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Controversy erupts over Holocaust revisionism in E. Europe

BERLIN – Was the Soviet Union a force for good or ill during the Nazi years?

That question is at the core of a controversy among some Jewish groups and former Soviet republics over the issue of Holocaust revisionism, and it erupted last month at a conference in Berlin organized by the World Congress of Russian-Speaking Jews on “The Legacy of World War II and the Holocaust.”

Some former Soviet republics view Stalin’s Soviet regime as evil and laud those who fought it as nationalist heroes. The problem, many Jewish groups say, is that some of those nationalists were Nazi collaborators and vicious anti-Semites.

In their bid to condemn these nationalists and their murder of Jews, some Jewish groups are trying to promote the image of Stalin’s Red Army as liberator, not occupier, of Eastern Europe. It’s a hard sell in countries such as Ukraine and Moldova and in the Baltic states, where many say glorification of the nationalists is on the rise.

Others say, however, that the problem of nationalist extremism is exaggerated, and a Ukrainian diplomat and some Ukrainian Jewish leaders denounced the conference as an exercise in propaganda.

“From the very beginning it was obvious that the conference was not aimed at a constructive approach but at politicizing this issue and extremely over-exaggerating,” charged Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany, Natalia Zarudna, who spoke at the conference.

“Russia never misses an opportunity to bash Ukraine,” concurred Rabbi Yaakov Bleich, a chief rabbi of Ukraine. Bleich said he was invited to the conference but “did not come because I think it was orchestrated by a Russian propaganda machine.”

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Boris Burle of the Veterans Union of World War II Fighters Against Nazism examines an Estonian ultranationalist calendar at a Berlin conference Dec. 16 on Holocaust revisionism in the former Soviet Union. Toby Axelrod

Boris Shpigel, president of the World Congress of Russian-Speaking Jewry, insisted that his concerns about nationalism in Ukraine and elsewhere were genuine, and that he wants to spur a new movement to combat revisionism in former Soviet bloc countries.

“At a time when a new generation doesn’t know about the history of World War II, about the Holocaust, we will be a foundation for consolidating all civilizations to fight against new forms of revisionism,” said Shpigel, who is also a senator in the Russian parliament. “We are not going to fight with these countries. Ninety percent of the people in these countries are good. It is the other 10 percent who are lying, and it is our goal” to reach them.

The conference passed resolutions to establish an international, anti-fascist umbrella organization to monitor historical revisionism and resurgent neo-fascism, called on the people of Ukraine not to cooperate with fascist and Nazi groups and to stop glorifying wartime nationalists such as Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych, who helped Nazis kill Jews; and demanded that the international community decry the Iranian regime’s Holocaust denial and verbal threats against Israel.

Among some 500 people from 28 countries attending the conference were many Soviet World War II veterans, who came with medals pinned to their jackets.

Zarudna said groups like Shpigel’s exaggerate the degree of neo-fascism in Ukraine, and the envoy condemned what she described as attempts by conference organizers to interfere in the country’s presidential elections this month.

Joseph Zissels, the head of Ukraine’s Jewish umbrella group, the Vaad, said the conference “can be seen as an indirect attempt to have an impact on the election.”

In a telephone interview from Ukraine, Zissels also said ultranationalists were not as big a problem in Ukraine as described, and that it is Russia that is attempting to portray Ukraine as extremist in order to weaken Ukraine’s ties with the West.

“Ultranationalists in Ukraine have the support of less than one percent of the population,” Zissels said. “Russia’s concern is European integration of Ukraine, and that is why they play with the impression that Ukraine is very nationalistic, which it is not.”

Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, told JTA that any country that ignores the war crimes of nationalist figures encourages extremists.

“There is a need for an organization that will monitor these issues,” Zuroff said.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry declined to send representatives to the conference because “[w]e don’t want to get into internal politics in this regard,” said Aviva Raz Schechter, head of the ministry’s Department for Anti-Semitism and Holocaust Issues.

Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of international Jewish affairs at the American Jewish Committee, said there has been “genuine progress” on issues of anti-Semitism in the former Soviet bloc countries.

