Bullies don’t always know they are what they are – We need to speak up!

Part of the problem with bullies and people who feel victimized by bullies is that often the latter do not realize they are cruel, and often the people they insult do not know how to speak up. I believe I continued to be berated for personal choices in my life by certain people because it took me so long to clearly point out the fact that this was inappropriate and that I wouldn’t tolerate it anymore.

I am not blaming myself for other people’s cruelty and insensitivity, but had I been taught as a young girl that my private life choices are to be respected,  that my feelings are important,  that I am not too sensitive, and that it is necessary and healthy to speak my mind so long as I do it in a respectful way, I would have spoken out more often, set more boundaries for myself, and saved myself a lot of anxiety.

One area in my life I often had to ward off disrespectful comments concerned dietary decisions. I stopped drinking cow’s milk in the late 1980s. To my incredulity, this seemed to offend people around me. I heard various comments in voices filled with shock and emotion. It was as if I had personally decided to insult them with my private decision about what kind of milk I would drink and it showed the success of the dairy lobby, because they people were so aghast and dumbfounded at my decision, it seemed to be an idea that had never entered their minds. It felt as though I had told them I had joined a new religion from outer space and that as a ritual I would be cutting off one of my arms. 

I was private about my decision and didn’t advertise it. People found out because I declined when offered milk or because they saw me pour myself a glass of soy milk. I didn’t announce my decision or try to convince other people to  give up cow’s milk. And yet some reactions were this strong.

Later, becoming a vegetarian caused an uproar in various situations. Again, it was somehow as though I had insulted others, and the anger and distaste displayed toward me was impressive. At certain gatherings, how my family ate seemed to cause such discomfort even though I never expected people to go out of their way for us, and even though we always tried to be flexible.

Eventually my husband and later children all ate vegetarian, and at gatherings we took part in the dinner rotation schedule when at a vacation spot for a number of nights. Each night a different family would be in charge of dinner. We spent much time making sure what we made to eat would be something satisfying to meat eaters – on one of these weekends I remember making a wonderful chili with the fake hamburger, a recipe I had often served to meat eaters who would almost always proclaim they couldn’t tell the difference and that it was delicious.

Not everyone on these mini vacations was cruel, but one family not only never had anything good to say about what we offered, they would berate it, and on a few occasions when it was their turn to cook, they served meals where my husband, kids and I really could only eat bread and butter because everything else, even the salad, had meat in it. Of course, we didn’t expect a full-out vegetarian meal, but even a few slices of cheese could have been offered so that we could have made a sandwich.

After a few times of having to later feed my kids and us separately, we opted out of the dinner rotation and brought our own food. I was fed up with the blatant verbal insults as well as the passive aggressiveness our vegetarianism seemed to provoke. And yet, I only rarely said anything to my main bully. When I did say anything, it seemed to be too late and ineffective, and it was after we had opted out of trying to do any kind of collaberation with food.

Even after having been a vegetarian for a decade or more, at one gathering a person berated my choice of soy milk over cow’s milk in front of my young, impressionable daughter. This was at least fifteen years after I had quit drinking soy milk and had endured friends and strangers odd and sometimes cruel comments. I felt sick that I allowed my daughter to be with such people who would openly insult such personal health decisions and so I slowly started speaking out and pulling myself away from such gatherings.

When my daughter was just a baby, a person close to me incessantly cracked jokes about my decision to feed her vegetarian and would say things like, “I bet she would just love a sausage right now!” Or, “I bet when she gets teeth, she will love the way I cook steak.”

After listening to these jokes for months, I finally brought an end to it by telling the person the jokes were hurtful and disrespectful, and that how I chose to feed my child was a personal decision. This was over fifteen years ago, and with hormones flying through my body (I was still nursing) and not yet speaking out as much as I wanted to, it felt like a milestone, and the jokes stopped for about a decade.

People who find offense at such jokes about food or religion choices are not too sensitive. I think most of us would understand that we would never make some senseless joke to a Muslim woman about her wearing a headscarf, or tease someone on a paleo or low carb diet about their choices. We understand that making a joke about someone’s personal decisions is hurtful and disrespectful.

But as a young girl, I internalized that my opinions were unimportant. Growing into adulthood, I started to speak out about various issues, and I often heard from others that my feelings were too big, that I should just lighten up and that I was too sensitive. When the person who is somehow different speaks out, it sometimes is met with silence and acceptance, but also sometimes with defensiveness and the comment, “lighten up!” This only adds insult to insult. For me, the childhood internalization of the idea that my opinions were unimportant would rear up again, and I would have to go back to ground zero and figure out how to speak out again.

