No Pretty Pictures: A Child of War
Section 1. Close Reading
In her prologue to her book No Pretty Pictures, Anita Lobel does not mourn her painful childhood, but instead, she expresses her sympathy to the adults living the same horrific years during the Holocaust: Only when I was much older did the horrors and terrible losses of fully conscious people during all those years of terror dawn on me. As a person who has lived a life with rights to make reasonable and foolish decisions, who has been fed and clothed and has collected possessions and memories, who has had quiet times and the reassurance of schedules and daily routines and vacations and work and Christmas, I mourn for all those who were grown, thinking peopleand who were truly capable of knowing and feeling that which was torn from them. (xii)
At first, I found peculiar that a person robbed of her childhood, by a war, found necessary to pay tribute to the pain felt by the adults. After all, her book recollects the events unfolding during WWII from a child’s point of view. Her survival was due to pure luck, since in the last two years of the war she and her younger brother were abandoned to their destiny, away from her parents, in a concentration camp. The adults in her story are often silent figures moving rapidly around her. How is it possible that she feels sorry for them more than for herself? In her first sentence the author admits: “Only when I was much older did the horrors and terrible losses of fully conscious people during all those years of terror dawn on me.” Lobel does not specify her age at that point in her life, but she must have been a mature woman, since “only” and “much” emphasize the delay of her personal discovery. Certainly it was not before she arrived to the United States in 1951, at the age of eighteen. In fact, throughout her book there is no trace of her compassion toward adults. She chronicles the progressive psychological detachment from her parents, experienced after their forced separation, and her resentment caused by feeling of abandonment. However, even when the family is reunited, parents and children act like strangers sharing the same apartment. Lobel describes her feeling toward her estranged father, when he returns after six years of exile: “He was just a word to me. An old word. A memory” (157). In Poland, before the war, her father had his own chocolate company and was used to a very gracious lifestyle. When he finally finds his first job in Stockholm, where they have just relocated in 1945, his daughter does not understand why he comes home sobbing, crying that he cannot stand his new job — elevator operator in an office building: “He had had to change into a uniform and a cap. All day he had tried to be polite and servile to people whose language he didn’t understand. All day he had looked at well-dressed businessmen getting on and off the elevator, going to their offices” (165). She describes her resentment toward his behavior: “I had been without my big, good-smelling father for so many years. But now I was ready for this smaller found father to take charge and take care of me. I could not understand why it was not enough for him just to have survived and to have his family back” (166). His daughter is ashamed of his behavior and criticizes him. She is disappointed that it is not enough for him to be alive in a country where there is plenty of food and where people are quietly helpful to strangers, and the hating of Jews was not their main purpose in life. She avoids him and despises him. At least, her mother is more docile than her father, and patiently spends her days in a factory stuffing sanitary napkins. Lobel never forgot her father’s tearful words: “Before the Nazis robbed me, I had my own factory! Now I am nothing! In this country I am nothing, nothing!” (165). She is able to understand his frustration only when she becomes an independent, accomplished adult herself. In fact, much later she pities her father, reasoning that “I had lost nothing. I had cared for nothing. I had only vague memories of having things that belong to me before the war. I had become used to not having books or toys or pretty clothes or friends. I had been without these things for so long I didn’t really know how to miss what I had never had” (166).
Therefore, the time invested in the past seems to be the great divide between Anita and the adults living with her. The grownups mourn what they lost, the child dreams of what’s ahead. The adults have less time in front of themselves than behind themselves, and the opposite is true for the curious teenager: “I was starting my life in a beautiful city with neon lights and church bells and movie theaters and a blue sky. I had learned to speak a language that felt good on my tongue and sounded beautiful in my ears. I had a clean body. I had hair. I was new” (166). Thus, only when Anita has invested many years in building a life for herself and her family, she reaches the right angle to comprehend her father’s desperation.
In her next few lines, “As a person who has lived a life with rights to make reasonable and foolish decisions, who has been fed and clothed and has collected possessions and memories, who has had quiet times and the reassurance of schedules and daily routines and vacations and work and Christmas,” Lobel insists in listing several symbols of normalcy, including the right to make mistakes. However, during the war, a mistake could lead to death, and adults felt the burden of making choices such as trying to escape to safety (where to?) with their relatives, sending their children away in the attempt to save them, hiding under false pretense, etc. Not only a wrong decision could prove to be fatal, but often, even the reasonable choice could bring death, for the senseless hatred against the Jews gave no guarantee to the forecast of personal survival. Furthermore, Lobel mentions with nonchalance the signs of a normal life, things that she did not have anymore during WWII: food, clothes, material possessions, pictures and objects reminding loved ones. Without these things, it is very easy to feel disoriented, even more so if one is grown accustomed to them. Some of these elements, such as family pictures and objects of sentimental value, are irreplaceable, once they are lost. When we lose them, we lose a part of ourselves and our personal history forever. Lobel understands that adults will recover with more difficulty from this loss, since they had more time to collect memories.
When she mentions the cycle of “quiet times and the reassurance of schedules and daily routines and vacations and work and Christmas,” she speaks as the adult who has experienced that happiness is contained not so much in specific events as in the regularity of a serene routine. Just like “Music is the space between the notes,”as Claude Debussy once said. Many people risk to waste a good portion of life waiting for something they already have and cannot recognize. Those who are aware of the blessing of a peaceful existence, cry bitterly when this is taken away from them and they are left surrounded by insecurity and fear. Obviously, adults are more prone than children to create a personal routine and cling to it; they are resentful about changes arbitrarily imposed by outsiders. During the war, there was no quiet time or reassurance of a family schedule. There was no daily routine of school, holidays, work and vacations. Jewish children were banned from public schools, Jewish holidays were forbidden from celebration; work was mandatory slavery, and vacations were only a memory from before the war. Lobel concludes her prologue confessing that now she mourns “for all those who were grown, thinking people and who were truly capable of knowing and feeling that which was torn from them.” Thus, she comes full circle from the original point of more than fifty years ago, when she could not understand the pain of her parents and relatives after they survived the Holocaust. Back then, she was ready to deny her Jewish religion, her ethnicity, her family, her language, first in order to survive, later in order to be accepted by the new environment. She was full of dreams for the future, because she still had her whole life to live, and not many years on her shoulders. Her parents, on the other hand, had lost so many parts of their lives in the war, including their dignity, that they needed more time to mourn their losses, before concentrating on their future. Once she becomes an adult, a parent, a “collector” of things and memories like them, she sees clearly their pain.
There is something else that Lobel realizes later in her life: even if their behavior seemed flawed to her at the time, her parents always loved her very much. They tried their best to save her and her brother, first by sheltering them from the tragedies taking place near their home, later by sending them away to the countryside with their nanny under false identities. Lobel understands the ungrateful position of her parents: they tried not to scare their children with their own fears, while, at the same time, they were terrified to make the wrong choice in trying to save their children’s lives. When the children got lost and taken to Auschwitz, their mother almost considered suicide.
By acknowledging the pain of the adults, Lobel recognizes their effort in trying to protect her against something they could not defeat. The sense of powerlessness felt by her parents while their carefully-built world collapsed around them, and danger crept from every side, did not deter them from giving priority to the safety of their young children.
Just like the protagonist of the movie Life is Beautiful was not only ready to sacrifice his life for his child, but wanted to do it with grace, and tried to protect the boy in any way he can from the horror of the Nazi persecution, so Anita’s parents tried their best, in their imperfect way, to offer her a future while their past was being erased. Now their flaws do not seem as important as the gift of their parental love.