WRITING SHORT: 26/50

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[Come summer heat, much of my blogging momentum melts away. Hence an experiment until Labor Day: fifty minimalist posts about whatever.]

In graduate school, I met a veteran of World War II and the Korean War enrolled under the GI Bill. He was really only two years older than I, but had lied about his age to enlist as soon as he turned sixteen in March 1945, so officially he was three years older.

By the time he’d completed basic training the war in Europe was over; he was therefore shipped off to the Pacific to die there instead. Douglas MacArthur snapped him up for his Honor Guard. (As my friend said later, sardonically, “His Honor Guard was all tall white guys.”) Because he already knew how to drive, he became MacArthur’s personal chauffeur. Aged sixteen (but passing for seventeen), he drove the General into Tokyo when Japan signed the peace treaty.

After that he got to go home, although his term of enlistment wasn’t over, Then came 1950, when he was called back to finish his tour of duty. MacArthur was leading the troops in Korea this time. The General told him what he needed was battle experience. Now aged twenty-one (but passing for twenty-two), he found himself dodging bullets. They gave him a Purple Heart for getting shot in the foot while running away from the front. He used to tell that story himself. War had made him a cynic.

Bill and I watched a documentary last night about the Second World War. 60,000,000 soldiers and civilians died in that war.  Blown apart, fire-bombed, incinerated, shot, gassed, starved to death. I could give you the breakdown by country, but why bother? Such vast numbers of real people dead are impossible to fathom, even if you try to imagine their bodies carpeting acres and acres and miles and miles of battlefield and scorched earth. The documentary reminded me of my graduate school friend awarded a Purple Heart for running away.

It also reminded me of something else MacArthur was famous for besides war. When Harry Truman fired him in 1951 for wanting to nuke mainland China after it entered the Korean War, he came to Congress to explain himself and say goodbye. His patriotic last words: “Old soldiers never die; they just fade away.” Everyone thought it quite moving, until journalists asked Truman’s opinion. Truman replied: “It’s all just bullshit.”

TWO DAYS IN AUGUST

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The Getting Old Blog

Before we put December 7 completely behind us, here are another two days to remember.

August 6.  And August 9.

Hiroshima.  And Nagasaki.

It’s easy to forget that nothing is just about us.

So let’s don’t.

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REMEMBERING DECEMBER 7, 1941

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[Americans as old as I am, or older, will all have some personal memory of where they were and what they were doing 73 years ago today. The rest of you may wonder how anyone could remember that far back.

We remember because of the sudden and unforeseen events occurring on that day; they triggered our country’s unprepared entry into World War II — and thereby changed all our lives in so many ways it would be hard to forget them, even if we were still just children playing in the backyard that Sunday afternoon.

Those of you who’ve been following TGOB since last year may recall I first ran this piece on December 7, 2013. If so, think of it as commemorative. I’ll probably continue running it, or something like it, every December 7, as long as I can.]

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HITLER’S LAMPSHADES

It was a day that would live in infamy, the President said.

But I was only ten and a half and didn’t know what infamy was. When the news broke that Sunday, interrupting the regular afternoon radio programs, I was playing behind the garages with Richard Mancini and my best friend Barbara.

Barbara was in my sixth-grade class at Franklin Avenue School and lived just one house away from me. In between was a small wooded lot where a ramshackle one-story structure with a porch leaned sideways on a small patch of clearing in the trees and brush. It belonged to an elderly Japanese couple. You could tell they were Japanese because they were shorter than other grownups and had slanty eyes. But you almost never saw them except when the woman came out the front to sweep the porch or the man came out the back with garbage.

My father had brought us to Hollywood a year and a half before because he had lost his job playing cello in New York and thought he could find work as a studio musician. He hadn’t had much luck. “It’s all connections,” he told my mother. She then told me she might have to become a live-in maid in some rich family’s house if he didn’t find work soon. I would have to share a room with her. I didn’t want to share a room with my mother or go to another school.

I certainly didn’t want to be the maid’s little girl in anybody else’s house, and be meek and humble, and never get to play with Barbara or Richard again. Other kids’ fathers had jobs, I thought. Why did mine have to be different? My mother sighed and put her arm around me. “We’ll see what happens,” she said.

The boxy little bungalow my father had rented for $30 a month was one of a set of four — two in front and two in back — on Los Feliz Boulevard. Ours was in front, with the living room and kitchen facing the street and two small bedrooms and a bathroom facing the bungalow behind it. All the way in the rear was a courtyard with two garages on each side; behind each pair of garages was a wooden platform, angled out over a valley. The platform on our side held an incinerator, a long bench, several clotheslines and a double railing to keep you from falling into the abyss.

Mr. Mancini, the landlord, lived and worked somewhere else but often came to do maintenance at the bungalows on weekends. When he did, he brought his son Richard with him. Richard was twelve, tall and thin, with straight dark hair that fell into his eyes. I liked him very much and had a feeling that he liked me too.

What I usually played with Barbara when Richard wasn’t there was a make-believe story called “Mother and Baby” which featured my Dydee Doll. Almost every little girl had at least one Dydee in those days. It came with a toy baby bottle you could fill with water. Dydee’s mouth had a hole where the water went in when you squeezed the bottle and its belly button had another hole which squirted the water out when you squeezed Dydee’s tummy. The pink flat area between Dydee’s legs had no opening, so it wasn’t exactly like a real baby. But you could pretend.

