lake Quasipog. In the family lore (the stories you carry around), she turned the tables on him once, slippng valium on one of their last trips to Florida, dropping it into his coffee just so she could get him from point A to point B. I think it was likely the early stages of his dementia which would never really conquer his spirit but gradually take his mind.
I remember the way he coped with his bunions -- cutting holes out of his black leather shoes and wearing those with black socks and a bathing suit to Mt. Tom. He would shed things into a neat pile and unerringly find that rock near the shore so he could execute a shallow dive. Often, he would join us kids in standing on our heads as we played in the shallows of that spring-fed pond inat the end of a hot summer day.

As I sit here late on a Wednesday evening with my own throbbing bunion, I am wondering if I will hit a point where I have to cut holes in my shoes to get myself through the day. Unlike the fedora. Unlike the mink. I can't just toss this thing that is growing on my big toe joint out because it no longer suits me. In reality, it's a pretty small bunion as bunions -- or bumps as my sister calls them -- go. Like the fedora though, it ties me to an earlier memory of a man who was opinionated, strong as an ox, and stubborn as could be.

I wish I could meet that man again as I turn the corner into the 2nd half of my life. I'd like to meet that woman who married him as well -- Grammy of the afternoon Manhattans that Jimmy (my father) made just perfectly. She was the softer half of this duo -- always gracious and someone who you wanted to help. On many a summer morning we would hear her voice from downstairs asking "Daddy, do you think they're awake? Frosty (the dog) go get them up." And there they would be as we tumbled down the stairs, blueberry pancakes (a Grampy specialty) at the ready to fortify us for the day.

It would be great to have one of those breakfasts now that I'm old enough to appreciate it. Instead, I have a scarf, a throbbing bunion, and the memory of his and my fedora. And that is enough.