Sixty-five years ago this winter, in 1947, a fifth-grade girl found she was suddenly the new kid in school, longing for home and for people she knew. She had moved temporarily from the suburbs of New Jersey to the shores of Miami Beach with her mother, brother, and grandmother, who had lost relatives in Dachau just a few years before. Her father, a dentist, stayed behind in Elizabeth for work. His plan was to fly south for special occasions—Thanksgiving, for example, or birthdays. It took a while, 30 years to be specific, for the public to come to know this child’s story, and when we learned it, it was hard to forget, not least because the girl imagined that Adolf Hitler had likewise relocated to Florida, where he was living as an elderly Jew.
The girl’s story, recounted in Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself, is now 35 years old and owes its creation to Judy Blume, beloved for children’s and young-adult titles that include, among others, the equally memorable Deenie, Blubber, and Forever. Blume has said that Sally is her most autobiographical character (which I take to mean that Blume was spared the afflictions of scoliosis or chubbiness). Like Sally, Blume had a vivid imagination and lived in Miami Beach as a young girl. As was true for Sally, the horrors of the recently ended World War II provided a backdrop for her youth.
My own childhood, perhaps likes yours, differed markedly from Sally’s. I didn’t fear Hitler. It never occurred to me to wonder if elderly people in my midst were incognito Nazis. At 10 years old, Sally’s age, I was far more afraid of the potential machete-toting perp under the bed ready to slash my Achilles tendon and hobble me. On account of that threat, when I got up in the morning, I regularly leapt to the center of the room. And although two great uncles served in the Army during World War II (one, a gunner, was shot down and held for a year in a German POW camp; the other served in the Pacific theater), no close relatives perished in death camps. In fact, it was only after college, on a tram in Prague, that I ventured finally into that particular region of Sally’s headspace, wondering how the elderly riders around me, some of them nuns, had been complicit in Hitler’s massive anti-Jewish project.
What lodged in my mind from my first reading, decades ago, of Sally J. was Sally’s preoccupation with Mr. Zavodsky, her would-be Hitler, and her love of Esther Williams. Having reread the story more recently, I see now what a disservice it would be to reduce the novel to those obsessions. Sally encounters other matters of lesser and greater importance. A friend’s mother drinks. Her parents argue sometimes. There is racism of a more home-grown nature.
On the train to Florida, Sally learns that an African-American family in their car must move to another once they cross into the South. Later, at a drugstore, she and a friend are chastised for drinking from the “coloreds” water fountain. But Sally’s newfound awareness of racial prejudice, for example, is not what made an impact when I first read this novel (for a Jewish child in an all-white suburb, that seems hardly surprising), and it’s worth noting that although Sally knows who Hitler is and what he did, that knowledge doesn’t translate to any sense that anti-Semitism could threaten Sally—let alone exist—stateside. While Sally’s brief encounters with racism stop her cold, her consideration of anti-Jewish prejudice does little more than feed a vivid imagination. In periodic daydreams, she’s a starlet heroine saving relatives from Mr. Zavodsky’s treachery. She writes, but never sends, letters threatening to expose him and imagines a throw-down in which she challenges, hilariously, his bravado in reading The Forward and “coming to Miami Beach to retire, like everybody else.”
What allusions to Nazi atrocities Blume includes are brief but frank. In playing “concentration camp,” Sally directs a friend, “ ‘You hand the pretend soap to Tante Rose and Lila and tell them to go to the showers. … They’re not really going to get showers, they’re going to get killed in a big gas oven.’ ” It’s presented with all of the glorious subtlety of a 10-year-old child. Then the scene moves on and Sally does what kids do—she takes her understanding of the Holocaust and weaves it into the larger, richer fabric of her life and experience. That includes an awareness of more typical challenges—illness and financial hardship, navigating a new social world, coming to terms with the awareness that her body will soon change, and experimenting with flirtation. As much as Sally loathes Mr. Zavodsky, she also spends time missing her father and wishing her older brother would be a little friendlier. She sees one friend’s heart twice broken and takes part in another’s improvised effort to make creme de cacao. There is sadness but often—and this is Blume’s achievement—there is joy.
It’s hardly elation of biblical proportions, but the empathetic impulse has echoes in at least one Jewish ritual. Passover, now on the horizon, is the sole holiday on which Jews are asked to imagine they were present at a critical moment in their history. We are asked to pretend that we were at the Exodus, that we took part in the event that came to define us as the Jewish people. No other holiday asks us—commands us, really—to pretend we were present at the events being commemorated. No other historical event warrants it. But fiction, Holocaust fiction included, asks us to pretend all the time. In identifying with protagonists in Holocaust stories, we are catapulted to concentration camps, ghettos, and cattle cars. Young, impressionable readers might get the wrong idea that the Holocaust is a moment important enough to warrant pretending you were there—that is, important enough to rival the Exodus as the defining fact of Jewish history.
The Holocaust was a defining experience for the Jews, but not for every individual Jew. Sally’s experience—and Blume’s too, given that it was a blueprint for Sally’s—is larger than the Holocaust. And that is a gift for readers who object to the premise that the Holocaust is sacred and out of bounds for inclusion in creative pursuits that don’t affirm its holy and central status. That is, for readers like me.