(Please scroll down to the end to read the most recent essay. If you know the title of the essay you’re looking for, you can also search for it here. Alternately, you can look on the Index Page of this website, find the essay you want, then come back to this page, enter the name of the essay into the find feature to take you right to it.)
I knew nearly nothing of Trump before about 2015. I’d never seen any of the shows on which he’d been featured. I mostly remember reading about him as the punch line of a few sarcastic comments and jokes by Spenser, the hero of Robert B. Parker’s detective mystery series. (My favorite guilty pleasure reading.) But after he descended on that damned escalator…
I began writing most of the following pieces just before the election of 2016. The campaign and election unleashed some primal fears in me and—as I have gradually come to realize, and am still trying to fully comprehend—some equally long-held grief and rage. These pieces have been a way for me to explore, understand, confront, and express those feelings.
In a New York Times article, actor Vinnie Burrows, 96, replied to the question, “What gives you strength?” with the following. “My strength comes from those who came before me, as a Black person. Those who survived that Middle Passage, across the Atlantic, some who died in the holds of the ships. It definitely comes from that human experience that belonged to my great-grandparents, men and women, kidnapped from their home. Their struggle gives me my strength.” I can similarly say that what has fueled my writing are memories of my ancestors who survived the Holocaust—and those that didn’t. Like all of us, I am who I am as a result of many, many disparate influences. But, I am the grandson of two people who were murdered in Auschwitz. I am the son of a man who lost both his parents, three sisters, one brother, his wife and three children, and countless more distant relatives in Auschwitz; who survived three years in forced labor camps. I am the son of a woman who lost her only brother and her fiance in forced labor camps and who survived the Ravensbruck concentration camp and the forced labor camp in Penig. Those are enormous, if unquantifiable influences. They color the lens through which I view the world. As a result, much of what I have written is infused with reflections on the role of the Holocaust in my life even today.
In the process of bringing these pieces all together here, I came across a couple that I’d written before the 2016 election, but which heralded both some of the attitudes and events that led to that election, as well as my feelings about them.
They are here in the chronological order in which I wrote them.
September 2015 Leaving Hungary by Train This was originally published in the Washtenaw Jewish News.
It’s not often that Hungary makes international news. The last time it was in the headlines this much was nearly sixty years ago, in the aftermath of the Hungarian Revolution. I was eight years old then, and a very, very small part of that news. My family and I were among the more than 200,000 Hungarians who either escaped across the border to Vienna, and from there made their way to countries all over the world or, as we did, obtained legal visas (through semi-legal means) and emigrated to other countries, in our case to Israel.
I’ve lived in the United States for most of my life. I’m an American. I never think of myself as being Hungarian, but it is the country of my birth—and when I hear news of it, it draws my attention. And for me and for many others, despite the increasingly ugly current headlines, much of what we’re hearing about recent events in Hungary does not seem really new. We’ve seen it before. Of course I am speaking in the collective, not personal we. I, and most of us alive today, have never seen anything like this. But if I include in that we my parents, our relatives, and the other Holocaust survivors I’ve known, then yes, we have seen this before. We have seen crowds of people snaking through the streets of Budapest, accompanied by armed soldiers and police. Some of us were in those crowds. We have seen detention centers, overcrowded with mistreated, miserable people. Some of us were in those detention centers. We have seen trains stuffed with people, leaving Hungary and going to Austria and on to Germany. Some of us were on those trains. Many of us never made it back.
No, what is taking place now in Hungary is not what happened in 1944, but especially for us, there are sad resonances. My mother is gone now, but her tales of 1944 have been a part of my life for longer than I remember. They are a part of my family’s history and seem, like air, to have always been there. I breathed and inhaled them the same way I learned to speak my mother tongue. I have never forgotten them and I’ve not been able to see and hear the current news from Hungary without recalling them.
On December 2nd, 1944 my mother, along with thousands of other Jews, was herded through the streets of Budapest, to an abandoned brick factory on the outskirts of the city that was to serve as a temporary detention center. She recalled how people watched the procession from their apartment windows. “Some laughed, others shook their heads in sorrow.” On December 4, 1944, her twenty-sixth birthday, she was forced into an overcrowded cattle car on a train bound for Austria. When they got to the border she overheard an argument between the Austrian authorities and the Hungarian soldiers guarding the train. It turned out that the Austrians did not want to accept the transport. The Nazis had apparently decided they had enough slave labor and, as the American and Russian armies were advancing, the killing camps were winding down their gruesome operations. The Hungarians insisted they did not want to take the Jews back to Budapest and eventually the Austrians agreed, on condition that the Hungarians send no more transports. It was to be the last transport of Jews from Hungary. My mother recalled that the Austrians were more humane than the Hungarians. “They put us on passenger trains, not cattle cars, and gave us food.” The humane treatment ended as soon as they got to Ravensbrück, where she was to remain until April 13, 1945, when she escaped while on a forced march.
Trains also played a prominent part in my father’s wartime experiences. Though he himself was mostly forced to march to Poland, where he spent much of the war in the munkaszolgálat, the forced labor camps, his parents, three of his sisters, his wife and three young children, and many other more distant relatives all were forced to ride a fatal one way train to Auschwitz.
After the war ended my mother wound up in a displaced persons camp near Dresden. Despite being offered an opportunity to emigrate to the United States, she decided to go home to Hungary, and to what remained of her family.
Making her way back to Budapest, again via trains, was also traumatic. She recalled how Russian soldiers commandeered some of the trains eastbound from Germany and shoved her and other passengers out the doors and windows onto the station platforms. Also how some of them, while standing on the roofs of the railroad cars, amused themselves by urinating down on the hapless refugees. (My father mostly walked home from Poland, though he managed to hitch rides part of the way in ox carts.)
Like many of today’s refugees, I too left Hungary on a train. In the wake of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, my parents and brother and I boarded a train and bid farewell to our homeland. The Hungarian government erected fences then too. Unlike today when they are erecting fences on the border with Serbia, designed to keep refugees out, in 1956 the fences were on the border with Austria, designed to keep Hungarians in. People walked across the border then too, both before the fences went up, and after. My aunt and uncle were among those who escaped over that border. They packed what they could fit on the sled that my brother and I used to slide down the snowy hills of Buda, and pulled it to Vienna. When our family left Hungary after the Revolution we did not head to Germany. We went in the opposite direction, to Italy and from there by boat to Israel, and two years later to New York.
Hungary has been center stage and in the world’s spotlight since August, a role to which it is unaccustomed, but it is playing a character that is not unfamiliar to some of us. Some of the news from Hungary has been good—some Hungarian people have behaved admirably, helping the refugees in many ways. I am profoundly proud of them. Some of the news from Hungary has been bad. I am deeply ashamed and furious at those in Hungary who elected and continue to support the Hungarian government. That administration, among the most repressive and right wing in all of Europe, has behaved despicably and, as I write this, is preparing to do worse. Viktor Orban’s tirades about keeping Hungary and Europe Christian sounds an awful lot—and I do mean awful—like Hitler’s rantings and the crazed pronouncements of white supremacists in the United States and elsewhere. And while there is little danger that Orban can build a power base like Hitler did, or that white supremacists in America can gain much power, he and they have created much misery–and I fear will continue to. As I am writing this, new laws are about to go into effect in Hungary; laws hurriedly passed, as many other reactionary Hungarian laws have passed in recent years. These laws criminalize entering Hungary without a valid visa, and even worse, criminalize the act of helping refugees.
By the time you read this it will be October, and with winter coming on the waters between Turkey and Greece will probably have become even more dangerous to cross than they already have been, and the flood of refugees may slow. And undoubtedly there will be other developments we cannot foresee that will affect the current crisis. I do not presume to have any solutions to the many different horrible conditions in the Middle East, Africa, Afghanistan and in other countries, that have forced so many people to risk so much as they try to make their way to safety. Nor do I presume to know the best way for Europe, and the rest of the world, to help care for all these refugees
I do know that the Hungarian government’s response is, besides being misguided and ineffectual, is flat out wrong and truly disgraceful.
Maybe the old saying—no news is good news—is true. It might be nice not to hear any news from Hungary for a while. But perhaps the old saying is not true. It’s possible that the comparatively little attention that Hungary has gotten from international media over the years—the no news—has not been so good. Maybe that relative obscurity has allowed the cancer of xenophobia and its contemptible siblings, racism, anti-Semitism, Islamaphobia, homophobia and intolerance of all “others”, to grow again in Hungary to levels we last saw in the 1930s and 1940s.
I am very grateful that my parents decided to leave Hungary.
10/30/2016 Why I Can’t Be Silent
Throughout much of my adult life I have voted regularly, and have paid more than cursory, if less than exhaustive attention to candidates and issues. I have occasionally been elated, more often disappointed. But for the most part I have not attached too much importance to the outcome of elections. I’ve never felt—correctly or not—that the results significantly impacted my day-to-day concerns. My life has been mostly about my work and my family, and politics has seemed not to affect either one very directly.
