By Rachel Holtzman
Contributing Editor to the Mountain News-WA
The subject of anti-Semitism came up in a recent zoom gathering of my little international Yiddish discussion group. Zeev, a professor from Toronto and Mira, a long retired programmer from Moscow asked how I experienced anti-Semitism in the United States and my contrary mind conjured up Elaine Seiler.
I was ten by the time our country had been engaged in the Second World War for three years. The life changes we made because of it seemed normal to me. My mother shopped with our family’s food ration cards that she kept in the drawer of the dining room buffet. Its only importance to me was that it had information I was never able to get from any other source – their ages. ”Ah ha!” I exclaimed as I stealthily sneaked a peak at the evidence. My mother was old! Forty-four in 1944.
Morningside Elementary School had shown us such a harrowing movie of the consequences should we not darken our windows at night, that to this day, I can still envision the nightmare of Nazi Stormtroopers with their black boots goose stepping down the streets of New York. Why our teachers felt we had to see it never made sense. Didn’t they know that we had an air raid warden who walked the neighborhood nightly to make sure we did?
I purchased war saving stamps at school. Slowly, one by one, at ten cents apiece, I got close to filling a book that could be exchanged for a real Defense Bond. I planted a pathetic victory garden. It barely yielded stunted carrots and so few radishes that their appearance on our dinner table was greeted by my indulgent father with the same enthusiasm as would a rib steak — if ever that came to pass.
Kids competed with each other over the size of the aluminum foil ball we were able to build. Saving metal was a wartime duty. We’d peal the whisper fine metallic layer from the waxed paper of a chewing gum wrapper to add to our ball and brag about the addition. And we all knew someone who was in the service.
Such was our normal, factored into the day-to-day of the morning walk to school, home for lunch, back to school, and in the afternoon till evening, after snack and homework, play with the kids in the neighborhood
Our Jancey Street gang came from predominately Jewish homes but no one really seemed to register anyone’s religion or cared much about it. We only knew that there were some Catholics kids among us because each morning, as most of us were going toward Morningside, the Catholic kids were heading in the opposite direction to St. Raphael’s parochial school. Red Rover and Hide and Seek were great unifiers.
On one of those ordinary days that October, Miss Keenan, our gym teacher, addressed us. “Girls, we’d like to welcome a new member to our class, Elaine Seiler.” Our attention immediately fixed upon this fully grown girl standing in gym shorts, shoulder to shoulder with the speaker. “Take your place, Elaine.”
We were already lined up in our regular size-height order. All eyes fixed on her as she moved down the line, passing us one person at a time. I was at the end. I was always at the end. Without thought, I automatically walked to the end of every size order line up, but that day felt different. I could feel my heart starting to beat a little faster as this newbie came closer. Soon we were eye-to-eye and then — she moved past me! In those two consequential steps, I no longer was the tallest girl in the class; no, in all of Morningside Elementary – except for Ronald Harper, but he didn’t count because he failed eighth grade. I had just met my soon-to-be best friend.
We began walking home together, getting as far as Vilsack Street where she would turn to go up the hill two blocks to Duffield. We talked and ate penny candy we’d just bought from Schmitt’s across from school. She had much older sisters and a brother but felt like an only child like me. Her parents were older. Well, I’d certainly established that my parents were old too.
But Elaine seemed a little more reserved, different from the neighborhood kids that I played with regularly, and different from Arlene Ebenstein or Tootsie Hornstein with whom I made special plans to play at their house, both of whom were Jewish. Elaine’s family was German.
I’d wondered why I’d never been invited to her house as she was welcomed at mine but it didn’t matter. Playing together was what counted. We were worthy competitors in pickup sticks. She was better at Jacks. We’d sit on the step of my front porch with the newest cut out books on our lap, poised to bring the paper pages of pictured clothes into a wardrobe worthy of the beautiful cardboard women we’d already released from the perforated lines that held them prisoner to the back cover. I matched her in my level of concentration; our work was meticulous. First we’d cut widely around the dress, or hat or shoes, then cautiously guide our scissors around the tabs that folded back to hold them in place.
Yet nothing matched Elaine when it came to the coloring book. She was an artist. While I may have colored the hill a simple green, she’d hold several crayons and shade them together, green blended with yellow at the apex, then shaded with blue as she moved to the bottom. It was masterful. There was never a doubt as to which of the pages opposite each other had been done by her.
One lazy August afternoon, I called from my porch, “Ma, Elaine just came over and we want to walk up to Schmitt’s. Can I have a nickel?”
Licorice trills in hand, we meandered past school and down to Chislett, a parallel street, heading back toward my house. “Look,” Elaine said, “have you ever gone back there? It looks like it would take you to the hollow.”
I glanced at the narrow side street that seemed more like an alley, with a single worried house and a few corrugated garages leaning against each other for support. I was skeptical. Suddenly our ambling walk was turning into an adventure, a new level of play for us. We’d been sedentary young girls with our coloring books and cut out paper dolls. This would be something else.
The hollow was probably a long overgrown and abandoned aquifer that ran the length of at least six houses it backed on. It was deep and steep and whatever path there may have been was not discernable. “Come on,” Elaine shouted. “Let’s go down!”
“I have on sandals,” I protested, mildly and I was right. They were absolutely the wrong footwear for the decent, but I went anyway, mostly sliding, following Elaine. Our reward was more of getting down than anything we found when we got to the bottom. It was clearly a teenage rendezvous judging from the abandoned soda bottles and cigarette wrappers and no place I wanted to be.
As if a switch was flipped, Elaine turned to me. Her face was constricted and she looked worried. “It’s late,” she said “I’ve got to get home right away.” And without another word, she rushed back toward the hillside we’d come from and started to climb.
I ran to follow. “Wait!” I yelled after her. “Wait!” She’d worked her way halfway up the embankment but never turned her head or looked back. I got to the base and my first step up collapsed in dirt that covered my other sandal. I couldn’t get a foothold “Elaine, help me! I can’t do it. Elaine!” By this time she had cleared the top and started running. I was panicked. How would I get out? I could see her disappearing before me. “I hate you, you Nazi!” I shouted in tears to deaf ears.
I don’t know how I did get out of the hollow that day and I don’t remember what happened to our friendship. Whatever was said between us when next we met is lost to me. Only the words I leveled upon her have remained in my memory. Where did that poisoned word, that bitter accusation come from?
It is not strange that this experience, alive and vibrating in my memory, reappeared so readily in all its force. Our daily news feed brings up countless stories of hatred among us.
What do we store in our subconscious? What lessons of fear and distrust of the other have we learned and sublimated only to emerge at unguarded times of trauma? Would kids in the Jancey Street gang learn that their playmates were dirty Jews or kikes and voice those epithets in some latent anti-Semitic outburst? Were family members in another neighborhood twenty-three years later once kids who heard those slurs, and activate them when they saw that we hosted three black friends on chairs we’d borrowed from them?
Elaine Seiler was not a Nazi. Clearly, somewhere in my mind I’d made the link solely because she was German. On that day, she was only a conscientious ten or eleven year old girl who came from an orderly household that had dinner at a precise hour each day, and she was late. That was all. I have often thought of how I would like to apologize to my friend, even though she’d deserted me. Friends sometimes do that. I could just have called her a rat.
Epilogue: After finishing this reminiscence, I checked Google. Elaine Seiler, 86, died last June, 2020. She never married and, as the obituary stated, “was an accomplished artist, working for Horne’s (and) Kaufmann’s,” two prestigious department stores in the Pittsburgh area. May her name be for a blessing.
Author Rebecca Holtzman on safari, in Africa, circa 2016.