Category Archives: Reflections

Reflections

Three questions have fascinated me most in the years I’ve been exploring what happened in Amsterdam in 1940-45:  what did people do at that time about the dilemmas they faced?  what would I have done?  and what does that mean I must do now?  The Reflections here will be a place for me to wrestle with these questions, probably just by asking even more.  According to Dutch writer Remco Campert, whose father wrote the iconic poem of the Dutch resistance, says, “Asking yourself a question, that’s how resistance begins. And then ask that very question to someone else.”

Fortunately, “Reflections” is a broad enough title that it will give me a space to share anything else that I hope will be of interest to other readers and writers.

KK Wilder: Friendship has no name but love

 

Two older women friends

March 28, 2016

My friend KK Wilder would have been 75 years old on April 20, 2017.  We would have eaten gluten free cake, and cackled at her cheating death again.  Instead, I’m writing about her, which is just what she would have wanted.

KK was lots of fun as well as being what the Reader’s Digest would call an inspiration:  ebullient, even giggly at times, always noticing the beautiful and the absurd.  Still, KK never suffered fools gladly. “When I teach grammar and composition, I just grab a copy of the Burlington Free Press and take it with me to class.  It doesn’t matter what kind of error I’m looking for — subject and predicate disagreement, split infinitive, misplaced modifier – I can always find it by page 3 at the very most.”  She loved to laugh, even up to the end, and I was always disappointingly serious and too highbrow for some of her favorite indulgences:  movies, bad jokes, Disney characters and cats.  That left us everything else:  nature, books, writing, and food.

When we first met, KK was the night manager at an old age home, a job that enabled her to do the writing, editing and teaching which were her first loves.  Our mutual pleasure in nature’s beauty and gardens drew us together immediately, especially since I lived right across the street.  Unlike most of my friends, KK never thought I was too excited if I squealed over an old fashioned rose or a 200 year old maple tree.  We effused together.

When we began to talk about writing, I was still at the earliest stages of thinking that perhaps, maybe, one day, I might become a creative writer.  I was already a decent writer in my professional world, and my friends loved my travel letters sent from afar and my poems.  I had hooked up with my lifetime teacher Deena Metzger, who was already pulling me toward the vision of “writing for your life.”  But that beacon shone on me from the distant future, and Deena was in California.  I needed someone to guide my steps there and then, in Vermont.

KK was a highly respected local writer and writing teacher, best known for her monthly columns in Vermont Maturity and The Independent (from the Vermont Center for Independent Living).  Generally on the themes of living with aging and disability – subjects she knew all too well – they were full of wisdom but never pretentious or preachy. KK had the voice of a good neighbor who knows a lot but never bosses you around.  When she interviewed people for the airport magazine, she always chose the pithiest and most telling quotes.  People always opened up to her.  KK was active in the League of Vermont Writers, and loved the Pen Women.

I’d almost never dared to put my creative work into the public eye.  When I timidly asked KK if she’d be my writing coach, she was delighted and plunge right in.  Within a year or so, at her insistence, I’d submitted poems to a contest and won publication in the Vermont Voices anthology.  KK reminded me of what books have meant in my life, especially as a lonely only child:  they kept me company, taught me, expanded my world and pushed me to be a kinder and more generous person.  “You owe the world a book of your own,” she said.

“I’ve already written one!” I protested.  “My study of women MBAs in 1987.”

“That’s good and you can be proud of that.  But I mean a book from your heart.  Literature, Mary.  Literature!”

I shrank away.  Poems in a journal here or there, OK.  Maybe an essay or two.  But a whole book, much less literature?

When my skills had improved sufficiently, KK fired me.  “You need someone better than me now.  Who was that woman in California?”  I don’t remember if this was before or after KK and her friend Michele Patenaude started a writing group and invited me to join.  It was a tight ship, and is still going 15 years later without their leadership.  Everyone had to be on time, to have read whatever we were critiquing at least once, and to offer balanced, thoughtful comments.  KK expected Commitment, and she was as sharp as a 19th century schoolmistress if she saw it waver.  Her students at Community College of Vermont probably felt much the same.

KK had the satisfaction of seeing her faith in my talent justified.  In 2001, I returned from six months in Amsterdam obsessed with writing about the Holocaust and resistance there.  I’d even written a fistful of poems.  At last, I was gripped by a subject that would not let me go, and it was complicated and demanding enough to work on for years or decades ahead.

KK wasn’t gracious about it.  She crowed.  She was a deeply sensitive person, but she didn’t come from a home where tact or restart were valued.  “I told you you were going to be a writer,” she said, smiling a superior smile.  When I returned from another visit the next year, we had lived in an apartment where Jewish people had been hidden overhead in the attic.  “I keep seeing these people!  They’re haunting me.  I’ve started writing about them, just a flash here and there.”

“What are you going to call the book?” KK asked.  I felt like a woman with a new boyfriend who’s being asked what to name the grandchildren.

For the next 13 years, KK kept track of the progress of my novel, as well as having good times with me.  I loved visiting her raised plot in the community garden she coordinated, going out to lunch at her favorite gluten free place, walking and scooting along the bike path by Lake Champlain.  People stopped us every few feet to talk with KK.  Even so, many of our conversations were profound, usually at her home by the million dollar view.  Toward the end, she’d raise the shade even though it hurt her eyes.  “For you,” she said, like an empress conferring a great favor, and she was.

In our best times, KK bared her heart – whether the loss of yet another friend, the latest disheartening medical news about her many conditions, her decision to stop doing something she loved before she couldn’t do it any more (i.e. cooking, driving, writing, typing), or a painful incident she was trying to understand rather than close up.  I listened and empathized and occasionally suggested, and she did the same for me.  What she gave me was neither more nor less than an instruction manual about how to live with increasing disability—something every aging person must do to one degree or another.

Everything I’d learned from KK served me well when I had a disastrous accident in 2010 (on her birthday), and I spent months in the hospital and rehab, then faced several years of debilitating illness and pain.  For the first time, I had a whiff of what KK had suffered so many times, not just the physical misery but the wracking uncertainty about the future. The worst pain I’d ever felt before my accident was so mild compared to the real thing, and no matter how much it hurt, KK had been there before.  I couldn’t believe the sheer grit it took to keep fighting.  The profound exhaustion.  To think I used to feel hurt when KK occasionally cancelled at the last minute because she wasn’t up to a visit!  I had no idea.  Hardest of all was the battle to maintain my good spirits through all the bad luck I had – even knowing that, if I could beat the hospital-bred infection that was trying to kill me, I’d get better.  Never the same, but better.  KK, in contrast, faced a downward slope, even if there were occasional bumps up before another plunge.  Her life had already been long given her many conditions.  Improvement for her was temporary at best.