This year has been different. I have found myself truly fearful at the prospect of a Trump presidency.
Both my parents lived through the Holocaust. Like many survivors, they rarely talked of what they had experienced. I did know from an early age that my mother spent months in the Ravensbruck concentration camp, and that her only brother and her fiancé both died in work lagers; that my father survived work lagers in Poland, but lost both his parents, three sisters and his only brother in Auschwitz. But it wasn’t till I was sixteen that my mother let slip one day that she was my father’s second wife, and that his first wife and three children were also murdered in Auschwitz. And it wasn’t until I was fifty that I managed to finally get my father to speak of that first family.
Many years before that though, soon after I started to learn of my family’s history, I vowed never to allow what happened to my parents and their loved ones happen to me and mine. I swore to myself that I would keep a sharp eye out for the fires of vicious intolerance that engulfed my parents’ families; that if I saw the embers of those hatreds begin to glow again—for I knew they’d not been totally extinguished in Europe, our country, or anywhere else—I would not wait for them to burst into flames before I acted. Early on in his candidacy, Trump tripped alarms to which I long ago had vowed to listen.
The night after the third presidential debate, I went to see a production of Macbeth. No, I didn’t go because I wanted to see another power-crazed, deeply deluded, would-be tyrant strut about on a stage. I went because my daughter was in that production. But once there, I found it remarkable how often lines from the play spoke to my fears about the current campaign. How could I hear, “What’s the newest grief?” without thinking of the latest Trumpian outrage? And when I heard, “I think our country sinks beneath the yoke,/It weeps, it bleeds, and each new day a gash/Is added to her wounds,” I thought not of Macbeth’s ancient Scotland, but of our own nation, today. And when Malcolm says this of Macbeth? (The words in parentheses define the words they follow, what they meant in Shakespeare’s time.) “I grant him bloody,/Luxurious, (lecherous)/avaricious, false, deceitful,/Sudden, (violent) malicious, smacking of every sin /That has a name.” I didn’t hear Macbeth described, I heard slight hyperbole for Trump. OK, I grant him not bloody.
In the play, Macbeth and his henchmen murder Macduff’s wife and three children. In this production my daughter played the role of one of those children. Given that, and given my family’s history, it’s not surprising that the scene in Macbeth that affected me the most was Macduff grieving after he learns what happened. I thought of my father, after enduring several years in a work lager, returning home to find his wife and three children gone forever.
Early in the play, soon after he murders Duncan, Macbeth, pretending to speak only of the recent stormy weather, says, “’Twas a rough night.” I couldn’t help but hear that as a reference to the previous night, the night of the third debate—which was rough. But, it’s been months of rough nights, and days. And “Present fears/Are less than horrible imaginings.”
There were many other resonances in Macbeth to current events, but perhaps the one most apt was this, “If such a one be fit to govern, speak.” No, I don’t think our country—despite Trump and some of his followers—is now anywhere near where Germany was in 1933. And no, I can’t bring myself to believe, even should the unthinkable happen—Trump elected—that it would inevitably lead to an American Holocaust. But I do know that Trump, whose speeches are laced with distortions, wild exaggerations and outright lies, with racist, xenophobic, misogynist, and anti-Semitic innuendos, dog whistles, code words, and winks and nods, and who, despite all that—or sadly, in some cases because of all that—manages to inspire loyalty among millions, is a very dangerous man and one who needs to be soundly rejected. “Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill.” Because it’s worth noting that it took Hitler less than eight years—the length of two American presidential terms—to transform significant parts of the German population into perhaps the most brutally efficient mass murder machine the world has yet known. And that he somehow simultaneously managed to mute and muzzle much of the rest of Germany, and even the world, and prevent them from acting from their better, more human instincts. “Bleed, bleed poor country!/Great tyranny, lay thou thy basis sure,/For goodness dare not check thee.” It’s also worth noting that our country’s track record is not encouraging when it comes to the history of our treatment of Native Americans, African Americans, and many groups of new immigrants.
It-can’t-happen-here style complacency is not an option in this election. If you’re thinking of not voting, or planning to vote for a hopeless third party candidate, please think again. It’s the monstrous Lady Macbeth who says, “Things without all remedy/Should be without regard. What’s done is done.” There is a remedy, and no, it is not done.
Whether Trump is elected or not, there has been enormous damage done. “You have displaced the mirth, broke the good meeting/With most admired disorder.” Yes, I know, it was not by any means all “mirth” and “good meeting” before Trump. In fact, one can argue that too little “good meeting” is part of what led to Trump. After the election there will need to be a significant period of reflection and healing for our country. “Alas, poor country,/Almost afraid to know itself.” We will need to find ways of listening to and talking with each other to learn why and how it was that so many felt so unheard that they were willing to support such a candidate.
“Things at the worst will cease, or else climb upward/To what they were before.” I echo that. At the very least we need to “climb upward” to where we were before Trump and, I fervently hope, well past that.
12/15/16 Yarmulkes and Hijabs
When my twin brother and I began attending grade school in 1955, in Budapest, Hungary, our father applied for, and received, special permission from the government for two things: as religious Jews, my brother and I would be allowed to wear our yarmulkes, (skullcaps) in school; also, we’d be allowed to not attend school on Saturdays, so we could observe the Sabbath with our family. (In Hungary in the 1950s, schools were in session six days a week.) Our parents arranged that on Sunday afternoons we’d visit one or another of our classmates and catch up on what we’d missed in school the previous day. In first grade I recall no problems with any of our teachers or classmates about either issue.
In the fall of 1956, we were in second grade. That November the Hungarian Revolution flared. Schools were closed for a time, and when they reopened, things were different. New people were in charge of the government and they were going to make some changes. One day a minor official visited our classroom and, making no attempt to lower his voice, or to hide his disgust, asked our teacher, “Who are the two monkeys with the beanies back there?” One of our classmates, a girl who was our most frequent Sunday afternoon tutor, piped up—with courage well beyond her eight years. “They’re not monkeys. They’re our friends.” Emboldened, a small chorus of our classmates echoed her. The rest of the conversation between our teacher and the official was conducted in the hallway, outside our classroom. No one ordered us to remove our yarmulkes.
Our family emigrated from Hungary a few months later and eventually settled in the US.
Since the election, there has been an ugly uptick of harassment, and even violence directed at people, Muslim women wearing hijabs, for example, whose clothing or skin color marks them as belonging to one or another of the groups that have been disparaged—and threatened—by the president-elect as well as by vocal members of some of his followers.
From here on out we may all have opportunities to speak up and defend each other.
2/15/17 The Rose Street Women and the Women’s March
Almost exactly 74 years ago, in 1943, a group of non-Jewish German women in Berlin staged a series of peaceful protests to demand that the Nazis release their Jewish husbands. The men had been arrested and were being held in a building on Rosenstrasse (Rose Street) waiting to be deported to Auschwitz. The women, only a handful at first, but eventually about a thousand, stood in the street in front of the building, in winter weather, and chanted over and over, “Give us back our men!” They refused orders to leave, even after SS troops set up machine gun nests. After their forceful stand had gone on for six days, in late February and early March, Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, ordered the release of the men.
I first read about this inspiring, and nearly forgotten bit of Holocaust era history in 1993 when, on its fiftieth anniversary, this amazing act of bravery was finally recognized and celebrated. (A large, multi-part stone sculpture by the German sculptor, Ingeborg Hunzinger, now stands near the site of the Rose Street protests.)
The story moved me deeply at the time, and it recently resurfaced in my memory when my wife and daughter decided to go to Washington for the Women’s March.
No—despite what Trump tweeted recently—we’re not living in Nazi Germany. (Although he hasthreatened to deport millions.) Nevertheless, there are now some clear threats to our democracy, and to the world, posed by this president and his administration. So I was, and am, proud beyond words of my wife Brenda and my daughter Emily, who along with nearly half a million women, men, and children, traveled to Washington and joined countless others throughout the rest of our country and around the world, to protest the words and actions of Trump and his cohort.
I fell in love with Brenda for a lot of reasons, but one of the main ones was her character – her honesty, loyalty, and sense of fair play. She would certainly have been one of the Rose Street Women. And Emily has also already clearly exhibited that she has inherited the same courageous genes.
I also remember my mother, who had an opportunity to hide out from the Nazis in a friend’s Budapest apartment during the war. However, she chose to stay by her sister’s side and wound up in a cattle car to the Ravensbrück concentration camp, where she would help save her sister’s life several more times. She too would have been on Rose Street.
It will take many, many of us, standing up, marching, and acting to counter Trump’s revolting and contemptible statements, his regressive executive orders, and the similarly repressive laws that some of his supporters will try to enact. But I am grateful and – based on my experiences with the women in my life – not surprised that women are leading and showing us the way.
