My Nazi Past

1956. Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Walter Allen Elementary School. First Grade. Having only recently mastered the Latin alphabet and basic Hindu-Arabic numeric system, we were in the process of learning the history of the written word: touching upon Babylonian cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphs, the Phoenician alphabet, Johannes Gutenberg and his movable type, and also block printing – an ancient Chinese invention.

As part of this learning experience we were given the task of making our own block print using a freshly cut potato as the print block and finger paints as our medium. We were told to bring a potato and a paring knife from home.

My mother, being of the diligent, conscientious, very caring and careful  sort, never, ever let us, her young children, handle sharp objects. So it was that this became my very first experience wielding a sharpened knife. I was both a bit nervous and rather clumsy.

Perhaps I misunderstood the teacher’s instructions or perhaps she didn’t explain it right, but, with tongue firmly clenched in teeth, I set about carving a shape out of the potato. Rather than producing an image of some object as one might see in a woodcut, what I wound up with was a simple rectangular chunk of potato. In retrospect, I think what the teacher had in mind was for us to carve a figure in the flat or facet of the halved potato, in order to produce an example of a simple woodcut or engraving.

I smeared some finger-paint on a small piece of paper. I dipped the rectangular chunk of potato in the finger-paint, and on a clean sheet of paper I pressed the potato to the paper and produced a rectangle, so:

Satisfied with the result, I just added another:

Not really knowing what to do next, I added another:

And just for the sake of some innate sense of balance, another: 

Again, not quite knowing what to do next, I added yet another:

Each time I did that it threw the image out of balance so I continued:

I once again produced a bothersome asymmetric form:

I dipped the potato once more and added another rectangle:

The rectangle’s height to width ratio didn’t seem to lend itself to further expansion of the figure before me, so I set about experimenting with different colors. I covered a whole sheet of paper: We cleaned up the finger-paints and moved on to another topic.

After the Dismissal Bell rang at the end of the day, my teacher handed me a note to take home to my mother.

The next day my mother walked me to school. This was not an ordinary Parent/Teacher Conference however, as we went straight to the Principal’s Office; a Mr. Ziemann by name. Alone in his office, my mother and I were questioned as to our political sympathies. My mortified mother answered a few questions but throughout the interrogation he never got anything out of me, except an occasional shrug.

What? Did you expect a confession? I was six, dammit!

I think true stories are the best kinds of stories, don’t you?

About The Twentieth Man

Age 69
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2 Responses to My Nazi Past

  1. when my brother was about 7 he saw a sikh man on a bus and demanded to know why he didn’t wash his face. the man kindly ignored him but my brother just wouldn’t let it go. he wanted to know why the man’s mother didnt make him wash his face, and if he could stop washing too. toe curlingly embarassment is what kids do best.

  2. Thanks ever so much for dropping by. I hope you and your brother do well.

    Your charming anecdote put my brain into a bit of a knot. I agree that the pragmatic simplicity of a child can bring down the house. I’ve developed a bit of philosophy in that wise:
    if you can’t explain something to a child, you just can’t explain it.

    I must also plead ignorance of Sikh belief, culture and traditions. I only surmise that it is a rejection of the concept of ritual cleansing comparable to baptism washing away sins.
    Of course there is a difference between washing away sins versus washing away an accumulation of dirt.

    We have few Sikhs hereabout and none seem as orthodox as the one you describe.

    In the United States the rubric or culture clash challenges one’s basic ideology and strips everyone of their preconceived assumptions, both for good and for ill.

    The child is never really at fault. The world is new to them.

    I can only wonder whether my teacher and principal ever fully realized just how paranoid they were behaving; after all, the story takes place some eleven years after the end of World War II.

    It takes but a moment to inflict a wound, but some wounds take generations to heal.

    If I were a younger man there are several of your books I’m sure I would enjoy reading.
    Thanks again.

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