JTA

 
 

Nazi past haunts Austria

ROME – Austrians will go to the polls on Sunday to vote for president after a volatile campaign that focused in part on right-wing extremism and raised the ghosts of Austria’s Nazi past.

Incumbent President Heinz Fischer, a Social Democrat, is expected to win a landslide victory over his main rival, Barbara Rosenkranz, a regional leader of the far-right Freedom Party (FPO), which once was led by the late Joerg Haider.

Two weeks ahead of the election, two public opinion polls showed Fischer, 71, with more than 80 percent of voter support, compared to 12 to 14 percent for Rosenkranz and 4 to 6 percent for Rudolf Gehring of the small Austrian Christian Party. Re-election of the popular Fischer was such a foregone conclusion that the main conservative force, the Austrian Peoples Party (OVP), did not put up a candidate.

Rosenkranz, a 51-year-old mother of 10, entered the race in early March in a bid many experts saw as a test for the Freedom Party’s staunchly anti-immigrant, law-and order, anti-European Union platform ahead of regional elections later this year.

The wife of a key longtime member of a now banned neo-Nazi party, Rosenkranz quickly sparked an outcry over ambiguous statements about the Holocaust and criticism of Austria’s tough 1947 anti-Nazi law.

In response, Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, the Catholic archbishop of Vienna, said that “[s]omeone who questions the National Socialism prohibition law and fails to make clear statements regarding the Holocaust is not an option for me personally.”

Members of Austria’s 8,000-member Jewish community joined political, civic, and social network groups in leading opposition to Rosenkranz’s presidential bid.

A Jewish community statement called her candidacy an “embarrassment” for Austria and a “mockery of the 65,000 Austrian Jews killed in the Shoah.”

Jewish community president Ariel Muzicant helped organize a candlelit anti-Rosenkranz rally on March 25, drawing thousands outside the Hofburg Palace, the seat of the Austrian presidency. The rally grew out of an anti-Rosenkranz Facebook group that had more than 91,000 members as of two weeks before the elections.

Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938, and many Austrians were willing supporters of the Nazi regime. But the victorious World War II Allies officially declared Austria “the first free country to fall victim to Hitlerite aggression.”

It wasn’t until the 1980s that the country began a close examination of its World War II history, when Kurt Waldheim was elected president in 1986 despite revelations of a Nazi past.

Following the public outcry over her criticism of the Austrian law banning Holocaust denial, Nazi organizations, and Nazi ideology as “an unnecessary restriction” on freedom of opinion, Rosenkranz signed a public declaration “disassociating” herself from Nazi ideology.

Critics, however, said her ambiguous views dated too far back to benefit from the apology. More than seven years ago, a journalist already had branded Rosenkranz a “closet Nazi.”

“Rosenkranz is on the extreme right wing of an already extreme right party,” said Hanno Loewy, the director of the Jewish Museum in the western Austria town Hohenems.

Immigrants and Muslims, rather than Jews, are the main target of the Freedom Party’s rhetoric. About 500,000 Muslims live in Austria, and the party campaigns under slogans such as “The West is for Christians” and “Homeland instead of Islam.”

Rosenkranz has called for the reintroduction of border controls with Austria’s eastern neighbors in order to stop the “import of crime.”

Despite their omission, Jews feel targeted. In March, vandals defaced the Mauthausen concentration camp near Linz with anti-Jewish and anti-Turkish graffiti.

“The progeny of Muslims are for us what the Jews were to our fathers. Be on your guard. Jews and Turks, poisonous blood,” read the graffiti, spray-painted in big letters on the outer wall of the camp, where more than 100,000 people were killed.

“FPO leaders and functionaries keep getting caught in open or coded Holocaust denial, anti-Semitism, and neo-Nazi affairs,” said American historian Stan Nadel, an expert on immigration who teaches in Salzburg. “They don’t talk openly about Jewish conspiracies, just about ‘East Coast’ conspiracies.”

Rosenkranz, he said, “doesn’t say the Holocaust never happened, she just says she believes in the history she was taught in school; she went to school at a time when school history courses generally stopped with 1918,” Nadel said. “Her anti-Semitic supporters know that and they understand she is covertly denying the Holocaust, but she hasn’t said it out loud, so she hasn’t broken the law.”