2/28/17 Kids Are Kids the Whole World Round
Kids are Kids the Whole World Round was the first elementary school musical that my brother and I wrote. Published in 1997 by the Hal Leonard Corporation, the half-hour musical featured eight of our songs connected by short monologues we wrote to introduce each song. Over the years we’ve heard from many music teachers around the country who have used it to present programs with their third or fourth graders, but we never saw an actual performance. Until now. On February 16th, coincidentally—but very appropriately—on the national “A Day Without Immigrants,” we heard the fourth graders at Rogers School in Berkley, Michigan, perform the musical in the afternoon for their teachers and schoolmates. That night they presented it again for their parents and families.
First things first—the kids at Rogers were great! Their music teacher, Maryann Maiuri, had prepared them very well and they sang in tune, in rhythm, and, most importantly, with feeling. They delivered the monologues from memory, with enthusiasm and dramatic flair. Laz and I were delighted and moved—a couple of times to tears—by their beautiful presentation.
We wrote those songs and monologues more than twenty years ago, a couple of the songs nearly thirty years ago. Several of them are still in our sets at many of our concerts. But we hadn’t seen or heard the monologues since the musical came out. As we listened to the kids perform Kids are Kids, Laz and I were both struck by how much of it, songs and monologues both, seemed eerily timely and relevant—and much more so today than when we wrote them, or at any time since then.
The first song of Kids Are Kids is “Hello,” which features greetings in eight languages, and which has been our opening number at almost all of our children’s and family concerts since 1988. The monologue that follows goes like this: “We just greeted you, and each other, in all those languages because, although we live here in the United States, we are connected to people the whole world ‘round. After all, every one of us, including Native Americans, has ancestors who came here from other parts of the world. Maybe it was our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, or great-great-great grandparents… Maybe they came from Europe, Africa, South America, India or China… They spoke different languages…they looked and dressed differently from one another…they cooked different foods. Yet they all worked together to create one great country! We can continue to do the same today, because, just like them, deep inside, we are all much more alike than we are different. Inside, we are really all the same.”
You get the idea. Here are some lyrics from “All the World”: “All the world is a rainbow/What color are you? Are you red black or white, are you yellow or brown, are you some other shade or hue?” “Everybody Once Was a Kid” pays homage to some of my heroes: Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth, Amelia Earhart, Aretha, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, the Beatles, Michael Fox, Baryshnikov, Peter, Paul and Mary, and Elvis. “If We Care” was the only song that featured soloists, and they were magnificent. I’m hoping there was an adequate supply of Kleenex around for their families when they sang, “If we care, and we share, then we’ll all have enough. If we don’t, or we won’t, it’ll be tough, it’ll be rough. But if we love one another, deep in the heart, that’s the start.” Laz and I sure used some. The musical ends with “The Sun’s Gonna Shine” featuring lyrics that proclaim an optimism that I have been struggling to feel since November 8. “The sun’s gonna shine, shine on me, I can feel it in my bones.”
I have never sat down and said to myself, “Today I will write a song about immigration, or about the value of diversity, or about the necessity of tolerance.” Like most writers, I work from my life experiences, sometimes without even recognizing till much later what was the impetus or inspiration for what I’ve written. But listening to the kids perform Kids Are Kids, I realized what was one main impulse that sparked those songs and monologues, and, for that matter much of the rest of our music—our original songs and the traditional ones we’ve included in our sets over the years.
Although we were not born in this country, having come here as children with our parents, I’ve not thought of myself as an immigrant in many, many years. I have long felt thoroughly American, and never think of myself as being Hungarian, though I was for my early childhood; or Israeli, though I was that for a few years before we came to America. But for months now, I have been frequently, forcefully, and very unpleasantly reminded that I am an immigrant and, but for the accident of the timing and location of my birth, might have faced the same rejection that many of today’s refugees and immigrants face in moving, or trying to come to America.
My family and I came here legally but, like most immigrants and refugees the world over—for eons before us, and up to the present day—we left our homeland to escape violence and persecution, and to seek a chance at a better life.
Our family did that twice. First, my parents uprooted themselves and my brother and me from the only country all of us had ever known; my father was 47 years old, my mother 39. We left behind most of our relatives, most of our possessions, our language, my parents’ work, our whole way of life—and moved to Israel and started over. And then, less than three years later, we did it all again to move to the US.
My brother and I were just kids—eight years old the first time, almost eleven the second. It wasn’t that hard for us. The new languages came pretty easily and, with the flexibility and resiliency of the very young, we readily made new friends, and learned new customs. It was much more difficult for my parents, but they did it knowing that because we were Jewish we’d face—at best—prejudice and limited educational and work opportunities and—at worst—lethal persecution in Hungary. We left Israel because in the late fifties the only work and way of life available to my parents simply presented too many difficult changes for them to make at their age.
I’m not arrogant enough to think that I’ve given more to this country than I’ve received from her. Just the opposite, in fact. But, like most of us, immigrants and others, I’ve tried to live a good life here, tried to live a life that has felt honorable and worthwhile to me, my family, my community, my country, and ultimately the planet. And, like many of us—and unlike the current administration—I don’t now feel that there’s no more room in this country for others facing the hardships—and far worse—that my parents faced when they decided to leave their homeland. I’m also not so egotistical as to think that our one little musical, sung by a couple dozen kids at Rogers School (and by a few hundred other children at elementary schools that are doing this musical around the country) will have any effect against Trump’s illegal executive order. But I can say with some certainty and even a little pride that—unlike Trump’s order, which has and will—this little musical can’t hurt.
11/8/2017 What a Piece of Work is Man – the One Year Anniversary
“I heard the news today, oh boy…” It’s the opening line of the Beatles song, “A Day in the Life” and one I’ve thought, hummed, or said, frequently since last November. The ongoing Shakespearean tragicomedy that is the Trump presidency has spawned countless news stories that have invited—at best—a wry “oh boy” response. But there were two news stories in the New York Times on October 16 that elicited twin, and highly contrasting, “oh, boy” reactions from me. The first was a piece by Dennis Overbye about astronomers’ recent announcement “that they had seen and heard a pair of dead stars collide,” an event that took place 130 million years ago. This collision of two neutron stars was of such enormous violence that it literally shook the universe. “It was a century ago that Albert Einstein predicted that space and time could shake like a bowl of jelly,” in the aftermath of such an event, but this was the first time that astronomers had been able to detect and document such an occurrence.
As often happens when I read or hear about events of such astronomical magnitude, I simultaneously feel intensely tiny and insignificant, and also gloriously pulled out of my ordinary existence and, momentarily, profoundly grand. It’s probably obvious why I would feel miniscule and irrelevant, but perhaps less clear why I’d feel so expanded. It is because in those moments I feel an overwhelming sense of wonder not only at the ongoing miracle that is my life, all life on our planet, and the vastness and glory of the universe, but also at the marvel that I am a member of a life form that has begun to comprehend those miracles, that vastness and glory; that I am a member of a species that has been able, in the cosmic-time blink of an eye that is the history of the human race on our planet, to begin to understand and explain events that have happened almost unimaginably long ago and far away. “What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!” Who besides the Bard could have put it better?
I talked about the neutron stars collision with a friend that day, and she said when she hears of these kinds of discoveries she can’t comprehend them: “My brain turns tail and runs back to my everyday world.”
Ah yes, the everyday world. The other news story that caught my attention that day was the one reporting on Trump’s handling, or rather manhandling, of the events following the deaths of four American soldiers in Niger. (Trump told one of the soldier’s widow that “he knew what he signed up for.”)
What a piece of work indeed; how small, how mean, how low. To quote Chubby Checkers from his song “Limbo Rock,” in which he sang, decades before Trump began to lower the bar precipitously on honesty and civility, “How low can you go?” Or, to quote the anonymous Scottish lyricist who penned lines that could be the credo of the Trump/Bannon cohort, “You’ll take the high road and I’ll take the low road…”
Einstein wrote in 1922, “A quiet and modest life brings more joy than a pursuit of success bound with constant unrest.” Einstein, the man who may have aspired to that quiet and modest life, yet whose discoveries illuminated our best understandings of the entire universe; Einstein, the man whose very name has become synonymous with genius of the highest order, was vilified and denigrated by the Nazis for doing what they disparaged as “Jewish science.” Their venomous lies and heinous acts have been renounced and repudiated by much of humankind, while his insights and predictions—including one that was just verified after those neutron stars’ collision was observed—have been recognized and honored by most of humanity.
There’s another quote from the Bard’s Hamlet that I have occasionally found sadly apropos for—good lord, has it really already been nearly a year? “I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises, and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air—look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.”
OK, permit me to blaspheme and dare to change a few of Shakespeare’s words. “Wherefore I know not” should actually be, “wherefore I do know, and damned well too.”
