This is going to be part book review, part introspection, part fangirling, all truth. Crossposted to Declare the Causes.
I am Very Sparing with 5-star book ratings.
For a book to get 5 stars from me, it needs to be engaging enough to make me really think and feel, and it must stick with me so that I find myself coming back to it again and again. Sometimes, it’s obvious why I keep re-reading, but sometimes I really don’t know how to explain what it is about a book that keeps pulling me back.
But earlier this year as I was almost finished listening to Rose Under Fire for perhaps the fourth or fifth time, it hit me why this particular book was pulling me back. I believe it is because Rose and I share this: we have been forced into unnatural situations and survived.
There wasn’t any part of Róża that wasn’t connected to Ravensbrück, even her work, even the parts of her body that had escaped experimentation. …
It is true that Ravensbrück shaped me—whatever I would have been without it interfering, I am someone else now. … But Ravensbrück doesn’t define me. I had a lot of being Rose to cling to when I landed there—I was a pilot, I was a poet, I was a Girl Scout, I was part of a family, I was the captain of the Mount Jericho High School County Champion Girls’ Varsity Basketball Team, and I still bore traces of all these things even in the concentration camp. …
When I told anyone at the Camp who I was, I’d say, “I’m Rose Justice. I’m a pilot.”
When Róża first told me who she was, she’d said, “I’m Polish Political Prisoner 7705. I’m a Rabbit.”
That quote was a real eye-opener for me.
Even though I was only seven and a half when we moved to Idaho and became conservative Mennonites, I was a person of my own. I had likes, dislikes, opinions (quite a few, in fact). I had seen movies, read books, been exposed to music, been places. I’d gone to a church preschool and a Montessori school (both of which I snobbishly disdained as beneath my youthful dignity, I must confess) and to AWANA and earned badges for my Sparks vest. I didn’t have much in the way of extended family to spend time with close by, but our homeschool group did lots of park days and field trips, and I went to zoos and lighthouses and Sea World and Balboa Park and the Del Mar County Fair on a regular basis.
It was an embryonic version of me, but it was me nonetheless. Stuffed into a mold and left to grow, I was stunted—but I was still me.
In Idaho, we did nothing. I probably could count on one had the times we went touring anywhere or doing anything out of the norm. We were perpetually scraping by financially. We only had one car, and if my dad took it to work (he rode his bike when the weather permitted), we were definitely stuck at home. Church attendance and functions were my social life, church children were my friends, church adults were my mentors and guides. There was one correct way to dress, one correct outlook on life and eternity, one correct interpretation of Scripture. There was no room for exploration, for questioning. I was young enough that I adapted and it honestly never occurred to me to question anything. My life just was.
All that being said, though, mold or not, I still found ways to express myself, or at least experiment, in an attempt to rediscover who I was. Playing gentleman to my girl friends and “striding” like a man, mostly because I am perverse and my best friend said I shouldn’t. Imitating Leonardo DiCaprio, on whom I had a huge crush. Wearing my dad’s Navy jacket halfway unzipped because that’s how James Dean wore his windbreaker in Rebel Without a Cause. Pushing the envelope of acceptance with harp acquisition, against the better judgement of some in authority.
The tragedy of it is that it took such drastic measures to get out, when the questioning finally did happen. It was painful.
I am healing. I have scars that show and scars that don’t.
Those who were born into the conservative Mennonite system are, generally speaking, content to just be. There is too much stigma and fear attached to leaving, too much risk. It is more comfortable to stay, to let someone else do your thinking for you. Based on my observation, it simply doesn’t occur to most of them that there is any other option.
Rose was fairly naïve at the beginning of the book, and watching her personhood unfold is marvellous.
I want retribution, but so much more than that, I just wish everything could be put right.
I have always felt that way. Even before Ravensbrück. I put it in my “Battle Hymn of 1944” poem:
“Fight with realistic hope, not to destroy
all the world’s wrong, but to renew its good.”
I have also always had, perhaps naïvely, the intense desire for everything to be right. I don’t want to shame or disgrace people, even if I do call them out; I just want things to be right. I want those who are causing the oppression and hurt to stop. I want those who are trapped in the system – any system of religious oppression and/or abuse – to know that, if they want to, it’s okay to leave. It’s okay to step away from things that are hurting you. It’s okay to be honest about what has happened to you if you choose to tell your story.
Most of the time, my past is just what it is. I have come to cherish it for the good things that it gave me, which if I am honest are legion. I have renewed the friendships that mattered and moved away from the toxic ones.
But people need lift, too. People don’t get moving, they don’t soar, they don’t achieve great heights, without something buoying them up.
Rose has a friend who reads her account, understands, sympathises, but pulls Rose out of the self-imposed prison cell of her Ritz room anyway. I don’t think there was any one particular person in my life who did this for me; it has been rather a succession of friends and incidents over a long period of time, a chain of events. I discovered Nelson Eddy, which led me to befriend Nelson Eddy fans, who built me up as a person, which enabled me to get off my butt and go to tech school, which enabled me to leave home and work elsewhere, which enabled me to meet my husband and have the good life I now enjoy.
All this to say, Rose Under Fire is a book that is very close to my heart, it gets those special five stars, and I highly recommend it.
And finally. Dear Elizabeth Wein, who has done a fabulous job of tearing my heart to pieces: I ❤ you, you fantastic, funny, wonderful woman. Have some chocolate.
Disclaimer: Just in case anyone gets the wrong impression, I am not in any way trying to equate being a conservative Mennonite with six months in a concentration camp. Obviously, the latter is devastating in a way most humans will never truly understand. I hope my point of comparison is clear, however: no matter what kind of trauma we face, trauma is always trauma, and healing from trauma is universally a long and painful process.