Saturday, January 14, 2012

importance of reaching back...

 When the past comes alive     We waited for news of my daughter, my brother, my sister, and their families. They were various places, all en route to Danville for my Dad’s unveiling. With my mother, at her house, the three of us, including Mom’s sitter, Sheila, and I spent time talking with Mom about the old days. Parkinson’s had yet to cloud those memories as much as it had more recent ones.

“I was the only Jewish girl in Nursing School,” she told us. “We worked twelve hour shifts that included two hour breaks.”

“Did you talk about the War? Aout what Hitler was doing to the Jews?”

“No. We Jews knew about it, but no one else talked about it.”

“No one?” I found that to be incredulous. She wanted to talk about another kind of discrimination.

“The way they treated black people was terrible,” Mom said. “They wouldn’t allow us to list a colored man and wife as being married.”

Both Sheila, a forty-something year old black woman, and I responded as if in unison.

“What?” we asked. Mom assured us she had asked the same question many times.

“I worked with colored people and their babies,” she told us, “but I was disappointed and ashamed that my country allowed such discrimination.”

She explained about separate water fountains, told us about a family trip when I was a very little boy. “Our maid was with us, and we went to eat at a restaurant,” Mom said, without telling us exactly where we were vacationing. “We sat down to order and they told us that our maid couldn’t eat with us. She had to eat in the kitchen. That wasn’t right.”

“What could you do about it?” I asked. “Others must have felt the same.”

Mom didn’t say anything. I returned to ask more about the Nazi atrocities.

“Did you talk with your fellow nurses about the Holocaust?”

“No,” she said, “we didn’t talk about that.”

She agreed that it was as if the topic wasn’t supposed to be discussed. “I didn’t mention it,” she said.

I felt as if the Holocaust had been regarded like a dirty little secret. “Did you know that Roosevelt allowed only 1000 European Jews to take refuge in America? Only 1000!”
I’d read their story in Haven, a book by Dr. Ruth Gruber. Roosevelt’s attitude reflected that of America’s in general. What I didn’t tell my mother was that 100,000 German prisoners of war had been brought to our country.

That might have shocked her, as it did me, when I read it.

“You talk about these things in your class, don’t you?” Mom asked.

“Yes,” I answered, “I always let my students know that I’m Jewish, that I may be biased because of that, that they need to be aware of that. I let them know that they may likewise have a bias because they are mostly Christians and they see the world through that filter. By the end of the semester, they know how true that is.”

Mom and Sheila listened. “You’d enjoy my class,” I told them.

“We talk about things that people usually don’t want to or can’t discuss.”

“I remember some of what you’re talking about,” Sheila said, when Mom mentioned my experience as a teacher when I integrated Greenville, SC’s school system.

“You’d be fascinated by my book,” I told Sheila, after I told her about the time time I’d been arrested and thrown in jail for driving without a license. “When I decided to tell my students about what had happened, they were intrigued because they knew all about the jail from stories they’d heard from friends and relatives. They identified with me because of that. And it helped me change my approach to teaching,” I told her.

Both Sheila and Mom wanted to hear more. I told them about the Jack Tarr Poinsett Hotel and its Sunday buffets when a woman dressed like Aunt Jemima dished out spoon bread. “Only white people ate there,” I said. “It always bothered me that the woman with the spoon bread may have been the mother or grandmother of one of my students.”

That was a long time ago, in a different era, a time that was still fresh in Mom’s mind. Since she seemed to enjoy talking about those days, I resolved to find more time to talk about them. She’d recalled names and places so clearly that I wanted to hear more.

So did Sheila. As I was leaving, she followed me to the door. “Thanks for talking with us tonight. That was very interesting.”

Although I hadn’t heard her say that before, I agreed completely. The three of us would have to team up again, very soon.

                                            B. Koplen 1/14/12

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