Anne Frank wrote sadly, accurately, “I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions.” But she also went on to write, hopefully, and as it turned out, presciently, “And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more.” She knew, as so many others have understood throughout the ages, that in order to survive, we need to keep our eyes focused on our mundane, daily, earthly concerns, but that in order to truly live, we must also simultaneously try to keep our gaze on the heavens. And that, as the ancient Sufis also understood so well, “This too shall pass.”
3/30/2018 Parkland and the March for Our Lives
On December 14, 2012, at about eleven in the morning, my brother and I were packing up our guitars and other instruments in the multi-purpose room of an elementary school in Trenton, Michigan. A little while earlier we’d played a concert for the entire school, kindergartners through fifth graders and their teachers; everyone had now returned to their classrooms. We were alone, except for the custodian who was getting the room ready for lunch. The principal walked in and said, “We’re on lockdown.” That’s how we heard about Sandy Hook. The news, mind-numbingly horrific under any circumstance, was especially unsettling as we stood in a room which a short time before had been filled with two hundred children and their teachers.
There had been horrific shootings in schools—and in so many other places—before Sandy Hook and, like perhaps many of us, I’d managed to numb myself to them all. But, Sandy Hook hit close to home. Since the mid 1970s my brother and I have played thousands of concerts in elementary schools. At all our shows, the youngest children sit closest to the stage; that morning we’d been standing less than ten feet from the first graders and their teachers—kids and teachers just like the twenty first graders and six teachers who were shot in Newtown.
Sandy Hook, and the many heart-breaking shootings before and since, have all adhered to a nearly identical, disheartening template; shock and despair, followed by “thoughts and prayers” platitudes, feeble attempts and utter failures to legislate meaningful gun laws, and finally the vanishing of the tragedies from the news, and our consciousness, like the buried bodies of the victims.
At first, the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School seemed to track that same familiar, sickening pattern. But then came the young people, the survivors. They were not about to follow that blueprint.
One of the most loathsome lines I heard after Parkland, as after nearly every other mass shooting, was, “Now is not the time…” to talk about, or to legislate gun control.
In my mind, I’ve always retorted with, “If not now, when?” The ancient phrase comes from a Jewish scripture, the Pirkei Avot, or Ethics of the Fathers, a collection of ethical guidelines that are read and studied weekly in many synagogues. I remember reading them (usually unwillingly, I admit) along with my father and brother, in a small group of men from our congregation on many Sabbath afternoons when I was a teenager. After Parkland, several of those Pirkei Avot teachings came to mind.
The “If not now…” phrase, one of the most well-known from the Pirkei Avot, is actually the third of three sentences. The entire passage reads, “If I’m not for myself, who will be for me? If I’m only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” It doesn’t take a biblical scholar to see how they apply to the Parkland young people. I present Exhibit A. Former Senator Rick Santorum, he of the failed Santorum Amendment of 2001 that tried to promote the teaching of ‘intelligent design’ in public schools, recently also seemed to agree with the age-old teaching. Sort of. Responding to the activism of the Parkland young people he said, “How about kids instead of looking to someone else to solve their problem…” (Yes, I am taking the quote out of context. It’s even more idiotic in context.)
On the other hand, Emma Gonzalez, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School senior, and one of the founders of the Never Again movement, forged a stark and poetic re-stating of those ancient words when she ended her stunning, silence-filled speech at the Washington March for Our Lives with an even more succinct and powerful version of the proverb. “Fight for your lives before it’s someone else’s job.”
Gonzalez and the other Parkland young people have—to our country’s credit—received enormous support for their activism, but also—to our people’s shame—much ugly and obscene condemnation for daring to speak out.
The censures have ranged from the truly moronic—that they were crisis actors—to the simply stereotypical, that they are not mature enough to properly understand these complex issues. There’s a marvelous passage in the Pirkei Avot that speaks to this last condemnation. “Do not look at the flask but at its contents. You can find a new flask with old wine, and an old flask which does not hold even new wine.” These young people have offered moving reflections, and demanded thoughtful changes to gun laws that might save lives. On the other hand, the resounding silence, as well as many of the pronouncements and propositions of the “old flasks” don’t hold water, or much else that’s worthwhile. (Santorum again, “… Do something about maybe taking CPR classes!!??”)
Of course, the Parkland young people have also made naïve, green and callow statements. Yes, they’ve used profanity at times. But to dismiss their grief filled testimonials, their thoughtful prescriptions for sensible legislation, their passionate calls for change, because of their tone is, at best, two-faced and disingenuous. The Parkland young people don’t need me to defend them, but I can’t resist responding to their attackers—not with a quote from the Pirkei Avot, nor perhaps in a very Christian spirit—by borrowing another Emma Gonzalez quote, “We call B.S.!”
The Parkland young people have even taken on the very mature, difficult, sometimes uncomfortable, occasionally even painful task of self-reflection. They’ve understood and acknowledged that their unique status—being primarily white and well off—and their resulting privilege, has given them a platform and visibility that likely would not have been afforded to young people of color in other communities. They have confronted themselves and us not only with the necessity of creating changes that will prevent further tragedies like the ones they experienced, but have also insisted that we all recognize and face related issues, including gun violence against women and police shootings of unarmed black men. At the Washington MFOL rally, Jaclyn Corin, a survivor of the Parkland shooting, said during her speech, “We recognize that Parkland received more attention because of its affluence, but we share this stage today and forever with those communities who have always stared down the barrel of a gun.” Then in a moment weighed with great symbolic significance, Corin brought Yolanda Renee King, the granddaughter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, to the stage, visually, and viscerally connecting the gun control cause to King’s great dream of an end to racism, and to his message of non-violence.
I will confess to having my own initial reservations about the Parkland young people naming their movement Never Again. When you are, like I am, the son of two people who survived Nazi concentration camps, the phrase Never Again only refers to the Holocaust. Period. So, my first reaction to the use of that phrase by the Parkland young people was a somewhat testy, internal question. “Where do they get off co-opting that phrase?” Others followed close behind. “Is this willful or merely ignorant appropriation? And does that matter?”
I thought about it. I looked up the origins of the phrase. Apparently, it’s a bit unclear, but this much is pretty certain. It did not originate with the Holocaust. It wasn’t widely associated with the Holocaust till about 1968, when Meir Kahane, who founded the Jewish Defense League, an American extremist group, began justifying its violent tactics with the Never Again slogan. Kahane used the phrase as a call to arms, as a battle cry, and applying only to Jews. For him it was not, as it has been for me and for most others, a reminder that we must all be on guard to ensure that a tragedy like the Holocaust never happens again—to any people, Jewish or not. For most of us the phrase has served as a warning, tragically not always heeded, to never allow racial, ethnic, or religious hatreds to again lead to a Holocaust-like horror.
The longer I thought about it, the more I began to feel that Never Again did not belong exclusively to Jews and the Holocaust. I also started to see commonalities between the Holocaust and gun violence in this country. The numbers of victims are wildly different, and anti-gun-control advocates do not intend to target a single group the way the Nazis did. (Perhaps a debatable point…) But just as, over many years, the attitudes and laws—and lack of laws—that created the atmosphere that led, it seemed inexorably, to the Holocaust in Europe, the attitudes and laws—and, again, lack of laws—have entrenched a culture that has normalized the incredible carnage in our country and has culminated in Columbine, Newtown and Parkland.
It hardly needs to be said that the Parkland young people do not need my permission to adopt Never Again, but I freely and wholeheartedly give them my blessing.
My favorite passage from the Pirkei Avot is: “The day is short, the task is great. You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to withdraw from it.” The “Never Again!” mission of the Parkland young people will, sadly, take time to achieve. (It’s still only weeks since Parkland, and there’s already been another deadly school shooting, another unarmed black man has been shot by police, and there have been many other gun related deaths.) But Parkland has changed me. I no longer feel the numb ennui, the docile cynicism, the accommodating attitude that allowed me to tolerate the intolerable. Instead, I feel that President Obama was also speaking for me when he wrote to the young people of Parkland, and the others who have joined them. “We have been waiting for you. And we’ve got your backs.”
At the Washington March for Our Lives rally, young Yolanda Renee King unforgettably, delightfully, and with preternatural charm, led the massive crowd in chanting, “Spread the word! Have you heard? All across the nation, we are going to be a great generation!”
They already are.
3/25/2018 The Ann Arbor March for Our Lives Rally
My brother Laz, my daughter Emily, our friend Eric Fithian and I sang at the March for Our Lives rally in Ann Arbor on March 24th. When we began playing at 11AM, it was 34 degrees. I had on six layers, my ski cap and, for the first time in my career as a musician, wore gloves while playing guitar. (Emily also wore gloves, while Laz and Eric, the tough guys of our quartet, bare knuckled it.) Oh, and though I brought it, I didn’t play my beloved Martin guitar. It was only 28 degrees an hour before we started, and Eric said, “You can’t bring that beauty out in these freezing temps!” and insisted I play his Fender Stratocaster. So, I played electric guitar for the first time in almost fifty years.
