Studio City, California. -- I read recently that a children's hospital in Moscow received 150,000 brightly colored condoms as a humanitarian gift from Japan. The puzzled hospital administrator was quoted as saying that after trying, in vain, to exchange the condoms for something more useful, he had them distributed among the hospital staff.
Then there is the Russian housewife who was described as dumbfounded by a can of hot chili and beans sent by a Texas donor. "What is this?" the befuddled woman said in amazement, "What do you do with it?"
I am sure the donors meant well. Sometimes, when diverse cultures meet, it is hard to avoid misunderstandings and mutual bewilderment. I know. There was a time when I too was getting amazing and confusing gifts from well-meaning people. This was in 1945, in Germany, shortly after the end of the war, after my concentration camp was liberated by the U.S. Army and we were transferred to a Displaced Persons camp.
Soon, trucks delivered crates filled with boxes and packages that had been donated by concerned Americans. There was canned food, clothing, soap, cigarettes, cookies, chocolate and everything else. There was also a problem. Every crate, box and package were plainly marked, in big black letters: "GIFT"! The problem? In German, spelled exactly the same, the word "gift" means "poison"!
It took a while before we were convinced that the nice American people had not decided to finish what the Nazis began by poisoning us all.
Next came the water powder. A U.S. army truck dropped off several large metal drums filled with a white powder. Each drums was marked "Water Powder." This was easily translated, but the problem remained: What do you do with water powder?
Obviously, our sages reasoned, water powder is something that can be converted into water, just as the lemonade powder the GIs would give us could be made into lemonade by dissolving it in water. But this made no sense -- if you already had water to add to the powder, then why bother converting the powder to water? Crazy Americans . . .
It took much discussion, thought and scratching of heads until, a few days later, a German-speaking American explained to us that the powder was water-purification powder, to be added to unsafe or polluted water.
Then there were the one-handed American boxing gloves. The children's camp to which I was transferred later, got a shipment of American athletic equipment. There were ping-pong sets, soccer balls, boxing gloves and basketball nets.
There were also strange elongated leather balls, shaped something like large brown cucumbers, that bounced strangely and unpredictably if you tried to play soccer or basketball with them. They were completely useless. We had never seen American football, and eventually we simply gave up, assuming that there must be a sport in American that somehow utilizes these strange leather gourds.
There was, however, another mystery. In one of the boxes there dTC were gloves, but very strange gloves. On their back they had kind of a pocket that was obviously designed for a hand. There were spaces for fingers and the whole thing fit like an enlarged, padded, expanded palm. The elongated fingers were attached to one another by a system of strings and, furthermore, the gloves could be worn on one hand only -- there were no pairs!
We tried everything -- there was nothing that made any sense. Finally, frustrated, we decided that in American boxing was done one-handed, palm open, and by trying to slap the opponent's face while wearing one of these gloves. We even tried to stage "American boxing" contests, but it never really caught on.
It was many years later, after coming to America, that I went to my first baseball game and solved the mystery of the baseball glove.
Si Frumkin is chairman of the Southern California Council for Soviet Jews.