The Freedom Party’s outspoken leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, said his party’s views were justified by a poll last week showing that 54 percent of Austrians believe that Islam poses “a threat for the West and our familiar lifestyle.”

The survey, conducted by the IMAS polling agency, showed that 72 percent believe Muslims would “not stick to the rules” when it comes to living in Austria and 71 percent believe Islam “does not match western beliefs in democracy, freedom, and tolerance.”

Strache, 40, a former dental technician, is expected to make a run for the provincial leadership when key elections are held in Vienna in October. Analysts say the Social Democrats may lose their absolute majority in the capital, and they predict sharp gains for the Freedom Party.

JTA

 
 

Responding to the top 10 anti-Israel lies

 

Committee remembers the Rosenbergs, launches new initiative

When Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were brought to trial in the federal courthouse at Manhattan’s Foley Square in March 1951, at least one local resident was watching closely.

“Mine was the generation of the Rosenbergs,” said 94-year-old Miriam Moskowitz, who has long been active in the National Committee to Reopen the Rosenberg Case. The group will hold its 57th annual memorial meeting on June 17.

“The trial was a mockery,” said Moskowitz, author of the forthcoming “Phantom Spies, Phantom Justice” and a resident of Washington Township.

It was also an ordeal for American Jews, who feared the case would exacerbate already blatant displays of anti-Semitism.

Moskowitz pointed out that while the Rosenbergs were charged with conspiracy to commit espionage, “they were really tried and convicted even before they set foot in the courtroom because of the prosecution’s powerful publicity machine,” she said. “And while the charge was conspiracy to commit espionage, in effect, they were tried for treason.” The couple were executed in 1953.

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Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, executed in 1953, were charged with conspiracy to commit espionage but, “in effect, were tried for treason.”

This year’s memorial meeting will unveil a new initiative, said Moskowitz, noting that the eight-member committee will formally launch a campaign to exonerate the Rosenbergs “of the false charge of atomic spying.”

Among other accusations, the Rosenbergs were accused of passing to the Soviet Union information that could be used to build an atomic bomb. Two years ago, their co-defendant, Morton Sobell — released in 1969 after serving more that 18 years in prison, five of them in Alcatraz — admitted that he and Julius Rosenberg had passed information to the former Soviet Union in the 1940s but said it had nothing to do with the atom bomb.

“Julius gave defensive weaponry information to Russia because he felt they were bearing the brunt of the war,” said Moskowitz.

“They were leftists and they believed in the war effort against Nazis,” she said, pointing to strident anti-Semitic voices in the United States such as Father Coughlin, who was lauding Hitler on the radio.

“They were young and unsophisticated,” she said of Julius Rosenberg and Sobell. “They knew they were wrong but they did not intend and did not think to harm their own country. They never thought it would be regarded with such antagonism.”

She likened the case to that of Jonathan Pollard, “who gave unauthorized information to Israel because [then Defense Secretary] Caspar Weinberger refused to give Israel” classified information. Pollard was sentenced to life in prison.

In both cases, she said, the sentences were “way out of proportion.” (Ironically, Tibby Brooks, executive director of NCRRC, pointed out that “the Rosenbergs were executed … just before sundown [since] the authorities didn’t want to desecrate the Sabbath.”)

Moskowitz further noted that in both cases — and in many of the trials that took place during the 1950s — “being Jewish was an important factor.”

“It’s not an accident that the judge and prosecutor were Jewish,” she said. “That was to make sure that they would not be accused of anti-Semitism; but there’s no question that it lay behind these prosecutions.”

Judge Irving Kaufman’s pronouncement at the end of the trial demonstrated the hostility directed toward the defendants, said Moskowitz: “I consider your crime worse than murder,” he said. “I believe your conduct in putting into the hands of the Russians the A-bomb years before our best scientists predicted Russia would perfect the bomb has already caused, in my opinion, the Communist aggression in Korea, with the resultant casualties exceeding 50,000 and who knows but that millions more of innocent people may pay the price of your treason?”

Moskowitz recalled, “You don’t remember the picket lines against the Rosenbergs organized by anti-Semites. They used signs reading ‘Fry them and send the remains to Stalin.’”