We played The Hammer Song, We Shall Not Be Moved, Come and Go with Me, Down by the Riverside, Keep Your Eyes on the Prize, This Land is Your Land, This Little Light, Forever Young and We Shall Overcome. Together with the crowd of 4,000, we all sang, clapped, and swayed along, and at times cried. I introduced Forever Young by saying, “This is for the kids who started it all.” I got choked up halfway through that sentence and could barely finish the first verse. Emily was so moved she was unable to get through much of the second verse. People who are Laz and my age of course knew these songs and their history in the Sixties and Seventies, when they served as anthems of the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War rallies. But I saw little children and young people of all ages also singing with us. The music resonated just as powerfully as it did fifty years ago.
It wasn’t until several days after the rally that I suddenly remembered when it was that Laz and I had last sung those songs at a similar event. On March 20, 1982, almost exactly 46 years before the March for Our Lives, a neo-Nazi group came to Ann Arbor to hold a rally, and that day we sang at one of the counter rallies on the Federal Building Plaza.
I recall feeling immensely grateful for these songs on that day, and did again at the March for Our Lives rally a few days ago. These songs, intertwined as they are with the history of so many people’s struggles for freedom and justice, are truly our national treasure. We are all incredibly fortunate to have them, and to be able to sing them together.
Laz Emily San Eric
The day after the bloodshed in Pittsburgh my brother and I played a family concert as part of the 100thanniversary of Shaarey Zedek Synagogue in East Lansing. We’ve played for that congregation a number of times before; this date had been booked months earlier.
It never entered my mind to consider cancelling the concert. That’s not a statement about my courage, but rather a reflection of an attitude of “the show must go on” that my brother and I have adhered to… well, religiously, for more than 45 years. Still, the thought of what could happen did of course cross my mind, in the same way that, in the few days following news of an airline crash, most of us, I’m guessing, board a plane with a heightened awareness of the catastrophic possibilities.
Shaarey Zedek’s Rabbi, Amy Bigman, greeted us warmly, and naturally we talked of what had happened less than twenty-four hours earlier. She and her congregation had also been in the middle of their Shabbat morning services when they learned of the tragedy. Along with the congregation leadership she had decided to not make a public announcement at the synagogue, due to the number of small children at the services. Now she asked us not to refer to the event in our concert either, since our audience that Sunday morning would also include young children. Of course, we agreed; actually, we’d already decided that on our way to the concert.
So, we played the same lively, lighthearted songs we usually do at our family concerts for Jewish audiences. But, of course they now had additional layers of meaning and shading. Our typical opening song featureshelloin English plus in eight foreign languages, including Spanish, Arabic and Hebrew. You can easily guess what I was thinking as I was singing.
The words of the very familiar, “Hine Ma Tov,” How good it is and how lovely for people to live as one… rang particularly apt — and hollow. Still, for the most part, it felt like a typical concert: lots of singing along, enthusiastic and rhythmic clapping, some happy giggling and laughing when we acted out a story about two donkeys who gradually learn that they’ll only get to eat if they cooperate and pull in the same direction. “The moral of our story, the moral of our tale: if you work together, you will never fail.” Right.
And then came the four songs with which we often close our Jewish concerts: the medley of “Am Yisroel Chai,” The people of Israel live, and “Lo Yisa Goy” Lo yisa goy el goy cherev, v’lo yilmedu od milchama.Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, they will study war no more – Isaiah.We ended with “Shalom Chaverim,”Peace friends, a lovely slow round which we medley to the rousing, “Hevenu Shalom Aleichem,” literally We brought you peace, which is often used as a greeting or a farewell.
A few seconds into Hevenu Shalom, people began standing up. By the end of the first repeat, the entire audience was standing, singing and clapping along. I immediately understood that this was not a typical standing ovation. While clearly they’d enjoyed our concert, our audience was not standing for us. It was clear to me that they instinctively got to their feet in response to an ancient and universal human need to stand together with community; to speak out—in this case to sing out, to stand in solidarity with the oppressed, the weak, the broken, the attacked; to stand up and be counted; in a very real sense to live standing upright, rather than remain seated and silent in the face of evil.
11/25/2018 Thanksgiving Day Open Letter to Dr. Blasey Ford
Dear Dr. Blasey Ford
First of all, thank you. I believed you when you testified, and believe you still. Nothing has changed my mind, or diminished my feelings of gratitude to you for what you did.
Thanksgiving Day will be exactly eight weeks since you appeared before the Senate’s Judiciary Committee. So many events, so many news cycles, have come and gone since then that it sometimes seems as though it was a lifetime ago. I wonder if that’s the way it seems to you, or if that day continues to still resonate powerfully in your life and to affect your and your family’s daily life the way it did in the weeks before you testified. The media has for the most part, out of necessity, “moved on,” but I am appalled to hear that you’ve not been allowed to. I have felt revolted and sickened to read that you have continued to receive death threats, that you and your family still need security guards, and that you’ve been forced to move several times. I am writing to let you know that I—and I am certain countless others—have not, “moved on,” have not forgotten.
I imagine it’s possible that because of everything that has happened since your testimony, you’ve questioned your decision, and may have come to regret having spoken up. I would not blame you. But I want you to know how much I admired your decision to speak, as well as the way you carried yourself during your testimony. Trump’s cruel and malicious mocking notwithstanding, you were the personification of strength and grace, and an extraordinary example of how to act like a true citizen, patriot and human being.
Since the day of your testimony I’ve thought frequently of Galileo’s famous phrase “E pur si muove,” “And yet it moves.” He is credited with saying those words, speaking truth to power—in his case the Catholic Inquisition—affirming his observations that the earth moves around the sun, rather than the other way around. Even if his phrase is apocryphal, as it well might be, Galileo’s published works boldly affirmed the truth, despite the consequences he surely suspected he might suffer. In fact, he was subjected to house arrest for the rest of his life for his powerful and public affirmation of reality. He probably could not have imagined (as you couldn’t) the magnitude of those consequences.
Among the many aftermaths of your testimony, perhaps the one that may have been especially disheartening to you—it certainly was for me—that Trump and his followers chose to laugh at you, despite your moving statement that perhaps the most painful and distressing aspect of your harrowing experience many years ago was the laughter it provoked in your attackers.
Your story of hateful laughter also reminded me of one my mother used to tell. She was a Holocaust survivor, having endured the Ravensbruck concentration camp for several months in 1944 and 1945. She related how, shortly after she and her fellow prisoners arrived at that hellhole, the Nazis cut off their hair. But the Nazis weren’t content to merely disfigure them, they seemed to find it necessary to also humiliate them. Before the shearing the Nazis heartlessly baited them, “How short would you like your hair?” When the women, confused and hesitant, shyly indicated a length, pointing to a spot on their neck or shoulders, the Nazis brutally cut off all their hair, showed them a mirror and laughed, “How do you like the modern styling we gave you?”
My mother said, “I’ll never forget the wailing when we saw ourselves in those mirrors.” It was her most poignant memory of her entire ordeal. On April 15, 1945, she escaped from the Nazis while on a forced march and eventually made it back to her homeland in Hungary. She “moved on,” several times in fact, eventually emigrating with my father, my brother, and me to America. She rebuilt her life, created my brother’s and mine, and she never forgot. I also have not forgotten her stories, and I will not forget yours.
I hope that you and your family will soon be able to begin to heal from the trauma you have, and are still experiencing. I thank you again and wish you and your family a sweet Thanksgiving, happy Holidays and a great New Year.
3/18/2019 Christchurch – Blind Faith
I was alone in my house the other night. Before she went off to work in the late afternoon, my wife left me a sink full of dishes and the bread she’d made that needed to rise a bit more before it was ready to go in the oven. My wife’s bread is the best I’ve ever had. A sink full of dishes is a very small price to pay for it.
I turned on the radio and listened to the news while I loaded the dishwasher. The story that came on was about the killings in the mosques in Christchurch three days earlier; how the killer had videoed and live streamed his murderous acts on Facebook, and how the video was copied well over a million times. I confess that when I’d first heard about the killings I didn’t have a strong reaction. These kinds of things have become—incredibly—almost routine. But this now got to me. Videoed? Live streamed? Shared? Really??? This seemed almost more unfathomable than the acts themselves. I got choked up, my eyes filled, I turned off the radio and put on some music that I knew would help. Ever since November 2016, Joshua Bell’s recording, “The Romance of the Violin” has been my balm whenever a maelstrom of emotions threatens to overwhelm me. The ineffable beauty of Bell’s tone, the profound humanity of all of the pieces of music on this recording always seem to allow me both to feel, and to heal. I stood in the kitchen, listened, and breathed. After a while, I went back to the sink, finished the dishes, put the bread in the oven, and went out for a walk.
