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Fanny, A Real Hero

In San Diego this week, the Jewish Film Festival is offering an incredible number of films. Some target coming of age or sports or history and war. I selected three because of location and time, but of course first perused the content of the offering.

 

So there I stood at Claremont last Sunday noon, wondering if Fanny’s Journey would deepen my understanding of the holocaust. Years ago I had taught Eli Weisel’s Night to Grade 11 students, a few insisting that it was only a story, denying that the holocaust had ever taken place. Any many many years earlier I had sunk into the leather couch at the library, eager to read more and more about plight of children during that time.

Like other films based on the events of history such as Amistad, John Adams, Victoria, or Queen of Katwe for example, the film maker fills in details, in some ways making them more vivid than in a book or script, by adding a physicality to the presentation. In Fanny’s Journey, we may have known the story of Jewish children secreted in foster homes or institutions throughout France to save them from the Nazis, but the faces of the no nonsense Fanny, the nightly cries of her sister Erika and the innocence of the eyes of Georgette sear your mind with the palpable terrors of children caught in a drama we can hardly imagine.

Fanny is fourteen and all ready responsible not just for her sisters but for a gaggle of others who must depart their safe haven when reported by a local cleric. When their most recent lodging in Italy becomes a threat, they must endeavour to reach Switzerland. Fanny and Eli, a kitchen worker, are responsible to lead the children to safety,, but when Eli bolts at the train station, Fanny must navigate by herself.

Based on Fanny Ben-Ami’s autobiography, we move with Fanny’s harrowing journey through forests, shacks, dangerous situations and chance meetings that result in lucky moments that preclude the children’s arrest. We hold our breath as the Nazi commandant approaches the shed where the children have rested, relieved that abruptly another officer calls him away at the very last second to attend to an official matter.As the terrified children, eyes huge and tongues frozen in terror, holding their breathe, acknowledge the moment of capture has passed, their bodies soften, and so too do ours.. Similarly when a recluse takes them in for only a night and explains the red berries the young children have eaten are not poison, we gulp and wonder if in deed, they will make it through to safety.

Director Lola Doillon has retained, in spite of the dire circumstances, a lapse into childhood fun. When Maurice’s money flies from his pouch, the children chase the floating notes as if they were butterflies, giggling, jumping delightedly as if there were no harm surrounding their every turn. When they chance upon a creek with water, they engage in water fights, splashing one another, just a passel of ordinary kids, fooling around. This balance of childhood behaviour balances the extreme tension of the seriousness Life and death situations in the film. Will the dolly given by the lady with the baby herald disaster.? Will the children provide their new names when questioned by police? Who is a friend and who is a traitor? These are issues that Fanny, the leader of the children, must discern. She is the Pied Piper, the hardheaded combatant of the group.

We are in awe that an adolescent manoeuvres the group to safety. Towards the end of the film, when she willfully decides to return to danger for the safety of one child fallen behind, we gasp, cogitating with her, weighing her own freedom against another’s. Would we, each one of us, be so brave in dangerous circumstances o recross a no man’s land? I fear not.

The movie although set in wartime is connected to the plight of refugees, especially today. We have only to recall the scathing photos of the 3 year old Syrian boy fleeing with his family, lying lifeless on a Turkish beach. The children, the future of our world , chess pawns by ruthless governments is a deadly game.

At the conclusion of  Fanny’s Journey, the film reveals the real life Fanny. She is a marvel, magically alive, vital and beautiful, presented relaxed and smiling. We are in awe.

The story is true, the heroine has survived and one person has changed history , especially for the others she has saved.

We as audience have shared a moment, a promise that humanity can be better, that people are courageous, that children are invested with the power to make the world better. In deed, we wish for a world where children can engage in tea parties, play with their stuffies, eat sweets, roll on the grass and be children. For children of war, their innocence is stolen, their days as carefree impossible. To keep them safe and unaware of the travesties of horror should be the mission of all.

Immigration, news papers and poetry 

On Meet the Press last week, Chuck Todd asked Reince Preibus why the specific naming of the Jews and antisemitism had been omitted by Trump on the day of Holocaust Remembrance in Washington. No apologies or expression of regret was given except for Trump’s spokesperson to murmur, how terrible it all was and to acknowledge there are Jewish people in Trump’s own family( his son- in- law Jared Kushner and Trump’s daughter who is a convert to Judaism). In deed, Ivanka issued a photo of herself and husband that evening as they preened for their night out in dazzling clothes. She might have underpinned it with “ Let them ( the refugees) eat cake”. People believe that it is no mistake that the ban of Muslims from countries identified as dangerous such as Yemen, Syria,Iraq, Iran, Libya, Sudan and Somalia on the same day as the holocaust statement was not just a coincidence- for, Steve Bannon, chief strategist for Trump, supports the alt right which lauds white supremacy and of course, antisemitism along with it. But not just Jews and Muslims are in his purview, he also repeatedly excoriates the Press to keep quiet.

