This morning’s digital edition of The Washington Post quoted the following in one of its lead articles: “The Florida state legislature kicked off Black History Month by advancing bills that would allow parents to sue a school if any instruction caused students ‘discomfort, guilt or anguish.’ The bills have been endorsed by Gov. Ron DeSantis.”
A few months I began to gather up a few fictional sketches I wrote years ago which included certain elements of how I grew up. They included:
— 11-year-old Stacy, my first American friend, who was obsessed by Charlton Heston (remember him?). She showed me her scrapbooks on the actor over and over again and couldn’t fathom my indifference. I tried to share her enthusiasm but was puzzled by why anyone would want to spend time assembling two thick scrapbooks about somebody they didn’t know.
— my mother taking my sister and me to see Carmen when I was 9 or 10, even though she only had money for two seats in the last row and kept my sister on her lap because she wanted her children to learn about operas.
— petrified fear in my first meeting with a Catholic nun at the age of 8, while using the red swings on the church grounds next to my home, after hearing that nuns could kidnap you and make you Christian against your will.
The fictional girl in the sketches has her own obsession, and that is to go to Russia and rescue Raoul Wallenberg from the Lubyanka prison in Russia, or even from the Gulag. Raoul Wallenberg, for those of you who grew up making scrapbooks on Charlton Heston, was a Swedish diplomat who saved the lives of thousands of Hungarian Jews by issuing them fake visas that he printed on Swedish Government stationery. He’d even go to the railroad stations where Jews were put on trains to Auschwitz and give them these visas, in the face of threats against his life.
Most of those who didn’t get those visas were murdered in the final year of World War II because, in part, the officials at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp wouldn’t even bother with selections and instead would send entire trainloads to the gas chambers.
At the end of the war Wallenberg went to a meeting with the Russian army and was never heard from or seen again. For many years the Russian government denied knowing anything about him, and only in the late 20th century did they admit that he was killed, probably by a shot to the head in the 1950s. That didn’t prevent other inmates of Russian prisons from claiming sights of him over decades.
I am not the young girl who is so obsessed; I don’t know where these sketches will go. Maybe she’ll grow into a woman who is obsessed with saving the world, who knows? But I am intrigued by the Greta Thunbergs of this world, young women who single-mindedly focus on the dire consequences of climate change and the immense suffering of species. Many people think they’re crazy. They are labeled occasionally as autistic, and especially as having Asperger’s. It’s not normal to be this way, people say. It’s not healthy, it’s not sane.
How sane is it to face catastrophe by assembling scrapbooks on handsome actors or playing video games? What does a normal childhood or upbringing look like these days?
The central character in these sketches isn’t me, but I know that girl because I was one of those children who grew up with lots of anguish about what happened to her family in the Holocaust. I grew up on stories of a woman being torn to pieces by dogs outside the railway station because a Nazi soldier didn’t like something about her (the doctor’s wife, my mother told me), or what it was like to emerge from a cellar to bring food back to the family hiding there, knowing what will happen if you’re caught.
Discomfort, guilt, and anguish peopled my childhood. The Mickey Mouse Club’s Mouseketeers seemed vacuous to me, though I remember thinking that Annette Funicello always looked sad, which caused me to wonder what happened to her family. Everybody my age was more fun-loving and carefree than I was; it wasn’t cool to be anything else.
I never got into fairy tales, including the grim ones, because I knew early on that reality was a hell of a lot grimmer.
I was once invited to the end-of-summer camp dance by a handsome, popular young man, only to whisper into his ear about all the important things we had to do for the world as we danced real close. I never heard from him again.
For good reason. I was nuts. Still am. DeSantis is probably right to endorse that bill.
The second Tenet of the Zen Peacemakers is bearing witness, letting ourselves be touched by the joys and pains of the universe.