Monday, June 11, 2018

Summer Reading: or, My Daughter's Modeling Gig, with Auschwitz Survivor, Henri Landwirth

As with many parents, I have always tried to let my daughter know that I'll listen to her wishes. In keeping with this, I submitted her photograph to a modeling agency when, at age 7, she said she wanted to be a model. By sending one photo I'd taken of her at Niagara Falls, I felt I was keeping my promise while also not being quite so dogged about it as to lead anyone to think I actually wanted this path for her.


Within two months of submitting the photograph, I got a call. Someone wanted her to pose for a statue. Yes, fully clothed, holding a stuffed animal, the agent replied. As a poet and artist, I felt this was as good a modeling job as I could wish for. I accompanied her to the location where I was informed of the nature of the assignment: she would hold her teddy bear (named Oatmeal) and smile at a man. The man was Henri Landwirth. While a photographer took pictures for the sculptor to use, Mr. Landwirth's assistant told me his boss's story of how as a teenager he had been in Auschwitz.  My daughter's first (and so far only) modeling job now had taken on a meaning deeper than I could possibly have imagined. The statue was to commemorate his leadership in developing a Disney-adjacent-though-little-known amusement park for terminally ill and developmentally disabled children, entitled Give Kids the World. It would be life-sized, bronze, and a permanent part of the park. 

 

I read Mr. Landwirth's books, which he gave to me as a gift. In Auschwitz, he writes, his engineering skills allowed him to stay alive while building rockets for the Germans. As part of the Resistance within the camp, he miscalibrated rocket after rocket at degrees so miniscule no one would notice until the missiles simply failed. Because of his work, he discovered tablets for his typhoid fever under his pillow when he fell ill.

Upon D-Day, the guards given the command to execute the last of the Jews simply opened the gates, as though weary from killing, pointed toward Belgium and said, "Run." Henri ran. At one point he encountered a nazi soldier on his path beside a lake. He felt he could kill the soldier, or he could pass by him, and in the feeling he was aware that each choice would shape the rest of his life in entirely divergent ways. He passed the soldier and continued to Belgium.


Henri's first job in the United States was as in reception at one of the first Holiday Inns in Orlando. As German engineers collaborated with American ones in more rocket-making, Henri once had to deliver "more towels" to one of the hoodwinked yet torturous commandantes from Auschwitz, and did so.


Soon, Henri bought his own hotel, as the space race surged, and as Disney World emerged on the Florida inland, soon Henri owned several. He hosted astronauts and film stars. These guests became the benefactors of Henri's dream of a universally designed amusement park for children whose medical conditions prevented them from enjoying Disney World. Disney characters, Jonas Brothers (my daughter's eyes widened), and all the free ice cream anyone can eat all awaited the guests at Henri's park, all of whom received, with their families, free travel, free accommodation, free admission, and free food, all paid for by movie stars and astronauts.

My daughter's summer reading this year is Night by Elie Wiesel.  When she told me, I went to my antique letter-writing desk to retrieve the one book that always stands in one of the compartments. The desk itself belonged to my grand-father when he lived in China, a British surgeon attending the health of miners in a British mine. When the Japanese seized their belongings, servants hid the desk with other fine pieces in a secret room below the basement of their house in Tientsin's  (now Tianjin) British concession. After my grandparents were freed by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki from the internment camp in Weishen (now Weifang), the servants shipped the antiques to Canada. From the compartment, I pull my beloved copy of Night and hand it to her. 


We worry together that summer reading is so often material that is most needed to be read in a community, with witness and guidance. Instead, our children last summer read They Killed My Father First by Loung Ung with no one to ask questions to, no one to hold space for the horror, the real meaning of horror. Worse, they read it with awareness that there would be a reading quiz to test to make sure they'd "done it" rather than a colloquium for mission statements, witness-bearing, a teach-in. 

My daughter announced this summer's selection with the complaint that summer reading is so sad all the time. I consider this. So sad all the time. The 30-years-of-experience teacher in me recognizes that the safer books are taught in the syllabus while the memoirs of genocide are placed outside the school year, presented as the one school thing children do in the off-months. For my daughter, and many of her friends, books like this should be the syllabus. The questions that emerge from them should be school. She recognizes quite clearly that while we make the space to laugh together and enjoy our friends, the world is sad all the time and these stories don't lie to us. But their placement in the reading calendar does.

My daughter knows about the children being snatched from their parents and daycares and detained in cages in abandoned Wal-marts and unmarked spaces. She knows the world she lives in and understands that "summer camp," "internment camp," and "death camp" are three very different things and all three are occurring in her world right now, somewhere, maybe here. 

When I hand her my beloved and beaten copy of Night, I imagine her face as she will read, one rainy afternoon at camp, about Juliek and his violin, about the long walk in the snow, about that drink of water toward the end. I realize I can't let her read it alone. I say it: "Don't read this book alone at camp. Let's read this out loud to each other this weekend or next week. My darling, this book holds a story that broke open a silence, and I don't want you to be alone when it breaks in you." All the English teacher me sort of startles her with intensity. I recognize the look as that of my students as they thought, "Wow, Ms. Hope is a bit crazy." I tell her, "This is about the camp that Henri was in." I remind her of the numbers on his wrist, and the meaning of her first modeling gig expands. 

I tell her, "I love this book with my whole heart."

I discovered while writing this and gathering the photos here, that Henri Landwirth died in April of this year, just over a month ago. He lived to be 91. I haven't told my daughter yet, and I'm having trouble accepting for myself the death of man who actually did give kids the world, a world that he as a child was robbed of, a world so many of us still seek to save. At the very least: to remember.


And I'll keep my promise to her to read Night again beside her. There are books in the world that, just as there are experiences that cannot be endured without a witness, should not be read alone. If Elie Wiesel taught me anything, if meeting Henri taught me anything, it is to give what I can. In the case of reading Night, it is to hold the words with my daughter, because they are too heavy, for her, for anyone, to hold by herself. And as I read, I'll hold up the words in my heart for not only my child, for all the children who are missing tonight, for all the children in the world.


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