What Richard always wanted to play with us was “Doctor Delivering Baby.” Barbara and I took turns being Nurse and Patient. Richard was always Doctor, the one who reached up Patient’s dress and pulled Dydee out from between her legs. After helping Patient to lie down, Nurse mainly just watched.

I was very excited by this game, especially when I was Patient. I loved lying down on the bench beside the incinerator, under the clotheslines, pushing the doll up between my legs, tucking it snugly against my panties, and then carefully arranging the skirt of my dress to cover my knees. I sometimes wondered if it wouldn’t be more realistic to take off my panties before lying down, because how could a baby be born through a pair of underpants? But I thought Richard might be shocked at this, so didn’t mention it.

Doctor would pretend to wash his hands, Nurse would pretend to help him slip on his rubber gloves, they would both turn to me, and I could hardly breathe waiting for Doctor to reach up under my dress, grope for the doll and work it down between my legs, the backs of his hands sliding very slowly against the skin of my bare thighs, until it was “born.” He would then wish me much happiness with my new baby and present it to me proudly, to clasp against my flat chest.

So that’s what we were doing the first Sunday afternoon in December 1941. When Richard had finished his Doctor speech, I pulled myself up from the bench and handed the doll over to Barbara. Then I realized I just had to pee. “Wait till I get back,” I called, running to our bungalow.

My mother and father were both in the living room as I flew past them to the toilet; they were listening to the big Stromberg Carlson radio that stood against one wall. When I came out, my mother said, “The Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor. It’s probably war.”

“Where’s Pearl Harbor?” I asked. “Is it in America?”

“I’m not sure,” my mother said. “I don’t think so.”

But my father just said, “Ssssh.” I shrugged and ran back out to Richard and Barbara. The word “pearl” made me think of rings.

“We’ve been bombed,” I said importantly. “It may be war.”

Barbara looked up from the bench at the sky. “Bombed where?” she asked. “I don’t see anything.”

Richard had a somewhat better grasp of world events. “War with who?” he asked. “Hitler?”

“Japan, I think.”

“That’s crazy,” he said. “Japan is America’s friend. My dad said so. They’ve even got people in Washington right now talking with Hull about trade or something.”

“Who’s Hull?” asked Barbara.

“Cordell Hull,” said Richard. “Just our Secretary of State, that’s who.”

This was beyond me. “Well, my mother said we were bombed by Japan,” I insisted.

“That doesn’t mean it’s so,” said Richard.

“My mother’s not a liar.”

“Didn’t say she was,” said Richard. “She must have heard wrong. I know for a fact we’re not at war with anyone.” He turned right away from me and towards Barbara on the bench. She still had Dydee under her dress. “As for you, dear lady,” he said in his Doctor voice, “aren’t you in terrible pain yet?” Barbara nodded vigorously and clutched her stomach. “Ow, ow!” she cried. “Help me, Doctor! Please!”

Richard pulled on his pretend rubber gloves without waiting for me to assist. “There, there,” he said to Barbara. “It’s going to be all right.” He waved me to his side. “Nurse! Let’s start getting this baby born right now.”

But after Barbara and Richard went home and I was back in the house, listening to the President telling the country that America was at war, and with Japan, I gave the situation serious thought. I already knew that Hitler hated Jews and that my parents and I were Jews, although I wasn’t sure what made us that.

We weren’t religious. And we didn’t do anything different than other kids’ families. But when we had first come out here and were looking for a place to live, I had seen signs posted in certain neighborhoods we drove through that said, “Jews not welcome here,” and my mother had said that meant us. I had also heard the grownups talking one time, when they didn’t know I was listening, about Hitler making lampshades out of Jewish skin. And then I had read headlines in the newspaper my father brought home every day that shouted in big letters: “Hitler warns U.S.: ‘You’re Next!’”

So I had been very glad we were in Hollywood instead of New York, even if my father was still out of work, because we were farther from Hitler and it would take him longer to reach me.

(Did they peel your skin off after you were dead, or before?)

Now with this news about Japan, I took out my geography book and studied a map of Asia and Alaska. They were really close together, almost touching in one place, and I saw that Japan could get to me that way, moving down through Alaska, Canada, Washington and Oregon to California.

On the other hand, I had never heard that Japan particularly hated Jews, so I supposed it wouldn’t be worse for me than for anyone else if they reached Hollywood. But the safest place to live seemed to be Kansas, because it was equally far from each coast. It would take both Japan and Germany a long time to get there.

Would I have the courage to run away to Kansas by myself if my parents stayed put? Probably not. There was still President Roosevelt, though. My mother said he had saved us from the Depression and from Jew-haters like Father Coughlin on the radio and Westbrook Pegler in the newspaper. Now that America was at war, could he save us again?

A week or so later, the Japanese couple next door disappeared. It seemed to happen overnight. Nobody saw them go. One day there, the next day — boom — gone. My mother said they had been taken to an unknown place to stay, together with other Japanese people. It was for their safety and for ours, she explained.

“Did they get to take their furniture with them?” I asked. The windows of their house were shuttered; you couldn’t look inside. My mother didn’t know. I thought it would be very sad if the old man and woman had to go away without any of their things. And who would take care of everything while they were gone?

“The place is locked,” said my mother. After that, people stopped talking about it, even though the house stayed vacant for as long as we lived next door.

My class at the Franklin Avenue School talked about the Japanese Front during Social Studies period, though. Wake Island, Corregidor, Bataan. The news from there was never good.