Moskowitz had been involved in a similar trial just four months before the Rosenberg hearings, charged with conspiracy to obstruct justice.

“It was the same judge, same prosecution team, and same two witnesses” as those in the Rosenberg trial, she said, adding that she was found guilty in a “kangaroo court.”
She and her co-defendant, Abraham Brothman, were accused of influencing Harry Gold — a laboratory chemist who was convicted of being the courier for Soviet spy rings — to lie under oath to the grand jury.

Tried in the southern district of New York at age 34, Moskowitz was found guilty and sent to prison for two years. In her new book, due out in October from Bunim & Bannigan, she chronicles her experiences during this time.

“The book is about how my trial was run and my experiences as a political prisoner and a Jew,” she said, noting that the prosecution had referred to her trial as a kind of dress rehearsal for the Rosenberg trial, testing the believability of the witnesses and the strength of popular prejudice.

Moskowitz said her initial incarceration was in a New York jail — where many of those held “knew almost instinctively that not everything the press printed was believable. They knew also that truth and justice and the law were frequently unrelated.” Still, she said, “there were a few who muttered ugly threats and it was only through the protection of some of the other women that I escaped harm.”

Moskowitz finished doing her time at the Federal Reformatory for Women in West Virginia, “and the hostility there was more pronounced. Some of the women refused to pass the food to me at mealtime so I pretended I wasn’t hungry,” she said. “When anyone ‘accidentally’ jostled me or took a swipe at me (out of sight of the warders), I pretended not to notice. When some called me ‘Jew bitch’ or ‘spy,’ I pretended not to hear.”

Even after her release, she said, she was “harassed” by the FBI.

“They wanted me to give information against my co-defendant, but there was nothing to tell. He was a legitimate chemical engineer conducting a legitimate business.”

At the June 17 meeting, Michael and Robert Meeropol — the sons of the Rosenbergs, young children when their parents were executed — will be featured in videotaped excerpts from a recent symposium on Sobell’s recent admissions. In addition, Dave Alman, president of the committee and co-author with the late Emily Alman of “Exoneration,” will read excerpts from his book, as will Moskowitz from hers. Dr. Jolie Pataki will read from letters Ethel Rosenberg wrote while in prison. There will also be a musical interlude.

The free program is open to the public and will take place at Musicians Local 802, 322 West 48 St. in Manhattan at 7 p.m. For information, call (212) 533-1015.

 
 

And her little dog, too

 

My Father’s Coat and Hat

A special feature for Father’s Day

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Rochelle Lazarus is flanked by her mother, Marjorie, and father Leon, in this photograph taken shorty before he died. Photos courtesy of Rochelle Lazarus

Shush…. Daddy’s writing.”
As a young girl of about 4 or 5, before I really know my father, I am aware of his two distinct selves. First, there is my father the writer. He works for hours each day at a battered desk in my parents’ bedroom by a window that overlooks a small courtyard with a giant oak and a row of bent clotheslines, where the women in our building hang their laundry out to dry.

Perched on his desk is his scratched and dented Olympia, and from the other side of the closed door, I hear him peck away at the keys in a flurry of bird clacks, followed by long silences, during which I picture him gazing out the window into a sunny sky.

While he is writing, I am never allowed to enter the room. My mother speaks in whispers, and if I raise my voice in a moment of forgetting, she shushes me. Annoyed, I head for my room, down a long dark hall from theirs, and pause outside the door, wondering what looms in my father’s mind while he is sealed away in this other world of his — a silent world, where no phone rings, no music plays, and no one speaks in a voice louder than a hush.

But when my father is done for the day, the door to the bedroom swings open, sending a flood of light down the hall and into my room. It is like sun bursting through clouds. I hear my parents’ laughter in the next room and suddenly, my father’s solitary self is replaced by a warm and doting one — the one I know and love.

This other father wears a happy, handsome face. He is tall, with dark, movie-star hair and deep, ocean-green eyes. He is slender and smart and loves to talk and tease.

“Hey,” he calls to me. “How’d you like a great big ice cream sundae with chocolate syrup and whipped cream and a juicy cherry on top?”

