Excerpt:

 

Chapter One
September Evening, 1938

'Where can they go? We waited two years in Warsaw for visas.'

Momma's plaintive voice pierced my sleep with its mixture of entreaty and indictment.

'If America and Europe sent soldiers, they'd take Hitler by the throat-'

I stirred, responding to Poppa's anger, which I was familiar with from his right hand as well as his voice. I hadn't yet learned that his anger shielded him from his fears.

'Why should they care about the Jews?'

That was Momma sounding hopeless.

'But millions of Christians will be destroyed along with the Jews-'

Poppa was sometimes optimistic about Christians helping Jews.

'Who cared about the Jews in the Big War?'

Uncle Sol! Poppa's older brother, sometimes serious, often funny.

I stopped listening until Momma mentioned the contrabondyst, whom she said could get her sister's family out of Russia. Poppa said that would be like throwing money out the window. Uncle Sol, usually neutral in such disputes between Momma and Poppa, said, 'Even a mouse couldn't escape Stalin's police.' I made a mental note to discover who was this contrabondyst. I didn't understand all of their talk, but not caring to go to sleep, I used the shaft of light from the kitchen to make shadow animals on the wall. Morris, six years older than me, had a menagerie that danced on the wall. If he was home now--and in the mood--he could answer my questions. He could also be as vengeful as the Dragon Lady in Terry and the Pirates. Above his bed was a poster of Lindbergh and the Spirit of St. Louis. Morris made model airplanes and fantasized that he would fly some day. How could I--or even he--imagine where his dreams would take him? He and Poppa argued about the poster: Poppa wanted to take it down because Lindbergh was an anti-Semite; Morris said he still was first to fly the Atlantic. Poppa no longer slapped Morris for being fresh. I was not sure whether it was because Morris was in high school or Momma standing between them and saying he was too big to be hit. Since I was much younger, I wasn't as lucky. If I misbehaved, I could still risk getting a smack . But I must admit, Poppa no longer hit very hard.

'Experience is the name people give to their mistakes.'

I was amazed at how long grown-ups could talk about the same subject. Where did they get all those things to say? One or two sentences was all I could think on any topic.

'But if necessary, a bear can learn to dance!'

Uncle Sol said funny things!

'There'll be bloodshed, war-'

Momma again. Even if I didn't understand her, I resonated to her worries, which hovered about her like an invisible cloak.

'They let this madman take Austria and now he wants Czechoslovakia! Give a bear honey and you'll only whet his appetite.'

That was Poppa, but he sounded like Uncle Sol. My mind reeled trying to understand them. Where was the Ruhr? What was the Anschluss? Who would dare get close enough to a bear to give him honey? Some things I understood, like Momma wanting to rescue her sister's family in Russia. What I knew of war was from the illustrated cards that came with chewing gum, including one of Japanese soldiers bayoneting Chinese. I knew who the Bad Guys were: the Germans and Japanese. The Good Guys were us, along with the English, the French and Chinese. Who was this madman – the meshugener – who aroused their anger but also terrified them?

 

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