It feels I wasted much time and emotion being upset about other people’s dysfunction while in my twenties and thirties. I also spent time figuring out ways to express my anger and disappointment in a healthy and respectful way, because I was not going to lower myself to a bully’s standards of communications. And yet, this time spent was the only way I knew to grow strong in the realization that my feelings counted, and that these bullyish comments explained a lot about the people making the comments.

If you are reading this and think I cannot laugh at my vegetarianism, it isn’t true. I have laughed many times with others about misunderstandings with food or diet. One example was in the dentist office when I asked why I should want to fix my teeth, because my mother-in-law had dentures and she seemed to manage just fine. The technician said to me, “well, it can be quite difficult chewing with dentures, especially trying to chew a nice, juicy steak,” to which I had to reply with a laugh that I was a vegetarian and so that didn’t bother me. We all laughed and she said, “well, you won’t be able to chew that carrot very well either.”

No offense was taken. Nothing was said with passive-aggressive distaste or anger. There was no negative feelings. This and other conversations I have had are funny and enlightening.

I am not too sensitive. I can tell which jokes or comments about my diet, personal habits and choices, are disrespectful and hurtful. Even though there are no hard and fast rules about what is disrespectful and what isn’t, if it feels wrong and you wish the comments to stop, then you can request this and be assured that it is okay for you to do so.

Victims, Heroes, Survivors: Sexual Violence on the Eastern Front During World War II. PhD dissertation.

The Escape of the Polish Public Transportation Controller

My crimes of smuggling illegal books, other written material, and East German Marks into the German Democratic Republic (GDR, aka East Germany), purchased with West German Marks (DM) in the west, still haunt me. Not that I regret doing what I did, but in certain situations I acutely feel the fear I felt as a young person. Also probably what haunts me is all the travel as a young person alone, being stopped and searched multiple times, once being put in a room in East Berlin with my friends and made to wait and sweat, and in general, traveling in the east when there were so many police with machine gun type weapons and so many rules to follow.

So, even though I am now fifty and many of those experiences were all between twenty and thirty or more years ago, today I overreact to certain situations that involve security, police, or other forms of authority. Here is a recent story of such an over-reaction in Krakow, Poland.

My legs still feel like rubber as I begin to record this. Luckily I could understand some Polish because of my knowledge of Russian, and luckily Cora sat halfway back in the street car as I went forward to get tickets from the machine. While trying to do so, I dropped the coins in my hand. I had checked earlier to make sure I had enough (2.80 zloty per person), but trying to get my reading glasses off my shirt, they tangled with the sunglasses also hanging there and dropped coins. I thought I picked them all up. I bought one ticket and then proceeded to try to buy the next but realized I was 10 groszy short.

As an aside so that one knows I am an honest adult, I had always bought tickets and never rode “black” (Schwarz fahren it is called in German), and that morning in Krakow, I had also rightfully purchased two tickets for us to ride the street car to Oscar Schindler’s museum.

Since the machine didn’t accept bills, I didn’t know what to do except to go back to Cora and sit down. I guess we could have gotten out, since we had twenty minutes before the first ticket expired, and I could have gotten more change.

Or I could have gotten off the train temporarily and tried to talk to the driver in English. This actually didn’t even occur to me though, although I do not know why. But you cannot speak with the driver while in the car, since he is in a separate area from the passenger area.

So I sat down, briefly told Cora the problem and nervously started counting the stations as the street car made its way toward the center. For some reason, though I was hoping it was my trauma from years back (of which I will write about in more detail soon), I had a strong feeling that Murphy’s Law will prove right – and the one time I am riding illegally (having only one full ticket for me and my daughter), I would get caught.

Sure enough, I suddenly heard something on the speaker about “Billet Kontrolni.” Since it was in Polish, those were really the only words I remember understanding, and shortly thereafter I saw a balding young man with a round face and dark brown eyes, dressed in a white dress shirt, moving his way amongst a crowd of young kids who had jumped on the streetcar after we had. They were surrounding the pay station where I had tried to buy both tickets.

It felt like the train was moving very slowly on purpose, so that the ticket controller would have enough time to make it through the train. I really imagined that was the plan for the city or state, so that no one could escape. I actually caught his eye once, and I immediately looked away, the contact not having been any kind of comfort. Of course, I felt I looked even guiltier because I had looked away.

