Closed Hand, or Holocaust Literature for Preschoolers
S: "This doll. She has a bra on." She burst into the bedroom with said doll, a fancy porcelain high-couture one from France that her grandparents gave her a few months ago. Way back then, we'd discussed how this doll's clothes didn't come off, but apparently if the undresser is determined enough, they do. There was no bra. The doll's breasts, it turns out, are made of small white pom-poms.
Me, stupidly: "You took her clothes off."
S: "Not all her clothes. Just her dress. She's in her underwear. It goes under her other clothes, that's why it's called underwear."
Me: "Hmm, yeah. That makes a lot of sense."
S: "She has a seed in her tummy. She's going to have a baby. There's a dad, too. He's taller than her. Wait!"
Short break while Sarah runs back into her room to find a doll taller than Mlle. Pompom-Hooters. She returns with a huge pink baby doll, and stands the two dolls up next to each other. Huge Pink Baby is just barely taller, though of course grossly differently-proportioned.
S, in tones of great satisfaction: "This is the dad. He's taller. He's a boy. She has a seed in her tummy, but not from the dad, from a different boy."
Me, obviously missing the point entirely: "If she's having a baby with a dad, couldn't the seed be from him too?"
S: "Oh! Yes! The seed's from him too. And she's going to born the baby today. It's the baby's birthday. And the baby's not Jewish 'cause the mom's not Jewish."
Me: "How do you know the mom's not Jewish?"
S: "Cause she's not wearing a star. I'm pretending it's a long time ago and all the Jewish people wear stars."
Me, sitting bolt upright, fully awake at last:"What!? Where did you hear about that?"
S, matter-of-fact, like, come on, silly, everyone knows about that: "From a story."
Me, still in shock: "A story!?"
S, helpfully: "Sure, a story. In a book. Come on, I'll show you."
Sarah takes my hand, leads me to the living room, and points up at a high bookshelf. "That book, up there. Get it!"
I do. It is Brundibar, a picture-book collaboration between Maurice Sendak and Tony Kushner, based on an opera originally performed by the children of Terezin concentration camp. My friend Ellie gave it to me for my birthday. I sort of remember someone reading it to Sarah at my birthday party, but I wasn't paying much attention.
S: "Read it!"
I read, grateful for a brief respite from the rapidly-accumulating list of things I don't feel like discussing with Sarah first thing in the morning [Sex, breasts, reproduction, interfaith families, the Holocaust, the fragility of porcelain French-couture dolls... how long have I been up, anyway?].
Except, of course, it's not much of a respite. I've read the book before for my job, but not out loud, and not to a kid. It's one of those books that can be read on many levels. On the surface, it's the story of two children who outwit a bully with the help of friends. It's got a nice empowering message about working together. But the pictures have lots of Holocaust allusions, little hints for the sophisticated that there's more going on here.
"They're Jewish," she points out, spotting a few characters with yellow stars. "How come they're wearing those stars?"
"There was a man in charge of a big country, and he didn't like Jewish people, and he was really mean to them, and things were really hard for them," I gabble, working for a gold medal in the Most-Whitewashed-Ever-Explanation-of-the-Holocaust event in the Parental Olympics. "But then there was a fight between that country and other countries-- a war, remember we talked about those-- and he lost, and things got better. It was just for a few years, that time. Um, it was a long time ago."
When the young heroes sing their climactic song, which is about babies growing up, parents growing old, and empty cradles, and there's a full-page spread of children flying away on black birds and parents below weeping bitterly into their aprons, I struggle to keep it together. "The parents are sad," Sarah observes, "Because their children are going away."
"Yeah," I say. "I guess that's why." I have a feeling she knows there's more to it and is waiting for me to tell her, but I'm not going there.
I close the book rapidly after we read about how bullies can be defeated if you work together. "That's the end!" I lie cheerfully, knowing from my previous reading that there's a final page we're skipping, a last little menacing message from the evil Brundibar: "Nothing ever works out neatly--/Bullies don't give up completely./...Though I go, I won't go far.../ I'll be back. Love, Brundibar."
I am a wimp. I'm exhausted from hypocrisy and withholding information, which goes against my librarian's nature. I'm ready to go back to bed. Not Sarah, of course. She spots a deck of cards next to the couch.
"I know! Let's play Crazy 8's!" she says, grabbing for them. "Closed hand, so you can't see the other person's cards. [She just learned how to play closed hand. She sticks her cards in the edge of an aluminum-foil dispenser so she can see them but we can't.] I want to be the dealer."
Yeah, well, at least in Crazy 8's we'll both be keeping a few cards to ourselves. Though who knows what she was holding back during that whirlwind interaction?