“I’d love one,” I shout, rushing up to him with open arms.

Rochelle Lazarus is public relations and communications director for the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly. This memoir was written during a class called “Recording Jewish Lives” led by noted novelist Susan Dworkin and underwritten by Bernard and Ruth Weinflash.

His face grows grim with pretend seriousness. “So would I,” he says, “but there isn’t any ice cream or syrup or whipped cream or cherries, so I guess we can’t have sundaes.”

He pauses, watching my face for a reaction, then resumes his sunny grin. “But,” he exclaims, “I have an even better idea. Let’s go for a walk.”

He puts on his coat and hat, and soon we’re on our way. Sometimes, we walk to the local bakery, an adventure that begins with a stop at the town playground for a ride on the swings, then on to a narrow footbridge that arches over a sparkling creek, brimming with fish. We often pause on the bridge, and while we lean over the rails looking for turtles or tadpoles, my dad tells me stories. My favorites are about me and Christopher Robin, whom I adore. They all have similar themes. I help rescue Pooh from a cave or Piglet from a heffalump, and Christopher Robin showers me with praise and adoration until I’m bubbling with delight. I love these stories and wonder how they compare to the ones my father writes in his secret room, stories he never speaks about to me. The ones that pay our rent.

After collecting a few colored rocks along the bank of the creek, we cut across a big ball field and head on to the boulevard and bakery. A little chime tings when we open the door, and the baker’s plump, pleasant wife comes out from the kitchen to greet us. While my dad jokes with her behind the counter, I take deep whiffs of butter and chocolate and baking bread. I peer into the glass cases filled with pastries, wishing I could taste just one. In time, my dad accepts his bag of bagels and the baker’s wife suddenly turns to me.

“Pick something,” she says. “Anything you’d like — because you and your daddy are such nice people.”

She smiles and I choose a flaky doughnut, stuffed with chocolate cream, which she hands to me wrapped in a pastry tissue. Once outside, I carefully unwrap my treat, and savor it slowly on the long walk home, proud that my father’s charms could earn us other people’s favor.

Other times when we are out walking, we might meet someone passing in the street, and my father always stops and talks forever. He talks about fun places to take a Sunday drive. He talks about writers he likes and other things I don’t quite understand. I grow bored and restless waiting for him to turn his attention back to me. I’m tempted to scrape the tip of my shoe loudly on the sidewalk to remind him that I’m standing here waiting, but it’s my only pair, and I like them. Finally, he finishes and we’re on our way again.

“Who was that?” I ask, without disguising my annoyance.

“I have no idea,” he answers.

I stare up at him in semi-disbelief, angry that he’d give a complete stranger so much of his time. But even then I realize that this is part of his charm.

By the time I am 7 or 8, my favorite walks with my father by far are the ones we take in the big woods behind our apartment complex. It is lush and overgrown with paths that dead-end in a thicket or a ditch. I go there often with my friends to explore its wild and untamed depths, looking for Indians or pirate treasure. Personally, I believe it is inhabited by fairies and sprites, and I look for signs of them under ferns and tree roots. By day, it is a place for adventure, but I keep my distance after dark when it gathers like a black hole behind the brightly lit apartments.

In my father’s company, these woods are another place entirely. On hot summer days, we follow a narrow path until the air grows cool and pungent with pine. When we can see nothing but trees in every direction, we settle on the grass or a sunny rock with our sketch pads and pencils, ready to draw.

My father tells me to squint my eyes to study the landscape. “It makes the world look flatter,” he explains. “When you draw, you need to put the three-dimensional world onto a two-dimensional piece of paper. It’s easier to do if you can make the world look flat.”

So, I squint and squint until the sunlight and the trees look like they are a single object and I try to draw them as light and shadow. My father looks over my shoulder and makes minor suggestions. He explains how colors get softer in the distance and how to use the white of the paper as part of my composition.

“Sometimes, what you leave out is as important as what you put in,” he says. “It’s like words. What’s left unsaid often says more than what you actually say.”

I listen and try to understand. I know I miss some of what he is trying to teach me, but I hold on to his words, believing there is great wisdom to be gained from them.

