by Astrid Lawson
9 July 2004
In 1970, the year I turned 12, two books found their way into my parents' house. One was Inside the Third Reich by Albert Speer. The other was Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, author unknown.
My parents gave me the Anne Frank book to read in April of that year, as preparation for a trip to Europe in May. The Speer book appeared in August, and my father, a World War II veteran, immediately went out and bought it. I no longer have either book; the Frank volume disappeared along with other childhood detritus in the course of several moves. The Speer book simply fell apart, because I read it over and over again until the spine and covers came off. Other books by Speer met a similar fate at my hands.
Some of the books in our house -- Moll Flanders and 1984 and The Canterbury Tales, to name a few -- had to be read on the sly, and so it seems odd that I was allowed to read Anne Frank. I don't know if my parents read it first, but if they did, apparently they did not object to the author's descriptions of "nature's offerings," a male cat's genitals, adult sexual longings, or Anne's suggestion to a friend that they "feel each others' breasts" in order to cement their friendship. I loathed the book; and when the narrator described using bleach to lighten her dark mustache hairs, my disgust was complete.
May arrived, along with airplane tickets; our family took flight, and soon Amsterdam opened up before us like a book with the wrong cover stuck on it. As seen from a large black taxi cab, quaint streets and canals gave way to endless porn shops and X-rated theatres, where things I had only read about were displayed in vivid color. Eventually, the great moment arrived, and I was dragged through Anne Frank's Secret Annex, which I recall as a dark, labyrinthine town house with raggedy, scribbled-upon wallpaper lining the walls. A short distance away, one of Amsterdam's elaborate, bell-heavy churches started up its carillon, and my father said, reverently: "That's just what SHE would have heard!"
This year, thirty-four springs later, I was reminded of Anne Frank when posters displaying the face of the perverted goblin sprang up on walls all over town: the play about the "Secret Annex" was being performed in our city theatre. That face: pointed, vulpine, haggard, strangely repulsive, too old for its years, with the famous mustache and sunken dark eyes. My own face, at age 12: round and innocent, fair skin with freckles, huge brown eyes, pouty rosebud mouth, reddish-blonde hair that had been cut short with bangs for my first trip to Europe. For some reason, the bangs were made too long, and fell aslant over my forehead and into my eyes, so that my parents laughed at their daughter's "Hitler hair." On the left side of my forehead, about an inch above my eye, the Hitler-style bangs hid a scar.
I just now measured the scar: It is three-quarters of an inch long. Forty years after the fact, it is hard to see, but memories of the circumstances that produced it are always close at hand. I went to kindergarten at a nearby liberal arts college, where the aides were student teachers. There were about 12 children my age in the school. My friends were a red-haired Irish girl and a shy, brown-haired English girl, whom I adored. I remember a Swedish boy named Peter; the others must have been nondescript, but some of the children looked strange to me. They had dirty-looking skin and kinky dark hair, or long black hair like greasy synthetic thread. Some had negroid features, and over the faces of others a shadow seemed to have fallen, as if dust had settled into the creases of their still-babyish features.
I did not know, at age six, what a Jew was; my pediatrician somehow resembled these children, and had a similarly strange name; but what those commonalities meant, I did not know. I was soon to learn: There was another child in the school, a chubby boy with skin the color of spoiled lard and huge, heavy-lidded eyes. I had never fought with this child; I don't remember ever speaking to him: but one day, for no reason at all, he crept up on me from behind and shoved me off my perch on a heavy oak table. I went flying and hit the adjacent table, splitting my forehead open above the eye. I cried and screamed as I was carted off to the Jewish pediatrician, who sat me on a metal table, put a white sheet over my head and stitched me up through a hole cut in the sheet. It saddens me to think that if I had fallen a little lower, the metal edge of the table could have split my eye like a grape. I have no memory of whether the garlic lardball was disciplined, but at any rate, I soon recovered my spirits.