Then Richard’s parents decided to send him to parochial boarding school in another state. He came to say goodbye just before New Year’s. “When will you be back?” I asked. “Not for a long time,” he said. “Summer maybe.” His father was waiting in the car, so that was all there was to it. No special look, or promise to write or anything.

Maybe he hadn’t liked me as much as I liked him. Or maybe he had lost interest because I hadn’t known who Cordell Hull was.

Weekends felt empty without Richard to look forward to. For consolation my mother let me bring home a mixed-breed spaniel puppy from a litter in the garage of a lady down the block who was giving them away free. She said the puppy would be company for her when I was in school, so there were at least two reasons to have him.

Unfortunately, whenever he was let out to do his business the puppy went hunting for frogs on the property that used to belong to the Japanese couple. Then he would vomit parts of barely chewed-up raw frog all over the clean kitchen floor. My mother said if the Japanese family had been allowed to stay, they wouldn’t have let him do that. She didn’t call Japanese people “Japs,” the way everyone else was doing. “They weren’t hurting anybody,” she added. “They were nice quiet people.”

“I thought it was for their safety and ours,” I said.

“Well, that’s what they tell you,” said my mother darkly. “But who knows?”

I never had to become the maid’s little girl in someone else’s house and learn to be meek and humble. In July, my parents and I moved back to New York, where my father finally found a regular job. We left the puppy with Barbara, who promised to take good care of him. I wondered how Barbara’s mother would deal with the chewed-up bits of raw frog on her kitchen floor, but my mother said she had enough things on her mind without worrying about that.

My father rented a three-and-a-half room apartment in Kew Gardens for $45 a month, and I entered the seventh grade at P.S. 99 Queens in the fall. Here we followed the European Front during Social Studies period and pinned up little maps cut from The New York Times on a bulletin board. We also made round balls of tinfoil from the packages of cigarettes our parents smoked, because the government was short of tin. It was the class contribution to the War Effort, though no one at school explained the exact use to which these balls were going to be put.

However, my mother read in the paper that C rations were packed in cans made of tin. After that, whenever I sat in the kitchen carefully peeling a thin skin of tinfoil from its tobacco-scented paper backing I felt I was helping feed hungry soldiers.

I sent our new address to Richard’s father in California, but Richard didn’t write. Then I began going to Viola Wolff’s School of the Dance, above a Chinese restaurant on Queens Boulevard. There on Mondays after school I learned to foxtrot, waltz and rhumba with a boy named Robert Goldbaum whose family had escaped from Germany while they still could. (They were lucky, said my parents.)

Robert clearly liked me a lot, since he kept choosing me as his partner. Which meant it was safe to like him a lot too.

Although things still weren’t looking so good for America war-wise, Miss Oshman, my seventh-grade teacher, said she was confident that with the help of Our Boys, President Roosevelt would pull us through. My father was working again, I had met Robert, maybe Miss Oshman was right.

So although I was now three thousand miles closer to Hitler, I stopped thinking about lampshades.

© Nina R. Mishkin 2013

TWO SUNDAY LESSONS ON AGE

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1.  No matter how old you are, some things you don’t forget.

Last Sunday, Bill and I went to a neighborhood meeting for people interested in joining Community Without Walls. We all had to affix to our shoulders a paper tag on which we had printed our names. At the end of the meeting, we got into conversation with a man who hadn’t taken off his tag yet. The name on it ended with a “cz.”

“Polish?” Bill asked.

Yes, he was from Poland, said the man. He was fit and spry, but his face didn’t look as if he were very much younger than we are.

“Forgive me for being nosy,” I said. “But were you in Poland during World War II?”

He nodded again.

“You must have been a baby,” I went on.

“Not such baby,” said the man. “I still remember bombs. So many bombs.”

“Bombs?” Bill asked. “Did Germany bomb Poland? I thought it was very quick. Hitler marched in and Poland surrendered.”

“He must mean Russia,” I said to Bill.

The man ignored this. “Germany not bomb?” he said. “They were bombing all the time. Lost 25% of Luftwaffe over Poland. Of course Poland lost whole air force, too. Bombs, bombs everywhere. Even now,” and here he looked up at the clear blue of a Princeton summer sky, “even now, when I hear sound of propeller — whrrrr whrrrrr – I am frightened. I duck. Even now.”

He and his Polish wife are both scientists. They’ve lived and worked in the United States ever since completing their university studies. Although they do return to Europe twice a year, their preference is to rent an apartment in Paris for a month in September, and again in April. His wife is fluent in French.

“They’re lucky, “ said Bill after we got home. He was thinking Paris. “We’re luckier,” I said. “We don’t have to duck.”

2.  No matter how old you are, you can still learn something new.

The man we met after the Community Without Walls meeting who came from Poland did not have clear handwriting. Or maybe I just need new glasses. I had to squint to make out the name on his paper shoulder tag. It looked like Kaganovicz.

“KagAnovich?” I asked uncertainly.

“No,” he replied. “KaganOvich.”

“I thought the accent was on the second syllable,” I said.

“Third,” said the man. “In Russian it’s on second. You’re Russian?”

“Her parents were,” said Bill helpfully.

“Ah,” said KaganOvitch. “That explains it. Russians say KagAnovitch. But in Poland, always KaganOvitch.”

While I was digesting this phonetic difference, which I hadn’t known before, he added something. “There was a KagAnovich. Lazar Moiseyevitch. Famous Old Stalinist. Murderer. Killed many people. But Russian. I’m Polish. KaganOvich.”

