Easter is about hope and life’s triumph over despair and death. It helps us recall death-unto-life experiences that, while not literal, can be just as powerful. Many of us can recall a time when we did eventually emerge from a figurative tomb, aided by an angel or two, whether human or spiritual. Here is my true story of a death-to-resurrection experience. See how many angels you can find. They are there!
Fourteen-year olds are cheeky. I knew this when I joined busloads of Rice Lake eighth-graders on a big school trip in June 2010. My son was one of them. We agreed to avoid each other on the trip because, well … you know … moms aren’t cool to hang around with when you’re 14.
We hit Washington, D.C. and New York City. I especially wanted to see Ellis Island, but mixed feelings dogged me.
Fourteen was an unkind age. I have mostly noxious memories of that time about my appearance, emotional tempests and others’ rude remarks. What lunacy drove me to risk such a cold sweat again by going on this trip?
In D.C. we zoomed through monuments, memorials, the National Archives, the Capitol, a photo op outside the White House … and a trip to the Holocaust Museum.
I didn’t want to go there. Adolf Hitler’s platoons included my Austro-Hungarian great-uncle Louis. I’d seen a swastika on his sleeve in an old photo he’d shown me 20 years earlier when I visited his Austrian village near the Hungarian border. I learned German in college so I could converse with relatives there.
Five years after that, I visited an Anne Frank traveling exhibit in St. Louis. Afterward, I wept, alone, in a restroom stall. Shudders rippled through me at the thought of what atrocities Onkel Louis might, or might not, have committed. I knew nothing more about that part of his life. And I hadn’t asked, other than to question that it indeed was him in the photo and, Ja, it was a Nazi infantryman’s uniform.
“I was drafted!” Onkel Louis protested loudly in German, when he saw my widened eyes. I knew Hitler was born in Austria, but it had never really hit home for me before that the quaint, lovely little farm town my relatives inhabited had once been torn and stained by the evil of the Third Reich.
Back in the restroom of the synagogue where the Anne Frank exhibit sat, I cried to myself. Fluorescent light gleamed off the yellow tiles. It wasn’t seeing horrors that wrenched me like this: It was the sight of Frank’s family photos at the exhibit’s end — all smiles and neat, combed hair.
Back in D.C., 2010, I gulped and revealed this to four Rice Lake 14-year old boys and their chaperone while we ate lunch in a noisy food court. In about an hour we’d visit the museum. All but one of the boys were strangers to me.
The one boy I knew was Ethan (not his real name). We’d known each other two years through a bowling league he and my son played in.
In those days, Ethan was an ebullient, brainy kid who preferred conversation with adults. (He’s since become a more taciturn 16-year-old.)
He’d chatted me up over the years and seemed to seek me out at games. One time he mentioned he had some Jewish relatives.
At lunch he sat quietly and munched on a sandwich. His new purple D.C. baseball cap nearly obscured his eyes.
“Anyone in your family affected by the Holocaust?” I asked him.
He shrugged: “I don’t know.”
“Ask your mom sometime,” I said.
He pulled out a cell phone and keyed a text message. Within minutes he interrupted my conversation with the others and flatly stated, “She said yes. Some cousins were killed.”
I stopped and looked at him. I remembered the restroom at the Anne Frank exhibit. Would the Holocaust Museum do that to him? Why did he wear sunglasses outdoors that day when he usually didn’t? Why was he not his usual chatty self today?
“Have you been to this museum before?” I asked.
I noticed my heart beat faster than usual. Finally, I mustered the nerve to say, “Ethan, I’m scared of that place. Will you go with me?”
He brightened and said, “Sure!”
Inside the museum’s dim chambers he and I split off from our group, divergent family baggage in tow.
Docents handed us cards containing a bio of a person whom the Holocaust affected. Mine was Juliana Nemeth, a Hungarian shopkeeper deported to a labor camp in east Austria. SS soldiers shot her days before U.S. forces arrived.
Ethan ’s relatives were Poles named Levy. We sought that very common Jewish name anywhere we could find it. Like a deft sponge with legs Ethan darted from exhibit to exhibit, yet read far more explanations than I could.
I translated and explained the great lie of “Arbeit macht frei” at Poland’s Auschwitz for him as I did with other German posters.
Like a combo platter of absolution and blessing, Ethan’s thirst for knowledge nourished me through the excursion. So did his smile. I doubt he knew that.
Our awareness of time vanished. One of the teacher/chaperones found Ethan and me, gazing upward, inside an exhibit of victims’ family photos — hundreds of them inside a chimney-like structure that rose above the building. Again, we did not speak. Diffused sunlight from a window at the top bathed our faces.
Charged with rushing a boy who was a cousin of those victims and a great-niece of a Nazi soldier, the woman shepherded us out to the buses with utmost tact. We were the last ones.
Three days later the bus left our group at Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue for a few hours of shopping. Outside the doors of toy purveyor FAO Schwarz, we huddled like football players and strategized: Meet at Rockefeller Center in an hour. Three boys and chaperone left to find video games. Ethan and I beamed at each other and both said, “Puppets!” He’d wanted a marionette since day one of the trip. From Señor Wences’ puppet Johnny, a childlike face drawn on Wences’ hand, to ventriloquist Paul Winchell and sidekick Jerry Mahoney, puppets and dummies endeared themselves to me long ago. They are the ultimate free pass to say whatever the hell you want … via puppet, of course.
We searched three floors and found the selection ho-hum. Same things you could get in Rice Lake.
“Can I help you?” a saleswoman asked.
“We want puppets, but there’s nothing we like,” I groused.
“Have you tried the Whatnot Shop?”
She led us to an overlooked corner. There, Oz loomed — the Muppet Whatnot Shop. Dozens of zany extras used in Muppet productions gazed kindly upon us. Two real Muppeteers stood ready, happy to build us custom-designed Muppets. Cost? About 135 bucks each.
Ethan called his mom. He beseeched her to wire him the extra $20 he needed.
“She said no,” he told me afterward, barely audible.
“I’ll loan you that,” I said. “She can pay me when we return. Call her. Ask if it’s OK.”
Like a nervous stockbroker Ethan called and paced. His face strained under the stress of this delicate negotiation. He returned with a smile and thumbs up.
Twenty minutes later we emerged to scurry along Fifth Avenue, late again.
“Where’s Rockefeller Plaza?” I asked a pedestrian.
Her loveliness stunned me, but she wore a Manhattan poker face. At the sight of us and our cargo, she halted, smiled and gave us directions in eastern European accented English.
We trotted away. Sunbeams illuminated our clear backpacks that contained one orange and one green Muppet — mine female, Ethan ’s male. Both wore glasses. Ethan hadn’t worn sunglasses since D.C.
My return to 14 left no cold sweat. It left a power surge tingle like all the bright neon in Times Square.
Editor’s note: Frank Oz (born Oznowicz in Hereford, England) created and has performed as many of the original Muppets, including Miss Piggy, Cookie Monster, Bert, Grover and Yoda. Oz’s father was a Polish Jew, his mother a Flemish Catholic. Both puppeteers, they fled to England after fighting the Nazis with the Dutch Brigades.