I live on a small street—only eight houses. It’s the kind of neighborhood where we regularly borrow eggs, milk, lawn chairs, chainsaws, and kayaks from each other; where if someone goes on vacation, somebody will mow their lawn, sometimes without even being asked; we’ve cared for each other’s pets, driven each other’s kids to school, and brought meals when someone came home after a hospital stay, and also after a funeral.
Walking past my neighbors’ homes, I began to notice, to my surprise, that I was feeling grateful; grateful that I didn’t lose any people I knew in those mosques; grateful I wasn’t the father, brother or friend of any of them or—God forbid—of the killer’s; grateful for the police, doctors, nurses and others who responded; grateful for music, grateful I was no longer as enraged or as desolate as I’d been before; finally, grateful for my great good fortune to be living among these neighbors, and hoping that the people in Christchurch also have neighbors like mine who will help them through this.
I walked toward a small city park. A man I know from the nearby neighborhood was walking his dog on the other side of the street. We waved to each other, then crossed to meet in the middle of the street. “I’ve been listening to Blind Faith,” he said. “I haven’t heard them for a long time.” I told him about needing to hear Joshua Bell after listening to the news. I didn’t say what news I’d heard, but he replied with a sigh, “I get it.” I walked home, took the bread out of the oven and cut a still steaming slice. It was delicious, even better than usual. I sent my wife a picture of the loaf and thanked her. Then I found Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home” on YouTube. It’s a sad song, but fortunately, tonight, not my fate.
What are the odds? On a night when my faith in humanity, and in our future, is at low tide, I can walk among my neighbors and be reminded of reasons to have faith, and even meet someone who reminds me, of all things, of blind faith.
5/31/2019 The St. Louis – 80 Years Ago and Today
A good friend of mine recently sailed from Key West to Havana and back, taking third place in the Conch Republic Cup. (The race, with the intention of promoting “Cultural Exchange Through Sport” has been going, on and off since 1996.) Over breakfast after he returned, my friend told me about his trip and we looked at pictures and videos on his laptop. We talked of the occasionally rough weather, complete with thunderstorms and “boiling seas” that they’d briefly encountered one morning while sailing the 90 mile stretch of sea between Cuba and the US. Inevitably, the subject of refugees and rafts came up. My friend’s 26-foot Hunter was the smallest boat in the race, and some of his fellow sailors marveled that he and his crew of four made the trip in a boat so small. We recalled reading about the flimsy rafts—much smaller, much less seaworthy than my friend’s boat—in which Cubans fleeing conditions under Castro—used to make the same journey. As we talked, a more than fifty-year old memory suddenly surfaced in my mind.
While still in high school, I’d come home one day and mentioned to my parents that we’d been learning about President Franklin Roosevelt in our American history class. My mother frowned darkly and said, with some heat, “He didn’t let in that ship.” I had no idea what she was talking about, or why she was so angry. Turns out she was talking about the St. Louis.
The St. Louis was a German ocean liner that, on May 13, 1939 left from Hamburg, bound for Havana, with 937 passengers on board, largely Jews fleeing Nazi Germany. Most had applied for US visas and planned to stay in Cuba only until they could enter the US. But by the time the St. Louis arrived in Havana’s harbor Cuban authorities had had a change of heart and would not allow the passengers to disembark. Forced to sail on, the ship passed within sight of Miami; some passengers cabled President Roosevelt, pleading for refuge. He never responded. The ship eventually sailed back to Europe where the refugees were taken in by England, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Over 250 of them died in German occupied lands during the Holocaust.
The saga of the St. Louis attracted a great deal of international media attention at the time, and my mother had followed the news in her native Budapest, where she herself was already beginning to feel effects of the anti-Semitic hatreds of pre-war Hungary, and would soon experience the full horrors of the Holocaust in the Ravensbruck concentration camp in Germany. More than twenty-five years later, when I brought up President Roosevelt’s name, she still remembered.
Neither my high school American history textbook, nor my teacher had mentioned the St. Louis. Likewise, I’m fairly certain that my curriculum probably also whitewashed or left out entirely many other shameful acts in our country’s history, including some of FDR’s other failings. Besides neglecting the story of the St. Louis, that history book almost certainly failed to mention Japanese internment camps, the racial exclusion policies that were aspects of the New Deal, and the relatively minor, but telling fact that FDR never invited Jesse Owens, the undisputed star of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, to the White House; all facts I learned only years later, and only because I majored in history in college.
I know every president has occasionally needed to—and has—made distasteful, ethically questionable, even painful and immoral political compromises for the sake of a perceived “greater good.” My sense is that, despite his serious failures, FDR, who led our nation through arguably one of the most difficult periods of our history, did far more good than harm.
I also know that our country’s current immigration policies need thoughtful review and updating. The St. Louis carried 937 passengers, a not insignificant number of human beings, but nevertheless far fewer than the number affected, and undoubtedly traumatized, by family separation and the other recent and current immigration control policies of Trump and his administration. It’s utterly inconceivable to me that any future history book will praise Trump as we now mostly acclaim FDR. But even if it turns out that there’s no justice, and historians hence will view Trump the way we now regard FDR, there will be countless mothers—like my mother, who never forgot what FDR did—who will remember Trump, and will not allow their children to forget.
6/26/2019 Anniversaries of Resistance
I was very glad to read that Scott Warren is free—for now anyway. (Warren, a volunteer with the Arizona organization No More Deaths, faced up to twenty years in federal prison for allegedly providing humanitarian aid to two people attempting to cross into the US from Mexico.) Earlier this month his trial resulted in a hung jury, but authorities may still decide to retry him.
I admire Warren for several reasons. He behaved with genuine humanity in a situation where many others have been “simply following orders,” and some have even gone way below and beyond the call of duty, doing their jobs with malicious and unnecessary cruelty. (Some members of the Border Patrol were videoed pouring water out of jugs that volunteers with organizations like No More Deaths had placed in the Arizona desert to try to prevent people from dying of thirst.)
But the actions of Warren, and others like him, also resonated because they reminded me of stories my parents told of people who, risking their own lives, helped save some of their relatives during the Holocaust. There was the woman who, years before, had worked as a cleaning woman for my mother’s family, and hid my mother’s sister in her own apartment in Budapest during the Nazi occupation, thereby saving her from being deported to Ravensbrück—the way my mother was. And there were the two Hungarian policemen, brothers, who had fallen in love with two of my father’s sisters and hid and protected them, and even went to the deportation train stations to try to find and rescue some of their relatives.
Whenever governments or despots have created unjust laws, there have been courageous people who have resisted, thwarted them, and acted with compassion toward the human beings targeted by those laws—often at terrible cost to themselves. This June we’ve observed the anniversaries of several of these kinds of events—Tiananmen Square, D-Day, American women winning the right to vote, and Stonewall—and we’ve also heard about the recent protests in Hong Kong, Sudan and Honduras. All these, and the remarkable struggles and victories of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and others—and even Scott Warren’s comparatively small, though heartwarming acts of compassion—exemplify a bittersweet truth; the price of liberty is often even more than just eternal vigilance.
Postscript: The federal government did decide to retry him, but at that second trial, on 11/20/2019, Warren was found not guilty. He said afterward, “The government failed in its attempt to criminalize basic human kindness.”
7/19/2019 Fiftieth Anniversary of the Moon Landing
This article first appeared, in slightly different form, in the Detroit Free Press in July 1969.
On the evening of July 21, 1969, my father and I were walking home from synagogue after evening prayers. The previous day our family had watched TV together as astronaut Neil Armstrong uttered his famous words, “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind. Now I pointed up at the faint crescent moon in the still light sky and said to my father, “Isn’t it amazing to think that there was a man walking around up there? My father didn’t even look up. Staring intently ahead, he said with conviction. “There were no people up there.”
I was flabbergasted.
“What do you mean there were no people up there,” I exclaimed with some heat. “We just saw it on TV!” Taking little note of my outburst, my father went on in a condescending tone. “They faked those scenes in some desert.” (To be fair, my father was by no means alone in believing the various conspiracy theories that began circulating even before Apollo 11 blasted off from Cape Canaveral. Various polls have found that up to 20% of Americans believed that the moon missions were faked.)
Before I could begin to argue against the preposterousness of this theory, he added, “They can’t be on the moon. It says in the Psalms, “’The heavens are for God, but the earth he gave to mankind.”’
Well, that was that. There was no arguing with my father on matters of God, dogma and religion. I was then 20 years old, he was 58. He was a cantor and had studied the texts of Judaism all his life. He could always pull rank. We walked the rest of the way home in an angry silence.