When KK visited me in Rehab, she never stayed long.  She always touched me gently.  She asked for no conversation, but sometimes read a poem.  She knew what the pain was like, and while (unlike me) she was confident I’d get through it, she knew it was hell right then.  If a few days passed when she couldn’t come, she sent a note, usually with flowers on it and a few words.  That taught me how to help someone who is truly ill.

Once I was out of Rehab and able to write again, my commitment to finish my novel was absolute.  KK cheered me on as the story gelled from years of research, and became the tale of a young Jewish woman who risks her life in the anti-Nazi underground.  She cross examined me about my progress whenever we met.  During that time, she arranged for her mother – once an alcoholic with uncontrolled rages – to live down the hall from her.  KK took care of her until she died, spending each evening with her.  The generosity in that was beyond description.

Over the years, I began to see KK more clearly:  the chubby toddler who could still run, the twelve year old who couldn’t because of heart and lung problems, the teenager suffering through her first surgery.  Then the hippie Mother Earth phase when she kept Rhode Island Barred Chickens with her husband on a fabulous estate that she and her husband cared for.  Slowly, the shadows filled in:  the Yankee mother who was both a gardener and an alcoholic with a mean streak like the white stripe down a skunk’s back.  KK inherited this, and at times hurt almost everyone who loved her.  The husband she extolled as so loving and sexy also turned out to be an alcoholic.  I don’t know who left whom, but it was one of the great wounds of her life regardless.  That dashing figure, her father, the Greek immigrant chef?  It turned out that he was also a gambler, so the family never knew whether they’d eat lamb or beans, in a well appointed house or a chilly hovel.  KK got used to those extremes, and it wasn’t bad training for her later life.  But even she couldn’t forgive what happened to her grandparents in Greece, starved to death by the Nazis.

My respect for her, already great, increased as I knew her better.  I especially admired her choice to face her life with gratitude, generally good humor, an appreciation of the beauty of life and the goodness in people.  She had her discouraged or mean-spirited moments like the rest of us, but so many fewer than her situation warranted.

When I first knew KK as a respected and trenchant local writer, she was already walking with canes indoors and had serious heart and lung problems among many others.  She was so determined and full of fun and life that it seemed as if her illnesses could never stop her.  Until I was close enough to accompany her to the ER a few times, I didn’t realize what she was up against. Even so, the “comeback kid” kept resurging, and handling her progressive difficulties with remarkable grace – until.

KK was driving us home from the Farmer’s Market in Burlington’s New North End one summer afternoon, but something wasn’t right.  Normally an excellent driver, she was wavering within the lane.  I asked her if something was wrong.  She screwed up her face and said “Well, uh, no, uh, well, not really.”  She had never been so incoherent.  I begged her to let me drive her to the doctor or the ER, but she refused, and I couldn’t persuade her.  The best she offered was a promise to call the doctor when she got home, and when I called to remind her, she hadn’t done it.  This was the first of the small strokes which undermined her cognitive abilities, her profession, and many of her greatest pleasures in life.  Now that I know more about stroke, I’d be more assertive, but my “taking over” was already a bone of contention.  Like me, KK hated to be told what to do.

KK and I had a close but not easy relationship.  Among other issues, I had a more privileged life than hers in every way, and sometimes it rankled.  I had a devoted partner in whom I delighted – KK’s fondest wish, never to be gratified.  I had few money worries not of my own neurotic making.  I traveled constantly for both work and pleasure, which she would have loved to do.  It took KK five years to save up for a trip to Disney World, something that underscored our differences in both economics and taste.  The latter we could at least joke about.  KK gave me a different hideous ornament for my Christmas tree every year, and we cackled as we put them up.  While she still had good fine motor control, KK always helped me pack away my own collection – the tasteful ones I’d inherited and purchased – and hers.

Every now and then, KK bullied me, usually because her medications were off.  I learned to let it blow over rather than retaliate, but it always hurt.  Perhaps drawing on her experience with her rejecting and abusive mother, KK would blow some imagined insult out of proportion and roar at me.  My explanations were never sufficient.  A few weeks or months passed, and then it usually fell to a kind mutual friend to patch things up.  Only very rarely could KK apologize.  It was part of the toughness that got her through.  When I said I was sorry, she had trouble believing I meant it.  She just decided to overlook whatever I’d done, because she knew I loved her.

A visit to KK meant going to other worlds.  First, that of subsidized housing, with cinder block walls in the lobby and notices not to do this or that in the elevator.  Down the well-polished top floor corridor was KK’s door, the last on the right, with a sign that welcomed you or told you to go away during a nap.

Before she gave many of her treasures to friends – so the job of cleaning out when she died or moved would be easier – KK’s place was an encyclopedia of her life.  a photo of her young, slender self next to her handsome but alcoholic husband.  The dainty forget me not china which had been her Mom’s.  Books that included her sharp essays or lavish poems.  That silly cat clock that moved its eyes back and forth as it ticked – and a fine antique wall clock that never kept time because KK couldn’t afford to have it fixed.

In response to my knock, KK would bellow “Come in!” like an admiral on the bridge of a ship.  Soon I’d be in her large presence – her big grin, her wacky earrings and brightly colored clothes blazing over her queen-sized body.  Beyond her was a huge picture window with the million dollar view of Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks.  Houseplants filled the window sill:  both gifts and the problem children of all KK’s friends, which always took a turn for the better.  I gave her an ailing prickly cactus with a single phallic stem.  She promptly called it “Bill Clinton.”  But what KK loved best were flowers, and we all brought them, in or out of season, the brighter the better.  Her favorite was grandmother’s fragrant phlox, until it was something else.

Old world hospitality was always part of a visit to KK:  at the very least a cup of the tea she kept specially in the cabinet with me in mind, the water always already boiling when I arrived.  There were almost always gluten-free cookies and a treasured cantaloupe or peach in season.  If we were having a meal, lunch was laid out as at the Ritz, with every piece of dinnerware or china or glassware in its place.  When KK’s garden was producing – as it invariably did, more and better than almost anyone else’s – the salads were the best in the land.

It was hard to get KK to accept gifts of any kind, although her response when she got past her initial reluctance was always effusive.  Because she and I were both Christmas enthusiasts, one year I persuaded her to let me take her to the local live theater for a holiday performance.  I’ll always remember KK’s stuffing me beforehand with her father’s avgolemono soup, moussaka and Greek salad and baklava.  That was her idea of a proper meal.

