Recently, the novels of World War II Czech writer H.G.Adler are being translated into English and published in the United States. I’m reading his Panorama, originally written in 1948, in Peter Filkins’ 2011 English rendition. Discovering a fresh voice, unknown before in English, is as exciting as landing among the lemurs of Madagascar, especially white lemurs who inhabit a land of grey limestone stalagmites, among which grow narrows troughs of palms, a startlingly monochromatic and dangerous land, relieved by bright-eyed lemurs and green shafts of palms.
Josef, the consciousness of Panorama, endures a harried early life in an urban household wrought with money difficulties and the adults’ desire to enforce discipline. In the second “scene,” he is sprung into rural Bohemia, into a richly peopled and generous-hearted household, where animals are named, the poor are bedded down when terrified by plate-stealing robbers, and a marriage between fat-bellied Herr Neumann and a “mail-order” lady promises even more indulgence and jollity. Then in the third “scene,” Josef comes awake in a boarding school called the Box. Elegant on the exterior, its interior heart is cold, cruel and unrelenting.
Before bed, while doing my yoga stretches, I just so happen to be listening on disk to Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist from a century earlier and am struck by the similarity between Oliver’s workhouse deprivations–the famous “Please, Sir, may I have some more”–and Josef’s nightly weeping in his cold sheets, the frigid and fast-paced washing required each morning from shoulder to waist, and the horrible whipping small boys receive for what seem minor infractions. Dickens redeems his narration with a consummate use of high-flown irony, wherein the platitudes of aiding what we’d call in our wonderful euphemism, an “underserved population,” are so lightly applied, yet so trenchant that we smile at their pomposity and self-aggrandizement even as we cringe at their intent: to stave the workhouse boys to death.
Adler’s choice of Josef’s consciousness as the mode through which we experience the Box creates a different kind of power. Here the mandate–to train by regimented cruelty–presses on the homesick yet canny child, and shows us how individual sensation and intelligence help fan the boy’s tiny flame of resistance. I take this experience to be his training for the concentration camp through which he will miraculously pass, surviving not only to write this and other novels but also to produce a monumental documentary of the camp outside Prague, Theresienstadt 1941-1945.
In the United States, we like to think that our education system has never intended to reduce small children to terror and resistance. Especially in the upper Midwest we carry in the back of our minds images of one-room prairie schools, where pretty young school teachers stood outside in the breeze, and boys and girls linked hands to play crack-the-whip. Surely these existed: many of the buildings have been made over into dwellings or bright shops where one can buy nicely embroidered, though threadbare dish towels and handmade rocking chairs.
But there were also large boarding schools such as the one in Pipestone, Minnesota, whose goal was to strip children of their essential integrity and reform them in alien models. These boarding schools for Native American children enforced English, spoken and written; kept children away from home for as long as nine or ten months, and housed them in dormitories not unlike the Box in Adler’s 1930s Bohemia. Fern Kraushner, from Prairie Island, described her desolation as a six-year-old sent away to Pipestone, at the western edge of Minnesota. Not only was she required to speak English, when she knew only the Dakota language, but she was cast among strangers, forced to wear uniforms, cut her hair, and sleep among strange children, with only a matron for consolation. Her family on Prairie Island on the Mississippi were too poor to visit her. Joy at summer could not have been greater when she returned to fish in the Prairie Island sloughs, eat her grandmother’s venison stew, and help her family in their garden.
Don’t misunderstand me: I believe in education as an essential part of life. But the boarding schools for Native American children as they existed well into the 20th century perpetrated a form of cultural stripping on the most vulnerable of the Indian people. As H.G. Adler reminds us through his character Josef, children learn best within the gentle guidance of a family; they learn by watching the adults and older children around them. And gardens or an even wider hillside or slough help minds and spirits to stretch, soar and muse. Too much regimentation usually signals the existence of an outside power pressing down on children to press the life out of them.