Like many of us, John Fülöp worries about our precious, endangered world. Indeed, given the increasing power of power — money and corporate greed, for example — it’s hard not to worry – and easy to get stuck in helplessness. But Fülöp, a West Stockbridge architect (see profile in Jan 15-21 Berkshire Eagle’s “Berkshire Week Shires of Vermont” supplement), continues to be vigorously engaged in tangible, promising life work: building smart homes, workplaces, and strong communities.
Maybe it’s no accident that a boy whose young years were lived during World War II grew up with a lifelong determination to “find something to do that I think is important,” as he’s said. But, though smiles for a camera are often cued, photographs of Fülöp’s early life radiate the importance during war time of family attachment and hope. The boy seems to have come through smiling.
After the Eagle article was published, Fülöp received phone calls from people near and far, strangers and friends who thanked him for sharing his story.
“One man called to thank me because his wife was in the Warsaw Ghetto and she can’t talk about it. He said my story was important for him to hear. And when I think about Hungary right now,” Fülöp continued, “I’m afraid it’s kind of like what it was in the 30’s — rife with anti-semitism and tough economic conditions. Maybe not quite so bad, but it’s a little scary to think about what potentially could happen again. People have such a short memory.”
At least two factors contribute to our amnesia. One is the aching truth that wounded lives carry secrets. Many of us realize this only when we’re grown and discover things our parents never talked about — things we didn’t even know to ask about when we were young.
When the Vietnam War was raging, I was a single parent and determined to protect my then little kids from the evening news, the body bags. I wanted them to know what I knew — that the world was safe, which I’d come to feel from my assimilated German-Jewish parents during World War II, who certainly knew more about what was happening in the world than they ever said. Growing up during the forties in southern Ohio, my brother and I didn’t learn about what happened to Jews in Europe until we were in high school. Only after my mother died did I discover — from found, old letters she wrote home in the early thirties — how attached she’d become to adoring German cousins when she was a college student in France. I started to understand her profound (and frightening) outrage – which she could never explain – as betrayal and utter bereavement. For us, as kids, our world felt safe partly because our parents kept war truths from us.
It’s also true that, as privileged whites, we knew nothing about the extent to which the engine of slavery and its legacies drove the productivity of our nation through the first half of the twentieth century. Had we been African Americans, or poor whites left behind, our parents would have protected us by telling us what dangers we could expect, teaching us strategies to use when bad things happened. Because they would.A related but essential reality is also that our country does a grievous job of teaching history. I’ve met bright people in their thirties who confuse Viet Nam with Iraq. And, in a discussion following a showing of Selma last week in Pittsfield, several young people said it was the first time they understood that their grandparents had died so that they and their parents could vote. More evidence for the failure of our schools came in phone calls Fülöp received.
“Alot of kids today don’t even know who fought in World War II,” he said. “I’ve gotten calls from young people saying they didn’t know anything about ‘that stuff.’ Of course, this would include knowing that Budapest was 80% destroyed, Berlin 95% destroyed, and the winter of 1947 [when he and his family were staying in a former Prisoner of War camp, waiting to leave for America] was one of the roughest, coldest winters in Europe — no water, no electricity, no heat.”
In our endangered lives today, if we’re to think about the future of our world, we must ask, listen, learn, teach, and talk about our pasts. The world we love can not afford to lose our stories.