KK had more diagnoses than a dog has fleas.  But she couldn’t and wouldn’t let that stop her until remarkably close to the end, despite congestive heart failure, lung problems, kidney failure, diabetes, arthritis, neuropathy that prevented her taking more than a few steps on her own, and finally strokes and cancer as well.  I have probably forgotten some of the disabilities and chronic illnesses that KK came to terms with over the years.  That was her philosophy.  She did not accept; she came to terms.  If she’d had money to burn, I would have admired KK for the productive, satisfying life she constructed in spite of everything.  That she did so on a bare bones budget was truly an achievement.

Two friends

October 11, 2016

I watched KK let go of so much of what she loved both to do and to have, because she was realistic about her predicament and prospects.  She wanted to make those decisions for herself preventively and proactively rather than having them inflicted on her.  Before we met, she mostly gave up walking outdoors and started using a scooter, which was a terrific liberation for her.  Although KK adored cars, she finally relinquished not only driving but also the vehicle a friend had passed on to her.  She realized that far too much of her energy was spent cooking and doing household duties, so she couldn’t do her work of writing and editing.  She asked for the help she was more than qualified to receive.  Far past the point when most people would have applied for Social Security Disability, she finally did.  Over the years, KK stopped going out in the evening with very rare exceptions.  She gave up her Saturday trips to the Farmer’s Market where she knew everyone and everyone knew her. She was heartbroken when it was too muggy and hot for her to attend our wedding safely, and sent a cartoon of the Statue of Liberty kissing the figure of Justice that made everyone laugh.

KK began giving away her possessions, because she foresaw that her time at home was shrinking.  Even worse, after her strokes, she resigned from the writing group she had co-founded, and wrote farewell columns to her fans at Vermont Maturity and The Independent while she still could.  The year before she died, however, KK was in fighting form after a major fracture in her leg.  Even at a rehab facility with poor food and marginal care, she threw herself into physical, occupational and even speech therapy, and came back stronger.  The therapists were stunned at her motivation.

Very occasionally, I’d find KK down in the dumps, as when she finally got the one disease of which she’d always said brightly, “At least I don’t have cancer.”  The deaths of her two brothers hit her very hard, especially because the relationships had been difficult.  The loss of friends was never easy.  When the medical system had been egregious to her or her friends, KK usually railed, but sometimes it wore her down.

Overall, though, KK’s ability to continue to enjoy life no matter what was jaw-dropping.  She relished every sunset out her million dollar window.  When an eye condition meant black shades over the panes, she could remember and smile.  As her once exceptional way with words diminished and reading even large print was too hard, she became even more visual.  A few flowers were an unending source of joy, especially if fragrant and from a friend’s garden.  She loved to listen to the jazz and blues music she sang when she had breath for it, both on local radio and in live performances, but she also enjoyed classical music.

Although KK loved her quiet Sundays when no one came in to help with personal care and household tasks, she made relationships with almost everyone who came to work with her.  It kept her young, she said.  As much as she appreciated assistance, occasionally the agency sent her someone who was more effort than help.  Always a taskmistress (albeit a benevolent one), KK rolled her eyes when I once asked how it was going with a new aide.  “Sweet as can be and dumb as I post.  I know I shouldn’t say that,” she replied.

The workers often had their own life issues – even bipolar disorder in one case – and KK was a pro at advocacy until her last few years, so she advised them, and made lifelong friends with some.  One exceptional person helped KK make and enforce even the most sensitive decisions.  KK asked the aide to tell me, in her presence, that the time would soon come for her to move to Respite House.  She couldn’t find the words herself.

At the very end, KK floated in and out of awareness, but she still felt joy at the “Mary flowers” I’d brought from my garden, and the poems I read to her.  She smiled when I put a copy of my newly published book on the shelf at her bedside, but she was too weak to say, “I told you so.”

My favorite thing of KK’s was a yellowed piece of embroidery which read “The path to the house of a friend is never long.”  She gave it to her best friend, whom she’d known since she was twenty.  But I can’t complain.  Over her mother’s end table in my living room hangs another embroidery:  “Friendship has no name but love.”

A Gentile’s First Passover

When I was in my twenties, a couple I thought of as “older” invited me to go with them to a Passover seder in nearby Philadelphia. I was lonely and newly separated, and would have followed them anywhere.  After we left the highway, the surroundings were ever more sinister as we drove into the heart of the city – darker, more graffiti, more empty streets.  After what seemed like miles of incorrect turns, we arrived at a small rowhouse in a working class neighborhood on a raw, blustery night.

A 19th Century Passover Seder portrayed in a folk print

A 19th Century Seder portrayed in a folk print

The door could barely be opened, because card tables covered with snowy tablecloths filled the length of the modest living room. The steam of chicken soup and the sound of laughter warmed me up immediately.  Our host, a short, smiling man dressed to the nines, welcomed us like a king to his castle.  His plump wife smiled and nodded as she labored in the open kitchen, no bigger than a coat closet.

In my own family of three, the presence of even a guest or two was cause for alarm.  My mother went into full scale panic at any number greater than five, and while it usually went well in the end, her hysterics along the way were inevitable and unbearable.  And it had to be done on a budget, of course.  My mother was generous but very careful.  No penny was ever spent today that could be saved for tomorrow, in her framework of Protestant genteel poverty.

It was easy to see that my Philadelphia hosts didn’t have a lot of money.  Their home was well kept but very simple.  And yet, instead of buying a new fridge or better winter coats, they were feeding thirty people more courses than I’d ever seen before at a single meal. I’d been concerned about whether I would be comfortable among people who knew each other and the ritual.  Instead, the host explained that, as a stranger, I had an important role to play.  It was part of the tradition to include someone like me.  For the first time, being someone on the fringe was validated and special, not a curse.

As the Passover ritual unfolded, I found myself strangely at home.  Here, at last, I was among people to whom everything was meaningful, and symbolic.  The bone wasn’t just a bone; it was a reminder of the sacrifice that was part of the original proceeding.  Even the delicious combination of chopped apple and walnut and wine stood for something else:  the mortar with which the Jewish slaves made Pharoah’s buildings.  I was with people to whom the past was present and important, people who evoked that past poetically and symbolically.

The holy words resonated, too, even when I didn’t share the specific beliefs.  When I heard about the four different children (wise, wicked, simple, ignorant) and their responses to Passover, I recognized the wisdom of the tradition to which I was being introduced.  The evening went on and on, with every page getting its due, the children whizzing about to search for the hidden bit of matzoh, and more food appearing even when I thought I absolutely could not eat another bite.

