He's a boy called Jew. Gypsy. Stopthief. Runt. Happy. Fast. Filthy son of Abraham.
He's a boy who lives in the streets of Warsaw. He's a boy who steals food for himself and the other orphans. He's a boy who believes in bread and mothers and angels. He's a boy who wants to be a Nazi someday, with tall, shiny jackboots and a gleaming Eagle hat of his own. Until the day that suddenly makes him change his mind. And when the trains come to empty the Jews from the ghetto of the damned, he's a boy who realizes it's safest of all to be nobody.
Newbery Medalist Jerry Spinelli takes us to one of the most devastating settings imaginable - Nazi-occupied Warsaw of World War II - and tells a tale of heartbreak, hope, and survival through the bright eyes of a young orphan.
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Profound and very important work
I was deeply affected by hearing the unabridged audiobook "Milkweed" (authored by Jerry Spinelli and narrated by Ron Rifkin) which got me to re-examine fundamentals of my life and indeed of the whole human experience. As is usually the case after I ingest a profound work such as this, I have to write about it in order to help me process it.
I am not sure why I picked this book in particular, just wanted something gritty to drown out my nearly ceaseless troublesome thoughts after a particularly difficult holiday visit that left me with lots of worries and confusion. I'd describe the book as a page-turner, for I was riveted - listening when I couldn't sleep from worry, listening upon arising, listening when my troubling thoughts circled inside me again and again...
When I got to the end (which arrived much sooner than I wished) I felt like something in me was changing. Though I'm turning 64 in less than a handful of weeks, I've never been able to endure more than a cursory acknowledgment of the Holocaust - what Wikipedia refers to as the deadliest genocide in history - until this recounting as seen thru the eyes of a foolish and naive little orphan boy.
It reminded me of another extremely racist time I experienced growing up, and led me to watch a difficult movie by Lee Daniels "The Butler", about a black man serving as a White House Butler continuously throughout the tenure of 8 presidents. As with the "Milkweed" book, watching this movie I felt I was changing. Suddenly I found myself on the internet searching for names and events mentioned in the movie. I wanted to remember, to place in the context of my own sometimes fuzzy timeline - those events that happened when I was a scared grade-schooler growing up in the frightening and deadly political climate and events of the early sixties, continuing in the riotous and reactionary bedlam of the late sixties and early seventies when I was a confused radicalized teen and young adult. And fast forwarding to now with universal discontent, unrest and uncertainties of how we will finish the second decade of the new millennium in the aftermath following the tenure of our first black US president.
And now I suddenly query myself: "Does it really take six-going-on-seven decades to process, acknowledge, accept, bring the hidden to the light, and begin to heal from the events that threatened to end my whole world when I was young and completely unequipped to deal with them?"
Well the point of this whole story is to answer that with a "yes" and to say "Thank you Jerry Spinelli, for giving the world this story, thereby allowing me, at least, to experience the world through the eyes of a small open-hearted boy who lived each day raw and uncensored through the entire horrific Holocaust. Looking at a tiny bit of that monstrosity through the boy's little window - is helping me to at last begin tentatively approaching it and other terrible periods of injustice that have laid waste the very soul of humanity - without being completely overwhelmed by its entire immensity. I'll take another bite at it later.
Meanwhile this story helps make ask a lot of questions in order to continue trying to make sense of the big and little bumps in my private life, putting them in perspective to what really matters. It seems I suddenly feel I've been extremely petty, selfishly ungrateful, narrow-mindedly intolerant - and insensitive, after endlessly wallowing in feeling ignored, hurt, unwelcome, disdained, disrespected, dismissed... over what - a few misunderstandings from a little holiday visit? On big or little scales, over the arch of my life - am I so different from my perceived persecutors? Have I not perpetrated the same wrongs without understanding, caring little for anything but my own self defense? Do I not now repeat the same, again and again in the guise of being right, the other in the wrong? Did I not (do I not still) fight for my own survival, my own life-or-death battles to exist whole and free and worthy of all it means to be a precious human being? However true for myself, is this not also true for others? Just as the little boy lived his life in "Milkweed" I vow to better learn and practice the ways of compassion, restraint, respect, and love... until the love of and hope in a young loved one's eyes
silences those voices that tried to tell me who I am...
And now I ask myself, " How long will it be before I forget this again? Return to my habitual ways...?"
I don't know, but I feel a song welling up inside my heart and my head..."A Change Gonna Come" (oh yes it will...) by Sam Cooke... and I weep...