The nightmare always ended the same way: I knelt in the back yard at night, trying to hide my three younger brothers in the sandbox while Nazis searched our house. What saved us, every time, was me waking up.
As a Jewish girl growing up in Silicon Valley in the 1980s, my life mainly revolved around Care Bear stickers and swim lessons and chapter books featuring Ramona Quimby. But at Sunday school, I watched grainy black-and-white videos showing piles of emaciated corpses in the Nazi death camps. By night, the horror felt real.
That nightmare plagued me as a child. As an adult, I’d forgotten it.
The other night, I was snuggling with my 4-year-old daughter in my childhood bedroom, stroking her hair as she fell asleep. Suddenly, a terrifying image popped into my mind: the sandbox.
I lay frozen in the dark, listening to my daughter breathe. Decades had passed since the dream last surfaced. In retrospect, its recurrence right now is perhaps not surprising, what with refugee bans and burning mosques, threats on Jewish community centers, and Internet trolls marking pictures of Jewish journalists with Stars of David and bullet holes.
Ever since my children began to understand language, and especially in recent months, I have wrestled with how honest I should be with them. Should I tell them about the issues that worry me — about xenophobia and hate crimes and global warming? Should I confide my fears for our country? Would such candor build character, or anxiety?
I grew up listening to my grandfather recount stories of escaping the Nazis. As a Jewish journalist in Austria in the 1930s, he’d criticized Hitler’s regime. Then Hitler annexed Austria in 1938, and my grandfather was imprisoned for several months. The guards sometimes blindfolded him and the other prisoners, he told me, then fired shots over their heads. After somehow fleeing the country, he wrote to anyone in America who shared his last name. A taxi driver he didn’t know signed papers that allowed him to immigrate to New York City in late 1938. Of more than 60 members of his family, six survived the Holocaust.
Hearing these stories as a young child shaped my nascent social conscience. They grounded me in history. And they fed my nightmares.
My daughter went through a phase a few months ago where she was afraid of everything. She came home from preschool each day with a new fear. Mommy, she would announce, today I’m worried about sharks. Today I’m worried about crocodiles. Today I’m worried about bears.
My job, each day, was to reassure her. The sharks are in the ocean. The crocodiles are in the swamps. The bears are in the woods. And Mommy is here. And everything will be okay.
I did not qualify my assurances, except silently. What good would it do for me to add that she would one day swim in the sea, or walk in the woods, or stand at the edge of a swamp? That everything would probably be okay then, too. Probably. Hopefully. But not definitely.
A couple years before, on the day the children of Newtown were murdered, I sat in the rocking chair, kissing my baby’s bald head, sickened and fearful at the impossibility of keeping her safe. And yet every day since, I have made promises to my children that I know I can’t guarantee. That goodness will prevail. That I will always come home to them. That they needn’t be afraid of the dark.
These are the lies we tell our children, not because they are the only things we can tell them, but because they are the only things we can tell ourselves. If our children are lucky — and (knock on wood) mine have been privileged enough to be very lucky — the adults in their lives can keep them cocooned for a little while against the scariest truths. For a little while, we can keep the nightmares at bay. But not forever.
I have not told my children that I am afraid. They are 4 and 2. I know my fear would frighten them. But, someday soon, I plan to explain to them that it is okay to be frightened, so long as you can respond to fear with courage and reason and compassion. I will tell them about our own history, about the shots fired in an Austrian prison and about the stranger who signed a paper that rescued my grandfather, and thereby rescued all of us.
And then, if I can find the right words, I will try to explain to them the lesson I learned as a little girl: To save your life when the nightmare comes, you must wake up.
Jocelyn Wiener is an Oakland-based journalist who writes about health, mental health, poverty and social issues.
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