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World War II, Part II
April 29, 2011
World War II, Part Two
And as the smart ship grew
In stature, grace, and hue
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.
The Convergence of the Twain, Thomas Hardy
Where I could have or should have but didn’t has been my theme. I have come to see World War II as the Iceberg lying in wait for the Titanic, converging with my marriage.Sleeping Beauty also comes to mind, or the Frog Prince in reverse.
At P.S. 89, Queens, we still were too close to it when I was in the early grades. Although kids running pell-mell and helter-skelter on 88th Street in Jackson Heights were already calling each other communists by the time I moved to Haiti in 1950, the Korean War about to begin, World War II, I think, had not yet passed into history even by the time I was in high school. Punic and Peloponnesian, Wars of the Roses, French and Indian, Franco-Prussian, Napoleonic, Crimean, Spanish- American, Revolutionary and Civil, the War to Make the World Safe for Democracy. Wars I have studied, maps I have made. Alliances, treaties, ententes, détentes. A diet of worms. I can hardly blame my teachers. World War II came in a rush, in June, when even teachers couldn’t wait for summer to begin. The headmistresses at Shipley (my high school boarding school in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania), former Presbyterian missionaries in China interned by the Japanese during the war, did their best. Once a year, we girls had the privilege of sitting at Center Table where Miss Speer, a bit stiff, and Miss Wagner, double chins wobbling, sometimes told stories of the day that lived in infamy, Roosevelt’s voice coming to them cracked and broken over the radio. They taught us to use chopsticks, an invaluable skill, but I got a better idea of rats, lice, and torture in the Japanese camps from The Three Came Home with Claudette Colbert. Two of the Hiroshima maidens came to Shipley while I was there. Swaddled in kimonos, faces powdered, taking mincing steps, they were no more than dolls to me, callous teenager that I was.
In college, I took a course called Intellectual History of America, but in my memory we spent most of the time establishing the Puritan work ethic, dodging fire and brimstone coming at us from Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” In London where, in 1960, there were still some bombed-out buildings and, particularly at the University of Sheffield, I brushed up against the war, though I could not name it. A kind of humility and lack of expectation in the populace, even among school and college students, a dowdy modesty in women, the speed with which a queue would form. Sheffield was dingy and gloomy; English food was terrible. Some of what I sensed can be put down to cultural differences. The rest was a hangover, a slowly dissipating fog.
That year I spent Christmas in Munich with my boyfriend G. Though our relationship was chaste, we took a doppelzimmer in a pension where the chambermaid cleaned the window sills with a toothbrush and placed a small fresh fir tree at the foot of our bed every other day, announcing, das tannenbaum ist kaput, before whisking the old one away. G and I took part in the family’s tree-lighting ceremony, let ourselves be jostled by shopping crowds in the streets and on trams, ate sweets with almond paste, took our coffee mit schlag. It was Frohliche Weihnacten everywhere we went, until at last on Christmas Eve it was quiet in front of the Frauenkirche, its twin turquoise domes inspired by the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, lightly frosted with snow. Much of the heavy damage done during the war to this beautiful medieval church had already been repaired so that from the outside at least it looked perfect, and it was hard to imagine that there might be a single person in Munich who was not celebrating Christmas. Then we were off to New Year’s Eve in Trieste where the streets were certainly dangerous, but not because bombs were slipping silently from bays. No, it was (to us) a crazy Italian custom, out with the old, in with the new. It was furniture, some of it quite heavy, and pots and pans, raining down in hilarious bursts from apartment windows, as G and I, high on champagne, ducked and weaved our way home from a party.
All the way to Europe, and still I found it easy to avoid World War II. I should have studied history instead of English, been more thoughtful, more serious, not the dizzy blond – who would never learn anything – my 5th grade teacher in New York said I was, older, a different person. Because everything I would need to know later had already shown up at recess at Union School in Port-au-Prince, between 1950 and 1953, where I attended grades 6, 7, and 8 in an old wooden building, someone’s elegant home at one time, now standing leaky and somewhat dilapidated on the Champs de Mars. Hatless, unprotected by sunscreen, I jumped rope and was lousy at soft ball in an open yard among our classrooms, ate radish, black pepper, and cream cheese sandwiches on airy white bread full of holes from Peters Bakery. It was Madame Peters herself who explained to my mother that no one in Haiti could remember every other day. Daily then, Madame Peters supplied us with delicious loaves, with baguettes, brioches, and coconut tarts I hunger for today, and with important information. No one in Haiti can remember every other day grounded us in our new country and became a favorite family saying.
Haiti in the early 50s was a place of escape, employment, survival, defeat, enterprise, freedom, failure, banishment, hiding, and forgetfulness. My father sometimes talked in these terms. These were the best years of his life, he later wrote, thinking back. But while we were living there, he sometimes said he was in exile, Haiti was out of this world. He had a big competitor, Hakim, full of tricks, the agent for Gold Medal flour. I remember my father’s outrage when Hakim imported hot roll mix, put up a neon sign, two daring novelties. How long could my father maintain the edge necessary to support us? Wasn’t coming down here a cop out, evidence that he couldn’t succeed in the good old USA? He had no regular salary, only sales’ commissions, no pension plan, no health insurance. For us and for others, existence was precarious. There was a boy in my class who lived in the shadow of his father’s suicide. Tall, handsome, quiet, not much of a student. A German boy. It was thought, it was rumored, that his father was a Nazi. I don’t know what his family lived on. I remember his mother’s tired, strained, baffled face. Port-au-Prince was full of Germans. Some were well-established old timers. When my father’s business expanded to include exporting coffee and additional agencies, he hired a manager and a secretary, Mr. Streitwolf, married to a Haitian, and his daughter, Miss Streitwolf. Jules Wiesel was one of my 8th grade teachers, an explosive man with an accurate aim when he threw chalk and erasers and, once, a box of silver scissors, classroom size, at wrong answers. He taught me almost everything I know about English grammar; he praised my writing. More thrilling, he sent me with others to fetch beer and cigarettes at the Café Rex, dark and inviting, full of smoke, men talking business and politics, at the end of the school’s long driveway. Where Mr. Wiesel came from, how long he had been in Haiti, or why he appeared alone there, I never knew. But there were certainly Jewish parents and grandparents among my acquaintance who could have told me about Hitler’s death camps from which they had only recently arrived.
