A Christmas Card for Hitler

My father had been traveling in Germany for two months, and now he was home. He brought gifts for us all – Marzipan, toys. books. For my mother and him to enjoy, two cases of good Rhine wine. My little sister and I each got special gifts. I still have and will always have two that he gave me at that time: a small stuffed fabric rabbit, and a book by Ludwig Bemelmans, author of the Madeleine series of children’s books, The Best of Times. My mother and father were obviously happy to see each other and we children scampered. That night at supper I was allowed a sip of Rhine wine from a small conical stemmed glass. It was very good.

At that time I could read only a few words but The Best of Times is illustrated with many of Bemelmans’ water colors of post WWII Europe, and a few photographs. I leafed from picture to picture without much enjoyment. It is not a children’s book, and my father clearly did not read it before he bought it for me. The sketches are of adults, cafes, piazzas and landmarks. At page 119 I stopped, puzzled by the full page photograph, and went to ask my mother what it was. “Oh Billy, don’t look at that,” she said, and put the book away. At this point in his narrative of ravaged post war Europe, Bemelmans’ colors failed him, he says, and he reproduces his “Christmas card for Hitler”, an image of a concentration camp victim, dead, sprawled on the barbed wire, mouth agape, face turned upward and outward.

I took the rabbit with me everywhere. It became increasingly shabby and my mother helped me to repair it with needle and thread, working at her sewing desk. The rabbit’s arm fell off and was lost, but I had learned enough sewing from my mother to be able to fabricate a replacement arm, which is still attached. Soon after repairing my rabbit, I heard my mother’s sewing machine and went up to her desk to help her sew, but she told me to find a book or go outside and play. My father didn’t want me sewing anymore.


One comment

  1. I remember seeing a concentration camp picture in a book that was casually stacked in the brass log bin by the fireplace. I’m not sure it is the same book given to my big brother Bill, because I thought the whole book showed such images, not just one page.

    Of course, as a “girl child”, I was encouraged to sew. Daddy asked me to mend the pockets of his shorts, and bought fabric for the job. I replaced them totally, and made them deeper, and Daddy praised me and bragged about the job to his golfing friends. I was not encouraged to do carpentry, although at around six I made “boats” by nailing together scraps of wood in the cellar. Daddy did teach me to mow grass at age 12. He taught me to check the gas and oil every time. For years I was a chief mower, specializing in the front yard (approx. 1 acre), and receiving 50 cents an hour. Daddy once praised me, saying that I not only did the job competently, but also took care to make it look good, taking extra time to make long sweeps instead of awkward jigs and jags. Occasionally I did the 2-acre back yard as well, but mostly that was Bill’s job — a daunting one, before the days of the riding mower. Younger sister Alice never mowed at all, as far as I can recall. The youngest, Charlie, took over the mowing at some point and still does it faithfully.

    The “girl children” were not expected to do great things in life. In discussing that interesting topic, the relationship of genetics and intelligence, and the outbreak of genius, Daddy said several times that there were no women geniuses, and that Eve Curie got the Nobel prize based on her husband’s work. (btw, he was a firm believer in the Belll curve, and thought it irrefutable that Caucasians came below Chinese and Jews, but above Negros). As I approached college, Daddy said I should be allowed to go to Smith, to get a suitable husband. I married Tom Taylor, a senior at Amherst, but he was killed six months later. Miserably back at home, at age 20, Daddy tried to console me. I was trying to make a suit out of a bolt of wool given to me and Tom by hunters on our rented farm in Ashville MA. Wailing that my life was over, Daddy told me: “but you can sew.” When I became a lawyer, earning more than he had as a chemist, he relished the story of the lawyers in litigation over some of his patents, concluding that a chemist who then got a law degree could be a great lawyer, but that a mere lawyer could never excel at IP litigation.

    It was practically unheard of for Daddy to give us presents (except when he returned from his trips to Germany), but, when my son was born, he gave me a sewing machine. Although super busy as a lawyer-mom, I did have a brief resurgence of interest in sewing for the baby. The greatest sorrow of my life was the diagnosis of my son’s handicaps, including low IQ. One small current of the distress was that I feared Daddy’s disappointment. I misjudged him. Here, he did offer me comfort. He told me you never know how a child will reward you, and seemed to love my little boy. And he loved me, although I was just a girl, and a lawyer, instead of a genius scientist like Daddy.

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