I think about how I learned firsthand the impact of anti-Semitism. I grew up on eastern Long Island in the 1970’s, and I went to school with Jewish children who were still fleeing persecution in Poland, Germany, Greece, and other European nations.
Anna Stremsky was one of them. I remember the day she came to our classroom at Pulaski Street Elementary. She was so beautiful–Dresden doll curls, china blue eyes and rosy cheeks. Her eyes were huge and frightened. Her little form radiated fear. I sat across from her, and clearly heard her thinking, “I am so afraid. I wish someone would hold my hand.” So I reached across and took her icy hand in my own. I smiled at her, and I felt the warmth of my hand flow into hers. Her paleness eased away, and she relaxed. The room had fallen silent. I dropped her hand. I heard Anna sigh, and watched her turn resolutely toward our teacher, Mrs. Leahy. It was November.
The following May, Anna and I had our only conversation. Spring was bursting outside, and I had lingered, looking out of the window right before lunch, when I would not be chastised for it. I headed for the coatroom, where Anna was waiting for me. I was surprised, because she had been silent all year, wordlessly taking in everything around her. She was doing well, but she never spoke. Now, in flawless, unaccented English she chirruped: “This will be our only conversation! I will always be your friend.” I stared at her, stunned. Her voice was light and sweet, with undertones of contralto. “I’m going to blend in, and that means we can’t speak. I know what it is to be outcast, and I’ll never be outcast again!” These were her exact words, still clear to me after 30 years or more.
“I understand,” I replied, and I did.
“I will always be your friend.” And I am.
Anna Stremsky’s journey taught me a visceral lesson against anti-Semitism. I knew what racism was. I’d experienced it. I knew Jewish people did too. This was a close-up and personal experience with racism, and the burden of assimilation that Anna Stremsky felt was not lost upon me. She strove to hide any trace of her former status from her classmates. The child completely reinvented herself as an American, with no help from anyone. She knew, and I knew, that having black friends would put her right back where she’d started.
I am still amazed at the maturity and sophistication of the conversation we shared that riotous spring day. We were only eight years old.
This Lenten season, let us pray that God’s people are shielded from the enmity of others, and that we, as free Americans, will speak out against prejudice and hate.