“Lazar Moiseyevitch KagAnovich,” I repeated. “I shall have to remember that. At least long enough to look him up.”

“Just remember KaganOvitch,” said KaganOvitch.

And you see, I have!

MY THREE NAZIS

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Their names are Hermann Rosencranz, Karl Munch and Walter Schieber.  Karl’s last name has an umlaut over the u, which changes the pronunciation, but WordPress makes no provision for umlauted u‘s, so you’ll have to remember Munch doesn’t rhyme with lunch.

I call them Nazis because of three small red books I happen to have.  The first one was given to Hermann in Munich on June 30, 1936.  His party membership number is 3483589.

IMG_0879On the frontispiece inside, under a swastika and seal, is the name of the organization that issued the small red book: National Sozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei. [National Socialist German Workers Party.]

IMG_0880 The second small red book was given to Karl on September 4, 1934. His party membership number is 717410.  Karl was born earlier than Hermann and joined the party earlier, too.  You can see that his number is lower. Hermann’s book is dirtier and duller in color, though. He may have perspired more heavily. Or dropped it somewhere. It’s hard to believe that either of them would have been sent into the dirt and sweat of battle. Perhaps they were World War I veterans.  But they were both too old to fight in 1939.

IMG_0878The third small book is Walter’s.  His party number is 557979.  He was born 29 years after Karl, and 21 years after Hermann. The very low number he was given when his book was issued to him on June 30, 1941 may therefore have been one that had been retired after the death of its original owner and was now being put back in service with Walter.

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A brief pause for back story.  How did these three National Socialist Party membership books make their way into one of my bookcases, where they now repose quietly on top of a small paperback copy of Marlene Dietrich’s ABC  which I purchased in New York City for 50 cents in 1961?   I can tell you why I put Hermann, Karl, and Walter with Marlene. It’s because their books are the same size, and — more fancifully — because all four of them spoke the same language.  It also pleases me that the three Nazis were politically poles apart from this German-born woman who bravely entertained American troops at the front wherever and whenever Army regulations permitted.

But I can only surmise how the three red books reached America at the end of World War II.  My second husband was the youngest of three brothers — and too young for either enlistment or the draft. (Probably also too near-sighted.)  But the middle brother was drafted, and then trained as an Army weather man.  He was therefore in Europe, although not on the front lines, after D-Day.  It’s my guess he picked up the three red books, and maybe more than three, as small compact souvenirs to bring home when the war was over.

My former brother-in-law is now 91 and living abroad with his Dutch-born wife in an assisted living facility near her daughter and other family, so I can’t easily ask him if I’ve guessed right.  The first I personally knew of the three red books was when my second husband showed them to me, twenty years after the end of the war.  He had no use for them even then, and left them behind when we eventually parted after our children were grown.

That was in 1987.  I have jettisoned a lot of stuff since then. However, I still hang on to Hermann, Karl and Walter and have sometimes asked myself why.  There are probably two reasons, one less important than the other.  The lesser reason is that I never really learned German, therefore cannot read what Hitler had to say in these little red books, and want to know — before passing the books on to someone else. [Bill thinks they might be worth something, but I’m not so sure of that.  It’s all so long ago now that at least some uneducated young people have never heard of the Holocaust and others who have heard of it deny it ever really existed. So who would want to pay good money for my three Nazis?]

German was supposed to be my second foreign language for earning a doctorate in English, and I did get through the reading exam — a paragraph on the novels of Sir Walter Scott written in German. But only by spraying myself heavily with Arpege beforehand, saving up all the vocabulary I didn’t know (which was a lot), and then summoning the young proctor of the exam, who was permitted to give help with “one or two” words per exam-taker.  Overcome by fragrance, he as good as translated a third of my paragraph for me.  So I’m not really in great shape vocabulary-wise to share Hitler’s message with anyone.

But now there’s this blog, which has at least three German-speaking followers, and the occasional German “visitor” too!   Perhaps one of you — and you know who you are — would be good enough to translate, or summarize, the Fuhrer’s words for us in the comment section below. Feel free to editorialize as well, and as much as you like!

IMG_0881 IMG_0882 IMG_0883However, the more important reason I can’t let go of Hermann, Karl and Walter is that they were three flesh-and-blood human beings, with birthdates, and handwriting, and faces as real as if they’d been photographed yesterday. (Hermann even appears to be slightly smiling.)  And these three men, who probably had wives and children, would have looked at me, if I had been so unlucky as to be a little girl in Europe, and seen only a specimen of vermin to be exterminated as efficiently as possible.

IMG_0886 IMG_0887 Hermann died on March 1, 1943.  It’s pencilled in at the top of the page.  (I do know what “gestorben” means.)  He was 57.  If he hadn’t died during the war but lived on and on, so that I could confront him now, in the flesh instead of in his photograph, he would be 128, which is of course impossible.  I have his photograph, though.  I’m still alive, and he’s just a photograph.  I know it’s ridiculous that this gives me some satisfaction, some sense of vindication. But it does.

Karl is “gestorben” too.  It happened in November 1943.

IMG_0891 IMG_0892 He died at 65.  He would be 136 today.  I have a feeling Karl was more ruthless than Hermann.  He seems more smug in his photograph.  Of course, feelings are subjective. And photographs lie. I know that.  But I hate Karl more than Hermann.

