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.

Women's College Library, Duke University

Librarians: My Favorite Tribe! 

I’ve been in love with librarians ever since I could read.  They always helped me find any book I wanted, and encouraged me to learn and read more. From grades 5-8, I spent every afternoon after school in the Women’s College Library at Duke University.  I still feel more at home in a library than in any other public place. The smell of old books means more to me than the fragrance of almost any food.

Women's College Library, Duke University

When I learned that the New England Library Association meetings would happen just half a mile from my house this year, I was ecstatic for several reasons. My favorite tribe was coming right to my doorstep, and I’d be able to talk with them about my new book, An Address in Amsterdam. This historical novel of a young Jewish woman who joins the resistance was 13 years in the making, with many hours spent in museums, historic sites, archives and, of course, libraries from Amsterdam to Washington and Los Angeles.

Leah Chyten, Jeanne Blasburg, Laurel Huber, Mary Fillmore

Fortunately, my book was published by She Writes Press, an all women’s press which encourages us to help each other. So it was easy to ask who among the sisters wanted to share a table with me at NELA. By the time they came here to Burlington, Vermont, two were old buddies from the Brooklyn Book Festival: Jeanne Blasburg, author of Eden, a family saga set in a Rhode Island beach house; and Laurel Davis Huber, author of The Velveteen Daughter, the untold tale of the writer of the children’s classic and her daughter. Leah Chyten also happily joined us, with her story of the feminine divine in Judaism, Light Radiance Splendor.

For two long but delicious days, my sister authors and I stood and regaled any librarian who would listen with the stories of our books – what they were about, how we came to write them, what programs we offer, and why the books have done well with libraries and book groups. Twice a day, we did a raffle and saw the grins on the faces of the winners as they chose their free books. I distributed bibliographies on the Dutch resistance to the Nazi Occupation, post cards, and information about everything from my talk on “Resistance Then and Now: Learning from the Dutch” to “Anne Frank’s Neighbors: What Did They Do?”

Kata Welch from Cavendish, Vermont

Mostly, though, we chatted with the people who are on the front lines of defense of the written word. Of preventing any book from being banned. Of keeping both children and adults in touch with the freest information in our society. Yes, they also deal in audiobooks and computers and other media. But the foundation is books, and the love of books. It was a joy to reconnect with the librarians who had already invited me to come and talk with their patrons – to hear how people had responded, that they had to order a second copy of the book, that it was engaging younger readers. And I loved talking with the librarians whose devotion to their work goes so above and beyond what anyone will ever be paid for it. It’s a calling, not just a profession.

Cynthia Bermudez with prize books

Cynthia Bermudez with prize books

So much loses its shine or becomes diminished as we learn more about the world and age. I admire librarians just as much as I did as a child, standing by the counter with a pile of books that I’d devour by nightfall. My hat is still off to them, especially now that they are dealing with an increasingly demanding audience, new technologies, homeless people with nowhere else to go, and much more. If anyone can save our country today and keep us all thinking critically, it’s the librarians and their books.

Eliane Vogel Polsky

My best friend Eliane’s birthday

Today would have been my best friend’s 91st birthday, and she would be mad at me for crying about it.  But there’ll never be another Eliane Vogel Polsky, for me or anyone.  I’ve even forgiven her for keeping a secret from me for 19 years.

I first admired Eliane as a professional mentor – a labor lawyer who devoted herself to the cause of women’s rights and won landmark cases in the EU, a distinguished law professor who oversaw all the EU-funded research to improve women’s employment in Europe.  The first day we met in Brussels, I fell under her spell – an elegant, brilliant woman, not one to suffer fools gladly but with the warmth and generosity of a huge bonfire. There was no hint of what I would learn about her later.

An hour with Eliane was like a month with anyone else, so intense was her attention to any given moment.  Taking a walk in Brussels, her home city, brought forth a stream of stories about the garret room her father reluctantly allowed her to rent so she could have some privacy before she married, about the cascades that used to rush from the fountains in the center of the city.

Over the years, we became ever closer – especially after Eliane retired, and was free to come to the U.S. every year.  Our conversations had, I thought, covered everything.  Then I spent a week with her before my first long stay in Amsterdam in 2001, and she told me something she had never revealed before.  As a Jewish teenager, Eliane had been hidden in plain sight in a convent school in Liege.  She took me to that classically beautiful city, a river town.  This time, her stories seared rather than delighted me.  We saw the train station where she was almost caught without her false papers.  The bridge where the Nazis had made “une piege a soucieres – you know what it is?  A mouse trap.”  The convent itself.

