We are in tumultuous times and it is easy to dismiss art, music, writing, maybe particularly writing fiction, as a luxury. I think it is anything but.
My friend, call her Lucy, is the daughter of two immigrants, her Protestant, British mom, who survived the Blitz in London, and her Jewish, Czechoslovakian dad. Lucy was eight? nine? when she learned a sanitized version of her father’s escape from the Nazis.
The morning after Kristallnacht, her father walked out of his home as if for school, no luggage. So did his sister, brother and parents, each leaving alone, as if they would return for homework, for supper. Miraculously all five escaped Nazi Europe for America. They left behind their very profitable shoe factory. They left behind the entire rest of the family, all of whom perished, both sets of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins.
We understood that each of these things was tragic, but what broke our hearts was the dog, a schnauzer, they left behind. They could not entrust their neighbors or even friends with the dog because someone might report them. We imagined the dog alone, whining in the kitchen, waiting first for affection, then food, then water. That was what brought the cost of World War II home to us, the dog.
The summer Lucy turned ten, her handsome, kind, stern but twinkly father died suddenly. We were left to imagine much of his story, first as a child then a refugee and finally a U.S. citizen, a psychologist, a husband and a dad.
We were already in the habit of weekly walking down the steep hills of Regent, Fountain, Hillside and Chestnut Street to the library to exchange our stack of read books for new ones. We’d check out six or eight novels at a go. We never brought a bag, but instead carried them up those four hills stacked in our arms. Hugging them. If a book were really good, we’d take turns reading it aloud. We loved the classics: Harriet the Spy, The Phantom Tollbooth, every single book in the Little House on the Prairie series.
But after Lucy’s father died, which coincided with my own family going through rough times, we searched the library for Holocaust books. We read novels, Mila 18, a fictionalized version of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. We read Exodus, also by Leon Uris, about the survivors of Mila 18 and others founding Israel. We learned the names of concentration camps like some kids learn the names of dinosaurs or cars.
Would You Have Taken the Dog?
What would you do, if…? we asked each other. Would you have taken the dog? Hidden a family? And then it dawned on us, what if you objected, resisted, early? Before it was necessary to choose whether to leave a dog or hide a family?
We also read our share of trashy romances. We giggled like mad over Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, and promised to send each other postcards when we got our first periods. We read Jane Eyre and and zillions of biographies of Henry VIII’s wives. I read every single Agatha Christie and loads of thrillers. Those were delicious even cathartic escapes.
We read YA novels of friendship, The Pigman and A Separate Peace. We got to try on being all kinds of teenagers and even adults. We debated the merits of the characters’ choices at the local pool, over long games of Monopoly, Sorry and Masterpiece. We did a lot of practice living and choosing.
What Would You Do If…?
Somehow threaded through everything we always returned to the Holocaust. We were 11, 12, 13, 14. We sat in armchairs under the lamplight or lay on Lucy’s bedroom rug reading The Diary of Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel’s Night and other accounts, fiction and non, by survivors. What would you do if…?
Our answers were not precise, but we were pretty certain we’d be like the teenagers profiled in Children of the Resistance. We, too, would blow up railroad tracks carrying Jews to camps, carrying Nazis to battle, save Allied pilots from snowy Norwegian forests, bike messages to the French Resistance. I think we might have pictured ourselves guiding refugees à la the Von Trapps !! (maybe minus the troubadour aspect) over the Alps.
The stories allowed us escape and they led us deeper, led us to different understandings of what most troubled us. And yes, I suspect they enhanced our empathy as the studies say, but they were so much more: escape, vacation, romance, travel, ethical questions and ethical stances, the opportunity to imagine ourselves as bystander, victim, and even aggressor.
Stories conjured worlds for us that were long gone. They helped grieving Lucy imagine her dad’s childhood, his journey out of Czechoslovakia, and his resettlement here in the United States. Lucy has devoted her life to assisting refugees. I became an English teacher, a journalist covering beleaguered populations, and then wrote my own stories, often about victims, aggressors and bystanders, about people forced to live in constrained circumstance. And when faced with the question, What would you do if…? we have some pretty developed answers.