From time to time, images of our remote, early childhood recur, unexpectedly, in our consciousness, in cinematically clear recollection, as if projected upon a movie screen of contemporary consciousness. Many poignant recollections of long ago, then seem vividly colorful and almost palpable.
The venue of our early childhood, evinced an ambiance of Eastern European Ashkenazi, immigrants, indigent, but, happily relieved, to feel safe, and free, at last, of their former tenuous residence, including the recurring threat of community pogroms.
Most lived in modest apartment houses, spoke some halting English, but primarily, Yiddish, in addition to what we now identify as “Yinglish,” a heavily accented mélange of Yiddish and patois English. As an illustration: when there was an especially cool draft, in the residential apartment, someone would utter, “Farmach der vinder.” Farmach, in German and Yiddish, legitimately, is “close”; “der vinder” is an illegimate corruption of the English word, “window.” (the Yiddish word is “fenster”) Another colorful example of less than Elizabethan eloquence, was the request, “Spill me in a glass water” or, acceptably, “Give me a glass of water.” This was the circumstance of the times’ ambient lingua franca.
It was a community of poor, hard- working, heavily accented, European immigrants who lived in a sub-society, in which folks knew each other, by name, occupation and previous European background. Gossip and worry were the two main media of exchange; no one was ever comfortably secure, in his knowledge that, as a Jew, living (again) in what was perceived as a Christian country, was he ultimately, safe.
In our childhood years, we heard news of the initial frightening successes, of Adolf Hitler and the Axis; those of suitable age went off to fight in World War II. Our parents, coming from, what can only be described, as lives of regular trauma from, White Russia, (now, “Belarus”) and (Lithuania, now, “Vilnius”), were not unique, in their practice of prudently stocking up on canned foods, against the fear of, the all too familiar possibility, of wartime food shortage.
Our parents had emigrated, separately, to America, each having left behind a tenuous existence, marked by fear, bitter cold and extreme poverty. Our mother came over with a sister, leaving behind relatives and parents; our father, sixteen years old, was obliged to escape from the Soviet draft (knowing that Jewish soldiers were, predictably, sent to serve in Siberia, and were not expected to return.) It was learned, subsequently, that the Jewish inhabitants of our father’s town, of all ages, who remained, were lined up by the Lithuanians (not the Nazi’s) and heartlessly, mowed down, with an old Czech machine gun.
Each adult member of the Brooklyn Community in which we lived, during those days, had left behind a life that enjoyed sufficient dramatic potential, to be an apt subject for a dark novel by Tolstoy; but in the company of other previously traumatized new Americans, went about their modest lives, asking for little in the way of diversion (except an occasional neighborhood movie, or a rather tiring excursion to Rockaway Beach), only too glad to be alive, and hopefully, currently employed.
Their limited facility in spoken English, usually underwent significant improvement, as a consequence of their children’s attendance at school. Academic dedication and excellence were strictly demanded, of children, by all parents, and as a consequence, many of the immigrant children became successful, some, even world renowned. Children were well cared for, and cherished, responsibly, as offspring; however, most of these formerly traumatized parents, while quite concerned with the survival, physical health and education of their young, were unfamiliar with the concept of comforting nurturance and emotional oversight. These children would have to go it alone, through their own maturing stages, without the assisted counselling of their, virtually, PTSD impacted parents. Many children became strong, self-sustaining personalities, because of it, but by no means, all.
The incident to which we would refer, occurred in a specific interaction, between us and our father, during the early period of the Second World War. News, in those days, was, of course transmitted by radio, and reported in newspapers. We were in the company of our father, when the radio newscaster excitedly announced, a bold threat by Adolph Hitler. At the time, Germany had been raining down a virtual hell on London, by means of its newly developed, V-2 Rockets. The newscaster’s announcement was that Hitler had just proclaimed his intention to target such V-2 Rockets, to hit the East Coast of the United States. Our reaction, understandably, was spontaneous, fear and alarm. For a great many years, we had been startled and confused, at our father’s, differing reaction, amounting to a sardonic, responsive laughter at the receipt of such news. Was it, we guessed, perhaps possible, that he was expressing, by such laughter, confident doubt, as to the practical feasibility of Hitler’s ambitious, lethal threat? In any event, we were, for a considerable time, puzzled at our father’s apparently bizarre response to the reported, ominous threat.
It was a great many years after that incident, and at a time, considerably after the unexpected and sudden death of our father; and, notably, consistent with the further development of our mature circumspection and empathy, that we were able to attain an understanding of the significance of our late father’s sardonic laughter. It was not an expression of doubtful derision, concerning Hitler’s bold statement of impassioned and hateful intention; indeed, it was far from any kind of humorous reaction, at all. Rather, as we came to understand it, it was, in reality, an ironic, perhaps, ultimately, frustrated, outcry, to the effect that, regardless of all my (our) sacrifices and (foolhardy) hope, we are, under any and all circumstances, eternally destined to experience existential danger.
There are tears and a bit of shame with each recollection.