Critics, Hitler, and other “bad guys”

This is a pretty close approximation of my appearance while finishing up a late night theater review, actually.

Last weekend, we had a couple of tough conversations with Lily.

Just weeks shy of turning four, she has fully arrived at the endearing, but exhausting, stage wherein she has a million questions about everything, all the time.

And the questions cut a little too close to home, in a comical way, as she watched portions of what she calls “the movie about the rat who likes to cook”: Pixar’s “Ratatouille.”

You may remember that in the film, a tall, menacingly angular and humorless food critic named Anton Ego, voiced by Peter O’Toole, poses a threat to Remy (the rat) and his human collaborator, Linguini. In one scene, Linguini has inherited a restaurant and is holding court at a press conference that’s disrupted when Ego makes a Darth Vader-like entrance.

“Is he a bad guy?” Lily asked.

“Well, yes and no,” I said, knowing that as a working theater critic, I might want to tread lightly here. “He seems kind of mean, and a lot of people are scared of him.”

“Why?”

“Because he goes to different restaurants, eats the food, and then writes about what he thinks of the food so other people can decide if it’s a restaurant they might want to go to or not.” Pause. Gulp. Here goes. “It’s the same thing that Mommy does when I go to see shows at night. I write about what I think about the play, and other people read it.”

“But why are people scared of him?”

“Because his opinions, what he thinks, can at least partly affect whether a restaurant succeeds or not. For better or worse, people listen to him. And he’s intimidating because he has very high standards, and he’s honest, no matter what. So if he thinks someone’s food isn’t that great, he’s going to say so, even if people don’t like him for saying so.”

(Wait – who were we talking about? Oh, that’s right. Anton Ego. Right.)

In this moment, I had the sensation of being on a therapist’s couch while simultaneously talking to my 3 year old. Or at the very least, talking to Lucy Van Pelt as she sat in a booth behind a sign that reads, “The doctor is IN.”

“But he doesn’t end up being a bad guy,” I persisted, knowing Lily had already seen the movie’s end previously. “Remember? His sense of honesty makes him tell the world about how much he likes Remy’s food, too, even though he’s a rat, and that makes people think the food critic is crazy. So he risks his job to still tell the truth – which makes him kind of heroic in the end.”

How much of this did Lily absorb? There’s no telling. But it was sobering to be in the position of saying both “He does what Mommy does!” and “Yes, he’s kind of the bad guy.” Maybe that’s why, in terms of fashion, the color black works so well for both Anton and myself.

Obviously, this conversation had moments of discomfort. But a couple of days later, something much more serious and heart-stopping came out of Lily’s mouth.

It was a beautiful, sunny Saturday morning, and we were strapping baby Neve into her stroller to walk to our awesome local bakery (I’m looking at you, Sunflour Bakehaus). Lily stood at the open front door, patting her hands on the glass outer door, and said, “Heil Hitler!”

I had one of those moments where you hear something, but you don’t believe you could have possibly heard what you think you heard. So initially, the words moved past and over me – until Joe reacted, and it sunk in that, yes, my daughter had just said what I thought I’d heard her say.

“Lily, I don’t want to ever hear you say that again,” Joe said, angrily. “If you do, no TV time today.”

Where on earth had she heard such a thing, I wondered? Then it hit me: “The Sound of Music,” which she loves. She’d played a whistle while marching around our house, just like when the Captain calls his 7 children to meet Maria for the first time; and she’d learned the words to many of the songs. But needless to say, I hadn’t even thought about the fact that she’d indiscriminately extract something like “Heil Hitler” from the movie, too.

I frantically tried to explain to confused Lily why she couldn’t say this thing, and why these words had such power.

“When the people in the movie said that, they were praising a real man who was very, very bad,” I weakly attempted.

“Hitler was a man who killed lots ond lots of kinds of people, including Jewish people,” Joe said. “So if we lived in his time, he would have killed me, and he would have killed you, just because of who we are.”