I learned what “L’chaim!”  “To life!” really means that night.  I’ve been to many other seders, more in keeping with my own and my friends’ beliefs.  I’ve read the questions in many contexts, from tiny formal groups to massive and rollicking ones.  I’ve been able to give the proud answer “Lots!” to the question, “How much experience do you have making tzimmes?

Still, my first seder was the best, the one where I learned the most, from the sumptuous offering of simple people to a complete stranger who will never forget them.

From Dachau to Durham, North Carolina

Sharon Halperin and Mike Roig Sculpture Dachau Memorial

Sharon Halperin and Mike Roig Sculpture Dachau Memorial

In my home town of Durham, North Carolina, I was led to a Holocaust memorial unlike any I’ve ever seen before.  It’s the only place in the U.S. to memorialize ashes from Dachau which are proven human remains.  The ashes came into the right hands:  Sharon Halperin’s, the daughter of two Holocaust survivors who became the “guiding angel” of this memorial project.  The ashes were donated by the family of Mr. Joseph Corsbie, a GI in Germany in May 1945.

Sent on an errand to Dachau, he encountered a liberated Jewish prisoner who handed him the ashes from a crematorium, enjoining him never to forget what he had seen.  Although Mr. Corsbie did not speak of the incident for decades, he began to discuss it with his family as he neared death.  They felt that the ashes should be returned to the Jewish community to be treated with the respect the victims were denied in life.

Once the ashes were analyzed and proved to be those of human beings, Sharon and her family commissioned a sculpture and signage to mark the site. Yesterday, the generous Jane Gabin of the Beth El Synagogue took me to see the resulting memorial, where we met Sharon.  Rather than use the expected barbed wire or smokestacks or other conventional imagery of the Holocaust, sculptor Mike Roig chose to depict a moving flame of polished steel.  It stands on a low bridge which says in Hebrew and English:  “Remember.  Do not stand idly by.”

Approaching the memorial, one feels a sense of uplift, as of flames rising to the sky, still surging from the ashes below – but also a sense of something growing, emerging, and transcending.  The sculpture is taller than a person, but not so monumental that we can’t feel part of it.  The geometric shape twirls in even a slight breeze, and suddenly I began to recognize my reflection in it – first blurry and indistinct, then sharper as I moved closer.  I was literally in the picture:  both in the flames, and in the resurgence of life.  Stones at the base waited to be placed in memory.  Much like the Tomb of the Unknowns, this place is an honored grave for so many who never had one except in our memories.

Dedicating the Memorial

At the dedication in 2015, sculptor Mike Roig’s eloquent words speak of his intentions:

“The “eternal flame” in this sculpture will surely never extinguish. It moves according to the currents of air like those interred here were moved and shaped by the flow of history, and like we are by the ever-evolving now.

“In its surface you will see a reflection of us all as we stand before it. It is necessarily indistinct and impressionistic, and our reflected forms waver and distort as it moves, and that reflects a truth that in trying to see ourselves in that history most of us cannot know with clarity how that history would have drawn us in, or how we would have responded. There are those [survivors] here who can because they were there, but the rest of us we can only to strive to conceive of a vision of ourselves where we would have responded with courage and dignity, empathy and compassion, resistance and defiance.”

May it be so.  Deep thanks to Sharon and her family for creating this sacred space, to Jane for taking me there, and to the Beth El Synagogue for welcoming me.Sculpture with stones below it

 

The February Strike, Resisting Then & Now

Almost everyone knows the story of Anne Frank, but far fewer are aware of the February Strike, the only general strike in Western Europe to protest the first roundup of Jewish people.  Seventy-six years ago this week, an incredible 300,000 Dutch citizens poured into the streets of Amsterdam.  Many remained there even after the Germans deployed the SS and the police. The Strike is commemorated every year with a few eloquent words and thousands of flowers at the foot of the Dockworker, the symbolic statue of the Strike.  He stands right where the first roundup of 425 Jewish men took place.  Because of my long stays in Amsterdam researching the Holocaust and resistance, I always write my friends on this date to remind them of the Strike anniversary.

This year, my gesture of remembrance feels different.  The inspiring aspects of the story are still there:  masses of largely non-Jewish people responded with outrage to the roundup of their fellow citizens.  Organized by the communists, the Strike began at the docks and spread to the trams.  Soon, all kinds of people were marching and singing.  The Germans were astonished:  they never expected their Aryan brothers to stand up for the Jews.  Even when the Nazis threatened municipal workers with firing, many stayed on the streets.  In Dutch fashion, the strikers did obey a newly imposed curfew, but were back the next day.

Here’s the catch:  the February Strike was only a great moment.  Just 20% of Amsterdam’s Jewish people survived the war – even though many had been there for centuries, and were fully assimilated into Dutch society, or so they thought.  Some survivors look back at the Strike as the one time they felt fully supported.  But the German reaction was so severe with the police and the SS that it warned the general population never to try anything like the Strike again.  A handful of people began underground activities to resist the Nazis anyway, like the woman pictured in the Resistance Museum below, or the fictional heroine of An Address in Amsterdam.  However, with hindsight we see how tiny that group was compared to those who minded their own business, or who actively collaborated.

Despite the differences between our times and Amsterdam in 1941, the parallels are disheartening.  Refugees and minorities (religious and otherwise) are being targeted for both state-sponsored persecution and for individual bullying and worse. Permission is in the air, justified because “they” are a threat to “us.”  The press is under attack as an enemy of the people.  Obvious lies spurt daily from the White House.  The most obvious parallel between 1941 and now is the quandary of people who disagree with the government:  do we keep our heads down and thus collude?  Do we collaborate and profit as we can?  Or do we resist – and what exactly does that mean?

Like the February strikers, many gathered strength from Women’s Marches around the country – from the sheer numbers, the witty pink hats, the creative signs and the cheerful determination.  Now, fortunately, we are in a very different position than the 1941 strikers.  No one has invaded our country.  The Marches were peaceful, and no one is in jail or deported as a result.  Only 22% of eligible voters elected our current President.  A plurality went for Clinton.  Mid-term elections are coming up in only two years.  If the people who let Trump be elected the first time work to get out the vote, we can get the balance of power between Congress and the President working again.  

In the meantime, we can organize locally for causes we believe in. Those who are able can donate to organizations fighting the Administration in the courts and elsewhere.  We can take to the streets at the right moments, to bolster our spirits and remind ourselves how numerous and persistent we are.  Perhaps most importantly, we can meet hatred with peace, beginning with our own speech and actions.  As tempting as it is to demonize people with whom we disagree profoundly, it is the path of Hitler, of Stalin, of slave owners and tyrants since time immemorial.

