Damals war ich vierzehn

 

When I was 14, it was the year 1976. The year of the American Bicentennial. A celebration of 200 years of freedom and democracy. In commemoration, I baked a cake and decorated it with an approximation of the original American flag. (Please don’t count the number of stars or stripes. I wasn’t a perfectionist back then.) The only reason I still know this is because there is a picture in my childhood photo album. I stare at it now and feel that it represents the peak of my patriotism, not to mention my baking skills.

The reason I have dredged up this particular memory is that I have just finished reading this book: “Damals war ich vierzehn”. In English, the title would be something like “I Was Fourteen Back Then: Youth in the Third Reich”. It’s a collection of short stories/essays/memoirs of Austrian writers who were children of various ages during the reign of Hitler. The experiences and perspectives were wildly different, but all of them moving. There was the boy whose torment by his fellow aspiring Hitler youth only made him want to belong more. There was the man piecing together memory fragments from his four-year old self who emerged as an orphan from the rubble of a bombed-out air raid shelter and somehow managed to travel all alone to his grandmother hundreds of miles away. There was the little girl who started singing a song while waiting in line at the butcher’s, only to be slapped viciously and repeatedly by her beloved Grandma. (She didn’t know it was an anti-Hitler song. It was just something her dad sang.) There was the young Jewish girl whose family (or what was left of it) returned to Austria right after the war – “now that it was all over” – only to learn painfully over and over again that it was all far from being over.

The one that got to me most, for some reason, was the story of two neighbor kids who were ordered by the Führer to bring their pet dogs to a sort of army physical to see if they were fit for service on the front lines. The kids proceeded to “train” (= torment) their dogs with loud bangs, sirens, and pain to make sure they cowered and ran off during the test (and were therefore rejected and spared). While reading this story, a realization washed over me of just how far-reaching and deeply implanted the tentacles of the Nazis had become by that point, interfering in daily family life even down to the relationships between little kids and their dogs.

This book is one of two perennial favorites of teachers in Austria who have to teach about the Second World War*. The other is called “The Wave” and it tells the story of a Californian teacher who conducted an experiment on his students after they rejected the idea that fascism could take hold in America. He began a movement in his class based on principles of “strength through discipline, strength through community, strength through action, strength through pride.”** He then added in symbols, and slogans and salutes. His experiment took on a life of its own, spread throughout the school and quickly got out of his control. Brutality and torment ensued.***

 

“How could they?!” I remember thinking the exact same thing as my German teacher in high school taught us about that historical period, including her own youthful experiences. She told us how at some point a critical mass of followers was reached, after which dissent became life-threatening.  She told us how parents eventually became afraid of their own children and could no longer speak freely in front of them. (Think about the song in the butcher’s shop – that grandma surely acted not out of political conviction, but out of fear.) My teacher let us know the whole story, including all the ultimate atrocities. I still thought “How could they??! That could never happen here!”

I must have been about 14 at the time, maybe a little older, but in any case, still near the peak of my patriotism and baking skills.

 

And here I sit, about 44 years later and 45 days before the next election, wondering not only if it could happen, but if it will happen. Fascism in America. Or if our institutions (or what is left of them), our Constitution (or what is left of it), our Free Press (or whatever that is now), and our liberty loving people (who is that exactly? which liberties do they care about? whose liberties do they care about?) may pull off a last-minute reversal.

The American people beating back fascism would go a long way in restoring the entire world’s faith in our country, not to mention my own. Will it happen?

Or will more brutality and torment ensue?

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

 

*One principle in the Austrian curriculum in History is called “Vergangenheitsbewältigung”, meaning “coming to terms with the past”. The idea behind this policy is fairly straightforward and Santayana-ish . . . “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” Austrian students are confronted with the events and the atrocities of the time of their grandparents (or maybe now great-grandparents). In their Junior or Senior years, they all take a class trip to Mauthausen, which was the one major concentration camp in Austria.
We have no real concept of dealing with the past in the United States. On the contrary. As Gore Vidal wrote (about the issue of legalizing marijuana) in the New York Times: “It is a lucky thing for the American moralist that our country has always existed in a kind of time‐vacuum: we have no public memory of anything that happened before last Tuesday.” He wrote that in September 1970 – a half century ago. It still seems true today. Maybe more so than ever.
 ** In other words, “Law and Order, Build the Wall, America First, Make America Great Again”.
***Strangely enough, there was a scandal here in Austria just last year. A teacher was using this book to teach about WWII and, for some reason, his/her students started role-playing the same dynamics extra-curricularly. It got bad. Things are not perfect here either.
 

Labor Day

 

NERD ALERT!

I’m not sure there was anything in my childhood that excited me more than the first day of a new school year.

I remember how I spent the last day of my summer vacation before beginning First Grade (and every year afterward) deep cleaning my room. How I then carefully chose and laid out my clothes, right down to the socks and underwear. How I lovingly fondled my new school supplies – the notebooks and pencils and whatever else was necessary in 1968 – and placed them next to my outfit in perfect perpendicularity.

I might have added “my new lunchbox” to the collection and experienced a similar feeling of excited satisfaction – that is, if I had had one. I would soon learn that the Elementary School cafeteria was segregated into the Cool Lunchbox Kids and the Brown Paper Bag Kids. I was in the latter group. Later, in the Third Grade, I would learn that there was a difference between the kids with real Converse shoes and those with the Target version. I was in the latter group. Even later, I would learn that there was a difference between kid with real alligator shirts and those without – but by then, I had stopped caring.

Despite these repeated revelations, my excitement for the first day of school – year after year – never diminished. After all the cleaning and preparation was done, I would go to bed at a seriously sensible time and then lie awake in happy anticipation for hours on end.

I loved school.

 

Back to the Future Present – 52 years Later:

 

I went to bed last night at 10:00 pm with “school supplies” prepared, but no concrete wardrobe plan. I had no trouble falling asleep.

I don’t think our first day of school could have gone any better. The remaining usual kids arrived with smiles and stories. The new kids arrived with exceptionally engaged parents in tow. They came with baskets full of donations to our first day breakfast. They came with appreciation and excitement and a desire to contribute and belong. They came with a desperately needed new and positive energy.

All three of our groups of students had a positive experience in their first hour of being together. They talked and listened and related. In the group I was in, our “integration student” – a kid who would have been called “mentally retarded” back when I was in school – had her turn to speak. She was taken seriously and respected.

In the break, about 20 0f our 37 kids spontaneously started a soccer match on the playground. They ranged from the ages of 7 to 15, but they worked out team arrangements equitably and the more powerful kids paid attention to and took care of the younger ones.  Among the non-soccer players, I could see that every “new kid” had already found a new friend. They all had fun.

At some point, in the middle of all the action, I was in the kitchen. I looked out the window and saw two new parents sitting on a bench, watching their kid on the playground. They were obviously beyond happiness. This was just what they had hoped for.

Eventually, the buses started to arrive, and the kids and families left for the day. I wandered back to the far side of the school – out of sight of any remaining people – and sat down.

“So, that was it.” I thought. “My very last first day of school.”  To my own surprise, I felt the tears coming.

So happy. So sad. At the same time.