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History inserts itself into my childhood

Updated: Jan 21, 2022

Why do I remember crossing Hertel Avenue holding Aunt Sadie’s hand, which, because I was so small, was at the level of my ear. Probably because what happened next was imprinted indelibly on my little-girl mind. We were headed to the Kiddie Shop. My best friend Linda was holding her mom’s hand on the other side. (She wasn’t my real aunt, but Linda and I were inseparable, so she was to me.) We stopped at the show window in front where there was a huge poster. Aunt Sadie gave an audible gasp and her hand jerked. I looked at the poster more carefully to see why—3 little kids playing on a very green sunny lawn—OH! A black swastika shadow, menacing, terrifying. I don’t remember the shopping, just the poster, then and forever after. I was 5. It was 1942 and WWII was in full swing.

After that moment, I was a slightly different child, apparently, on the lookout for more scary items that came my way. Life magazine was often lying around the house, and as I flipped the pages during this time. 1945, I was 7, and flipped to this and many other pages like it.

But how did it shape my behavior at the time? It didn’t. It just scared and horrified me. We never spoke about the war at home. It was like a dark ugly mess that we kept from our sweet-smelling shiny home. That summer, we were at our beach front summer home on Lake Erie. My mom always hired young cleaning women to help in her war against sand on her polished linoleum floors. That year she hired a Polish woman who had a little girl with her that I was supposed to play with. I resisted because she was funny looking, skinny, with bad teeth and straight short bowl cut hair, and very little English. I wanted only my familiar Linda so we kept away from her. I knew from whispers that they were refugees from Poland, but with my hard child’s heart, I kept away. I’m sad for that little me. I knew better even then.

But my heart was in for a big lesson on this subject in 1952 when I opened “Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl” when I was 14. I read with total fascination and horror, hanging on every word. I easily put myself in her place, saw the world through her eyes, I WAS her. The confinement, the personalities confined with them, the fear, the boredom, the everyday worries, the adolescent emotions, it changed me forever. I could never again see the world through the rosy glass my mother polished to such a shine daily. Never view the world as a safe place for everyone again. When the book came to an abrupt end and I found out what happened to her, I was devastated. What a waste! How could that possibly happen? But as my mother’s daughter, I retreated once again.

I went back to my safe and secure life, my all girls high school where I was a star even though I was Jewish. There were 3 girls, me among them, counted as the smartest in our class. One was discounted because she was so strange, acting like a 50 year old professor at all times. The other was athletic and popular, belonging to one of the sororities that Jewish girls were not asked to join, and then there I was, sort of pretty in a dark-curly haired Jewish kind of way, had a habit of smiling a lot and staying out of trouble, got straight A+s, wrote prize short stories, and starred in the class play. I ran for Class president against the athlete, got all the other sorority votes, the 4 Jewish votes, and other misfits votes, so I won!

History receded into the background during the 50s, while I finished High School, went off to Wellesley, and got married, and started a family.

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