I was watching The Sound of Music with my daughter for the first time last night. It’s a family holiday classic, and for the most part, a light and airy romp through the Alps, featuring children, goats and nuns. But there are some rather dark overtones to The Sound of Music, ones that a fellow mother summed up best by commenting, “What a great mother-daughter movie. My kids always loved it until the Nazis came.”
Ah, the Nazis. Perfect subject for a musical, don’t you think? (Rogers and Hammerstein weren’t the only duo who thought so. Kander and Ebb wrote Cabaret about the rise of the Nazi regime as well.) Villains are nothing new to children; all great kids’ movies have horrible, awful villains at the center of them. But those villains, so obviously evil, so obviously “the bad guys,” as Robin discussed earlier, are easy for kids to digest, simply because they are made to be larger than life. My daughter understands that Rasputin is bad because he wants to kill Anastasia, but what she does not understand is entire armies of real men who want to kill other people just like them.
My daughter and I have talked about war a handful of times now, as various things have brought it up. Once we saw a cannon being used as a monument, and my daughter wanted to know what it was. I told her it was a cannon, and that it was used in war. She asked me what war was, and I told her it was when people fight over land or ideas. And then she asked me the dreaded three letter, ultimately repeatable and totally unanswerable question: why?
“Because they disagree,” I offered. “Why?” “I don’t know,” I said. Until the next time the subject of war came up, when we were talking about Fort Ontario in my hometown of Oswego, NY, where in 1944, nearly a thousand Europeans enjoyed a safe haven from Hitler. It was the only refugee camp of its kind in the United States, run by Dr. Ruth Gruber, a journalist and author of the book Haven, among many others.
“One of the greatest real-life villains of all time was named Hitler,” I said. “Hitler?!,” my daughter gasped, as if to say, wow, that’s a great name for a villain. “Well, whoever he is, he doesn’t sound very nice,” she opined. I went on to explain that during World War II, Hitler decided all the Jewish people should be killed, which of course makes no sense to a child.
“Guh?!,” my daughter yelled, eyes bulging out of her head.
“Yes, which was very bad.” At this point I knew we were having a conversation worth keeping, so I started to write down everything we said to one another.
“What does Jewish mean?”
“It’s a type of religion.”
“What does religion mean?”
“It’s the way that you believe in God. So he wanted to kill all the Jewish people.”
“Did he put signs up about it and everything?”
“Actually, yes. But anyway, I was trying to tell you about the refugee camp.”
“So did the Jewish people run away that afternoon?”
“Well, some of them did. Some people were able to run away. To escape.”
“I know what run away means.”
“And then they came to the refugee camp in Oswego.”
“Guh?! But what about the other people?”
“Well, they died.”
“Yes, millions of people died, which is why Hitler is one of the worst villains in all of human history.”
And just when I thought I’d successfully explained the European Theatre of World War II to my 5-year-old, she blew my mind, as she often does, by asking, “Boy?” As in, “Was Hitler a boy?” “Yeah,” I responded.
“I knew it. Because sometimes boys think like that. All the villains are boys except Granny Mae. You can tell she’s a girl because she wears a necklace.” And that’s how kids understand war. They think it’s just like an episode of Word Girl. Because ultimately they don’t understand war. They can’t. At least not children living in the United States, who by and large have been shielded from the effects of war. So how will I explain what’s going on in North and South Korea to my daughter? I don’t know. I certainly haven’t been able to successfully explain to her who the Nazis were, because when we got to the end of The Sound of Music last night, my daughter asked me, “Why are those nutsy soldiers looking for the family?”
Yes, my precious, sweet, lovely 5-year-old thought I’d said “nutsy” instead of Nazi, and swiftly decided that we should re-name the soldiers goofballs, because in her mind, the entire concept of war is ridiculous. I can’t say I disagree, or that I comprehend fighting any better than she does. Why is it that Rolfe, who is so clearly in love with Liesl, nearly shoots her father for his unwillingness to join the Third Reich? Why can’t we all just walk around in matching outfits made of curtains singing Edelweiss in perfect harmony? I don’t know.
North Korean citizens are starving because they are ruled by an insane dictator who has had sanctions placed against his country because he’s adamant that he should be able to have nuclear weapons, like many of the very same nations that are currently refusing his people humanitarian aid, aid that he doesn’t want to accept anyway. How do I explain that to a 5-year-old? I can’t.
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