The various backgrounds of the children I went to Union School with (I can list offhand Haitian, American, Dominican, Trinidadian, Canadian, Swiss, Dutch, Danish, German, Syrian, Lebanese, Venezuelan, Argentine, and Austrian, often in exotic three-way combinations) meant little. We were growing up inside an art explosion, a political powder keg, a stronghold against Communism, a sophisticated world capital, a miserable, poverty-stricken backwater, recipient of foreign aid, a market for U.S. goods, a tourist destination, an elite society launched on the backs of slaves, insular, tradition-bound, a deeply religious country in which Catholicism and Vodou were mysteriously intertwined, the Pearl of the Antilles, a lethal Paradise beset by hookworm, dengue fever, and malaria, where yaws could leave a hole in a face where a nose used to be. Haiti was sensuous and licentious. What in the US was called deviance, miscegenation, was everywhere in flower. How much of this seeped into us on that playground? We made and unmade, made and kept friends according to our whims and inclinations. We swam and drank Kola at birthday and slumber parties. It was an ordinary childhood like no other. I will make Haiti my excuse. I could marry anyone I pleased, anyone who pleased me.
To invoke Hardy’s universe of doom, of human pawns predestined, seems melodramatic even to me. And yet I find it apt. Though naive, I was arrogant in my way, unaccustomed to rejection, unacquainted with grief. Have I changed so much? Before I had cancer I thought my escape due at least in part to some virtue in me, something I was doing right. It was because of my genes, my diet, my exercise program. But to all of these, cancer was indifferent. We took our time, Ernst and I. We drifted far afield of the coincidence of having been in Brooklyn on the same day in April, 1940. We let grass grow under our feet. But it amuses me to think that Ernst went ahead to Los Angeles to check out the place, as a proper husband should, leaving me to circuitous detours to Haiti, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Michigan, England, and El Salvador, before he sent for me – through G, of course, link to the past, conduit to the future, who brought us together by finishing his PhD on time and landing a job at UCLA. G and I agreed to meet in Denver and drive to the Coast. The West Coast! The sound of it excites me even now. In fact, I was there already, a little further south, teaching English in El Salvador, the only country in Central America which turns its face exclusively toward the Pacific.
Did the earth move when I met Ernst? I will say that it did and skip the rest: our first meeting and courtship, his father’s resulting heart attack, which made Ernst cry like the Japanese officer in the Three Came Home, our broken engagement. These I push aside for now to uncover the hardness of heart I eventually developed in relation to my in-laws. To talk about the deaths that ensued once we decided to go ahead with our plans. No Here comes the bride, no Mendelssohn (though he was Jewish), no amor vincit omnia, no time heals all wounds, no but some of my best friends are Jews. Such old saws were shattered, along with my belief that love for a child, even a second son, however prodigal, would outweigh any religious identity or collective idea. Ernst was dead to his family. Though they did not rend their clothes, cover the mirrors, and sit shiva, they could no longer see him as their son, potential producer of Jewish children, to replace those who died in the Holocaust. I had not heard the word used in this way before. A holocaust, total destruction, horrific, might happen here, there, or anywhere. But this thought, among many others, I learned to suppress. I took a vow of silence on the subject of Israel, ate little, spoke less. I wished they would give me the tiniest glass of slivovitz like the one his father was drinking.
The Holocaust scorched the whole earth, subsuming the depression, economic and political causes of the war, Winston Churchill and Mussolini, Stalin and Roosevelt, pity for the rape of German women, frozen Russian soldiers, the French resistance, the blitz, Pearl Harbor, and the atomic bomb. I had learned more than I thought about World War II, but it was all for nothing. Shakespeare, Dickens, Wagner, and T.S. Eliot went up in the conflagration. Arabs and olive trees, people with dark skin, schwartzes. I admired a painting of two handsome couples on a cousin’s wall, one of the women in a hat such as Trudy wore in my baby book. Those were our parents, I was told, they perished in the Holocaust. Someone’s mother in Poland had gone to the hospital never to return. Her husband and children later jumped from one of those cars on the way to Auschwitz. A boy of twelve afraid to reveal in a public bathroom that he was circumcised, another afraid to show his broken arm to a doctor. We were sipping cognac on an afternoon in spring at the Beverly Hills hotel, eating pastries like the ones G and I consumed in Munich. It was next year in Jerusalem, it was kosher for Pesach. It was the Holocaust for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Ernst’s mother stuffed her children’s mouths with chocolates to keep them from crying at a border crossing. Always those ill-defined borders, unnamed forests they crawled through. She went back to Deutschkreutz after the war to look for my people, found no one.