I always find it ironic that one who insists on his own voice being heard has no problem silencing all the other voices: Might makes Right, and as Trump, so incredibly demonstrated during his debates, keep repeating your words louder and more often until you drum out and silence your opponents. Bannon, a former navy man, also worked at Goldman Sacks as a banker and profited from royalties from Seinfeld. So cry me a river of how both Trump, and Bannon can empathize with the forgotten in America! From their monied positions , they define themselves as outcasts. But perhaps, they are correct, if the criteria for being an outsider means social misfit whose elevated status means ignoring real and basic needs. With the arrogance of the rich, and hard done by attitude , Trump and Bannon only listen to the their own misguided selfish, egotistical voices bouncing in their heads. And terribly, ironically, their voter base was mainly composed of the actual poor- whose resentment of their societal condition put into power the very bankers and billionaires responsible for their condition.

Without the Press to question, probe and investigate, people are pawns in the game of dictatorship, mindblown by the alternative facts and lies, the “ beliefs” that the master puppeteers hold. What America has enshrined is freedom of speech, encouraging public discourse, debate, collaboration and an impetus towards building on the diverse ideas of the public. At least, that was the slogan emblazoned  in their propaganda. The Press is the watchdog, the canary in the coal mine that tweets the warnings of looming disaster.

Yet too often these days, the Press sensationalizes, exaggerates and employs hyperbole to dramatize and entertain, alert to raising ratings. However, without the attention of the Press , Trump might not have been successful in his bid for presidency. Perhaps he is too well aware of their power and would prefer them silenced now just as in countries where dictatorship has overrun freedom of speech- and worse. Seen as the critics rather than heralding an era of the next doom, the Press has rebelled, written and challenged those who would prefer to lock them up and cut out  their tongues.

The lacuna in the holocaust statement reminded me of Harold Troper and Irving Abella’s book, None is Too Many, that described the refusal to allow Jews into Canada during World War II, and the shame of it. Trump’s barring refugees is likewise horrifying. I recall stories that my mother told of Poland before the war, and those who were not allowed to leave – and perished. And who does not remember the SS St. Louis in June 1939, its 937 passengers, almost all Jewish, refused entry to the port of Miami, circling and circling aimlessly until it was forced to return to Europe .Again shamefully. The United States has had a poor track record offering asylum.(Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/us-government-turned-away-thousands-jewish-refugees-fearing-they-were-nazi-spies)

In the Globe again, Pulitzer Prize winner on U.S. Politics, David Shribman remarks on the chaos sown by Trump.Alluding to seven short days, Shribman compares the beauty of creation with the quick demise of society by juxtaposing the two bible- thumping Trump with the miracle of the world. And even the Pope has denounced Trump on immigration, but obviously Trump only respects his own gold- plated views and deems himself above all who would criticize, bestowing upon himself the right to decide who shall live and who shall die as a god on high- above all religious clerics and moral philosophers and common sense. Shribman highlights the symbolism of the statue of liberty, and the Emma Lazarus poem engraved on the welcoming statue to New York,

“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me…”

 

I think too of Walt Whitman celebrating diversity in Leaves of Grass and his tribute to Lincoln in Captain, my Captain.  

Russell Smith in Thursday’s Globe and Mail also aligns artists’ works protesting the evils of mankind with Trump’s America, admitting art exerts little impact, except to rally the spirit and underline through gesture and design protests. Yet Picasso’s Guernica that dramatized the atrocity of Nazi bombing of innocent civilians in 1937 on the Basque town in Spain stands as a monument to all human suffering, underlying the brutality of the place, the time, the perpetrators: a forever record. But as Russell Smith set out, art can do little to change minds. I fear that at the end of this destructive time, when the henchmen are called on to account for the ruination of society, they will demure,” I was just following g orders.”