Fifty years ago, there were many other things about which my father and I could not talk. In particular, we never talked about his life before I was born. It was my mother who told me, when I was about sixteen, that she was my father’s second wife. That his first wife and three young children, as well as his parents, three sisters, his only brother, and countless other relatives and friends were all murdered in Auschwitz. That he’d been in a work lager in Poland for much of the war and had almost starved to death. It was silently understood in our family that no one mentioned these things in front of my father.
It took me many years to begin to understand the effect of that tragedy, those enormous losses, and especially of that silence, on my father’s life and on mine. Eventually, gradually, my father and I did begin talking — even about his slaughtered family. And I started to see how, and why, he might have taken such an absolutist stance about the moon landing, and about all other matters pertaining to religion. I began to consider the possibility that, having lost almost everything, including nearly his own life, my father might have felt it essential to cling so literally to his faith, almost the only thing that remained of the life he led before the Holocaust. That perhaps it was this faith that allowed him to start over and reconstruct his life, and even might have helped him give me a solid foundation for starting mine.
In 1999, just before the 30th anniversary of the moon landing, I again asked my father about it. Wanting to protect his dignity, I did not remind him of what he had said 30 years before. “Did you know,” he asked, “that they changed the Kiddush Levana after the moon landing?” (The Kiddush Levana is a prayer thanking God for the gift of the moon.) I said, no, I had not heard that. He continued. “In that prayer, we say to the moon, ‘Just as I leap toward you but cannot touch you, so may my enemies be unable to touch me harmfully.’ Well, they had to change that once people actually ‘touched’ the moon.”
I found it fascinating that my nearly 90-year-old father had come to tacitly accept the reality of the moon landing and had even found a way to bring it into concordance with his faith.
After talking with him, I asked several rabbis about the prayer and they all said that it has not been changed. One of them, though, did remember much discussion at the time of the moon landing about whether an alteration was necessary. (Now that I am older, and have my own “senior moments,” I can readily see how my father might have confused hearing about discussions of a possible change, with an actual change.)
I never told my father what the rabbis said. The Kiddush Levana has not changed—it was enough for me to know that he and I had.
This July 20th will be the 50th anniversary of that first moon landing. My father has been gone for thirteen years now, but I still regularly reflect on what he endured, how he persevered, and on his legacy in my life.
7/31/2019 The Women’s World Cup Champions and the Squad
I know—it’s been weeks since the World Cup final and since the ugly words Twittered at four Congresswomen—and much has happened in that time that’s been newsworthy. But I still find myself thinking about these two events.
I watched the final match of the World Cup and was thrilled and very moved when the US women won. For days after, I found myself choking back tears every time I thought or talked about the match or heard of it on the news. (I am tearing up even as I’m writing.) This was all very surprising to me. Although I was born in soccer-crazy Hungary, I never played the game. For that matter, I can’t remember ever seeing a live match or watching one on TV. I am ignorant of all but the most basic rules and terms of the sport. Of course, in the weeks before the game I did hear about the little Twitter tantrum from the White House following Megan Rapinoe’s refusal to visit, and also about the much more serious issue of women soccer players being paid less than their male counterparts.
Since I don’t normally follow the sport, both of these issues gave me a sense of the human dramas that were the backdrop for the championship match, but they still didn’t explain my reactions. What was going on? Was I remembering my father, who loved the game and played it often as a young man, albeit long before I was born? Probably not; none of my memories of my father feature a soccer ball. Was I thinking of my daughter who, though ten years younger than Rapinoe, is the same age as many of the players on the US team? I suppose; but my daughter never played the game, and I haven’t ever felt frustrated aspirations or expectations of her becoming a soccer star.
It took me days to begin to understand why I felt the way I did. What I eventually came to was that the women on that team made me feel proud to be an American—and not only, or even primarily, because of their spectacular achievement. For the first time since November 2016—after all the xenophobic, racist, misogynist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic words, images and actions that have emanated from the White House and from other leaders and some rank-and-file Americans—here were a group of women who for a brief period had become the face of America. For a few news cycles the world didn’t only see an America where children are cruelly separated from their parents, where people who are seeking refuge are locked in cages; they didn’t hear the leader of the free world vilify and threaten immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. Instead, all of us got to see America’s daughters playing a game with stunning skill and joyous abandon; got to see America’s daughters excelling, at their best; got to see the results of countless hours and years of intense effort and immense dedication. It was one of the best things we’ve shown the world in a while.
So, it was disheartening, though hardly surprising, when a week after the US Women’s World Cup victory, it was back to the same old, same old—and then some. Hate-filled words were again directed at asylum seekers, and a particularly cruel new policy was announced, making it nearly impossible to apply for asylum in the US. And soon it wasn’t only Megan Rapinoe who was being attacked via Twitter, but four Congresswomen, nicknamed “the Squad;” Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Like Ilhan Omar, I too am an immigrant, and a citizen. My family came to the US in late 1959 when I was ten years old. We had left our native Hungary soon after the 1956 Revolution. My parents were both Holocaust concentration camp survivors; the Revolution and its aftermath reminded them too much of their experiences during the second World War. They didn’t feel safe staying in their homeland. They tried to come here, but US immigration quotas did not permit that. (The Immigration Act of 1924, inspired in large part by the racist eugenics movement, specifically targeted Jews and Hungarians, among many other national and ethnic groups, and severely restricted the number of people from each of those groups who could emigrate here.) We moved to Israel for a few years before we were finally allowed to come to the United States.
In the sixty years that I’ve lived in this country, no one has ever told me to “go back where you came from.” Until now.
My brother and I are musicians. Although that’s been our work for our entire adult lives, it was only a little over twenty years ago that we began playing concerts with orchestras for children and families. I wrote a song especially for those shows. I designed ”The Orchestra is Here to Play” to introduce the instruments and musicians of an orchestra in a playful, child-friendly way. At the high point of the song, I wrote of the conductor, “he’s the one who knows the score.” My daughter was three years old when we began playing these shows, and, over the course of the next few years she saw us play many of them. In 2000, we performed with the Phoenix Ensemble, a terrific orchestra whose conductor was a very talented young woman named Annunziata Tomaro. It was the first time we’d worked with a female conductor. Naturally, I changed the line in the song to, “she’s the one who knows the score.” A few days after the concert, I caught my daughter, then six years old, standing in front of the full-length mirror in my office—the one I use to track my posture while I practice. She was conducting an imaginary orchestra and singing “And then there’s the conductor, she’s the one who knows the score.” It was the first time I’d ever heard her sing that song. I was thrilled to hear her put a lot of oomph into “she’s.” Clearly, she was inspired by seeing someone who looked like her.
In the song, “Children Will Listen” Stephen Sondheim wrote, “Careful the things you say/Children will listen. Careful the things you do/Children will see and learn. Children may not obey, but children will listen/Children will look to you for which way to turn/To learn what to be.” Later in the song he adds, “Tamper with what is true/and children will turn/If just to be free.”
The women on the US team, and the women of “the Squad,” have and will inspire young girls—and, I’m hoping, young boys too—and will serve as models “for which way to turn, to learn what to be.” Sadly though, these women—and many more women and men like them—are not the only ones who “children will look to.” But if those others “Tamper with what is true, children will turn, if just to be free.” And if we are fortunate, when our children see and hear those other people, our “children may not obey.”
11/23/2019 Colonel Alex Vindman
Near the end of his opening statement at the House impeachment inquiry, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman said, “When my father was 47 years old, he left behind his entire life and the only home he had ever known to start over in the United States so that his three sons could have better, safer lives.”
I can say nearly the exact same thing about my father. When he was 47 years old my father also left behind his entire life and the only home he had ever known to start over. Lt. Col. Vindman’s family left the Soviet Union, our family left Hungary in the wake of the Soviet Union’s brutal response to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. Lt. Col. Vindman’s father moved his family directly to the United States. My parents also attempted to emigrate with their sons—my brother and me—directly to the United States from Hungary, but US immigration quotas prevented that, so our family moved to Israel, and two-and-a-half years later managed to come to the US.
At first glance it would seem that, apart from that one scrap of similar background, Lt. Col. Vindman and I have little in common. A burly, decorated career Army officer who works in the West Wing of the White House is not easily mistaken for a slim (charitably described) folk musician who performs primarily for children and families. But it turns out there is more than just our common history that connects us. Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and I share the same name; my given name, Sandor, is the abbreviated Hungarian version of Alexander. We are both Jewish, we both have an identical twin brother, and we each work with our brothers. (Both of us are older than our brothers, he by nine minutes, me by twelve. At his public hearing Lt. Col. Vindman teased about the “lifetime of wisdom” those extra nine minutes have given him. I too pull rank when I can, rarely letting my brother forget that I am the ‘older brother’ and, using Lt. Col. Vindman’s calculation, I figure I’ve accumulated a lifetime-and-a-quarter’s worth of wisdom in my twelve-minute head start.) Lt. Col. Vindman and I each speak three languages—in his case Russian, Ukrainian and, as he joked, “A little bit of English”; in my case Hungarian, Hebrew, and I too will admit to a little bit of English.