We can gum up the works, calling and writing and making outrageous art and being visible.  We can spread factual facts through social and other media.  We can align ourselves with vulnerable people, asking how we can walk beside them.  Most of all, we have to keep our spirits up.  Some of us have given decades of our lives to certain causes, and it’s depressing to see them undermined or worse.  The erosion of the most fundamental American values and political practices is disheartening at best.  But our years of struggle taught us how to fight, and we haven’t forgotten.

This year, the February Strike reminds us that it’s always possible to be just as brave as the strikers were.  We can resist for more than a moment.  To return to the story everyone knows, Anne Frank has the last word:  “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”  Now it’s our turn.

A Hidden Jewish Child’s Story Meets Mine

In the 13 years it took to research and write my historical novel An Address in Amsterdam, I could not have imagined the meeting which took place in Philadelphia on Sunday evening, with a man who had been a hidden Jewish child.  The setting was a reader’s paradise:  the Big Blue Marble Bookstore, a community institution which has shelves to the rafters and loads of activities for everyone in the neighborhood.  Just before my event, a group had been making Valentines on the large mezzanine which overlooks the main floor of the store.

Mr. Vega hidden with his "brother" 1944

Mr. Vega hidden with his “brother” 1944

I’m standing at the top of the steep staircase to greet people as they arrive.  An older man comes up first, followed by a woman about his age and a younger couple.  When I apologize for the sharp incline, the younger man chuckles and says, “These steps are nothing to the Dutch.”  He cocks his head toward the older man, who turns out to be his father-in-law, Lex Vega.

I take Mr. Vega’s warm hand.  His eyes are vibrant and liquid, his gaze almost affectionate, his smile glowing and contagious.  Because of an illness, he has difficulty speaking, but we are in immediate and real communication even so.  The son-in-law continues, “He comes from Ouderkerk, near Amsterdam.”

“Of course!” I say.  “The beautiful Sephardic Jewish cemetery is there.”  It’s a place I love, and an important scene in my novel took place there.

Mr. Vega’s eyebrows shoot up, and he speaks.  His wife and daughter help me understand.  “I was born in the house right beside the cemetery, and lived there until I had to go into hiding.”

“But I know the house!  I know exactly where you mean.”  I could see it, just on the edge of the cemetery grounds.  Nearby, the large blue stone gravestones incised with Hebrew letters have stood for centuries.

The son-in-law added, “The family lived openly as Jews well into the war, because his father was the guardian and buried the bodies.  But eventually they had to hide.”

Mr. Vega interjected, and this time I thought I understood.  “Someone warned you?”

He nodded.  Soon Mrs. Vega was by our side, saying she’d read the book.  I asked her what she thought of it, and she said, “Of course we know the story.”  She paused.  “The book was real.”

Even though I had to focus on the reading, I was remembering a spring day, probably in 2002, when I, like my heroine Rachel Klein, needed a break.  Day after day, I had been studying how the Nazis carried out their diabolical work in the Netherlands.  The horror of it was in my body and mind like a fever, and I had to get away from it.  Because I love walking by rivers, I decided to follow the Amstel in the direction of Ouderkerk.  Maybe I’d get there, maybe not.

The Jewish Cemetery by Jacob Isaacksz van Ruisdael

The Jewish Cemetery by Jacob Isaacksz van Ruisdael

My mood lightened as I slipped out of the city, and buildings gave way to freshly mown pastures.  Dots of yellow flowers poked up here and there.  The river glittered in the surprisingly consistent sun.  I stopped for an old cheese sandwich in an ancient café, and paid homage to a gigantic statue of Rembrandt.  By late afternoon, I arrived in Ouderkerk, a picturesque village built right up to the water.  Wandering along its lanes, I spotted a cemetery with an iron fence around it.  The large flat stones seemed to call me in.  A sign told me where I was:  the Sephardic Jewish cemetery.  It took my breath away.  No matter where I went, the stories of the Jewish people of Amsterdam would find me.  Whatever was guiding me into those stories was gently sending me back to my job.  What was that force?  Something within me, some long buried truths that needed to emerge?  The spirits of the dead, or what the indigenous people call Great Heart?  I don’t know how to name that force, but some people call it G-d.

All this came into my mind as I spoke with Mr. Vega.  The next day, he sent me his story, able to communicate much more fully by e-mail.  It turns out that his parents made no proactive effort to evade deportation.  Instead, a woman who worked with the Resistance, Mrs. Catherina Klumper, pushed them to let her hide first Mr. Vega’s grandmother, then himself at age five and his younger sister, and ultimately the rest of the family.  Mr. Vega was placed with a loving Catholic couple, first in Arnhem and then in Friesland after the battle of the “bridge too far.”

I could still see the kindness of Theo and Bets van Heukelom in Mr. Vega’s open face.  He called them Aunt and Uncle, and enjoyed the company of an older “brother” Theo as well.  Unusually, Mr. Vega stayed with the same family throughout the war – and even more unusually, his entire nuclear family survived, and they were reunited.  The whole town welcomed them back, and returned all the goods which were in safekeeping.  The Vegas were literally the only Jewish family in Ouderkerk, and were liked and respected.

After a few visits following the war and Uncle’s death in 1946, the families lost touch.  It always bothered Mr. Vega, and in 2013 his wife persuaded him to make a real effort to find whatever remained of his war family.  More than sixty years had passed.  Here’s what he writes:

I began to call everybody in the Dutch phonebook with Uncle’s name, “van Heukelom” or Aunt’s family name “Bindels.”  Every time, after I had introduced myself, they told me that they did not know what I was talking about.   But after fifteen calls, I got Theo on the line.  How did I know that it was him?  He reacted spontaneously with an immediate answer:  “Oh, my little brother in the war!”  This was one of the most heart-warming experiences I ever had.  Not only had I now rediscovered the family of Uncle and Aunt, but he called me his brother!  So it was really true that I belonged to their family!

The once hidden Mr. Vega and his "brother" Theo in 2015

The once hidden Mr. Vega and his “brother” Theo in 2015

 

Not only did they reestablish contact, but Mr. Vega went through all the necessary processes to give his Aunt and Uncle the Yad Vashem honor for Righteous Gentiles.  The ceremony was held in Ouderkerk last year, and he was able to acknowledge them publicly and say, “I was very well taken care of with affection and with respect for my Jewish identity.”  If only it had been that way for every hidden child.

So here’s where Mr. Vega’s story and mine intersected, as we stood at the head of the stairs together.  For reasons I’ll never fully understand, it became my task and honor to remember and write about the Jewish people of Amsterdam.  His duty was to loop back after decades and to acknowledge the kindness of his war family.  And perhaps to let me know that, even though I was born after the war, even though I’m neither Jewish nor Dutch, my book somehow holds some of the stories.  Especially of those who will never rest in the beautiful cemetery in Ouderkerk, or any other.

