The Dress With Stars

Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here, today broaching a serious subject to start the new year. As many of my readers (especially those of the “Deadly Edits” series) already know, I grew up in Sullivan County, New York in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains. By the time I was born in 1947, that area was popularly known as the Borscht Belt and famous as the training ground for countless successful stand-up comedians. It was also a destination for thousands of Jewish vacationers every summer. Why? Because Jews were discriminated against in hotels in many other places. Resorts like Grossinger’s, which was located in my home town, were a haven for Jewish visitors as well as mainstays of the local economy.

Grossinger’s Hotel (known locally as “the G”)

My mother’s family ran a farm/boardinghouse in a nearby village. They never discriminated when it came to accepting guests. Summer visitors of all faiths, and indeed, all colors, stayed there. But not everyone in the area was so open-minded. On one memorable occasion in the late 1920s or early 1930s, the KKK burned a cross on the hill behind the family farm.

As a young child, I lived in blissful ignorance for the first eight or so years of my life. Frankly, I didn’t pay any attention to where my friends worshipped. Looking back, I know that the neighborhood kids included Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. They also included twins who came to the U.S. from Germany with their mother. She didn’t speak any English, which couldn’t have made her too popular, since it was just a few years after the end of World War II.

1954 7th birthday party: Iris Summerson, Wendy MacNair, me, Patty Vandruff, Hansy Hartman, Carmen Hartman, Marty Guttenberg, ??, Steve Guttenberg

At that age, I’m not sure I even realized there had been a war. My father fought in it, but he never talked about it. Nobody talked about the Holocaust. And I had no idea what anti-Semitism meant.

fishing in the farm pond: Mrs. Shall, Mrs. Wolf, ?, ?, Mrs. Ash; ?, my mom, ?, Ash boy, Mr. Wolf, Ruthie Shall, Muriel Ash

And that brings me to the dress with stars.

I’m not sure how old I was, but I’m guessing I was in second or third grade. I was in school, sitting at my desk, and I was making a drawing. I drew a picture of a woman wearing a dress and for some reason I decided to decorate that dress with stars. Since it is easier to draw six-pointed stars (two triangles) than five-pointed stars, I was busily drawing six-pointed stars on the dress when a boy in my class stopped beside me, pointed at the drawing, and said, “You’re anti-Semitic.”

I had no idea what he was talking about.

I don’t remember who explained to me what anti-Semitic meant. Or when, exactly, I learned why those stars upset him so badly. I don’t even know if he was one of the kids in my class whose parents had survived the concentration camps, but he may have been. What troubles me most, looking back on it, is the feeling that the whole subject was glossed over for most of the time I was growing up. Even growing up where I did. Even with so many Jewish friends.

I do not remember learning about the Holocaust in history class. If it was taught at all, it didn’t make much of an impression. That’s not to say I didn’t know about the horrors of Nazi persecution of Jews and other minorities, but what I knew came more from reading The Diary of Anne Frank (which was also performed as a senior class play when I was a freshman in high school) and from both the book and the film of Leon Uris’s Exodus.

March 1962 production
As a sign of the times (?) all the yearbook captions were meant to be funny

I may not have been guilty of anti-Semitism some sixty-five-plus years ago, but I was guilty of ignorance and insensitivity. I didn’t know any better then. I do now. The sad thing about my experience, and the point of this story, is that here we are in 2023 and far too many kids still don’t know any better. Neither do some adults. And far too many people don’t care enough to find out why their insensitivity and ignorance matter.

Here’s a litmus test from today’s headlines: what reaction did you have to hearing that George Santos lied about his grandparents being Holocaust survivors and made a bad joke about being Jew-ish?

Think about it.

******

Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett has had sixty-four books traditionally published and has self published others, including several children’s books. She won the Agatha Award and was an Anthony and Macavity finalist for best mystery nonfiction of 2008 for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2015 in the best mystery short story category. She was the Malice Domestic Guest of Honor in 2014. Her most recent publications are The Valentine Veilleux Mysteries (a collection of three short stories and a novella, written as Kaitlyn) and I Kill People for a Living: A Collection of Essays by a Writer of Cozy Mysteries (written as Kathy). She maintains websites at www.KaitlynDunnett.com and www.KathyLynnEmerson.com.

 

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16 Responses to The Dress With Stars

  1. jselbo says:

    So glad you wrote this. Yeah – amazed that a lot of people are NOT thinking about it.

    • kaitlynkathy says:

      Thanks, Jule. I’ve been thinking about a post on this for some time and when better than at the new year?

  2. Pat says:

    Thank you for sharing your story and photos. I’m a historian and folks tell me that they are amazed and angry that this information was kept from us, but like you, I now know that it was hidden in plain sight.

    • kaitlynkathy says:

      Thanks for your comment, Pat. There’s so much in our history that only comes out years (decades/centuries) later. People just “don’t want to talk about it” and that’s a disservice to future generations.