 I imagine too Sally Yates’ refusal to sign Trump’s order will also stand as a rebuttal, a forever statement to the gross abrogation of rights. And when the world surveys its lists of who stood up to Hitler as Schindler did, Guernica and Yates and the Women’s March and even the mayor of Provence, Rhode Island will be carved into the minds and hearts of people who will scorn a regime that deprived rights and safe passage to those in most need. 

And once more, On Meet the Press, a participant held up the IPhone declaring the son of an Arab immigrant , Steve Jobs, created it. A Syrian filmmaker of an Oscar nominated film, The Salesman based on Arthur Miller’s The Death of a Salesman will be included in the ban of Muslims from Syria and will not be able to attend. Scholarship students to Yale and Harvard from many of these identified countries are now nomads, unable to return to their classes. And think of the families stopped midtransit after two years of vetting, now turned away. At least the” sanctuary” cities at this point are not willing to comply by providing names for deportation.In seven short days, the world has come loose, and those famous lines from WB Yeats in 1919, come to mind,

 Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

 Trump’s ability to tell lies and promulgate fear are his special talents. This is fear mongering, echoing FDR’s “ All we have to fear is fear itself” in his inaugural address. By saying this, FDR was telling the American people that their fear was making things worse. He went on to say, “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror … paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

 

That is not to say, that terrorists such are not pursuing terrible outrageous crimes against innocents , and destabilizing the world. One remark from 60 Minutes has stayed with me, a comment made by a pastor in Georgia : Who is more likely to turn to terrorism, someone welcomed by a country or spurned by it?

And Marie Henein( yes defender of Jian Gomeshi) likewise reminds us in The Globe on Wednesday, of George Orwell’s take on political thinking in 1945, when he wrote “… the most grossly obvious facts can be ignored when they are unwelcome …people seem capable of schizophrenic beliefs regarding plain facts, of evading serious facts with debating society repartee or swallowing baseless rumors and of looking on indifferently while history is falsified…”

She adds that few people are actually hurt or killed in terrorism attacks ( well, 9/11), but many many more by guns. Yet there is no move “ to make America safer” by passing more stringent gun laws or even preventing them from being sold.

The last bastion of hope exists with those who have power to overturn or stop the avalanche of Trump’s tide. Maybe thinking Republicans will join with Democrats , protestors, women, refugees, those truly forgotten souls to prevent the tragedy that awaits. My husband, the lawyer, always optimistic continues to tell me that the justice system is embedded with safeguards that will not allow rights and freedoms to be trampled.

 I hope so.

Parenting 2015

I heard the story of a well known pediatrician when finally allowed to babysit his first grandkid was admonished, “ Now if there’s an issue, we’ve left the name of our doctor. Please call her”. So it goes that we, the boomers are feeling discredited by our children in many realms; as if they had discovered all the whys and wherefores of child rearing, sourly smiling at us tottering dinosaurs whose forays into Dr. Benjamin Spock and Burton L. White were to be relegated to the burning pile.
 Yet sometimes I wonder how keen and alert I really was as a parent. My youngest daughter ‘s interest resides in death. And in deed, the trajectory of her professional life has revolved around caring for terminally ill children, addressing the needs of military personnel who have risked death and suffer from PTSD, working with the siblings of children who are deceased and now researching the words of the dying under the guidance of Raymond Moody who coined the phrase “near death experience”.

She says that as a young girl she was always plagued by thoughts of death.

However, when I recall her growing up years amidst childhood tantrums, mischievous tricks and schemes and teenage rebellion, I could not discern a fascination with the morbid. Did she occasionally visit the warmth of our bed when witches visited her or nighttime fears corrupted her sleep?

Yes.
Did she compose stories of heroines much like limp Victorian consumptives with names like Lavender who succumbed to deadly illnesses?

 Yes.

But did my girl badger me with questions surrounding death and dying or an afterlife?

Not that I can recall.
Yet her older sister also relates that she too was on the ready should Nazis or murderers invade our house. She tells me there was a sweet spot beneath the stairs that she reasoned would keep her safe. Even forty years later, she explains she has an escape plan should there be a zombie invasion.

My husband blames me for prefacing many sentences with “ I’m afraid…” although for me, this phrasing was an amulet, a reverse psychology plea to the universe to keep the demons away. So I wore my fears as a shield, taunting but not truly expecting the onslaught of horned toads, spotted dragons or masked villains to ravage and tear me apart, disrupting my life.