 

Collaboration, Even on a Protest March

Hundreds of people showed up Tuesday night in our small “city” of Burlington, Vermont to support the rights of refugees and immigrants.  Because of our open-mindedness, Burlington has been a refugee resettlement area for years, so we have a lot at stake as a community – not just the refugees themselves, but the businesses they buy from and where they are employed, and the citizens of a city made so much more culturally diverse than it would be otherwise.
March on Church St.

The crowd was mostly young and red hot, with some headscarves and brilliant African fabrics scattered through the crowd.  After listening to the speakers as we shivered in the chill, we finally got to march toward the top of our historic Church Street, then back to City Hall.  The pace was brisk and the chants surged from one end of the blocks-long march to the other.

A tall, harsh-voiced teenager shrieked “S—w Donald Trump!” and the crowd joined right in.  I recoiled – not because I am less angry than they are, but because I’ve studied the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam too long.  Hatred gets us nowhere – or, rather, it sets us on a dangerous path that we have seen before.  As soon as we begin to denigrate other people and see them as less than human, there’s no limit to the evil we feel entitled to do to them.

I knew the chant was wrong, but I did what too many people did during the Holocaust:  I kept silent.  I made excuses:  I’m too old, they’d never listen to me.  In other words, I collaborated with what I knew was wrong.

On the edge of the crowd, a lanky man in his forties spoke up, not shouting but speaking loudly enough to be heard.  “We shouldn’t chant that,” he said.  “It’s an awful thing to say.”

The teenager asked, “What do you want us to say instead?”

A moment later, we were all shouting “Love trumps hate.”  The man who spoke up made a difference.  Next time, I want it to be me.

Sign showing Anne Frank "We could have saved her"

“We could have saved her.”

Why I Had to March in Washington, Not Elsewhere

I had to march somewhere the day after the Inauguration for the same reasons as everyone else.

I could have joined my neighbors at the statewide rally in Montpelier, Vermont.

But I had to join the Women’s March on Washington.  Why?

Marchers and capitol

Because that’s where the man lives now.  The one who received a minority of the popular vote and now has the nuclear codes in his hands.  A privileged white male who has inspired and legitimized hate crimes, and is about to commit them at the policy level.  A self-admitted sexual predator – no, a braggart, about what he should be ashamed of.  An aggressor who takes what he wants no matter to whom it belongs, like the early “settlers” who invaded Native lands.  A sleaze who will do anything you’ll let him get away with. A perpetual liar whose incessant degradation took down one of the world’s most experienced and distinguished women politicians.  The first President for whom the White House will be a step down in luxury from his own residence.

I had to march within a few blocks of that guy.  To clog his streets – not just Independence Avenue, but the Mall, Constitution Avenue, everything he sees from his back windows. To be part of the roar that would penetrate even the double glazing.

I had to walk in the footsteps of the civil rights activists like Fannie Lou Hamer and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the peace marchers, the women’s rights advocates.  To be on the march that began long, long before this one, seeking justice in “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”  I needed to be brave in that land, rather than despairing.  To remind myself that other marchers won at least partial victories – the Civil Rights Act, withdrawal from Vietnam, the right to choose, the Equal Pay Act. I owed it to those earlier marchers to show up where they did.

Marchers by National Gallery Women's MarchI needed to walk in my own footsteps, too.  To remember stumbling sleepily off an overnight bus as an 18 year old to the roar of a megaphone that said “Good morning, Antioch.”  I returned to march again and again – to protest the Vietnam war, then to support women’s rights.  Then marching wasn’t enough, and I spent ten years in Washington, working first in public interest groups, then for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Federal Women’s Program.  I worked for almost everything Donald Trump is attacking.  I take it personally.  I lived in Washington long before that man did, and I’ll still be marching and supporting good causes there long after he’s gone.

I needed to march in Washington to reassure myself.  No matter who is dominating the House and Senate, no matter who is sitting in the President’s chair, no matter how powerful they are, women and our allies can still fill the streets of Washington as full as they’ve ever been.  Not just with old fogeys like me, but with a new generation who will also be marching for decades ahead.  Not just white women like me, but women of all colors, women in headscarves and pink handknit hats, women of all persuasions.

Washington is the center of what I fear in our country now, and even in its best moments it’s a flawed city of the rich and poor, full of puffery and vanity, racism and sexism. “I envy you North Americans,” Che Guevara said.  “You live in the heart of the beast.”

sign about womanhood and unity

But Washington is also the essence of what I love about the United States.  It’s a diverse metropolis with a huge, open space at center of the city where absolutely anyone can come.  The Mall is lined with free museums which honor who we are as a nation: the Natives who were here first, the slaves who created so much of our wealth, the Constitution we are still learning to fulfill, the immigrants who made the United States what it is.

On Saturday, we marched in all our variety and humor and enterprise and determination and sisterhood.  We, the people of the United States.  In our nation’s capital.  Ours.

A Writer in the World, or at least N.M.

Socorro mountainsThe last few days fulfilled my longtime dreams of what I might do as a writer in the world. Being with two groups in New Mexico to discuss the importance and possibility of resistance gave me a sliver of hope, even ten days before Donald Trump’s inauguration. If there are 35 people in a red state in two locations who are receptive to that message, we need not despair for our country. Around the talks, I got to visit with dear old friends, see countryside utterly different from my usual haunts, appreciate the marvels of sandhill cranes for the first time, and learn from the Pueblo Native Cultural Center in Albuquerque.

Because of my astronomer partner, I knew I was going to be in Socorro, New Mexico, and tried to think about who might be interested in a book talk about An Address in Amsterdam, my historical novel about a young Jewish woman who joins the anti-Nazi underground. With a little research, I tracked down a small Unitarian congregation which was willing to take a chance on a talk called “Resistance Then and Now.” Richard Sonnenfeld, the kind man who’d said yes and done the promotion, welcomed me to the sunny social hall of the local Episcopal church where the UUs meet on Sunday afternoons. We chatted about the latest outrages on the news as we arranged chairs. My partner had invited some astronomers to join us, and all in all about twenty of us collected.

Warm welcome from Richard Sonnenfeld

Warm welcome from Richard Sonnenfeld

After an organ prelude – unique in my decades of speaking to groups – I began the conversation by talking about the way the Dutch faced the choices of collusion, collaboration and resistance. There were so many ways to resist, from the low key ones like reading an underground newspaper, to the much riskier endeavors of delivering such papers (as my book’s heroine does) or hosting Jewish families or others who needed to hide. When we began the discussion, we talked about the possibilities for resistance now in a number of contexts: finding and sharing information that is increasingly unavailable, standing beside or sheltering persecuted people, and protesting or taking other direct action. It was impressive to hear the number of local initiatives which had already begun. To that list we added the intention to reach out to the local mosque and find out what support they might welcome. I felt cheered by the time we parted company.