Eliane and Mary

If Eliane had told me that she’d been kidnapped by pirates, I couldn’t have been more astonished.  I had simply never done the arithmetic to realize that of course she would have had to hide.  For the first time, I felt the truncheon of Nazism crash down on my head.  They would have killed my best friend, a woman of endless accomplishment and dearer to me than I can ever express.

So when I went to Amsterdam the next week for a long stay, I was open to learning about the Nazi occupation as never before.  After discovering that we were living inside the Jewish Quarter, I began to research it in earnest.  Over the coming 13 years as we came and went from Amsterdam, Eliane visited often from Brussels. Our 2002 flat was under an attic where Jewish people had been hidden.  I was so haunted that I had to learn more about their world and write about it for others.  Rachel Klein, the heroine of An Address in Amsterdam, and her parents began to appear to me, not in the supernatural sense but in some ethereal way that characters come to writers.

Eliane played a crucial role in developing the book – not only because I was so disturbed by her own relatively narrow escape, but because she told me many more stories about that time.  For example, she recounted the reluctance of her father, a decorated World War I veteran, to believe that their family could possibly be vulnerable; or how it felt to be a 15 year old keeping a huge, terrible secret from absolutely everyone except the Mother Superior in the convent school.  Her sensibility, her sense of her predicament, her fear and courage are all woven into An Address.  As I wrote, Eliane read my work to see whether it “rang true,” and read the revisions until they did.  She accompanied me to exhibits and sites even though they disturbed her and gave her bad dreams.

In our very last conversation, she asked me about the book, and I promised that it was coming.  It was, but she died a year before An Address in Amsterdam was published – the story of a young woman with Eliane’s spunk and love of life, who never lets fear stop her.

When Eliane died the death of the just, surrounded by her children and grandchildren, even I could accept that it was time.  Most days, but not today.

The Merchant of Venice: A Play about Anti-Semitism

When I was in college, I learned that The Merchant of Venice was the anti-Semitic play where the avaricious Jew Shylock demands his pound of flesh from the worthy Christian merchant.  Fortunately, the new production at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum offered a chillingly contemporary interpretation instead.  It’s probably much closer to Shakespeare’s intention.

Before the play even begins, a gaggle of youths are already harassing Shylock.  From then on, every time any Christian says the word “Jew,” he spits, emphasizing the basic hatred to which Jewish people are subjected. Shylock, played by the brilliant and nuanced actor Alan Blumenfeld, is so much more than than the usual villain.  We see how much he is exactly what the Christians have made of him – a man who is earning his living the only way they permit, who must scramble for everything because he is allowed to have so little, who will of course take advantage of the incredibly few chances he gets to have even a moment of dignity, much less revenge.  When the idiotically optimistic merchant Antonio seeks to borrow money against his fortunes at sea, why should Shylock not demand a pound of flesh from near his heart if he is not paid on time?  Why should he not “have [his] bond” when Antonio does not pay him?

Even the characters I remembered as having some shred of nobility are hypocrites.  Even Portia’s speech beginning “The quality of mercy is not strained” is rendered absurd by the context:  she is impersonating a legal expert who doesn’t actually exist – and the whole play, especially as rendered in this production, shows the “Christians” behaving in the most unmerciful possible way.  Forcing Shylock to appear to adopt their religion is the final blow – and completely contrary to what Jesus professed.

The play is unsettling not only because the “good” characters show their evil sides so baldly, but also because it portrays the impact of hatred on both the hated and the haters.  Anti-Semitism parades across the stage in both its subtler and its more savage forms.  Thankfully, the actors held a “talk back” after the play, and dozens of people stayed for the conversation about how troubled we were, and why.  Mr. Blumenfeld stressed that the play is not anti-Semitic, but about anti-Semitism.  Artistic Director Ellen Geer and the company wanted to perform it at this time because we are again in a time when anti-Semitism and other forms of hatred and hate crimes are on the rise.

Theatricum Botanicum

The Theatricum Botanicum has a history of taking on unpopular causes.  In fact, it was founded by Will Geer (known to people my age as Grandpa Walton) when he was blacklisted in Hollywood in the McCarthy era.  Other actors banned from working in the industry gathered, and slowly today’s splendid open theater was built.  It’s a magical place in the woods, but only half an hour up a twisting road from Santa Monica.  The sets integrate the trees around them, with several balconies that serve many purposes adding dimension to the large stage.  Amphitheater seating means that everyone feels close to the actors.  Throughout the year, students come to be introduced to Shakespeare and theater arts, and in the summer they can be involved in productions and classes which anyone would enjoy.  Adults even have their own chance to learn in more depth.