A few years later, my father started a business in Europe, and made many trips abroad, bringing back wonderful dolls and toys; and one year, at Christmas, I was given a beautiful doll house. The doll house and all its contents were stamped "Made in Western Germany." The dolls looked like the people you see in Nazi art, with beautiful faces, detailed clothing, and soft, realistic hair. I was enthralled.
I knew that there had been a terrible War, and that the Germans had been very bad; but that was all over now. I wondered how bad people could make such wonderful toys, and I came to think of the War and Hitler's Third Reich as a sort of bad spell, like the sleep-spell in "Sleeping Beauty." The Americans had crawled through the spiky hedge like the Prince in the fairy tale; and now -- the spell having been broken -- happy Germans sat in their workshops making toys for me. The dolls became "a family of German refugees," and I gave them an English name so that they would blend in. Hour after hour, I lay on the floor with my head stuck in the German doll house, acting out plays with the dolls, whose lives were very orderly and quiet. I also spent hours with my colored pens, drawing pictures of Germany: little villages and towns with gabled houses and quaint crooked streets; a place where everything was beautiful and valuable, rather than cheap and "commercial," as Charlie Brown said on his Christmas show. It was the complete opposite of the nearby city, with its vacant lots, ugly abandoned factories, stinking polluted river, and dark, unsmiling Jewish doctors.
So, by age 12, I had given some thought to the Jewish Question, and also to the German Question, which was: the mystery surrounding the Land of Wonderful Toys. But I left Europe in May 1970 without seeing Germany. Summer ripened, and once again, it was time to leave for vacation, this time a trip to Vermont. I remember tucking the brand-new copy of Inside the Third Reich inside my suitcase. At our destination, we took a boat trip the length of Lake Champlain, and I brought the book with me to read.
As the dramatic tale unfolded, the book seemed to fuse to my hands. It was easy to identify with Albert Speer, a young man from a good family, who wanted to do well in his profession; his concern for the soldiers in World War I, whose suffering he shared by sleeping on the hard floor, reminded me of my own thoughts about the poor young men in the jungles of Viet Nam. Significantly, Albert Speer looked like my dark-haired grandfather, especially in a picture that showed him driving off in a big car, with five rather sad little children.
And this man could not have been less like the parade of males I was expected to admire as they gazed dreamily at girls from the pages of Tiger Beat magazine: David Cassidy and Bobby Sherman, Leonard Whiting from the film "Romeo and Juliet," and the cast of the vampire soap opera, "Dark Shadows." Here was a man, indeed, of a breed not seen on these shores since 1865, or perhaps 1814, when men strutted around with swords and boots and cocked hats. At the sight of such men, the Bobbies and Davids and Lesters would probably shriek and hike up their bellbottoms and run away. Yet these "unisex" males seemed to complement the angry feminists I was beginning to see on TV, yelling at men and marching around and burning piles of bras.
"One seldom recognizes the Devil when he is putting his hand on your shoulder," said Albert Speer.
All that day, Albert Speer and I sailed around Lake Champlain in a private swan boat for two, like the knight Lohengrin and golden-haired Elsa of Brabant. I read on and on, and soon Albert and his friend Adolf Hitler were preparing to challenge the dark, sinister strangers who ruled Germany. What would happen when the Nazis presented their challenge to the Jews, and to the world?
"You've all gone completely crazy!" said Albert Speer's father.
"You've all gone completely crazy!"
Clearly, there was more to Albert Speer's story than my childish mind could absorb. What was he really trying to say? Did he have the answer to the Mystery: how the evil Germans, who sneered and strutted and shot people on TV, could make such wonderful toys? And the answer to another, forbidden question: Why did Hitler hate the jews so much?
"Listen to me, not Anne Frank!" cried Albert Speer. "But don't just listen to what I say: Look at who I am. I am an honorable man, with nothing to hide. Who were these Franks anyway, traveling from place to place like Gypsies? Your own great-grandmother was a landowner; she dealt with a plague of Gypsies; she knew the hatred of the vagabond for those who are connected to the land; they hate you as well; whose side are you on?" Albert Speer is shouting, shouting in a silent scream, but I don't hear it well enough: the wind off the water rises and drowns it out....
