CHAPTER EIGHT: MENGELE
(Verdi, “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves and Overture”)
The victims of Josef Mengele
When my granddaughter Annabel was three years old, my husband and I took her to the Metropolitan Museum’s marionette production of “The Sound of Music.” The idea seemed quite exciting, for she loved to play with puppets and invent stories for her make-believe friends.
Little did I realize as I watched the show, that marionettes like fairytales, should be reserved for adults. I had seen “The Sound of Music” in the theater and on film, but never with marionettes. And I never questioned the storyline, being so familiar with the history. But Annabel was experiencing the story for the first time and seeing the marionettes as real-like. Everything was new to her, especially the story. And although she was only three years old, she wanted to understand.
“Why are the Germans the bad guys?” she asked as we prepared to leave.
“What” I answered, startled. I was so accustomed to see this part of history presented in various ways, that I was unable to see the puppet performance with the eyes of my beloved, Annabel.
“What do you mean?” I asked her, sounding far less intelligent than the three-year-old before me.
“The family had to go away. They were afraid of the bad guys. They called them Germans.”
I looked to my husband for help. He had lived the history as a child.
His hesitant answer, “It’s complicated. We should talk about this,” didn’t satisfy Annabel. And we looked at each other and shared an uncomfortable moment. Both of us didn’t want to spoil our three-year-old’s special day. But later that evening after we took Annabel home, I kept wondering if we should have answered her question. At least give her some explanation. And if we did, what would we have said?
It was at this time that I had started writing another draft of my historical novel.
And as I returned to my desk the next day, Annabel’s question kept interfering with my concentration. She had challenged me. How to tell a child about an evil part of history? And who should tell her? I tried to recall who had told my sons. I wasn’t sure how they had learned about World War II. Or at what age.
I returned to my novel and the theme of Mengele that I was intent on weaving into this new version. I turned my attention back to Mica, and as I labored with the same period of history that Annabel had done the previous day, I tried to see my protagonist with new eyes. And with my new optic, Mica transformed from literary character to granddaughter and I changed from author to grandmother to father. The facets of metamorphosis spurred me on as I wrote the prologue using Mica as the narrator:
Every year on my birthday, Tata and I would talk about monsters and vampires. Tata was a wonderful storyteller and since I was a little girl, I would cuddle in his arms and listen to tales of what happened in the woods of Transylvania where we lived…
Now, many years later, as I look back at my youth, it seems as if Tata’s vampire stories turned into prophecies. And as politics during that time in Eastern Europe turned inhuman, the stories became guiding principles to help me survive. My father’s monsters taught me there is evil in Man. Given the proper situation, Man is capable of becoming cruel and sadistic. And it is difficult not to become a victim.
As I worked on the prologue, the narrator’s voice fused with the author’s and protagonist’s, and it became easier for me to tell the story. All the time, Annabel’s question stayed foremost in my mind and became my guiding principle. To answer who are the bad guys, I chose the simplest pedagogical format: the Socratic method using one question at a time. I must confess, I did not have Socrates in mind when I wrote “The Gift of Diamonds,” I chose the one-question structure because it was easy. I also didn’t want to spend too much time, for the writing and thinking had affected me adversely. I had to go multiple times to the bathroom. The retelling of the history was making me sick! I felt just like Mica’s father:
And then her father sat down next to her, took her hand and said in a gravely voice, “No more questions now, Draga. I wonder if I should share these stories with you at all….” And he sighed so sadly. “I agreed you should know. I will tell you about Mengele’s diamonds but only one question at a time.”
Mica recalled Tata’s watery eyes.
This was the way I chose to teach Mica and it might be a way to talk to Annabel and her little brother, Sammy, when they are older.One question at a time.
When I try to explain to them why there are evil people in the world, I will not leave out that there are also wonderful people and that the “passion for life will overrule the savagery that surrounds us.”
Like Mica’s father, I will try to give them a secret treasure that could open the door to dreams. A Gift of Diamonds.
“Listen my child. There was once a sack of colored diamonds lighting up a world of choices that were never known before. Red, blue, yellow, green hues will sparkle magic jewels.
“Look deep inside. If you have the strength to make these crystals yours, foreign secrets will knock at you back door.
“Be passionate about a world to build for these magic jewels will serve as tools.”
I am an optimist, a writer, and for me, a person has many magic roles, especially, that of being a grandparent.
The victims of Josef Mengele