August 30, 2016

Suffering and Rage: the Controversy of a Children's Story

This is not what I want to be doing right now. Seriously.

I'd rather be relaxing, hanging out watching a show or reading a good book or doing something equally....quiet.

But while I was goofing around on the computer just now, I saw a tweet, which led to a web site, which wanted some rage from me, and I found that, on a subject on which I am rather well-educated (I know, right??), I actually had...none.

Here's the situation: a children's book came out in May to very modest reviews/rankings/etc. Called A Year of Borrowed Men, its author recounts her life during World War II in Germany, when she was but a tiny thing and her family lived on a robust farm in the German countryside. Since her father had been "borrowed" by the government (to go fight the war), three French prisoners of war were sent to the farm to work for her mother. 

But let's be honest here, and call it as it is. 

She lived on a farm with slaves that year. French slaves. Prisoners. Men who were unpaid, far from home, forced to work on her family's farm, reaping their crops, sowing their seeds.

So that's all clear, yes? They were slaves. She was a child, however, and certainly wouldn't have viewed them as such. Also, her mother went out of her way to act humanely to these prisoners, inviting them to eat with her at the family table, which (if we're being completely honest here, and I hope to be) could easily have resulted in imprisonment for the mom, and a huge loss for her family.

The author of the article that led me to this book, on (ha!), argues vehemently that the book, lacking the context of the atrocities of WWII and the true experience of prisoners of war (not to mention all the Jews) during that time, is overly simplified. White-washing history, if you will. The author expresses anger. Outrage. Fury, even, that this little children's book, about kindness against all odds and finding friendship even in the most uncomfortable situations, talks about the "suffering" of German families during the war in which so many of my own kinsman were viciously murdered. 

Clearly, I should be pissed off, too, right?

The thing is...and I'm not sure what's going to happen to me for saying this...and maybe this is going to end my writing career right here and now...

...but I'm not angered by this book. 

Not at all, actually.

Let's unpack for a moment, shall we?

First off, World War II was a heinous war, and regardless of fault or the side of the war on which your country fell, the suffering was real. You know that stupid meme, the struggle is real? Yeah. That was the war, no matter who you were or where you lived. If you were alive at that time, your life was damn near impossible, all thanks to a massive, uncontrollable war. 

Millions of Jews: starving, dying, hurting, crying.
Millions of Germans: starving, dying, hurting, crying.
Millions of Japanese (particularly in August, 1945, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but that's an issue for another day): starving, dying, hurting, crying.
Millions of Allies: starving, dying, hurting, crying. 

Now, I don't care whose side you were on. Clearly clearly CLEARLY I believe wholeheartedly that Germany and Japan were at fault for what went down during those terrible years, but pain is pain and death is death, and the fact is: so many people died, I don't feel like you or I can begin to declare who suffered worst.

After all, is a little Jewish girl who's lost her entire family hurting that much more than a little German girl who's lost her entire family in an Allied bombing raid, or even simply her father and older brothers to a call of duty to their country? Is a small Japanese girl who's lost her father and brother to Kamikaze flights, and then endured radiation poisoning, hurting less than a British tot who's lost her mum and home to the Blitz?

Pain is pain and death is death, and innocence lost is never regained. 

All children suffer in wars, don't you think? Didn't we all just lose our minds with grief (and rightfully so) at the image of a small Syrian boy, covered in dust and blood, in the wake of a terrible bombing? 

Everyone suffers in wars, and the suffering is real.

This is a lesson I learned several years ago. I am educated, particularly about World War II. I've made it my life's work to understand what happened in Germany particularly, so afraid am I that it'll ever be allowed to happen again. I was smug, for a long time, in the knowledge that I got it. That I knew the Jews had it the worst during the war, and that I, an Ashkenazi Jew with family ties to Eastern Europe, owned a part of that pain. That it was my story, too, and that mine was the worst story out there. I was Jew, hear me suffer.

Then, my sister-in-law's family hosted a German high school student for a year. 