When Bill read the first draft of this post, he stopped at that sentence, the one just before this one. ‘Hate’ is a pretty strong word,” he said. “You mean ‘dislike,’ don’t you?”

No, I don’t mean “dislike.”  It’s senseless, it’s illogical, I wasn’t there, it’s an accident I even know Hermann and Karl and Walter existed. All the same, when I look at their photos there’s real hate in my heart.  Perhaps I should think of them as victims, too. Brainwashed by rhetoric, mesmerized by a charismatic leader.  That doesn’t cut it for me. This isn’t about Germans, or Germany, or the language, or Angela Merkel (whose well cut jackets I quite admire).  It’s not about Bach or Beethoven or Brahms. I’d love to visit today’s Berlin before I die.  But Hermann and Karl and Walter looking out at me from the pages of their small red books,  those three I can’t forgive.  They are the faces of perps — perpetrators of a twentieth-century genocide I may have escaped but which tangled my growing-up years in ways too complex to tease out in the short space of a post.

Walter, the baby of the group — born in 1907 and only 32 when Hitler marched into Poland — does not have “gestorben” written in his book.

IMG_0897 IMG_0898Although photographed in civilian dress, Walter was probably mobilized when Germany went to war.  He was young enough, and also the only one of my three to have received an award: something in “Bronze” on April 1, 1940.

IMG_0899While Walter may not have been classified as “gestorben,” he must have been separated from his red book at some point after March 1943. Beginning in April of that year, there are no more stamps in the book showing he paid his monthly party dues.  And something did happen on April 29, 1943;  not knowing the language, I cannot tell you what.  Again, perhaps a German-speaking follower or reader can explain to us what this cryptic notation inscribed on the inside cover of Walter’s book may mean:

IMG_0896If he survived the war and life after war, Walter would be 107 today.  Remotely possible, although not very likely.  And in truth, what could I possibly say to such an extremely aged man in such a fantasy reality?  I may know what “gestorben” means, but I can’t speak his language. And I’m sure he never learned mine, or not enough to understand me and my feelings.  Especially as I don’t really understand me and my feelings either, when it comes to Hermann, Karl, Walter and the three red books.

Given the date of my birth, I know I was beyond fortunate to have been born where I was born, a whole ocean away from the murderous venom that was flooding Europe during the years of my childhood — the very same years when Hermann, Karl and Walter were dutifully paying their party dues. But my good fortune changes nothing.  I have been on the moving walkway at Yad Vashem, hearing the endless litany of names of little children like me, starved, gassed or slaughtered by other Hermanns, Karls and Walters — names, names, names echoing through a dark and starry universe.  It’s therefore ironic that these three Hitler loyalists should come to rest with me and my hostility as I grow old, that I should be the curator of their last effects.

I began this piece thinking such artifacts might be of general interest. Having written it, I suspect I was wrong. The feelings these three red books incite in me draw so heavily on the past and on my ethnicity (if you can call it that) that they may be incommunicable. If so, it seems only sensible to put Hermann, Karl and Walter back in the bookcase and leave them be.

You can’t win ’em all.  As Hitler (and perhaps Walter) finally learned.

PRELUDE TO MY FIRST BRA

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[During the last full summer of World War II, my father was hired to play cocktail and dinner music at a luxury hotel in Atlantic City, an ocean resort in New Jersey.  My mother and I therefore came to stay with him for eight weeks, in a rented furnished apartment on Pacific Avenue, around the corner from the hotel.  It was the summer I turned thirteen.]

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I had my period. That meant no ocean, because of the sanitary pad.  But I was meeting my girlfriend from high school at the beach that day. And I didn’t go in the water anyway when I was with her,  since she didn’t like getting her hair wet.  I looked at my two suits thoughtfully. Both were clean and dry. The newer white one with black dots must have shrunk a little after washing, because now it fit perfectly.  But I didn’t want to risk getting rusty brown streaks on it.  I put on the old one from last year — black with white dots.

It seemed to have become very tight in the crotch. Could I have grown so much in just the month we had been here?  Disinclined to discuss this potentially distressing subject with my mother, I reached around to the back of the suit, released the shoulder straps from the two buttons that held them in place, and tied them around my neck.  This lowered the front of the suit considerably but felt much better.  I pulled the back down over my bottom as far as I could.

Then I packed a beach bag with a thermos of juice, an extra sanitary pad just in case, and a book to read until my girlfriend arrived.  I also took two towels from the pile of clean ones in the front room and the most recent copy of one of my mother’s magazines.  She was in the bathroom, engaged in some private beauty ritual.  “Did you find your beach robe?” she called.  “It’s in the front closet.”  Dutifully, I slipped into the robe, tied it firmly around the place where I was supposed to have a waist, put on my canvas beach shoes, called out, “Bye, I’m going now!” and clattered down the stairs to the street.

When my mother and I had first gone to the beach with my father, we took Indiana Avenue to the Boardwalk, so he could collect the mail at the hotel, both for us and for the other two musicians who worked for him. The hotel was on Indiana.  Afterwards, we had continued to take Indiana out of habit, whether my father was with us or not.  But the stairs from the Boardwalk to the beach were actually nearer Illinois Avenue.  So after a moment’s hesitation, I turned right, not left, from the apartment building door — and headed for the intersection of Pacific and Illinois.

