The boy in the striped pajamas, and a 12-year-old girl

October 16, 2015

We were sitting around the couch the other evening and Liz, all 12 years of her, like she was pulling it out the empty space around her, said the sort of thing that can linger in a room a lifetime.

“You know,” she said. “World War II was just awful.”

I suspect she meant that all war is just awful, but she’s learning about the Second World War — in school the reading of the moment is The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, a title that conjures up enough in the imagination.

It would have been especially terrible to be Jewish, Liz continued, something she knows already from our time at the Anne Frank House, something I realized all the more when earlier this year I visited the Dachau concentration camp memorial in Germany.

But the other truth is that during this particular war, it was terrible to be many things, even German.

My own father can tell you all about that, which is why he was relieved when he learned that I had visited Dachau by myself, leaving The Children’s Mother (and more so, the children), to other things that day in Bavaria.

My father can also tell you what life was like when he was 12, and a little older, and younger, but especially 12, that age when you’re not a child anymore, but not really grown either, which is why war, when you’re 12, is maybe all the bigger.

When I was 12, in fact, my father sat me down on a front step and told me all about it, exactly what happened to him at that exact age.

It was more than just some heartfelt story of how he watched his pacifist grandmother clobber and enemy soldier with his own gun. It was how the enemy came in, and how he was taken prisoner and later escaped, which is more than some others in the extended family, who, like other victims of that dark time, perished in horrible ways.

As a kid in Canada I didn’t know what to do with it all, this information, but as the years went by I realized that, for better or worse, my father is married to this part of his story like any of us are married to both the light and shadows of our own stories.

And I realized how war gnaws at the spirit – it gnaws at our memories, and who can blame anyone haunted in this way to have this overwhelming need to tell their story, or what they remember of it, perfectly or not, to almost anyone, rather than keep it bottled inside.

Having never lived through the Second World War, or any war on my home soil, thank God, I will never fully appreciate any of this. But when Liz said what she said, in a strange way I felt a sort of pride, a sort of, “I’m glad you said it, Liz, just the simple and profound way you did” and “Tell me more about it all.”

In another way, though, we all live in the midst of another sort of war, the war to simply get by in a world that is so full of unpeace and, dare we think it, evil, which, after all, is only l-i-v-e spelled backwards.

We see it in a place like Canada as much as we see it Africa, this dis-ease, even if it’s another form.


“My wife is dead,” is what the caller on the other end of the line said the other day.

His name is Godfrey and has driven me and the kids from time to time on the back of his boda-boda, a sort of putter motorcycle taxi.

His wife was in the hospital in recent days. She had her own dis-ease.

I had no idea it was so serious. Neither did anyone. And so it goes, the daily beat here. Remember this other Godfrey? People die in Africa all the time for no-explained reason.

She had some issues, was given dialysis, had some stomach problems, and then died. This is how Godfrey explained it to me.

“So that is it,” he finally said.

Left behind are three children – 16, 14 and 12.

That is it.

War is awful. Life is beautiful.

And short.

Somehow the truth of the former makes the truth of the latter all the more vivid.

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October 16, 2015 • Posted in
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2 thoughts on “The boy in the striped pajamas, and a 12-year-old girl”

  1. A short but poignant story. My Dad was in four camps in four years. He was Polish but not Jewish. Interned simply because he was an engineer. A sad story I grew up knowing. But still living in North America most of us are not aware enough of how the rest of the world lives and their daily realities. We have peace but only by not reflecting on those realties

  2. Thank you, Michele — Poles and many others, for sure, not all Jews, but just worthless (unless it was for work) in the eyes of those who put them there. Thanks for sharing.



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