29 January 2015

“Deep down I know I could never be that innocent again..."

World Toys and Gifts where I listened to their story...
“Deep down I know I could never be that innocent again, however much I'd like to be.”  
This quote and others in this blog are from Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl.
When I first read this book I was a freshman in high school and the same age as Anne was when she was writing. I finished it with sobs and immediately read it again.  I gave myself completely to the book.
 “If I read a book that impresses me, I have to take myself firmly by the hand, before I mix with other people; otherwise they would think my mind rather queer.”  
 I was of course reading the original version, the only one available at the time.  I have recently read the 2010 "diary as Anne Frank wrote it" that includes the approximately 30% of Anne's diary--largely those sections dealing with her sexuality and her conflict with her mother--that were excised by her father Otto Frank. (And who can criticize a father who wished to preserve the innocent child that he would never see as an adult?) Nonetheless, the young teen reader I once was would have identified with those issues. The recognition of sexuality and maternal conflict are hallmarks of female adolescence and neither Anne nor I were exempt. During the time that I read the original I was quite depressed and I am not over stating when I say this book and taking Anne's advice saved me:
 “The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely, or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quite alone with the heavens, nature, and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature. As longs as this exists, and it certainly always will, I know that then there will always be comfort for every sorrow, whatever the circumstances may be. And I firmly believe that nature brings solace in all troubles.”  
{How I wish that I could be certain, as Anne was, that "the simple beauty of nature" would "always" exist but I have also read Rachel Carson, Annie Dillard, and a host of environmental writers and am quite aware of our assaults on the earth that savage habitats while our haze and blazing light darken the sky and dim the stars.}
At a time when my faith was most weak, Anne Frank was one of my best teachers:
“People who have a religion should be glad, for not everyone has the gift of believing in heavenly things. You don't necessarily even have to be afraid of punishment after death; purgatory, hell, and heaven are things that a lot of people can't accept, but still a religion, it doesn't matter which, keeps a person on the right path. It isn't the fear of God but the upholding of one's own honor and conscience. How noble and good everyone could be if, every evening before falling asleep, they were to recall to their minds the events of the whole day and consider exactly what has been good and bad. Then, without realizing it you try to improve yourself at the start of each new day; of course, you achieve quite a lot in the course of time. Anyone can do this, it costs nothing and is certainly very helpful. Whoever doesn't know it must learn and find by experience that: "A quiet conscience makes one strong!”  
Decades later I would learn that a Jewish teenager had been my first teacher in the Daily Examen of Ignatian spirituality.

Having  revisited the friend of my youth, I am now considering reading  her other writings. This link is worth clicking to look inside and see the wonderful photographs (from the Peter Harban's hardcover edition) of Anne and of her handwriting.
I think I would like to also consider Anne Frank as a feminist writer. “And now I have a question for you. 'Do you also put clothes on the flowers you've picked and refuse to talk about their delicate parts? I don't think there's a very big difference between people and nature, and since we're also a part of nature, why should we be ashamed of the way nature made us?”  

Houston is home to Holocaust Museum which I have not visited and may never visit despite the fact that I worked with and greatly admire Dr. Milton Boniuk whose name is on HMH Library and who, with his wife Laurie in memory of their son, founded Rice University's Boniuk Institute for the Study and Advancement of Religious Tolerance.
I don't go  because I am convinced that I have a very good sense of the horror and  just hearing or saying the word "holocaust" roils my stomach and can give me nightmares for weeks.
I don't go because I heard the first hand account of the two lovely sisters who ran World Toy and Gifts that is pictured at the top of this posting.
This street view no longer exists, torn down, gentrified, gone to all but those of us who remember.

 I spent countless hours visiting the Rice Village; my first off-campus date with DMP was probably at the theater. I seldom walked to the Village without stopping at the toy store. I loved the things of childhood and the respite a good browse brought from academic stress. I often bought small gifts there for my friends because even adults, maybe especially adults, need the pleasure of play. Mostly I dropped in to say hello to the elderly sisters I had come to love.
Once I brought them Valentine cookies that I had made. They reminded me of Grandma Wieland.

I never knew their names. They weren't posted anywhere. I doubt they knew mine; my purchases were always small and in cash. By the time our relationship had grown into a friendship it would have been awkward to ask or perhaps we were just past the need for naming.

We chatted; they were always asking me questions about where and how I grew up.
They laughed and shared happy childhood memories.
They learned my mother's family was German and that they had come to America in the 19th Century, "so before the war?" They asked that question more than often.
They asked about what I read, what I studied, what I thought.
"Have you read Anne Frank's Diary?"
Then one day they rolled up their long sleeves; they wore long sleeves even in Houston's hot, humid summers. Even when the store was warm and stuffy.
The older hesitated and the younger prodded her, "Sister, we decided... you know... we must tell the story."
Their arms were tattooed with numbers.
The older sister would not meet my eyes. She said, "You understand what this means."
"Yes, a concentration camp during the war."
And then she said she was "ashamed" of the numbers and what it meant. These dear ladies were ashamed to have survived when others had not. And it broke, it still breaks, my heart.
Over the next several years whenever I visited the toy store and there were no customers, they shared their story.
I listened.
Sometimes they lapsed into German which I understood only in bits and pieces.
Twice they sang songs to each other.
Sometimes we cried.
I have few regrets but I deeply regret that I did not go straight back to my dorm room and write down every word of their story me.
I too often choose the demands of my daily ordinary life over what is truly important.

I no longer remember their words but I will never forget the sound of their voices, the burden of their grief, the way the older would shake her head, the way the younger would pat her arm, the way they wrapped one arm around each other in a sort of sideways hug to get them through the ugly details.
That is why I will not visit HMH. Because I know there are many voices telling the story of the Holocaust because we must not forget but I want to remember their voices, the voices of two sisters.
The voices of my dear friends telling the story that was uniquely theirs.

Although in truth it was not much different from many others.
Not much different from Anne Frank's:

 "Jews and Christians wait, the whole world waits, and there are many who wait for death...”  
“No one is spared. The sick, the elderly, children, babies, and pregnant women - all marched to their death.”   

“...don’t believe the war is simply the work of politicians and capitalists. Oh no, the common man is every bit as guilty; otherwise, people and nations would have rebelled long ago! There’s a destructive urge in people, the urge to rage, murder and kill. And until all of humanity, without exception, undergoes a metamorphosis, wars will continue to be waged, and everything that has been carefully built up, cultivated and grown will be cut down and destroyed, only to start allover again!”  

“If we bear all this suffering and if there are still Jews left, when it is over, then Jews, instead of being doomed, will be held up as an example.”

“Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.”  

 “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” 

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