Distracted, Lily kept running her hand along the door and absently repeated, “Heil Hitler.”

“That’s it,” said Joe. “I warned you, and you said it again. No TV time today.”

“But I want TV!”

“Then you should have listened when I told you to never say that again.”

I felt torn. Not about the punishment – until Lily is mature enough to understand exactly what’s wrong with running around saying “Heil Hitler,” punishments will have to suffice – but about my sympathies. There’s no way Lily would inherently understand why saying, “I am 16 going on 17” is OK, but “Heil Hitler” is not; and there’s also no way to explain – I can’t even imagine trying – the Holocaust to a 3 year old. Yet at the same time, I can’t truly understand what it’s like for Joe, as a Jew, to hear his little daughter say something so awful as “Heil Hitler,” regardless of whether she understands what she’s saying or not. As close as I am to Joe, and as much as I embrace the traditions, rituals, and culture of Judaism in our family life, I will inevitably always be a bit of an outsider, because it’s not my heritage. It’s his.

And counter to my own upbringing, of course, Jewish kids are taught about the Holocaust their whole lives. (I think I first learned of the Holocaust in … high school … maybe?) So although my tendency would probably be to sugarcoat things until Lily and Neve are older and more mature, I’m letting Joe take the lead on this particular point. It seems the right thing to do, since, for all practical purposes, my kids will identify as Jewish.

This makes me feel proud and worried at the same time. For I have noticed a change, since becoming seriously involved with Joe, in my reactions to things like Holocaust narratives. Yes, I’d been rendered speechless by “Schindler’s List,” and was moved by “Life is Beautiful.” But in 2002, while watching “The Pianist” in a theater with Joe (then my fiancee), I suddenly felt this powerful, overwhelming urge to blanket my body over him. It’s hard to explain. But it was visceral, and I could barely stay in my seat, so fierce was my physical urge to protect him. (My response to Holocaust stories has blown up exponentially with our two little girls now in the picture, as you might imagine.)

And this “Heil Hitler” experience with Lily reminded me of when Joe, during the course of an interfaith couples workshop, said it was important to him that his kids know the history and culture of Jews, because, and I quote, “They need to know why people in the world hate them.”

“Uh, what?” was my stunned answer. I didn’t get it. I understood him wanting them to learn these things because they’re part of their family story and identity; but Joe’s answer seemed unnecessarily dark and melodramatic to me at the time.

Then, only a few days ago, I turned on NPR and heard about a man gunning down three Jewish children in France, which, as it happens, is one of my favorite places on earth. And the children were killed for no other reason than that they were Jewish.

These stories no longer just make me cluck with horror and knit my brow while getting dressed. Now, I freeze a moment and reluctantly see my own young daughters in a madman’s crosshairs before I’m able to shake it off and go about my day.

So when Lily, while hiding under the kitchen table last night, quietly said “Heil Hitler” again, I lifted the tablecloth to look her in the eye and speak in a deadly serious tone.

“This is your one warning, Lily. I don’t want to ever, ever hear you say that again.” I say this quietly, hoping Joe didn’t hear what Lily said.

“But why does Max say it?”

“Because he thinks that saying it will keep him safe,” I say. “That the bad people won’t hurt him as long as he says it.”

“But why does Rolf say it?”

“Because he’s young, and because … ” I lose my way, trying to figure out what to say.

“Because he’s stupid,” Joe chimes in, having figured out what’s going on. “He says it because he’s expected to.”

On this, like so many things, we agree.

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One thought on “Critics, Hitler, and other “bad guys”

  1. Rina Miller says:

    Wow…that story took a completely different turn! I can’t imagine how horrifying that must have been for you. It made me remember an episode in my own childhood. When I was four, a few months after we arrived from the Netherlands in 1956, I made my first American friend — a little girl my age named Pammy. She taught me a new word: The N-word.Then she told me to say to it a little boy who was walking by. He hit me. My mom, who spoke very little English, knew what that word meant, and explained why I must never say it again. I haven’t.

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