Friday, 29 August 2014
Witnesses to History
By Bettijane Eisenpreis
Victor Klemperer’s book, I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years, 1933-1941, was one of the most memorable, though disturbing, books I have ever read.
An assimilated Jew with a non-Jewish wife, Klemperer managed to survive house arrest and extreme deprivation under the Nazis and, at the risk of losing his life, kept meticulous records throughout the whole period.
Perhaps it was the fact that keeping a record was illegal that spurred Klemperer to keep the diary. Or perhaps being so constricted drove him to find an activity to stave off depression and boredom.
The record that resulted is invaluable, proving to future generations the depths of the Nazis’ inhumanity.
But bearing witness is not limited to those with extraordinary stories. All of us are witnesses and what we live through today is history for the next generation. I am fascinated by how much you can be exposed to just by being alive.
I was born in 1935, the year the Social Security Law passed in the United States, two years after Hitler seized power in Germany. My 10th birthday, August 6, 1945, was the day the atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima. When I first came to New York, the help wanted pages of The New York Times listed male and female jobs separately.
I have lived through at least five wars – World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq – in which the U.S. has participated, and countless more in which it has not, at least overtly.
When I married, my husband’s company had one computer, a monster made by IBM that occupied its own dust-free, air-conditioned room. No one had heard of a personal computer, a cellular telephone or email.
But that’s just my personal experience. I was very close to my father (born in 1898) and grandmother (born in 1869). Grandma’s uncle, Simon Wolf, was an influential Jewish lawyer in Washington. He wrote a book, Presidents I Have Known, which detailed his relationships with every president from Grant to Wilson.
As a young lawyer, Simon was part of a delegation that visited President Lincoln, so he could have included Lincoln in his list as well.
Grandma was close to her uncle’s family. In her diary, she describes a month-long visit to their Washington home during which she and a cousin walked over to the White House and “saw Mrs. Cleveland go carriage-riding.”
Grandma approved of all the rooms, especially the Blue Room, but there is nothing in the diary that indicates any need to get a ticket or go through security.
I learned about World War I from my father. Clinton’s passion to participate in “the war to end all wars” was so great that he completed four years of college courses in three years and volunteered for the army which promptly turned him down because of his extreme myopia.
Looking for a civilian war job, he met a colonel who waived the requirement for a vision test and recruited him into a new branch of the service, aviation medical research. They tested potential fliers to find out if they could function in open-cockpit unpressurized planes.
Clinton spent several exciting years on Long Island, and emerged with plenty of stories he later told me.
My parents were married during the Depression. My father described the menu my mother served during those hard years this way: “I got paid on Friday so we ate fairly well over the weekend. Monday and Tuesday, we ate out of cans. Wednesday and Thursday, we ate the cans.” It was only a slight exaggeration.
For the rest of his life, he refused to eat corned beef hash. I loved it but one sight of the can it came in was enough to send Clinton away from the table.
When Clinton was well into his 80s, we hired a young man to help him with daily chores. David was a nice fellow and he and Clinton got along famously. But one day I mentioned something that had happened during the Korean War and David said, “I was never good at history.”
“That’s not history,” I almost shouted. “That’s my life!”
George Santayana said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Everyday histories are important. Have you made a record of yours?
[INVITATION: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Please read instructions for submitting.]