Above is a photo of my mother (top row, center) and her cabin mates at Burr Oaks Camp in Mukwonago, Wisconsin. The date is August 1943. Last Friday we picked up my nephew Spencer from the very location this photo was taken 65 summers ago. Burr Oaks was a Jewish girls camp that began in 1928 and closed down some time in the mid-1970s. A few years later it reopened as a co-ed B’nai B’rith camp called Beber using the same beautiful grounds and buildings where my mother spent all her summers during the 1940s.
This was Spencer’s second year at Beber and he loved it. When my sister and I stumbled across the former Burr Oaks Camp two years ago after dropping Spencer off at a different camp nearby, we were flabbergasted that we found it and amazed that we recognized so many things from my late mother’s stories and photos. My mother had frequently talked about her years at Burr Oaks, but we never knew where it was or if the grounds still existed. When we got back to Chicago, I wrote a post mentioning the camp and was delighted to hear from a bunch of former Burr Oaks campers and counselors. I’ve even met some of them since then who shared with me their memorabilia from the camp. It seemed like a really special place. As I said in my previous post, my mother spoke often of the theatrical elements of Burr Oaks, including the night they would wake campers each summer and herd them to an open area where they would somehow project fairies dancing in the trees.
While there last Friday, we ran into Jennifer, one of the former campers I met through my blog whose kids go there now. The old Burr Oaks slogan, Lo-He-Ha (for Love, Health, and Happiness), is still visible throughout the camp along with the acorn motif. I remember my mother talking about Memory Hall which is now Crown Hall but is otherwise unchanged. We walked the 72 steps that my mother told us about and we gazed at beautiful Lake Beulah which is still there in all its glory, with the Beber kids doing many of the water sports the Burr Oaks girls did so long ago.
Most of my mother’s time at Burr Oaks took place during World War II. As I study the photos of the smiling Jewish girls lined up in their beautifully pressed white Burr Oaks uniforms (who would put active summer campers in clean white uniforms?), I can’t help but think of their counterparts in Europe during those same summers—girls who who looked just like them and came from the same well-off families but who were now being herded into crowded ghettos and then shipped off to Nazi death camps. Oy, I grant you that’s an abrupt transition from a happy reminiscence of summer camp, but it’s impossible for me to see those dates on the photos and not think of what was happening to the Jewish girls in Europe while my mother and her friends were singing camp songs in Mukwonago. I wonder if there was any awareness at the camp about what was going on in the world at that time. I’m sure they discussed the war at length, but did the girls know what was happening to the Jews of Europe?
As I looked at the photos posted daily of Spencer and his buddies over the past four weeks, I marveled at the team spirit and at all the fun the kids were having. I had my usual wistful thoughts about never having attended summer camp but then I started thinking that as great as it looked, I don’t think I was cut out for such camps at all. As much as I always long to be part of some idealized fantasy of community, I also carry major fears about groupness in general. To me, any large group of people united in purpose or belief or interest, whether it’s a crowd of campers at Burr Oaks or Beber, a gaggle of supporters at an Obama rally, a sold out stadium watching a Cubs game, or an audience full of enthusiastic Wilco fans, they always seem like they are two steps away from mob rule, capable of crushing anything in their path and losing their individual identities as they blindly follow whatever the group is commanded to do. What is wrong with me? Why do I simultaneously fear and crave being part of a group? Nothing grosses me out more than the chanting at political rallies or sports events, no matter what side I’m on. I always feel like I’m at a Hitler Youth Camp or Nazi rally, being indoctrinated into some larger cause that requires me to abandon my free will.
I know this is not what’s happening at most summer camps, certainly not at Burr Oaks or Beber, two institutions that are incredibly beloved by former campers across the globe, and yet I don’t think I could ever have fully embraced the group spirit that would have been necessary for me to get the most out of that experience. I admire people like my nephew who truly understand the proper ethos of summer camp, but I think I am more like the old high school classmate I was talking to yesterday about the cliques we belonged to back in the day. “I only belonged to one clique,” she told me. “It was called the Anti-Social Club. We had no meetings.” At last—my people!