And yet, I never touched the Anne Frank book again. It was boring, and depressing; it all took place in an attic; and there was no happy ending, no rescue, only a vague description of how she died: peacefully, of typhus, like a saint floating off on a cloud. Perhaps if she had looked or thought more like me, I would have had more of an interest; perhaps if Jewish children had shared some traits of mine, like keeping one's violent impulses under control...but as it stood, the story rang false. And it is unlikely that any wartime girl not Jewish will ever get her own book, to be served up to the public year after year like Thanksgiving dinner, made into movies and plays and preserved in museums. Some war stories, in fact, are nothing that a little girl would want to read, nor could they be shown in movie theatres, not even in Saint Anne Frank's pornography-ridden Amsterdam.
What happened in Germany to12-year-old girls who looked and acted very much like me, after their nation had lost the war and the German leaders were trying to surrender? At the direction of Red Jewish Commissars, and as the top American generals looked the other way, they were raped by a hundred Russians, or a hundred Americans, until their bladders burst or their insides poked out of their bodies; or their internal organs were cut out and strewn around; or their breasts and limbs were cut off while they were still alive; or their stomachs and little developing wombs were cut open and filled with petrol and set alight; or their bodies were doused with petrol, and then hung from lamp-posts and set on fire; or they were burned with phosphorus dropped from American and British planes; or, if they lived -- like one German woman I met as a teenager -- they had seen their little friends blown up with bombs and had nightmares forever. Some of these bombs had been deliberately planted inside dolls and toys.
And if the girls had mothers or sisters, they suffered the same fate; and their fathers and brothers could not protect them, because they were all dead, or sitting behind barbed wire in Germany, or in America, where, as my father told me, they were threatened with being "sent back home to starve."
In the fall of 1970, an exciting movie appeared: the story of General George S. Patton, Jr., who had played such an important role in the awful War. We saw it in a drive-in theatre, on a big screen; and the figure of General Patton, saluting in front of the flag, filled the night sky. It bothered me when he slapped a soldier, but otherwise, I loved the movie; especially since it told about how great heroes from the past can come back to life through reincarnation, perhaps when they are most needed. Maybe this thought comforted General Patton as he lay dying with a broken neck, just another thrown-away doll like the German girls.
"Wait until the war is over, and we're both a little older, the war is over..." sang Jim Morrison, as I prepared to start junior high school. But we only thought he was singing about the Viet Nam war; the older War was not over, and in it, I had a role to play: I was rushing towards the ground like a plane making an emergency landing; or heading towards a plate-glass window, like a bird who thinks she's found a clear path to the light; or falling like Alice to the bottom of the hole on her way into Wonderland.
Beyond the glass, or at the bottom of the hole, sat a woman -- a tall, powerful woman, with dirty-looking skin, a haughty, drooping mouth, and huge, heavy- lidded eyes. Behind her was a stack of magazines peddling all sorts of drugs. Above her head, like a canopy, sat a shelf of books by Freud, bound in blue.
Perhaps someday there could be a book about me; and because so few Americans can read difficult books these days, maybe it could be a picture book. One illustration might show me as I tumble down, down, down, towards the Jewish woman , a woman as vindictive and hateful as any Red Russian Commissar.
"This woman hates me!" I cry.
"Then stop!" cries Albert Speer from his pretty gabled house. And, "Stop!" yells mad Rudolf Hess, still locked up in the Castle of Spandau. And "Stop, damn it, stop!" shouts General Patton, rubbing his sore neck as he paces the halls of Valhalla. In the book, I just might stop; and then, in the last picture, you would see the woman with dirty-looking skin, impaled on a stake and covered in burning petrol, with a sign marked "THIEF" round her neck. And elsewhere in the book, Albert Speer could arrive on a swan boat like Lohengrin, or sit brooding like the captive Prince in "Sleeping Beauty"....
In a castle dark,
Or a fortress strong, with chains upon his feet,
But heroes often fail,
And you won't read that book again,
Because the ending's just too hard to take.
(Lyrics by Gordon Lightfoot, 1970)