It was very hot. The pad between my legs impeded my progress.  The tie holding shut my beach robe began to loosen from rubbing against the magazine and towels in my arms and fell to the ground behind me. Exasperated, I bent over to put the bag, towels and magazine down on the sidewalk, yanked off the robe, bent over again to retrieve the tie, stuffed it into a pocket of the robe, wadded up the hateful garment and piled it on top of the magazine and towels.  Then, bending down a third time, I retrieved everything, slung the beach bag over my shoulder, gave a little tug with my free hand to one side of the rear of my suit where I could feel it had slid up after all that bending over, and turned the corner.

The sun beat down on Illinois Avenue, a long empty vista of street leading straight to the Boardwalk. There were no cars and no other people afoot.  A delivery truck pulled into a driveway between two buildings forced me off the curb; intent on balancing towels, robe, magazine and beach bag, I continued towards the beach next to the sidewalk but not on it.  Halfway down the block was where the Traymore began, only recently the newest, most modern hotel in Atlantic City, but now where soldiers and sailors were sent to recuperate from the wounds of war.  And because the day was glorious, there they were outside, seventeen and eighteen and nineteen years old, lined up in their wheelchairs and casts and bandages along the entire Illinois side of the building — to get some sun and inhale the delicious sea breezes and see the sights of fabled Atlantic City.  But at ten-thirty on this particular morning, the only sight to see was me.

So here I come, moist from heat and clenching my thighs together to keep the pad in place – just thirteen years old, but with rounded belly and plump behind, the budding curves of my brand-new breasts jouncing out of the polka dot suit at top and sides, and the partly uncovered cheeks of my bottom wiggling and waggling as I pass.  The first wolf whistle pierces the silence.  Who could it be for?  I look over my shoulder to see if someone is behind me, but there is no one, and I hear male laughter.  I walk a little faster, which means more frequent steps, more jouncing and bouncing. More whistles, and whoops now, and yells.  And much more laughter.  I dare not turn my head sideways to look, but I know that these aren’t the wolf whistles Betty Grable gets.  And then I hear:  “Shake it but don’t break it, baby!”  My cheeks burn, I can’t breathe. “Shake, shake, shake it.”  A chorus of voices.  A whole army.  Cupping their hands around their mouths so I can hear better.  “Shake it but don’t break it baby shake it but don’t break it baby shake it but don’t break it shake it shake it shake it!”

I must not turn back.  And I must not run.  I must pretend it isn’t happening, I am just going to the beach to meet my friend, and it isn’t happening. The line of chairs and wheelchairs stretches ahead of me nearly to the end of the block.  I can feel the back of my suit riding higher and higher with every step but I absolutely must not reach around and tug.  I must keep my eyes fixed ahead, and walk with my head up, and try not to hear what I hear, and eventually it will be over.  I am getting closer to the Boardwalk.  Soon I will be there.  I only have to bear it a little longer. Then one male voice salutes my departing behind with something new — a jingle I recognize from grade school.  But it’s about me.  “Jelly in a dish, jelly in a dish.” Other voices take it up. “Shake, shake, shake like jelly in a dish.”  Jelly in a dish, jelly in a dish, with every step I take towards the Boardwalk, I am jelly, jelly, jelly, jelly, jelly in a dish.

I will not die of this, I tell myself.  I will not die.  I will force myself to take deep breaths and keep walking and eventually I will get to the ocean and the whistles and whoops and laughs and jeers will stop and it will be over and I will never walk on Illinois Avenue again.

I turn right at the Boardwalk and out of the sight line of the side of the Traymore, the sound of gleeful male voices (“shake it, baby, shake it!”) still echoing in my mind. Quickly, I put everything on a bench, wrap myself as tightly as I can in the beach robe, slide the tie into the loops that are too high and make a knot right under my breasts, but that’s all right, anything is all right, as long as I can completely cover myself up so that none of me shows, not one bit.  I will not ever let any of me show, I will hide all of my flesh so that no one can ever see it and I will absolutely never, not ever, tell anyone about what has just happened and I will never ever let it happen again.

After dinner that evening, I tell my mother I need a bra.  She says I don’t, no brassiere will fit.  I demand to know how she can say that, there are bras that fit really huge fat women so there must be one that will fit me.  She says that’s not what she meant, that I am still “too small” for a normal cup size.  I say how do we know until we try.  She says there is nowhere to try here.  I say there must be a bra store on Atlantic Avenue, the commercial street for Atlantic City residents. She says stores on Atlantic Avenue carry only garbage, a brassiere is an important purchase, and if I am going to carry on like this she will see what we can do when we get back to New York, maybe Best & Company will have something, but not before then and that is the end of it, do I understand?  I say I understand but is it a promise about Best & Company and she says it’s a promise.

I never wore the black suit with white polka dots again, or the beach robe.  While my period lasted, I went to the beach in shorts and a shirt, even though my mother said I was being ridiculous.  Then for the rest of the summer, I wore the white suit with black dots.  It covered what it was supposed to cover and hid what it was supposed to hide.  To be safe though, I put the shorts and shirt on over it for walking back and forth on the streets, or sometimes one of my older summer dresses.  I always waited until my mother was ready to go, and we always took Indiana Avenue.

HITLER’S LAMPSHADES

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[Today is December 7.  Those of you as old as I am, or older, will remember what happened on this day.  For the rest of you, here is a real-life story about it.]  

It was a day that would live in infamy, the President said.

But I was only ten and a half and didn’t know what infamy was.  When the news broke that Sunday, interrupting the regular afternoon radio programs, I was playing behind the garages with Richard Mancini and my best friend Barbara.

