Wednesday, April 18, 2012

My Father's Secret

A tribute by the Sydney Taylor Book Award-winning author
of Tropical Secrets,
Margarita Engle

Freedom of expression is a right so precious that we must constantly work to protect it. In 1939, when he was only fourteen, my father made a courageous effort to speak out against the atrocities of the Holocaust. Instead of being praised, he was punished. Recently, after receiving an invitation to a junior high school reunion, he sat down and wrote a letter to the school, revealing a secret he had kept for 73 years.  -- Margarita Engle

Dear Mr. Jordan and the Mount Vernon Reunion Committee,

Thank you for inviting me to the coming Luncheon for past Mount Vernon students. I remember many positive things about my three years at Mount Vernon Junior High, especially the many fine teachers with whom I was fortunate to study. In particular, members of the art faculty whose encouragement, I believe, helped me to prepare for my future career as an artist and art teacher.

There is one dark episode, however which I still recall vividly. In 1939 I was fourteen years old. World events affected me deeply. The persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany was a case in point. In response to those terrible events I was motivated to do a large painting depicting Nazi soldiers dragging helpless victims to their fate. When I finished the painting, I brought it to my art class where it was well received, or so I thought. That same day, Mr. Smith, the Boys' vice principal, showed up unexpectedly in my art class. He insisted that I remove my painting from the school grounds immediately. He remarked "There are two sides to every story." He helped me carry my painting out of the school and I brought it home that same day. Mr. Smith's apparent Nazi sympathies were so strong that he could not tolerate my side of the story for even one day. Years later I joined the Merchant Marine and I served for three years from 1943-1946. After the war, I resumed my art studies and earned an MFA degree from Claremont College. I am now retired from teaching, so I devote most of my time to furthering my art career. I am married; we have two children and two grandchildren.

Recounting this painful episode at Mount Vernon Junior High has been important for me, and I believe it is important to share it with you. Sadly, it brings to mind how so much intolerance had extended to be part of the administration at Mount Vernon Junior High in the pre-war years.

Sincerely,
Martin Mondrus

The original painting was destroyed in a fire, but other works by Martin Mondrus show his continued dedication to the theme of survival.