When we finish our drawings, I sit close to him and lean my head against his shoulder, breathing in the safe scent of him. We prop our drawings side by side in our laps and compare how each of us has taken in the landscape through different eyes. His drawings are always better than mine, but it never makes me sad. He is eager to teach, and I am eager to learn, and that’s all that really matters.

We live in a lovely garden apartment complex in Ridgefield, with park-like lawns and trees filled with birds. Howard, my next door neighbor, is my best friend, and we run in and out of each other’s apartments without ever thinking to knock. We stand on chairs in front of the stove, concocting our own crazy recipes like eggnog soup. Or we walk along the skinny ledge of his high bunk bed, pretending we are captured slaves walking the gangplank. When we grow hungry for an outdoor adventure, all we need to do is step into our courtyard, where we can round up at least a half-dozen eager children in 10 seconds flat.

I relish the magic of this charmed and perfect life – until two things happen.

On Sunday mornings, my father often sends me to the local deli to buy The New York Times, his Muriel Air-Tip cigars with the dark-eyed gypsy woman on the box, and some bagels and lox for brunch. Occasionally, he asks me to buy the paper and some bagels for our downstairs neighbor, Mrs. Tahl, an old German widow who survived the war and now lives alone. Always kind and thoughtful, he likes to do small things for her.

I make the long walk to the deli, which smells like sour pickles, and, loaded down with packages, I trudge my way home. When I arrive, I rest the groceries on the stoop and knock on Mrs. Tahl’s door. She always takes a million years to answer. First, I hear her shuffling feet, slow and heavy as she crosses the floor, and then, I hear her unbolting the locks on her door. One tumbler turns in its lock, then another and another.

I stand there in the dark hall for what seems like an eternity, thinking how strange this is, since we never lock our doors at all. Finally, when the last bolt is undone, she opens the door a crack to receive her parcel. She is tall and heavy with sad eyes and a long, thin mouth.

She never smiles or invites me inside, but in her thick German accent, she asks me to thank my parents for their kindness, then clicks the door closed. I often stand for a moment on the landing, listening as all the bolts slide back in place, before I run upstairs.

One day, when I am outside on the front lawn, playing with my new little puppy, I see Mrs. Tahl watching me from her window. I wave and she waves back. A few minutes later, her door opens, and for the first time ever, she invites me inside.

I’m a little reluctant, but I follow her in. I’m surprised to see that her apartment is the mirror image of ours, but it looks completely different. It is dark and gloomy, with heavy drapes, bulky old tables and chests, and half-dead plants drooping on every windowsill. It is sad, and a little scary, just like her.

“I was watching you and your puppy,” she says. “Is it a boy or a girl?”

“A girl,” I answer. “Her name is Pixie.”

“Ah. Come, let me see her.”

Pixie bounds in and jumps on her with dirty paws. I hear Mrs. Tahl laugh for the first time ever as Pixie tries to nose up her dress.

“You know,” she says, “I once had a little girl and we had a little white puppy that looked very much like your Pixie. Would you like to see a picture of her?”

“Sure,” I say, surprised she is actually talking with me.

She leaves the room and returns with a black leather pocketbook. Cracked and worn, it clicks open on a tarnished brass button. She takes out her wallet and ruffles through its contents for what seems like a very long time, and then produces a tattered photo. She holds it out for me to see.

The picture is so old and faded, I can barely make out the faces, but there is a ghostlike image of a dark-haired little girl in a summer dress holding a white puppy, with a tall, slim woman standing beside her, dressed in a suit and hat.

“That is me and Gretchen, my little girl,” she explains. “She was about your age in this photo. And there, in her lap, is Treasure.”

I study the photo for a few long seconds, not knowing quite what to say.

“Where are they now?” I finally ask.

She doesn’t answer. She stares down at the photo in her lap. Her face is blank, and she is so lost in thought, I think she has forgotten I am here. But finally, she speaks.

“They are gone,” she says. “It was not safe from bombs where we lived, and my husband and I decided to send Gretchen away for a while, where she would be out of harm’s way. We put her on a train, and I never saw her again. Later, I lost my husband, as well, and that is why I live here all alone.”