Driving from Socorro to Albuquerque a few days later meant huge vistas rimmed by mountains, and desert vegetation broken by occasional settlements. Thanks to the wonders of GPS, I navigated smoothly through the city streets of a place I’ve never been. Instead of a stuffy, set-apart museum building, I found a handsome Art Deco storefront that drew people in just like a store, with a sandwich board on the pavement and interesting stuff in the windows. Variegated turquoise tiles across the whole façade livened the whole place up, with a bright sign across the full width for the “Holocaust and Intolerance Museum of New Mexico.”

Holocaust & Intolerance Museum

After greeting the staff and volunteers who keep the place alive, I passed uneasily under the replica of the gate into Auschwitz: Freedom through Work. To my left were a series of exhibits about the Holocaust, mostly presenting material that was familiar to me in a way that was easy to access, with lots of pictures as well as text. On the other side were hard-hitting exhibits about hatred and where it can lead – the Orlando shootings, the Armenian genocide, the Rwandan genocide, and how propaganda works to manipulate our perceptions. I was saddened to hear that the Museum lost funding from a major Jewish organization because of the broader topics they cover. To honor the Holocaust of the Jews and to recognize its hideous uniqueness is not, in my view, to say that no other genocides count.

Like any book lover, I soon went downstairs to the library and study center where I eventually gave my talk. The collection was as comprehensive as the exhibits. I was delighted to find my bible for my own book, Jacob Presser’s Ashes in the Wind: The Destruction of Dutch Jewry, like finding an old friend among strangers.

Jennie Negin & Mary

Board Chair Jennie Negin & Mary

The Museum kindly arranged for a delicious cold cuts luncheon on proper rye bread, and soon we had a dozen people munching and chatting. By the time we went downstairs, about fifteen people had gathered, thanks in part to Board Chair Jennie Negin’s decision to close the Museum for an hour so all the volunteers could attend. I felt honored to be among them: a couple of high school students, an historian, a retired opthamologist, a supporter of the Southern Poverty Law Center, an African American woman married for decades to a Jewish man, her mother, a capable librarian and others, all drawn there to support the Museum’s work. I talked with them about my own background, what drew me to the story of the Holocaust and Resistance in the Netherlands, and gave them some highlights of what I’ve learned and how it applies to us all now.

Questions and comments poured in, including a painful one about the role of Jewish people who collaborated in some way. We talked about the Jewish Council and its very ambiguous role in representing the Nazi demands to the community, and negotiating on its behalf but often futilely. We heard about the dollhouse in the Museum collection, which was hidden in a neighbor’s attic and survived the war, unlike its original owner. One man honored me by saying he would place me among the righteous Gentiles. This gesture feels like an anointment – and a charge to continue to get this message out into the world. Not just the memory, as important as that is, but the message of the courage of the resistance and how necessary it is now.

 

My Cousin, the Star

photograph of Barbara Tarbuck

Barbara Tarbuck

Other girls had canopy beds or family trips to Luray Caverns, or big sisters who painted their toenails for them.  I had my Cousin Barbara Tarbuck – even if she lived in Detroit and I was an only child in North Carolina, even if I hardly ever saw her red-haired beauty.  She was always with me:  in my inner world, not just in the elegant green velvet hand-me-down dress her mother mailed to me.

Barbara was six years older than I, already acting in radio plays with professional actors when she was only nine years old.  Think of it – my cousin on the radio!  I saw her in my mind’s eye, surrounded by legions of fans and friends, fending off overzealous admirers.  I wasn’t.  My Canadian parents and I were a thousand miles away, recoiling at Colored and White drinking fountains.  Kids made fun of my accent and my ineptitude at sports and singing.

I felt more than left out; I felt unwanted.

It was much easier to bear because Barbara loved me, and I could aspire to be like her.  I adored her from afar, the way I adored Dorothy Gale or Nancy Drew.  But Barbara was a real person, in my own family.  If she’d lived in North Carolina, she would have protected me from the mean kids.  I just knew it.

Apart from those fantasies, Barbara’s life told me that my dreams could come true, even after I grew up.  From the gritty public schools of Detroit and Wayne State University, she won a Fulbright to study at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.  Her career blossomed, first in New York for ten years of theater that included Broadway, then in Los Angeles, where she also acted for TV and movies, plus directing and teaching.

Our visits as adults began when I was in Washington doing poorly paid public interest work, and she was an actress in New York, first struggling and then modestly successful. I brought her questions I couldn’t ask anybody else, especially about men and my mother.  We came from the same stormy ground. As she regaled me with her stories, Barbara showed me it was OK to be ambitious and single-minded, that a whole life could be woven around the love of an art.  You were allowed to give up on a relationship, a marriage.  Flings were fine, even ill-advised ones.  Barbara was a fierce woman.  I had been brought up to be so much nicer than she was, and she helped me get over that.

We talked in her exposed-brick apartment for as long as she could sit still.  Even her best friend describes her as a “loveable narcissist.”  I don’t think I ever had her full attention for more than ten minutes at a stretch in those years, but it was delicious while it lasted.  Then, when she got restless, I had the joy of walking down the streets of New York beside my beautiful, brilliant cousin, who was part of it all.

In the evenings, I was fascinated by Barbara on the stage:  someone I recognized but did not recognize, so fully did she inhabit the characters she played. I loved seeing her perform, whether a one-woman show in an attic, or “Brighton Beach Memoirs” on Broadway.  When I asked how she kept her performance so fresh night after night, Barbara looked astonished.  “But it’s always different!  The audience is never the same.  The other actors are in a particular mood, or they stress a word you didn’t hear the same way the night before.”  The effort Barbara put into her art was breathtaking – and she was a quick study.  She never let a single experience go to waste.  While she was on tour in Washington, D.C., she was startled by a unnerving noise when she came back late.  Before she went to investigate, Barbara stopped to memorize her facial expression and body position.  “I’ll use that one day on the stage,” she said.