 I, of course, blame my mother, who had real reasons to fear. She recalled a picnic in Poland, a spring afternoon, a freshly ironed tablecloth set on the grass and the thunder of horses’ hooves as Cossacks approached and her father swept her up beneath his arm and away from danger. She also recalled being kidnapped but refusing to hand over her doll with the sleeping eyes, even though her sister did. From my mother’s true dramas I segued into holocaust tales where terrible thoughts admittedly crept into my head, even as I safely nestled into a soft chair at the library and my mother’s promise of a milkshake on the way home.
Apparently, my seedling fears were not to be scattered to the wind but instead planted themselves deep into my girls’ imaginative heads. And I, embarrassed to admit, had not taken their words seriously enough. Or perhaps as a working mother with three kids all below the age of seven, I was too exhausted to analyze their predictions and spurious concerns. I preferred instead the physical hug or squeeze , the brush of nighttime kiss as they finally closed their eyes at the end of a long day.
 I think I might have sung out “ Don’ t worry! You’re OK. Or the proverbial soother, ‘”Sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite”. Now I reflect those bed bugs must have had laser shooting eyes, green tentacles and the ability to pinch and terrify my pyjamed tots.
So I thought we were good parents providing the necessities for our offspring: being there with the necessary right words when needed, but their memories tell us NO. There were gaps, places and scary stuff that we did not cover- places where fears of wild things made lasting claw marks on their innocence. 

Mea culpa, kids.

The Roosevelts and Me

Like most of my generation, I hold a special place in my mind for FDR. The Boomers growing up and away from the shadow of war were familiar with the name of the disabled president, studied him in history class, later heard rumblings of his foibles and love affairs, but overall, considered him a persistent star that had lit the way back from the Nazi threat and on towards the free world.

In high school classes, we absorbed the names of Harry Hopkins, Louis Howe, Frances Perkins and the New Deal. Learning that a woman had been placed in his prestigious cabinet and that artists like Thomas Benton, Diego Rivera and so many others had been given jobs in the WPA made us feel proud. The Depression known through stories like The Grapes of Wrath imparted a whiff of those hard dark days and what it must have meant to truly not know where your next meal would arrive.

My father would retell how his own mother left the door ajar at night because she felt that if anyone were poorer than them, they deserved to come in- and even take what they needed. My father longed for brand new drafting tools, not broken, like inaccurate second hand ones that he had no choice but to use.

The symbol of those days seemed to me to be men riding the rails from town to town, seeking employment so they might support their families. Little blips in the world after the war overshadowed by the Cold War, but a world where a sanctuary meant ostensible things and trips and people with flashy money and few thoughts of destruction in spite of nuclear bombs.

Our teenage focus on Kennedy was all flash, big teeth, great hair and smiling extended families romping on the beach, footballs tucked into armpits: a beacon of security for teenagers who danced along with Dick Clark’s rock after school or hugged their pillows when Elvis sang Love Me Tender or madly screamed and fainted in their rapture of the Beatles. It was the light to the years of darkness where we chose not to ponder the piled high stacked bodies at Auschwitz or mountains of children’s forlorn shoes

Ken Burns documentary, The Roosevelt, An Intimate History puts meat on the bones of the history classes and recollections of our grandparents; and so brilliantly teaches this generation the power of film and media as a supreme tool of education, one that is not dull, boring or patronizing. With experts such as Doris Kearns Goodwin and David McCullough , the commentaries on events aid in explaining the Roosevelt presidents we thought we knew.

And our knowledge is deepened in a human way. For example, Teddy Roosevelt, fifth cousin of Franklin’s and the brother of Eleanor’s father, Elliot, was a sickly asthmatic. We are apprised that his prognosis for surviving beyond his baby and early years is grim, that his father carried him in his arms night after night as Teddy struggled to breath. We learned that all the Roosevelts fought depression : that Teddy’s way was what he called “ action”; and FDR’s was a false face to hide his true emotions.

The documentary pierces the real lives of the real people, rendering them less symbolic icons and more flesh like like us -with fragilities and doubts and loves lost and illnesses.

For me of course, the story resonates more personally painfully because of FDR’s polio. My mother once told the story of how they had asked my aunt for help so that they might go to Warm Springs, FDR’s place in Georgia so that my father could take the curatives of the spa waters and maybe regain some of his mobility destroyed by polio. The film reveals how passionately FDR worked towards creating a haven for children and adults, bringing physiotherapists, doctors, all manner of support and encouragement for those afflicted like himself. He interacts personally, listening to the stories of others. I think that, like FDR, my father never truly accepted that he would never walk unaided again. My aunt said no to the request and that was that.