I sit there in her gloomy parlor with its strange plants and shadows, utterly speechless. The truth is, I know very little about the war. I know my father served in the Air Force, but my parents never speak of that time, and Mrs. Tahl’s story is a terrifying shock. The idea that a child could board a train and vanish is unthinkable, and I stare down at Mrs. Tahl’s big black shoes, afraid to meet her gaze. I begin to dimly understand why she keeps so many locks on her door, and why her house seems so sad.

After an interminable silence, Mrs. Tahl tucks the photo back in her wallet and clicks her purse closed. It makes a startling snap.

“Auf wiedersehen,” she says. “Take good care of that little dog of yours.”

I leave her apartment and race upstairs, eager to escape the sound of her locks bolting closed behind me. It is the only time I ever entered her house, and the experience leaves me with a terrible, gnawing sadness. I can no longer pass her door without feeling a stab of fear because she’s shown me that life is not as safe or perfect as I imagined. Every time I climb the stairs to our sunny home, I find myself wishing that my father would never again send me to her house with a bag full of bagels.

I never say a word to anyone about my conversation with Mrs. Tahl. I want to bury the memory so it won’t haunt me. But haunt me it does, and not long later, I have a second experience that makes forgetting impossible.

It is a sunny, ordinary day in my little-girl world. I return from school as usual to find my father busy writing and my mother busy preparing dinner, so I turn on the TV just as the Million Dollar Movie is about to begin. The feature this afternoon is “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and I settle down to what I think is going to be a fun film about a happy teenage girl. But as I sit with the volume turned low so as not to disturb my father, I watch in horror as her story unfolds.

When the movie ends, I am rooted to the floor, unable to move. It’s dusk, and the room grows dark and strangely unfamiliar, as though under water. I sit for a long time, watching the shadows shift across the walls and floor until it becomes so dark, it could easily be Mrs. Tahl’s parlor I am sitting in. And then, from far, far away, I hear pots clattering in the kitchen, followed by my mother’s chirpy voice, calling me to dinner.

I keep my terror of Anne Frank’s story to myself, and it grows and grows inside me into one all-consuming fear: Where in the world will my family hide if the Nazis ever return?

I begin exploring every possibility. I try crawling under the couch with Pixie, hoping the shadows will swallow me, but I figure this will be the first place the Nazis will look and I’ll be found in an instant. I consider ducking into the cabinet under the kitchen sink, behind all the bottles of cleansers, but it is such a shallow space, I am sure I’ll be seen. I hide in my parents’ bedroom closet and stand behind my mother’s dresses, but I know if the door is flung open, my legs will be exposed and I’ll be discovered for sure.

I spend weeks in an agonizing panic, searching our house for my equivalent of a secret annex. And then, one day, I find it.

In the back of our living room closet is a single garment bag, where my mother stows our off-season clothes. Hanging from the bar on four hooks, it is about two feet wide and can be unzipped down the middle, straight to the floor. Inside, it is packed with our winter coats and sweaters.

I unzip the bag and catch a whiff of mothballs and wool. Then, I part some of the coats and step inside. The hooks hold my weight and I find that I can curl up in the bottom, which rests on the floor.

This could work, I think and zip myself inside. It is spring and I can hear the birds singing outside, but huddled in here, it smells like winter. I take one of my father’s bulky sweaters and lay it over me like a blanket in the bottom of the bag. And then, I practice lying very, very still.

I practice long and often, and hunkered down in this borrowed darkness, I think of Anne Frank, pouring her heart out into her diary. I think about Gretchen, Mrs. Tahl’s ghost-faced little girl, boarding a train in a pretty dress, waving good-bye to her parents and her little white dog — wondering if she wound up in the Bergen-Belsen camp like Anne.

Burrowed in this bag in my living room closet, I know that I am forever changed. I know that children can vanish and that people lock themselves away. There are still Christopher Robin and forest fairies, but I am beginning to see the world through different, not-so-trusting eyes. It is dark and forbidding in this secret hideaway, but it smells safe like my father’s coat and hat, and I take comfort in the hope that this can be my haven, my annex — a place I can go, just in case.

 
 

Not every film is appropriate for our children

 

Past and present

 

Don’t shoot the messenger

 
 
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