If I lived in southern California, I’d go right back and see this revealing production again.

Anne Frank’s Birthday: What Do We Say?

The birthday of Anne Frank was June 12, 1929, which means she was just eleven years old when the Nazis invaded Amsterdam, the “safe” place to which she and her family had fled.  Understandably, her parents made the decisions about when and how the family went into hiding.  In contrast, when I began imagining the heroine of An Address in Amsterdam, I wanted her to be old enough to create her own life, even under the Nazis.  At 18, she could make an independent choice to join the underground.  During the 13 years it took me to research and write the book, I avoided re-reading Anne’s Diary because I didn’t want to be unduly influenced by it.  But I remembered our first meeting vividly, even so.

Anne Frank smiling

When I was ten or eleven years old, I took The Diary of a Young Girl to my favorite place to read in our tiny duplex apartment in Durham, North Carolina.  It was a hall closet which lost half its space to the hot water heater, but that meant it was always warm.  I’d found a bathmat to put on the floor and brought an extra pillow with me.  Although the light wasn’t excellent, it gave me solitude and an environment so neutral that I could journey deeply into my book.

Anne Frank gives little description of Amsterdam, and in any case I couldn’t have imagined a city with canals instead of streets, and the vocabulary of its rows of centuries-old, handcrafted houses was still unknown to me.  But, as I burrowed into my closet, I entered every other aspect of her world:  the hideous Mrs. van Dam, the wondrous beauty of Peter, the cruel shrew who was her mother, her kind and virtuous father.  I recognized her parents particularly, bifurcated into the contemptible female and the saintly male, and my heart bled for her.  To be confined that way! To have to tiptoe, not be able to flush the toilet during the day, to live with constant fear of discovery.  Anne felt like prey.  One day, I would understand that, too.

 

The more I read, the more I couldn’t bear to lose Anne.  Her story couldn’t end badly, could it?  Anne Frank was too bright, too witty, too good a writer, too wise beyond her years, to die.  She’d escape out a back window with a handsome Gentile boy even nicer than Peter who’d always admired her, wouldn’t she?  I was used to fiction, not history, and I probably didn’t know about the Holocaust until after I finished the Diary.  When I got to the end and learned that Anne had died at Auschwitz, I was devastated.  None of my peers in the human world meant nearly as much to me as she did.  Anne was like me: she felt things deeply, she adored her father as much as she hated her mother, she was already passionately attached to Peter, and books and writing were her mainstays.

It was the first time I loved a ghost, but not the last.

Amsterdam’s Silent March

A few words preceded the Silent March, following exquisite music by the Mirando Orchestra, the descendants of a Roma group which began playing before the war.  (Today, I learned from a friend that they survived because they were given jobs in the circus, and the Germans liked to attend it).  Several personal testimonies followed, but they were brief in the cold wind off the Amstel River.

Everyone needed to get moving.  The trams had been stopped all along the route, which was scheduled to last an hour and required brisk walking to ensure that the March reached Dam Square in time for the ceremony there.

 

A woman and man on horseback led the crowd, followed by drums who kept up a somber, repetitive beat.  A mass of school children of all colors followed, each carrying a white tulip.  At the very beginning, there was a little chatter among the adults (not the kids!) but it soon fell away.  The drum, the shuffling feet, the occasional nearby vehicle were the only sounds.  First we marched to the Jewish Historical Museum, once four lively synagogues which have now been combined.  Turning right onto what is now a big thoroughfare, we saw the remains of the Jonas Daniel Meijerplein where the hefty Dockworker statue stands.  He is the symbolic figure of the February Strike, the only such event in western Europe to protest the first roundup of Jewish people – a roundup that took place right there.  Beyond him stands the immense Portuguese Synagogue, thankfully still in use, and not an electric light in the whole establishment, only candles.
We crossed the bridge and turned right.  Eerily, the warning sounds that the bridge was about to be lifted bleeted loudly.  This is the same bridge the Nazis raised to isolate the Jonas Daniel Meijerplein for the first roundup.  Walking along the Nieuwe Keizersgracht, a small residential canal, we saw the markers at our feet which show the name and age of each person who used to live in the house opposite us.  All had been rounded up and murdered.  Every few feet, someone quietly read the names.