Barbara was in my sixth-grade class at Franklin Avenue School and lived just one house away from me.  In between was a small wooded lot where a ramshackle one-story structure with a porch leaned sideways on a small patch of clearing in the trees and brush.  It belonged to an elderly Japanese couple.  You could tell they were Japanese because they were shorter than other grownups and had slanty eyes. But you almost never saw them except when the woman came out the front to sweep the porch or the man came out the back with garbage.

My father had brought us to Hollywood a year and a half before because he had lost his job playing cello in New York and thought he could find work as a studio musician. He hadn’t had much luck.  “It’s all connections,” he told my mother. She then told me she might have to become a live-in maid in some rich family’s house if he didn’t find work soon. I would have to share a room with her.  I didn’t want to share a room with my mother or go to another school.

I certainly didn’t want to be the maid’s little girl in anybody else’s house, and be meek and humble, and never get to play with Barbara or Richard again. Other kids’ fathers had jobs, I thought.  Why did mine have to be different?  My mother sighed and put her arm around me.  “We’ll see what happens,” she said.

The boxy little bungalow my father had rented for $30 a month was one of a set of four — two in front and two in back — on Los Feliz Boulevard. Ours was in front, with the living room and kitchen facing the street and two small bedrooms and a bathroom facing the bungalow behind it. All the way in the rear was a courtyard with two garages on each side; behind each pair of garages was a wooden platform, angled out over a valley. The platform on our side held an incinerator, a long bench, several clotheslines and a double railing to keep you from falling into the abyss.

Mr. Mancini, the landlord, lived and worked somewhere else but often came to do maintenance at the bungalows on weekends. When he did, he brought his son Richard with him.  Richard was twelve, tall and thin, with straight dark hair that fell into his eyes. I liked him very much and had a feeling that he liked me too.

What I usually played with Barbara when Richard wasn’t there was a make-believe story called “Mother and Baby” which featured my Dydee Doll. Almost every little girl had at least one Dydee in those days. It came with a toy baby bottle you could fill with water. Dydee’s mouth had a hole where the water went in when you squeezed the bottle and its belly button had another hole which squirted the water out when you squeezed Dydee’s tummy. The pink flat area between Dydee’s legs had no opening, so it wasn’t exactly like a real baby. But you could pretend.

What Richard always wanted to play with us was “Doctor Delivering Baby.” Barbara and I took turns being Nurse and Patient. Richard was always Doctor, the one who reached up Patient’s dress and pulled Dydee out from between her legs.  After helping Patient to lie down, Nurse mainly just watched.

I was very excited by this game, especially when I was Patient. I loved lying down on the bench beside the incinerator, under the clotheslines, pushing the doll up between my legs, tucking it snugly against my panties, and then carefully arranging the skirt of my dress to cover my knees.  I sometimes wondered if it wouldn’t be more realistic to take off my panties before lying down, because how could a baby be born through a pair of underpants? But I thought Richard might be shocked at this, so didn’t mention it.

Doctor would pretend to wash his hands, Nurse would pretend to help him slip on his rubber gloves, they would both turn to me, and I could hardly breathe waiting for Doctor to reach up under my dress, grope for the doll and work it down between my legs, the backs of his hands sliding very slowly against the skin of my bare thighs, until it was “born.”  He would then wish me much happiness with my new baby and present it to me proudly, to clasp against my flat chest.

So that’s what we were doing the first Sunday afternoon in December 1941.  When Richard had finished his Doctor speech, I pulled myself up from the bench and handed the doll over to Barbara.  Then I realized I just had to pee.  “Wait till I get back,” I called, running to our bungalow.

My mother and father were both in the living room as I flew past them to the toilet; they were listening to the big Stromberg Carlson radio that stood against one wall.  When I came out, my mother said, “The Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor.  It’s probably war.”

“Where’s Pearl Harbor?” I asked.  “Is it in America?”

“I’m not sure,” my mother said.  “I don’t think so.”

But my father just said, “Ssssh.”  I shrugged and ran back out to Richard and Barbara.  The word “pearl” made me think of rings.

“We’ve been bombed,” I said importantly.  “It may be war.”

Barbara looked up from the bench at the sky.  “Bombed where?” she asked.  “I don’t see anything.”

Richard had a somewhat better grasp of world events.  “War with who?” he asked.  “Hitler?”

“Japan, I think.”

“That’s crazy,” he said.  “Japan is America’s friend. My dad said so.  They’ve even got people in Washington right now talking with Hull about trade or something.”

“Who’s Hull?” asked Barbara.

“Cordell Hull,” said Richard.  “Just our Secretary of State, that’s who.”

This was beyond me.  “Well, my mother said we were bombed by Japan,” I insisted.

“That doesn’t mean it’s so,” said Richard.

“My mother’s not a liar.”

“Didn’t say she was,” said Richard.  “She must have heard wrong.  I know for a fact we’re not at war with anyone.”  He turned right away from me and towards Barbara on the bench.  She still had Dydee under her dress.  “As for you, dear lady,” he said in his Doctor voice, “aren’t you in terrible pain yet?”  Barbara nodded vigorously and clutched her stomach.  “Ow, ow!” she cried.  “Help me, Doctor!  Please!”

Richard pulled on his pretend rubber gloves without waiting for me to assist.  “There, there,” he said to Barbara.  “It’s going to be all right.”  He waved me to his side.  “Nurse!   Let’s start getting this baby born right now.”

