Many years ago I wrote you a letter which I never sent. I am not sure if it makes sense to write you now, after 37 years. But all these years I could not stop thinking about you; about the happy days you shared with me, without even knowing it; about the period which is the "Finest Hour" in your history.
The year was 1945, the saddest year for Europe.
The war was over. People started returning from woods, camps, hiding places. They were coming home not sure of finding someone there. The railway stations were crowded with homecoming people and others who were waiting for those who did not arrive. In every house there was a mourning. Towns were destroyed, people slept everywhere. The cemeteries were full and the homes empty. It was the time to count the casualties.
A heavy cloud covered the sky.
I was, at that time, in a recreation center in the south of Italy, between Altamura and Brindisi, with children who survived the Holocaust and were collected from various camps all over Europe. We lived in a big old house called Vila Marie with a huge garden filled with high trees, flowers and green grass. But for me it was just another camp. We slept in a large room where the beds lie in four straight rows, all white, with green blankets. We ate in a big dining room with tables from wall to wall. We wore gray clothes. Gentian violet marks were spread all over our bodies. Our heads were shaved and it made our faces smaller and our eyes bigger. We looked awful and were very ugly.
I did not like to see myself in the mirror, did not like to associate with anyone. I did not eat in the big dining room and was allowed to take the plate with me to my hiding niche where I used to spend all day alone. I was happy if they just left me alone and did not force me to join them in their singing and dancing. There was not one single thing that could move me.
Then, one day, I found a big package on my bed. I wasn't sure it belonged to me so I did not try to touch it. But Sister Klara approached me smiling and said:
"This is for you!"
Never before had I received a package. I stood there, my back to the wall, staring at the package as you stare at something that will jump the moment you touch it.
Sister Klara tried to encourage me:
"Go on," she said, "take it!"
Since I still did not do it, she took all the things out, put them on the bed and went away.
When I was sure I was alone, I again stared at length at things, touched them, took them one by one, arranged them on the bed and watched silently. There were candies, chocolates, toys that were unknown to me, and a doll. I spent all that night only watching, touching, smelling them, until I finally decided to "use" them.
I liked most the doll.
She was not new, but that way I liked her much more. Whoever sent it must have done it with a heavy heart, for she was giving away something very dear to her, something that was almost a part of her, and all that to please someone she did not even know. The doll had blond hair, she could turn her head, close her eyes and say "mama." She wore a nice red dress with white points and panties of lace. She had white shoes, but only one, the other shoe was missing. On the bare foot was written, with big childish letters:
Somehow I knew that this was not the name of the doll, but of the girl who sent it.
I closed my eyes and tried to imagine a girl of my age with blond hair, blue eyes, with a red dress with white points, writing her own name on the foot of her doll. She kissed her goodbye and put her in that big box.
This doll made a very long journey until she came to me. I took her in my arms and embraced her warmly as though I had at last met a dear friend.
From that day on, all my life changed.
I began talking to other children, I participated in classes like others, I ate in the dining room with all the rest. I wasn't lonely any more or alone. I had my doll which was very special and all mine, and I had a friend. It was you, Mary.
When I was putting the toys into the package I looked at the big letters on the box. It was written: "The gift from the People of America."
The People of America!
It sounded so beautiful that I enjoyed repeating it, on and on, until it ceased to be a melody caressing my ears, and I began mumbling silently to myself:
The People of America!
In the evenings, in my bed, I used to take all the things out of the package one by one, caressing them, and delightedly whispering:
The People of America!
I wondered how they look, the People of America. Never had I met one, but as time passed I built a certain image of the American: sympathetic and happy people who like to laugh, to tell jokes, they look chubby, they like to drink milk, to eat ripe fruit and half-boiled vegetables; they speak a lot on the telephone, are always in a hurry; they have no secrets and are like an open book. They are good people, ready to share what they have with others, even with an ugly child like me.
It appeared to me that I did not thank anybody for that wonderful gift, so I said to Sister Klara:
"I would like to write a letter of thanks for the package."
"To whom would you like to write?"
"To the People of America!"
She smiled, caressing me for the first time.
"You can't write to a People. You have to choose someone with a name and address and then you can send the letter."
You, Mary, were the only person I "knew," you in fact were in my eyes the People of America, and I wanted to write to you. Since I did not have your address I did not send the letter. But I was certain you exist, and that one day I will be able to thank you, the one who brought again the smile to my lips and shared with me those unforgotten days, without even knowing it.
You also brought me luck. From the day I received the package, everything turned out well. I was reunited with my parents and we went back to our native town in Yugoslavia.
I was already 11 years old when I first went to school. That was the most important moment in my life. My hair grew, the scabs disappeared and I did not look like a refugee child any more.
My mother wanted very much for me to look pretty, so she searched for a piece of cloth to sew me a dress. Since she only found an old curtain of cotton for a blouse, she decided to take a sack of flour which was printed with big black letters. She boiled it several times, painted it in white and made me a wonderful skirt and jacket. With the blouse it was really beautiful. I was so happy, I couldn't wait for the beginning of school to wear this "outfit."
And the big day came.
Unfortunately, on my way to school it rained. All the white color was washed out of my nice new costume and the black letters lay bare.
I entered the big hall where the children from all classes waited for the teachers. I was terrified. After all, I had no friends among them and it was my first year of studying with children who had already studied four years. I passed an entrance examination, but I wasn't sure I would be equal to them.
I stepped forward.
Eta, the only girl I knew, approached me and suddenly she burst out laughing. It was so loud that she drew the attention of all other children. They flocked around me and tried to read: "Not -- sold -- exchanged--". The sentences were broken and they had to trace the continuation of every word, so they circled me jumping, laughing and laughing.
I wished I could run away, and never return.
But somehow I felt they were not mocking me, that they did not dislike me. They laughed because it was funny.
I was confused.
I looked at them. Their merry, sidesplitting laughter was friendly, sincere and heartfelt.
When they saw that I was not offended, they came nearer and they read giggling: "The . . . gift . . . Ame . . . not . . ." I decided to help them, so I raised my hands, pulled up my jacket, turned around to show them the words, and all of a sudden the whole crowd was reading in a choir, while jumping in a circle around me:
"The gift of the People of America. Not to be sold or exchanged."
And so, once more you came to my aid, and I was received among the children faster and warmer than I thought I would be.
Many years passed since. You, Mary, probably have a big family today: children, maybe even grandchildren. I am sure that you have forgotten the package you have sent me 36 years ago, containing a blond-haired doll, with one shoe and the name "Mary" on the bare foot.
But I did not forget!
All those years I wanted to write a letter, to say:
Thank you, People of America