The March turned to cross the bridge which lay between us and the broad Amstel River.  The clomping of the horses’ feet and the drums sounded louder, and those still reading the plaques could see the crowd advance over the bridge.  We passed near the Carré Theater where numberless Jewish people performed, and crossed The Skinny Bridge, looking back up the River to the plaza where we had begun.  It was once a medieval Jewish neighborhood, torn down over great protest to build the City Hall/Opera House.

Through the narrow streets we kept marching.  People stood on their balconies for a few minutes to acknowledge us, but few stayed out.  It was too cold.  The flags were all at half mast.

At Utrechtestraat, I left the March so that I could participate in our old neighborhood’s commemoration, a much smaller and more modest affair than the one at the Dam.  It was hard to leave, but I knew that, wherever I am, in whatever country, I will always be walking in their footsteps.

 

Remembering Jewish Neighbors in Amsterdam

In one small area in east Amsterdam, less than 20 square blocks, more than 2800 Jewish people were rounded up and murdered.  For the last five years, their present-day neighbors and others have gathered all day long for a ritual to remember them.  The central square, the Kastanjeplein, is full of tall chestnut trees with towering blossoms, each in the form of a tree.  From each flutter long strips of crushed paper representing the untold stories of the dead.

Kastanjeplein Amsterdam

 

Volunteers guide people through the ritual’s steps, beginning with the gift of time which encompasses present, past and future, and divesting of everyday time.  One’s intention is assessed and written down:  I chose “paying attention,” rather than remembering or restoring or other options.  Next, from a pile of wooden drawers full of notebooks and photographs, I found a specific Jewish individual to memorialize:  Josua Samuel de Vries, who lived in the Beukenweg 22.  (Later, I looked him up in the Digital Monument to the Jews of the Netherlands and discovered that the family owned a cigar shop there, according to the police records from 1940.)

Even in late afternoon, dozens of people were participating.  They were of every age – the youngest perhaps 5 years old, the oldest in her eighties – and of every race.  A woman in a bright pink hijab stood out.  An Afro-Caribbean man pushing a stroller stopped to ask what was going on, and soon he too was drawn into the process.

I was directed to pick up a wooden slat to make a marker for Mr. de Vries, and chose fabric to cover it from a trunk.  Having done this before in 2015 (you can read my more complete account here), I selected a striped fabric so I could follow the lines to make a more regular design  After it was stapled on by a helper, I used stencils to mark out his name, seated at a picnic table. 

Soon we were chatting with the woman sitting opposite, who wanted to know why two Americans were doing this, and before long the story of An Address in Amsterdam came tumbling out.  Everyone around us was working diligently, some with real artistic talent, others more utilitarian in their approach as I was.  Because I knew nothing about Mr. de Vries then, I simply added a flower beside his name.

When we had made our markers, we followed the railroad track which was chalked on the curb surrounding the square.  Significant places were marked along the way, showing the number of kilometers distant from the spot where we were standing.  Reaching Muiderpoort Station only 700 meters away was chilling, not to mention Auschwitz.  Along the way were laminated copies of letters Jewish people threw from the deportation trains.  “Don’t worry.”  “Send lower underwear.”  “The wholefamily is here together.”  At the end, I spent a few moments meditating about Mr. de Vries.

With the help of a volunteer, I found his address on the map of the neighborhood which was laid out in the center of the square.  His whole family was already there.

While laying the marker in place, you choose your own words to say something like “I am bringing you home to be with your family.”  You ring a bell which you’ve chosen either by color or by note.  Around you are the sounds of the other bells, the sight of others bending over, standing back and looking at the appalling patchwork of the dead.  They have the dignity of being marked and remembered, but the fact that they were all from these few streets and all were deliberately slaughtered is inescapable.  The long chains of crushed paper, their stories, swayed in the cold wind.

Each year’s markers are added to the prior years.  Even though this ritual has been done for five years, less than half the people who died have markers.

We were offered a hot cup of tea in porcelain cups, and documented our experience.  An old fashioned accordion file held more photos and documents to read.  Every detail, even that file folder, was from the time when these people were all alive, when the cigar store was thriving, when the streets were crowded with them and all their kin.

We were brought back to ordinary time by returning the cards which we’d received at the beginning, handing them through an empty clock face.  But the hand which took them gave something, too:  a card for “time for poetry,” and another with “time for beauty.”

This is what was taken from them forever.  In their memory, we mustn’t waste it.

Remembrance Day is May 4 every year in the Netherlands.  Words will never be enough to honor the suffering of those who died in the war – particularly the Jewish and other people who were rounded up and murdered.  This year, I followed four different pathways which go beyond words on a single day, and I’ll write about each of them.

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.