But after Barbara and Richard went home and I was back in the house, listening to the President telling the country that America was at war, and with Japan, I gave the situation serious thought. I already knew that Hitler hated Jews and that my parents and I were Jews, although I wasn’t sure what made us that.

We weren’t religious.  And we didn’t do anything different than other kids’ families. But when we had first come out here and were looking for a place to live, I had seen signs posted in certain neighborhoods we drove through that said, “Jews not welcome here,” and my mother had said that meant us.  I had also heard the grownups talking one time, when they didn’t know I was listening, about Hitler making lampshades out of Jewish skin.  And then I had read headlines in the newspaper my father brought home every day that shouted in big letters: “Hitler warns U.S.: ‘You’re Next!’”

So I had been very glad we were in Hollywood instead of New York, even if my father was still out of work, because we were farther from Hitler and it would take him longer to reach me.

(Did they peel your skin off after you were dead, or before?)

Now with this news about Japan, I took out my geography book and studied a map of Asia and Alaska.  They were really close together, almost touching in one place, and I saw that Japan could get to me that way, moving down through Alaska, Canada, Washington and Oregon to California.

On the other hand, I had never heard that Japan particularly hated Jews, so I supposed it wouldn’t be worse for me than for anyone else if they reached Hollywood.  But the safest place to live seemed to be Kansas, because it was equally far from each coast.  It would take both Japan and Germany a long time to get there.

Would I have the courage to run away to Kansas by myself if my parents stayed put?  Probably not.   There was still President Roosevelt, though.  My mother said he had saved us from the Depression and from Jew-haters like Father Coughlin on the radio and Westbrook Pegler in the newspaper. Now that America was at war, could he save us again?

A week or so later, the Japanese couple next door disappeared.  It seemed to happen overnight. Nobody saw them go.  One day there, the next day — boom — gone.  My mother said they had been taken to an unknown place to stay, together with other Japanese people.  It was for their safety and for ours, she explained.

“Did they get to take their furniture with them?” I asked.  The windows of their house were shuttered; you couldn’t look inside. My mother didn’t know. I thought it would be very sad if the old man and woman had to go away without any of their things.  And who would take care of everything while they were gone?

“The place is locked,” said my mother.  After that, people stopped talking about it, even though the house stayed vacant for as long as we lived next door.

My class at the Franklin Avenue School talked about the Japanese Front during Social Studies period, though.  Wake Island, Corregidor, Bataan. The news from there was never good.

Then Richard’s parents decided to send him to parochial boarding school in another state. He came to say goodbye just before New Year’s.  “When will you be back?” I asked.  “Not for a long time,” he said. “Summer maybe.”   His father was waiting in the car, so that was all there was to it.  No special look, or promise to write or anything.

Maybe he hadn’t liked me as much as I liked him.  Or maybe he had lost interest because I hadn’t known who Cordell Hull was.

Weekends felt empty without Richard to look forward to.  For consolation my mother let me bring home a mixed-breed spaniel puppy from a litter in the garage of a lady down the block who was giving them away free. She said the puppy would be company for her when I was in school, so there were at least two reasons to have him.

Unfortunately, whenever he was let out to do his business the puppy went hunting for frogs on the property that used to belong to the Japanese couple. Then he would vomit parts of barely chewed-up raw frog all over the clean kitchen floor. My mother said if the Japanese family had been allowed to stay, they wouldn’t have let him do that.  She didn’t call Japanese people “Japs,” the way everyone else was doing.  “They weren’t hurting anybody,” she added. “They were nice quiet people.”

“I thought it was for their safety and ours,” I said.

“Well, that’s what they tell you,” said my mother darkly.  “But who knows?”

I never had to become the maid’s little girl in someone else’s house and learn to be meek and humble.  In July, my parents and I moved back to New York, where my father finally found a regular job. We left the puppy with Barbara, who promised to take good care of him.  I wondered how Barbara’s mother would deal with the chewed-up bits of raw frog on her kitchen floor, but my mother said she had enough things on her mind without worrying about that.

My father rented a three-and-a-half room apartment in Kew Gardens for $45 a month, and I entered the seventh grade at P.S. 99 Queens in the fall.  Here we followed the European Front during Social Studies period and pinned up little maps cut from The New York Times on a bulletin board.  We also made round balls of tinfoil from the packages of cigarettes our parents smoked, because the government was short of tin.  It was the class contribution to the War Effort, though no one at school explained the exact use to which these balls were going to be put.

However, my mother read in the paper that C rations were packed in cans made of tin.  After that, whenever I sat in the kitchen carefully peeling a thin skin of tinfoil from its tobacco-scented paper backing I felt I was helping feed hungry soldiers.

I sent our new address to Richard’s father in California, but Richard didn’t write.  Then I began going to Viola Wolff’s School of the Dance, above a Chinese restaurant on Queens Boulevard. There on Mondays after school I learned to foxtrot, waltz and rhumba with a boy named Robert Goldbaum whose family had escaped from Germany while they still could. (They were lucky, said my parents.)

Robert clearly liked me a lot, since he kept choosing me as his partner. Which meant it was safe to like him a lot too.

Although things still weren’t looking so good for America war-wise, Miss Oshman, my seventh-grade teacher, said she was confident that with the help of Our Boys, President Roosevelt would pull us through. My father was working again, I had met Robert, maybe Miss Oshman was right.

So although I was now three thousand miles closer to Hitler, I stopped thinking about lampshades.

© Nina R. Mishkin 2013