Barbara moved across the country to Los Angeles “for two reasons:  money and power.” She’d had enough of being a starving actress, even with her successes.  I was about thirty years old when I visited her for the first time.  She and her future husband were living in a petite redwood cottage embraced by orange and other trees that were mythical to me.  Waking up there for the first time, I was just as transported as I had been in Manhattan.  Once again, Barbara was introducing me to another world. California was good to her, professionally and personally.  She became financially stable for the first time, and had found the right man to marry.  Soon, Barbara had a child at age 40 without missing a beat (or cancelling a rehearsal, I suspect).  Her daughter was an intelligent child with red-gold hair, often reared by her father when Barbara was on the road.  They bought the small property in Santa Monica which is still the family home decades later.

As my own friendships and work world expanded, Barbara was no longer the unique star she’d been when I was a child, but I still loved visiting my cousin. Although we had grown up far from each other, it hardly mattered.  We had some things in common that even my closest chosen family didn’t offer. We came from the same earth, the same story of a Nova Scotia coal miner’s teenaged daughter seduced by the radical union organizer who became our grandfather.  His foolscap yellow letters educated us both politically, some sent to her in Detroit and others to me in Durham.

Into the crucible of Grandpa and Grandma’s marriage had come first my father, then her mother and three more. My father had his mother’s sweetness and his father’s brilliance and devotion to apple trees and gardens.  Barbara’s mother was just as smart, but sharp-tongued and thwarted after being denied an education.  Her dreams poured into her daughter like fire water.

We understood all this and more about each other.  We even spoke the same language, epitomized in the following exchange.  Barbara once said, “So I drove out him out there.  It wasn’t hours, but it was” – here she paused and we simultaneously said “a fur piece” and burst out laughing.  Oh, that laugh!  Loud, insouciant, carrying the echoes of our grandparents. Barbara’s voice wasn’t just what she was born with, rich and textured, but an instrument that she had cultivated for decades, much as one would an apple tree.

While I was emerging as a writer in my fifties, I came to Los Angeles to study with Deena Metzger more or less annually.  After an intense week of soul-searching and writing, I’d meet up with Barbara and we’d talk for hours as always – in the arid Pine Mountain forests or along Venice Beach, or in her postage stamp back yard in Santa Monica. I learned what she was up to.  Not just acting, although that was always the heart of it.  She found plenty of artistic challenge in her Los Angeles work, somewhat to her surprise, and loved directing and teaching at UCLA.  Once I accompanied her to a rehearsal of a play she was directing, and watched her adjust an actor’s body language.  How did a slightly different arm gesture make a whole different character?  It was part of the art she had devoted herself to ever since she met the professional radio actors in her childhood, people who had worked on national programs like The Lone Ranger.  

Although I was a bit player in Barbara’s life, I held her stories: her trip to Florida when her father burned to death in a trailer, a secret relationship, the spot on the back of her right calf that she covered with makeup as a young woman, her agony over her brother abandoning his children, her decision to have a baby at age 40 and how easy (!) it was physically, her refusal to have a facelift even if it cost her some work.  We once stopped communicating for a few years because she said something that I couldn’t stomach, but eventually we reconnected.  We both knew we were right, but the relationship was just too valuable to let it go.

I wasn’t the only person Barbara never gave up on.  She didn’t let her mother’s shrill and sometimes egregious behavior drive her away.  When her smart and handsome husband became devastatingly disabled, she made sure he had the right care until the end of his life.   It was Barbara who made sure our cousin with developmental disabilities got two idyllic weeks in California every year.  She even did what she could to pick up the pieces with her brother’s children.  She made a deep relationship with the next generation of Nova Scotia cousins.  I can only imagine what she was capable of with her friends, colleagues and students whom I don’t know.  No wonder so many people were bereft on December 27, 2016, when she died at 74, less than a month after being diagnosed with Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease, a rare brain disorder.

A few days after the diagnosis, I flew from Vermont to California.  Barbara was performing, as always, raving but enchanting apart from a few meltdown moments.  At one point, I caught her attention and said, “Barbara, I have loved you my whole life.”  I said it twice to be sure she understood, and she did.  No one else is living to whom I can say those words.

A photograph (which I hope I’ll find one day) depicts an idyllic visit to Detroit when Barbara was a suave thirteen-year-old, I a plump seven. She has breasts; I have pudge.  Her hair is swept up in a fashionable duck tail; mine has the frizz of the last failed permanent wave.  She already looks like a star, but a loving one.  We’re standing close to each other.  I’m squinting but my face is completely happy.  I belonged to her.  Now she’s gone.

Two Heroines: One Syrian, One Dutch

As someone who is always fascinated by women in the resistance, I was curious about Raghda Hassan, the revolutionary heroine in Sean McAllister’s award- winning documentary, “A Syrian Love Story.” Every fall, the Vermont International Film Festival shows social action films which bring the world to our doorstep. I wondered how Raghda would compare to Rachel, the fictional heroine of An Address in Amsterdam who joins the underground against the Nazis. The film is the heartbreaking chronicle of the oppression of the Syrian people, and the dissolution of the marriage, as well as the calamity of the family having to leave first their neighborhood, then their city and country.Poster for A Syrian Love Story

Early in the film, Raghda’s Palestinian then-husband, Amer Daoud says, “She’s a very strong woman, and I am a very weak man.” At that point, she was in prison, but she is eventually reunited with her husband and sons. Even to the naked eye she is deeply traumatized both physically and otherwise. The film focuses more on Amer, in part because his English is better.  We never learn enough about Raghda and why she made the decisions she made.

I found myself impatient with filmmaker McAllister at times despite his laudable commitment to this film. He says that he had the same experience as Raghda when he was picked up and jailed by Assad’s security forces. By definition, a man is not subject to the same torture as a woman, and no British citizen with an embassy and press corps behind him is in the same position as a Syrian – particularly a known revolutionary. Moreover, because of the film in his captured camera, Raghda and her family had to flee their country for Lebanon.

In the end, Amer and the children are settled in France, but Raghda is in Turkey working in a high position as an advisor to the Syrian opposition government. For the first time, we see her as she must have been before she went to prison, with the composed face of someone doing what she truly wants. She has lost her husband and children but is glad that they are safe. She’s been tortured, moved endlessly, been forced to live away from the home she passionately loves. She has seen Assad triumph again and again, slaughtering his own people.

Raghda smiles. “I still have hope for humanity and freedom and my country.” She is a heroine in the old fashioned sense. Rachel is just as brave when she faces soldiers and police on the street, with illegal documents in her pocket. But she does reach a breaking point, where saving herself and her family becomes paramount. She is not a flame that will burn itself out to the limit like Raghda. She’s an ordinary teenager who turns into an activist and does the right thing – not the one in a million superwoman who is Raghda. I admire her greatly, but she wasn’t my subject.

I pray that Raghda has enough notoriety through this film to protect her, and that her faith has not been utterly destroyed by the continued massacre in Syria.