The student (also named Lea(h), though without the exceptionally important silent H) and I were getting to know each other the first time we met. Somehow the war came up. She grew silent, not meeting my eye, and at first I thought it was guilt that kept her from looking at me. 

But no. Her head hung low, and her beautiful face was stormy. 

"My grandmother was raped in the war," she said. "By Allied soldiers, after they took over her village."

Pain is pain and death is death, and innocence lost is never regained.

It rankles me anytime a person demeans another's suffering.


No. It infuriates me.

Pain is pain and death is death, and who am I to judge whose pain is worse?

Look, friends. There's so much in the world to be angry about. So much pain. So much suffering. So much war right now. Let's all be mad about that, okay? Let's do what we can to stop that.

And let's not waste time arguing that a book isn't good enough simply because you don't think a little girl losing her father to war qualifies her to write a story of friendship in a time of darkness. 

I almost lost my dad to heart disease last week. I know firsthand right now the pain of a little girl missing her daddy. 

If anyone wants to reach out a hand to me, in friendship and love, I'll take that hand. And I'll let my child read a story of friendship, and the hell with historical context. Seven-year-olds don't always need historical context, and sometimes, history can take a backseat to love.

And that is what I believe about A Year of Borrowed Men.


Ilene Goldman said...

It's so easy to think of war as one thing: pain, violence, destruction. But the truth is, there are moments of humanity in every war.

My Hebrew school taught the Holocaust starting in 3rd grade. Our textbook was a squarish yellow book, and it was all about heroes of the Holocaust. My introduction to genocide wasn't "Hey, kids, this is Auschwitz, where Jews were gassed and burned"; it was "The Nazis wanted to kill Jews, but some people tried to save us." We learned about Janusz Korsczak, Irena Sendler, Chiune Sugihara. We learned about Anne Frank and Miep Gies. We learned to see the helpers, if I might paraphrase Mr. Rogers.

It didn't diminish the realities or horrors of the Holocaust. It gave us what our kid brains could handle.

And maybe, just maybe, if we teach kids to see the good inside the horrific, the human amidst the war machine, they can become the ones offering the help and humanity in times of conflict and war and need.

Leah said...

Yes yes yes yes yes!!!!!!!!

Elana Winston said...

I'm not reading any books at this time and I came across your post. Usually I am reading about three or four at a time depending on my mood. I love your writing, vocabulary and structure. This topic in particular, hits home. I appreciate your view and information. I sometimes feel like I was sheltered as a child (pertaining to religion) we were Jewish and did not Learn about other religions and the details of other's beliefs and traditions at least until we, my siblings and myself, were old enough to research them ourselves and learn from friends.
Thanks for always being honest and descriptive. I learn a lot from you.
I always try to enrich my children with all culture, traditions and reasons why certain events from the past shouldn't be repeated. All life is valuable. (As u often say) Thanks for sharing Leah
I teach the culture of kindness This week we had many basic discussions about gender and pronouns and how important it is to ask, if "you" are not sure what pronoun -if any- to use and how families come in all colors shapes sizes and genders I'm so proud that my babies (at 8 and 10 years old) are SO caring, accepting, kind and they understand not every one else is - I say politely say it's ok disagree and smile as you walk away. Never debate a person's feelings or beliefs.
Thanks again for sharing
Hope you are all well as summer comes to an end.

WritingPassionsThoughts said...

The description, to me, of "A Year of Borrowed Men" does not speak so much of the War, but of one family's experience and what it meant to the child. How it effected her and how she, at time of great confusion in her young life, learned to admire her mother's strength and kindness to these strange men who had come to replace the men in her family.

Like you, I am all to familiar with the feelings a daughter of missing her father. Mine passed away from cancer in Feb. 2010, and to us, their 'Little Girls' losing the man who was our protector, our friend, our everything leaves a whole to never be filled. So yes, you have every right to have been angered by that post.

PS. Please give your father a hug from me. <3

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