I immediately dug out the one ticket, asked Cora for her ticket from the morning (on some hope we could show that we had paid for the morning ride) and also my money that was just 10 groszy less than what was needed for the ticket all to show that we had paid four hours earlier for the ride to the museum, that I had one ticket for us, and that I had honestly attempted to purchase another ticket but because the (stupid) machine didn’t accept bills, I wasn’t sure what to do. In my mind I was ready to explain how tired my daughter was, how her back hurt, etc. and play the mother role as to why we had continued on the streetcar despite only having one ticket.

As all this was going through my mind, I noticed that a man kitty corner from us on the train had immediately stood up and was heading to the door next to where we were sitting. I caught his eye, but his face revealed nothing. I believed he was also riding without a ticket. I hoped we were nearing a station and with that thought in mind, I ordered Cora to get up, and we stood by the door.

It still felt as though the car were moving too slowly, and I impatiently waited to see if a stop was coming. I did not turn around to see where the controller man in the white shirt was. I wanted to run off the car. Finally, finally, we stopped and suppressing the desire to shove the man in front of me out of our way, we innocently stepped out, my pounding heart hidden.

I didn’t have any idea what the fine would have been had the controller not believed my story and taken my 2.70 zloty, but I just didn’t want to deal with it. We ended up getting out of the train just on the other side of the main square, so it was a nice walk through the square again (such a lively place!) back home to our hotel on the other side.

Almost ready to post this story, I read online various posts about how harsh and bullish the Polish public transportation controllers are, about a woman and child crying, about one family who was forced to pay 240 zloty on the spot. Since they did not have it, the controller, joined by another one, took their ID and escorted them to a cash machine. They were told they would be arrested if they weren’t able to produce the cash. It is uncertain whether the controller really would arrest a foreigner, but this man had also made a mistake by purchasing the tickets, but not stamping them (they need to be stamped to be valid).

With the adrenaline already rushing through my body and my fear and panic grossly exaggerated, that would have been hard to endure – and yet, I know I would have, though since my bank card only worked in one of five cash machines we found near the Krakow main square, it might have been very trying…

And as I end this post, it also occurs to me that although so many other situations have occurred similar to this one where the fear and anxiety I felt because of security or other authority figures (for example, going through airport security, getting caught recording a concert back in the day when they still tried to control that), it might not be the trauma from the past that spurred my body into panic mode. Perhaps it was a sixth sense I have which rightfully informed me of the upcoming great harrassment and trauma that we would experience if I did not get Cora and I off the bus as soon as I could. Who knows!

Topographie des Terrors, Shame on You!

To raise awareness of sexual violence

It is 2017 and Germany still has not owned up to its widespread sexual violence during World War II, committed by German soldiers, members of both the Wehrmacht and the SS. The myth that it was only the Soviet soldiers in Berlin who committed mass rape continues in so many people’s thinking.

I was apprehensive after I read the sentence about how Red Army soldiers harrassed German women in Berlin as they entered Berlin. Since we entered the open air museum at the place where the war ended, I could only suspect that they wouldn’t mention that German soldiers had also committed massive sexual crimes during the war.

Also, because we began reading at the end of the exhibition, it made sense the Red Army rapes would be mentioned first, but I had little hope mention of the vast German system of sexual slavery and their many rapes of Jews, Slavs, and others during the war would be mentioned.

And sure enough, unless I missed it, I did not see any mention of German sexual crimes during the war. As usual, only the crimes of the Slavs were mentioned, furthering the stereotype that for some reason the Slavic men are more beastly than the Germans.

Of course, it mentioned the other crimes, but not sexual crimes. If the authors thought to mention sexual crimes of one army, then the crimes of the other should also be mentioned.

The evidence is out there, even from before my dissertation in 2004 which clearly documents widespread rape and system sexual slavery committed and established by the German Wehrmacht and SS, and since after my dissertation it has been even further documented.

Come on, Germany! Own up to your sexual crimes as well and stop pretending only the Soviet Army committed these on the eastern front.

Please, if I am wrong and missed something and the historians and those responsible for the text of this exhibition did include something of the sexual crimes the Germans committed, let me know. We were unable to spend as much time as I would have liked at this outdoor museum, so it is possible I missed something. I actually hope that I have.

I do commend Berlin for having the open air museums it does have, so at least many of the stories and photographs are available to the general public, especially to students and young persons who do not always have the financial means to enter the more expensive museums housed inside buildings.

Victims, Heroes, Survivors: Sexual Violence on the Eastern Front During World War II. PhD dissertation.