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.

5 comments:

  1. Yes, as forwarned, tears in my eyes. Of course, I am (to say the least) touched - and moved.

    Am also glad to have a friend - so near and dear - that she can help fill in the gaps in the recall of my own life!

    As I briefly explained to Danielle, before I read the post -- it is a friend like Nancy...of 20+ years - that hopefully she too will be lucky enough to find...in her life. Like a sister... (since I have none)only better ?!

    Thank you for honoring everyone you touched on in this post - your introspect and retrospect of late, is admirable...

    -Jackie "Oh"!

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  2. It is good to also now have the names of those folks -- Stase & Yonas Rusgis as well as to know that they sheltered your grandmother. I remember going to the library -- were we in search of their names or of their whereabouts -- that fact escapes me. And that your Dad played with Anne Frank -- now that I did not know when I set out to write this. Again, one has to wonder what would have been if his family had not emigrated before the war. Finally, would love to have a recording of your grandmother playing a duet wit Einstein -- she must have been quite something at 19.

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  3. Thanks for sharing this profoundly moving and beautifully written post. You are so gifted with your words and clearly a such a special friend to Jackie, and to all of us. Andrea

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  4. Thanks Andrea. I really am enjoying writing again -- so different from memos and grant proposals. rewarding to put pen to paper and tell a story. someday all my little stories will be a collection. nancy

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