Fearing the Nazis in 2004

I’ve got a case of post-traumatic stress that dates back to the Holocaust, which is an odd thing to say considering that I’m a gentile who has lived in California since I was born, in . It has nothing to do with an accident in past life regression therapy (yes, there is such a thing here in California) or some sort of time-machine story. It happened this way:

I was a precocious reader — I was reading before kindergarten, and pretty well, too. Words I didn’t understand I approximated phonetically and tried to ask about or figure out from context. And I absorbed books by the bagful. I remember going door to door for the “MS Read-a-thon” asking people to pledge a certain number of cents for every book I read. Boy were they surprised. I feel kind of embarrassed in retrospect at extorting this money out of my neighbors with my child’s charm and their low expectations.

I made the local paper for that trick — there’s a picture of me lying on my belly on the carpet in front of the bookcase in our family room with my ankles dangling in the air over my butt, a big smile on my face (if memory serves, with two missing front teeth), and a copy of Charlotte’s Web in my hands.

Of course I wasn’t always able to understand or put into context what I was reading. I could read the newspaper, but the newspapers were full of Viet Nam and assassinations and Watergate, and grown-ups weren’t about to try to explain those things to a kid my age.

I read a book called Alan and Naomi — I was probably in kindergarten or first grade and I haven’t read it since, so forgive me if I mangle it a bit in summary. It takes place in New York around and the protagonist is Alan, a kid who is struggling to get the respect of his peers (among the universal struggles of human childhood and a good way for an author to make a protagonist sympathetic).

This crucial project is sidetracked when Alan’s mother introduces him to Naomi, the new kid on the block. Naomi is a refugee recently arrived from Europe, and she’s got genuine Holocaust post-trauma issues, not my second-hand metaphoric variety. She’s uncommunicative, withdrawn, prone to repetitive and senseless-seeming actions, and easily provoked into fits of terror without much warning.

Mom would like Alan to try to play with Naomi, to help her come out of her shell. Of course this is not on Alan’s agenda, but he agrees to help, first because Mom asks him to, then because he comes to see it as something worthwhile, and finally because he comes to know and care about Naomi herself.

There are crises of conscience when Alan’s relationship with the weird girl gets in the way of his hopes for peer acceptance, but he resolves these and muddles through. Slowly and steadily Naomi begins to come back from her nightmares to her refuge in New York.

But then something frightens her (I don’t remember what) and at the end of the book Naomi is back close to where she began.

I’m sure my memory has warped the plot a bit, and I’m sure I’m leaving important things out that at the time I didn’t understand or think relevant. This may be the first story I read that didn’t have a happy ending, which alone might explain why it made me uneasy. But it also made no bones about the Holocaust being a real historical event, and provided enough details that I knew there were monsters in the world that my teachers, my parents, and the muppets weren’t telling me about.

And for much of my life since then, I’ve felt like the Holocaust and the many other examples of institutionalized vast human cruelty have been the proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the room nobody wants to talk about. Not that it doesn’t get talked about at all — Hitler’s a big star on the History Channel and such — but that it doesn’t get talked about seriously and in the present tense, as an ongoing problem in crucial need for a solution. How do we, the human race, get ourselves so wound up and fucked up that we do these things to each other, and how do we keep ourselves from doing it again?