My mother who left no opportunity to build my father’s resolve :whether a magical drug from Russia that claimed to restore muscles and nerves reported in the newspaper, or a stationary bicycle that promised to strengthen the destroyed muscles in his legs. She too, never really gave up on a way to improve his condition and build on the altered state of his ravaged body: likely her “ action” to slay her own personal demons. However, she deeply resented my aunt’s refusal, and my father even more so. No possibility of restoration, they must have thought, betrayed by his own family.

The documentary revealed that FDR threw himself into Warm Springs. It stated that he loved being in the water because he could stand without the crutches. My father built a small swimming pool in his house for the same reason. As well when Post-polio hit, he frequented the Sunnybrook pool where a contraption raised and lowered him into the water. I occasionally wondered how the slippery floors were managed by his crutches to avoid the wet that could cause him to loose control and fall, but I preferred not to know. So I never inquired, only happy he had had some time to stand and move without his crutches.

Burns’ film tells of FDR en route to nominating Wendel Wilkie and how he is somehow jostled and falls, unable to get up, and requiring many others to right him. My father occasionally tumbled as well, but determinedly refused the help of strangers, only accepting my frail mother’s assistance if she were near. If not he would crawl towards a wall, any upright structure so he could maneuver his dissipated limbs and prop and somehow push himself upwards.

We never saw our father fall although I do carry memories of him crawling occasionally. He was a proud man, a very handsome man who believed in his dark looks and brought up, a bit like FDR’s adoring mother Sara Delano, his mother Molly had told him he could do anything, favoring him with affection and special treats like sardines when he was a cocky kid.

Watching The Roosevelts, I am enlightened and gratified that such fine men with future looking policies lead the nation. From Teddy’s invitation to Booker T. Washington to the White House to FDR’s secret correspondences with Winston Churchill and his Lend-Lease plan for arms to battle Hitler, both Roosevelt men were unafraid to challenge their opponents.

Yet, I cannot help but watch with the eye of the daughter whose father was encased in those rigid braces and the gloom that spread over his face when he had to combat icy winters or a fight a flight of stairs with no bannister.

As a kid, you want to believe that your parents are invincible, no different than anyone else’s parents and you protect yourself by ignoring the realities of life that make every move difficult and challenging. Maybe you turn sarcastic or turn away from that parent and you feel their scorn that you do not excel at their expectations or that you cannot even communicate for more than a few minutes before an argument erupts. Maybe like two similar magnets you repel one another although beneath there is attraction more than just a familial one and a deep desire to be loved and understood and hugged. As a child, you cannot know or even try to break the bridge that connects them with the other sibling. You merely scoff and turn towards the other parent, sad, mad, longing for more, but not knowing how to facilitate a better interaction.

My sister says that when there is illness in a house, dynamics alter and change. I believe that is true. My mother was often reprimanded by my aunt for trying to pretend our life “ normal” when it was not. I think I must have followed in her footsteps, not giving an inch to my father’s disability. FDR is shown cutting himself off completely from his children after his polio. He turned outwards towards remedying the evils in the world. He turned away from Eleanor, too, but consulted her in matters of state and importance , however gaining emotional sustenance from Lucy, Missy and Daisy.

Eleanor grew in her own stature and FDR respected her, even having her give the speech in his place to nominate his vice president during his third term. Her words so powerful that his Liberal choice, formally rejected, was accepted after she spoke. My mother too was a giant who managed life much better than might have been expected. Roosevelt trusted, and believed in Eleanor but as known now, they lead parallel lives. FDR was father to the country, yet his own family was bereft: 19 divorces, 2 children who espied university education, one son even working in Filene’s basement.

In contrast, my mother kept our family together, my father adoring her always, even on his last stay in the hospital unable to speak, his eyes following her as she moved near his bed ( he was 68 when he died) and so our fortunes as children of a polio victim prospered: my sister a doctor, I a teacher;our family intact.

The Roosevelts open old wounds for me. In the Infatuations by Javier Marias, the protagonists laments that the dead do not stay dead, that they haunt us.

Yes, it is true. We carry such burdens from our past lives that can be easily awoken, actively bidden or not. I suppose this is the case for all: a tune, a smell, a photograph all remind us of past histories and catapult us to a place we would rather not be, yet remembering allows us to revisit lost memories and emotions-hopefully that can be unburdened when we let them go.- as here in my blog with you.

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