  3. David Plimpton says:

    Great post, Kaitlyn. The likes of Santos have been emboldened by the likes of Donald Trump and other right wing wackos. We must be ever vigilant to protect our civil rights or they may be taken from us. Fascism and autocracy either proudly parade around or lurk in the shadows and are right around the corner. My Jewish forebears came to the US in the 1800s, partly for the civil rights denied them in Europe. Some of them established the fifth oldest Jewish congregation in the US, Beth Alabah, in Richmond, Virginia, which my wife and I had the privilege to visit. At Brown University in the early 60s, my fraternity brothers and I learned that the fraternity had a “White Christian gentlemen only” clause. We weren’t civil rights warriors, but we went to the national convention with reps from other northern colleges and got the clause eliminated. Brown them banned fraternities with restrictive clauses altogether.

    I get very upset when I see efforts by our government(s) and some special interests to stifle free speech, like the efforts to ban the Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement, which fights Israeli apartheid and war crimes against Palestinians, including on college campuses, where some college administrators are eager to stifle protests, due to the efforts of, and money, the Israel Lobby. Have they no shame!

  4. susanvaughan says:

    Kathy, this is a powerful post. Thank you for sharing your childhood experiences and profound thoughts on how the history of those times affects us today. Too much ignorance, for sure. I’m a few years older than you, but had much the same experiences as a child. I didn’t pay attention to who worshiped where or where they came from. We were just children together. The Diary of Anne Frank also awakened me to the Holocaust because my father, also a WWII veteran, didn’t speak about the war except for some humorous anecdotes. Perhaps that was all he allowed himself to discuss.

    • kaitlynkathy says:

      Thanks, Susan. I can understand those who fought in a war being reluctant to relive it, but there was really no excuse for teachers to gloss over recent history. I find the present day attempt to “protect” children from learning anything that might upset them a terrifying prospect.

  5. maggierobinsonwriter says:

    My husband and I were just talking about the way Native American children were stolen to be “educated,” abused, and sometimes killed. By so-called Christians, sanctioned by the government and churches. We never heard about this growing up. Russians are stealing Ukrainian children right this moment, which should be bigger news. Nazis killed untold numbers of Jewish children without any interference for YEARS. CHILDREN. And we as a society seem unable to stop any of this barbarity. Fear of the Other runs so perniciously deep that a pluralistic society seems truly impossible. But the key to surviving anything is knowledge, and this post helps. I always thought I’d received a good education, but so much history was left out. And now the idiots don’t want their kids made “uncomfortable” learning the truth. The truth IS uncomfortable. And damning. We need to acknowledge it.

    And of course Santos wouldn’t know the truth if it smacked him in the face. Which someone should do. Not usually a fan of physical violence but if anyone deserves it…

    • kaitlynkathy says:

      Maggie, I totally agree. So much is coming out, only now, about the horrible treatment of Native American children. Makes you wonder, even with modern communications, what we’ll discover, in the future, is happening now and is being covered up. What we know about is bad enough.

  6. kaitcarson says:

    I honestly don’t remember when we learned about the Holocaust in school, but I remember being five and on vacation in Miami when my mother discretely pointed out the tattoo on the server’s arm and told me what it meant. It made enough of an impression that even now, 65 years later, I can see the scene in my mind’s eye. I remember being shocked when I learned about Japanese internment camps in the US, and more recently when I learned about the treatment of Native American children.

    As for George Santos – let’s all hope he isn’t permitted to serve. That would be a true travesty. Friends from his district tell me that there is no mechanism to pre-emptively impeach him no matter his lies. Horror on horror.

    • kaitlynkathy says:

      Thanks for commenting, Kait. Here’s hoping that as soon as Santos is sworn in they will start the process to kick him out of the House.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Great post, Kathy. As a teacher in East Ramapo 1969 – 2002, we did teach about the Holocaust. We also had a school wide day dedicated to speakers and information and we both prepared for and followed that up in our classrooms speakers werevamazng, including a former guard in a concentration camp! I saw Gerde Weismann Klein bring 1200 high school students to utter silence and tears telling about being marched to near death by the Nazis when she was their age. She married one of the Americans who liberated her and has written and spoken prolifically. The president of our school board was a Holocaust survivor who speaks on film at the Holocaust Museum in DC. This is so important and I think NY schools are pretty good about this. But all I really know for sure is that Spring Valley has done a great job. Thanks for this post.

  8. Brenda Buchanan says:

    Thank you for this powerful post, Kathy. It’s essential to shine bright light on bigotry of any sort, as hatred depends on ignorance The Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine has been doing stellar work for many years, in schools and communities. If anyone is inclined to check out its programs or support its work, a link to its website is here: https://www.hhrcmaine.org/

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