Monday, April 09, 2007

Reading Gardens

I started reading a really fascinating book the other day, Kenneth L. Helphand's Defiant Gardens: Making Gardens in Wartime. I saw someone talk about it somewhere, and decided to get it, and then the other night it was read or grade, and reading won at least temporarily.

Basically, Helphand covers mostly 20th century conflicts, starting with WWI, and trench gardens, and comes up to current war gardens in Iraq, though I haven't gotten there yet.

In some ways, the book's fabulous. I find the pictures fascinating, and it inspires me to want to plant more shrubs and such in my yard (because seriously, bad as the soil is, it's got to be better than the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto).

In other ways, it's frustrating. I want to know a lot more about what soldiers were thinking when they made gardens behind the lines in WWI, and who they were. Were they making gardens in a sort of cyclical way, one soldier starting it, passing the care along to another when he went back to the front and such? Or were they made by a soldier who was pretty sure of staying in one place for a while, say someone whose main job was in supply or support work? But I suppose it's an incredibly narrow topic and there just aren't good resources to make researching easy. I'm guessing there are lots of WWI era letter collections, but mostly probably still in family hands or being passed to local archives/historical associations. At any rate, it would take years of reading just WWI letters to answer those basic questions, but I'd still like them answered!

Of the chapters I've read so far (the WWI and Jewish Ghettos in Nazi Europe chapters), the Ghetto chapter was painfully interesting. I'm not someone who's read tons about the Holocaust, but I find the struggle to survive, well, terrifying and more.

When I was a small child, and my Aunt En had married fairly recently, Aunt En's parents-in-law came to one of the massive family dinners (think 30+ people, grown up tables, kids tables, people all over). I didn't really know them except from the wedding, and I remember seeing numbers on Julia's arm, and I asked my Mom about the numbers. My mom explained that Aunt En's in-laws were Holocaust survivors, and the numbers were tatoos that the Nazis had put on them when they were prisoners. At the time, all I knew about Nazis came from Hogan's Heroes, so I really didn't have an idea about what it meant to be a Holocaust survivor. But as I grew up, I came to understand a bit more about what it meant. The first sight of those tatoos remains with me.

Aunt En's in-laws had two sons and no other family surviving, so they joined the big family gatherings often, and rightly felt like family to me as I was growing up. Part of my growing understanding came through understanding why our family was important to Aunt En's in-laws, why they came to our Christmas and Easter dinners, and why we included Channukah and Passover greetings and practices to include them. So when I think of the Holocaust, it's George and Julia I think of, not pictures in history books.

Reading Defiant Gardens made me think about how hard people strove to take care of themselves and their community, how much effort just living took, and how just inhuman people can be to one another. There's always that in the background.

When I think about the Jewish Ghettos, concentration or PoW camps, the Holocaust, I have complete doubts about what sort of community member I'd be. I fear that I'd be one of those peoples in the community who turns out to be greedy, or who turns traitor, or who just collapses. I've never been in anything like that sort of situation, and I hope I never am, but I wonder about myself. Reading the book brings back the wonder, the terror, and the feelings of unknowingness I had when I first saw Julia's tatoo.

I think a book that can make me think, remind me of terror and my unknowingness, well, that's a book worth reading, even if it doesn't answer all the questions I want to ask.


I taught Ben Jonson's poems on his dead daughter and son today, and I had tears in my eyes. And the students knew. And it was okay. Sometimes it's not okay, but today, it was okay.


  1. That sounds like a fantastic book - I'd love to read it!