A Bronx childs wish for Hitler, the meshuginnah

The year was 1938 and we were all kids growing up in the Bronx. In a few months Europe was going to explode. November of 1938 would signal Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. Synagogues would be broken into and vandalized. Throughout Germany there would be an explosion of anti-Semitism that would see the smashing of Jewish stores. Swastikas in macabre fashion would appear all over, desecrating Jewish homes, making a mockery of Jewish beliefs and faith. November 1938 would be the prelude to the mass destruction of European Jewry and the beginning of the "Final Solution."

But this was the Bronx and this was the end of summer and school was still out. I heard Mama and Papa talking about the crazy Hitler, the meshugginah of Europe. But their voices were soft, almost whisper-like, and they spoke in Yiddish. They didn't want the kinder to understand. But we Jewish kids knew that we had to master the understanding of Yiddish and spelling if we wanted to be privy to all the little secrets of the family. And so we did.

Much of the news was buried in the back pages of the newspapers. The rumors of anti-Semitic purges were less important than the baseball scores and the scandals of the Hollywood personalities. And Papa kept reassuring Mama that this was not a worry. After all, President Roosevelt (this was said as one word, because we never separated the title from the name) would take care of them — of us — of everyone. And so we were satisfied that all was right with the world.

And September followed August. And with September came the beginning of school and first grade (we called it 1-A) and Miss Dugan and more talk of Hitler in whispers that stopped whenever I entered the kitchen, "Sha, sha — the child…" And I worried in between breakfast and lunch and 3 o'clock milk and cookies (fresh from the oven, still warm) and Mama kept telling me that all was right with the world and I didn't 100 percent believe her, but Papa said that all was right.

But all was not right with the world and somehow, in some peculiar way, my shtetl — my turf in the Bronx — was invaded with anxieties and concerns. So I had to consult the authorities. I excluded Mama and Papa because they told me not to be concerned. So that was point…period.

Miss Dugan, my teacher, was next on my list. She knew everything. She knew how to make birthday hats for you to wear on your birthday. She knew how to cut straight lines and to write with a special pen so that the letters would be big and clear. I asked her about Hitler and she told me that this was not for me to think about. He was an important man in some far off country called Germany (somehow, I thought that it had to do with germs) and that he was helping his people. I was afraid to tell her that my parents called him mishuga because I felt she would not welcome this evaluation.

Then she told me to color between the lines and to stop asking questions about things that should not concern me and that I shouldn't make trouble like some people. Who these some people were I didn't know, but I was afraid of them and I didn't want to upset Miss Dugan.

So one Shabbos after services, I asked the rabbi. Now, he should know everything. Who was Hitler and was he helping people? The rabbi's face turned red and he spit out. "Pu, pu, pu," he said in a hoarse voice and he added some words in Yiddish that with my scanty knowledge I couldn't decipher. But it sounded terrible. I heard the word meshugginah a few times — so he agreed with Mama and Papa — and then he did something that he had never done before. He hugged me and said a blessing. I knew that that was supposed to comfort me, to make all my worries disappear. But they didn't.

And one day in school the principal came into the room and asked all the children what wish they had for the world. This was the beginning of the school year and we could all make wishes and the children with the best wishes would get rewarded with a commendation card.

And so I thought and thought. Oh, how I should have liked to get a commendation card to bring home and to hang on the wall. Everyone would be so proud of me. Should I wish that Hitler would go away and leave all the germs alone? That would not do. I knew that I better steer clear of world politics.

And so I came up with the perfect wish. When I was called upon, I stood up and said, "I wish that all the boys and girls in the world could have milk and cookies whenever they came home from school at 3 o'clock and that their mothers would be waiting for them."

Everyone smiled and I saw Miss Dugan reach for the pink commendation card. And then, as if there was some uncontrollable force that took hold of me and forced the words out of my mouth, I added, "and that Hitler would disappear and stop being a meshugginah.

The smile turned to a scowl. The card was returned to the desk. I was told to take my seat. Miss Dugan told the principal, "They're all alike." And he answered, "You're right."

I knew that this was not meant to be a compliment and that somehow I had lost my chance to shine, that Hitler would not go away, and that the vision of the world's children having milk and cookies at 3 o'clock would fade into the dust. What happened after that was a jumble. My mother had to go to school, November came, the world turned to shattered glass, and we moved into a new neighborhood where I was enrolled in a different school and placed in a class with a teacher, Miss Jacobson, who had a smiling face that never scowled. And when I told her about the cookies and Hitler, she only held me close to her and said, "I wish for that too. If only…"

She never finished the sentence and it took me many years to know what the "if only" meant.

And by that time…well, you know the rest.