October 23, 2019
by Harry Markowicz
In 1955, four years after my family's arrival in the United States from Balgium, I graduated from Garfield High School in Seattle. Although the student population was extremely diverse culturally, religiously, and racially, during my time there I felt like an outsider—even after I became fluent in English and made new friends.
Sometime during my senior year in high school, representatives from the University of Washington, which is in Seattle, came to our school to pre-register students who planned to attend that institution. The forms we were asked to fill out instructed us to choose a major. I had no idea what I wanted to study. In fact, I hadn’t even been planning to go to college. I thought I would attend a post-secondary technical school, but my mother had told me that would be a pity because almost all of my friends intended to go to university.
A few years earlier, my sister had dated a Boeing engineer who had told me that when I was old enough to drive, he would help me build my own car. In the meantime, she had married a New York jeweler. Although the engineer boyfriend was no longer part of our lives, when I felt under pressure to select a major, the only thing I could think of was engineering.
Shortly before the fall quarter started, together with some of my friends, I went to the University of Washington School of Arts and Sciences to sign up for classes. I was told that they did not have my preregistration file. After a period of confusion, I was told to go to the School of Engineering. To my surprise, my file was there.
Classes started, and almost immediately I felt miserable. With Boeing the principal employer in the region, engineering was a very popular field, especially among male freshmen. Some of the lecture classes were extremely large; the School of Engineering used these courses to weed out students. I felt lost in these classes, and I also had an ongoing battle in the chemistry lab; my pipettes kept breaking whenever I tried to insert them into the rubber corks.
I was halfway through the winter quarter before I found a way out: joining the army! Military service was required for all able-bodied young men. My brother had been drafted and served in Korea during the Korean War. By this time, we were not involved in any war, so it seemed like a good idea to get my military service out of the way. Joining the army would also allow me to withdraw officially from my classes even though the withdrawal period was over.
I went to my draft board to volunteer to join the army, and I was sent to have a medical exam. A team of doctors examined me along with other young men. Blood was drawn, and we were given a receptacle to provide a urine sample. We were then told to get dressed and wait in the waiting room.
One by one, the other draftees and volunteers were given reports and dismissed. I was one of the last to remain in the waiting room. Finally, one of the doctors approached me. “Are you Harry Markowicz?” he asked. I replied in the affirmative, and he said, “I’m sorry, we can’t take you in the army. You have albumin in your urine.” He also advised me to see my own doctor and to tell him about the albumin. The news came as a shock—I had to return to my classes because I didn’t have a legitimate excuse to withdraw! Fortunately, I was able to finish my classes with passing grades.
By the spring quarter, I had learned that in the School of Arts and Sciences you could choose to be a pre-major and take just the classes that interested you. The only required courses were freshman English classes. Based on a test of English grammar, I was exempted from taking the first class. The second course entailed reading and class discussions of short stories, which I enjoyed; however, writing was a real challenge because I started revising compulsively as soon as I got a few words, at most a sentence or two, on the paper. This obsession to get it “just right” felt necessary to avoid a critical judgment by the reader.
When it was time to register for the following quarter, I met with my advisor, Mr. Otis, who may have been a graduate student. I explained my problem with writing. He saw in my records that my early schooling had taken place in Belgium. He replied, “Writing is taught very well in Belgium. I don’t think that’s your problem.” He suggested that I make an appointment at the student counseling center.
At the center, I was directed to a room where two individuals met me—a man and a woman. They told me to talk about myself. I asked what they wanted to know. They suggested I start with my childhood. I had never spoken to anyone about my childhood, not even within my own family. I had barely started telling the two counselors that I was born in Berlin in 1937, that my family was Jewish, and that I lived in hiding during the Nazi occupation of Belgium, when to my surprise, I felt tears running down my cheeks.
The counselors informed me that I would benefit from long-term therapy but that the student counseling center did not provide such a service. I would have to see a psychiatrist on the outside. I told my parents about the recommendation, but they didn’t think I needed to see a psychiatrist because I wasn’t “crazy.” I agreed with them.
More than two decades later, after I had moved to the Washington, DC, area, a friend told me she was seeing a very nice Jewish psychiatrist. I thought I would give it a try and I started meeting Dr. P. for weekly sessions. One of the issues that came up regularly was my ongoing struggle with writing. At that time, I worked in the Linguistics Research Laboratory at Gallaudet College (later to become Gallaudet University), and I had authored or coauthored more than a dozen academic articles in professional journals concerning the role of American Sign Language in the American Deaf Community. However, every piece of writing—whether a memo to my department or a letter of reference for one of my students—remained a challenge and a source of anxiety.
During one of my sessions with Dr. P., he leaned in closer to me as if to emphasize what he was going to say. “It does not matter whether you use this particular word or a different one,” he said. I wanted to tell him that it was important to me; I needed to get the right words to be clear and unambiguous to the reader. Before I could say anything, he added, “Harry, the war is over!” This comment was completely unexpected. My eyes started tearing up, and I felt that his words had connected directly with a painful aspect of my childhood.
As a child between the ages of five and seven, I had a secret identity; my survival depended on passing for someone else. Was my name Harry or Henry? Could I tell a boy in the Catholic school we attended that I was Jewish like him, or did I need to keep it a secret from him too? Was it all right for me to pee in the urinals in the courtyard at school if no other boys were around, or should I wait until after school when I was back home with my surrogate parents? What was I supposed to do when I unexpectedly saw my mother walking toward me in the street? Should I greet her, or did I have to pretend I didn’t know her? (I took the cue from my mother; she ignored me as our paths crossed.)
So many difficult decisions for a boy my age about what to do or not to do, what to say or not to say, without knowing the consequences of these choices except that the wrong choice could lead to some unimaginable punishment for all those who were closest to me. The safest thing was to do or say nothing. More than 70 years later, I can still hear a voice whispering in my head: “Keep your eyes down; don’t attract attention.”
Yes, the war was over; however, inside I was still that child in hiding.
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