But these parallels between Lt. Col. Vindman and myself, while interesting—to me at least—are not what struck me most forcibly as I watched his testimony. What made me lean in to the screen and watch increasingly misty eyed, was when he addressed his father who was not in the room, “Do not worry, I will be fine for telling the truth.” It reminded me of a similar conversation I’d had with my father about thirty years ago. I’d written an article in which I mentioned something I’d heard both my parents recount from their own experiences during the period of the Holocaust; that in many ways the Nyilas, the Hungarian Nazis, were worse than the German Nazis. When my father saw the article he said, “Be careful.” I was puzzled and asked why. Why should I worry about speaking out against people who had been in power in faraway Hungary fifty years ago? My father replied that there were still people in Hungary who sympathized with the Nyilas. I countered with words very similar to these of Lt. Col. Vindman’s,: “This is America. Here right matters!” My father was not reassured by my words. Having grown up in a country that not infrequently threatened and attacked Jews, that often violently repressed any opposition to its government, having barely survived the Holocaust, having lost his first wife and three children in Auschwitz, fifty years after all these events, even in America, he was still worried about his son.
Lt. Col. Vindman’s father also may not have been reassured by his son’s remarks, and perhaps rightly so. Even before his public testimony, Lt. Col. Vindman was being verbally attacked by some and, following his public testimony, the US Army began considering what measures might be necessary to protect him, his brother, and their families.
Lt. Col. Vindman and I share one resonance with Marie Yovanovitch and Dr. Fiona Hill. All of us are immigrants. Dr. Hill briefly mentioned in her opening statement that her “Very distinctive working-class accent” would have, in the England of the 1980s and 1990s, “impeded my professional advancement.” Given the virulently anti-Semitic attitudes and policies in the former Soviet Union and in Hungary, the fact that Lieutenant Colonel Vindman and I were born Jewish would certainly have impeded our professional advancement—at the very least—had our families stayed in our respective birth countries.
And yet, I can fully agree with Dr. Hill’s claim that her background “Has never set me back in America.” Sadly, alarmingly, that appears to be changing in our country lately, as anti-Semitic, racist and xenophobic attitudes seem to be on the rise.
Lt. Col. Vindman said that this December will mark forty years since his family moved to the US. For me, this Thanksgiving weekend will mark sixty years since my family arrived in the US.
Lt. Col. Vindman said, “I am grateful for my father’s brave act of hope 40 years ago and for the privilege of being an American citizen and public servant, where I can live free of fear for my and my family’s safety.” I too am immensely grateful for my parents’ brave act of hope, for the privilege of being an American citizen, and for the opportunity to do work that I love. And yes, to live where I—and I hope Lt. Col. Vindman and his family—can live free of fear. Lt. Col. Vindman’s words bear repeating: “This is America. Here right matters!”
Postscript: Of course, sadly, Colonel Vindman was wrong. Trump fired him, as well as his twin brother, Yevgeny, on 2/7/2020.
1/5/2020 Greta and the Whistleblower
It was a year, wasn’t it? Among all the myriad and momentous news of 2019—hopeful, disheartening, inspiring, demoralizing, heartbreaking and uplifting—two stories, about two people, have stayed uppermost in mind. In September, in the space of just a few days, Greta Thunberg spoke at the UN about the global climate emergency, and the Trump whistleblower story blew up. There are clear parallels between Greta and the whistleblower; they both warned us of grave and undeniable dangers and both have been repeatedly attacked by Trump and his enablers with infantile insults and incoherent fictions, with fabrications that attempt to divert the focus from the message to the messenger. Climate deniers and Trump apologists seem to agree that no inconvenient truth, or bearer of that truth, is safe from condemnation.
Greta and the whistleblower’s stories are linked in another critical way. While Trump has told innumerable lies and, with the support of his cohort, has committed numerous illegal, immoral, dishonorable, and unethical acts, (not to mention his latest incredibly reckless, foolhardy deed, ordering the assassination of two top officials of foreign nations) I know that none will have as vast, long-ranging effects as his disregard for the reality of the climate emergency.
Greta and the whistleblower each are remarkable examples of what human beings can dare to attempt, risk, and accomplish, despite enormous and frightening obstacles. And while it’s much too soon to know how successful they will be—whether Greta’s words will change minds, and actions, and redirect us from continuing to madly hurtle along our path of self-destruction, and instead course-correct us onto a path of sane sustainability—too soon to see if the whistleblower, and the many others who’ve confirmed his/her revelations, will turn out to be the first wave of a tide that will topple Trumpism—the incalculable worth of their actions is nevertheless assured.
There is a teaching in an ancient Jewish scripture that I have long found very meaningful. In the Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, a collection of ethical guidelines, Rabbi Hillel says; “Where there are no worthy people, strive to be a worthy person. Where people do not act in honorable ways, act with honor.” What I admire about Hillel’s directives is not only that they encourage us to do the right thing, even under difficult circumstances, but also that they don’t suggest that success, praise, or universal approval will follow. They just demand that we act, and act righteously. The righteous acts are their own reward.
While I found the failure of meaningful action by the nations of the world at the recent UN Climate Change Conference to be highly dispiriting, I am choosing to feel heartened by the people, businesses and governments that are “striving to be worthy” that are choosing to “act with honor,” around this critical issue. A small, but encouraging example; Ann Arbor, my adopted home town, recently acknowledged the reality of climate change, declared a climate emergency and set a goal of carbon neutrality by 2030. As this decade begins, I am also choosing to feel grateful and hopeful; grateful that Greta and the whistleblower spoke up, grateful that they are both safe, (though the whistleblower’s safety is very precarious following Trump’s latest illegal and obscene act, retweeting a post purporting to identify him or her) and grateful for the many, many people among us who have striven to be worthy, who have acted with honor. Of course, most of us are unlikely to have the dramatic impact that Greta and the whistleblower’s actions have already had; conversely, most of us will be spared consequences they may yet face. But I hope that they and we all, will continue striving to be worthy and honorable.
1/27/2020 75th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz
On January 27, 1945, the Russian Red Army troops liberated Auschwitz, the infamous Nazi concentration camp where, along with more than a million other people, eleven of my blood relatives—my paternal grandparents, two aunts, two half-brothers, one half-sister, their mother, (my father’s first wife and three children) two cousins, and an untold number of more distant relatives—were gassed and turned into ashes. (My uncle, my father’s only brother, was killed in Budapest, most likely shot on the banks of the Danube, his body carried away by the river. This was the preferred technique of the Hungarian Nyilas, which they used on approximately 20,000 other Jews. My aunt, one of my father’s younger sisters, died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen.) My father was not taken to Auschwitz with his family; two years earlier he’d been forced into the Munkaszolgalat, the work details attached to the Hungarian, and later Austrian armies, to toil as a forced laborer for the Nazis. He did not learn of his family’s fate till he returned to Hungary in late 1944.
My father always observed their Yahrzeit, their death anniversary, on Sivan 22, the date on the Jewish calendar that their transport arrived in Auschwitz; the presumption being that they, like most who were taken there, were gassed almost immediately. (Because the Jewish calendar is lunar, Sivan 22 does not fall on the same date every year on the Gregorian calendar. In 1944, it fell on June 13.) I too remember my relatives on Sivan 22, but especially on January 27, the day Auschwitz was liberated. The Yahrzeit date is for mourning all who were taken, the liberation anniversary is for reflecting on their lives, and how they continue to live in, and affect mine.
My father was a very fine singer, a cantor who led services in synagogues both small and large, humble and ornate, almost his entire life. I have been a musician for most of my adult life as well, and I certainly owe a huge nature-nurture debt to my father for that. But his father, my grandfather, may have been the one who began that family tradition, who originated the inheritance I received from my father.
My grandfather, Sandor, was born in Kozepapsa, a small village on the banks of the Tisza River in Hungary. Everyone called him Shaya, short for his and my Hebrew name, Yishayahu, Isaiah. As a young man he periodically hiked upriver into the Carpathian Mountains, cut down trees, tied them together into enormous rafts and rode them downstream, sleeping on the rafts as they floated back to his village. Once there he cut up the trees to supply firewood for the community bathhouse. While floating down the river, he’d compose nigunim, ecstatic wordless melodies Hasidic Jews sing and dance to in worship. He and his family used to sing those nigunim at their Sabbath meals.
I’ve heated my house with wood for many years. I often think of Shaya as I cut, split and stack our firewood.
I also think of my grandmother Rozsa. Mother of eleven, she was pregnant with her last child when her firstborn was expecting her first. By 1944 she was grandmother of seven—only two survived Auschwitz. One of them, a cousin of mine now nearing ninety, still mists up as she recalls Rozsa’s “big apron,” how the grandkids could always count on her to protect them from the consequences of any mischief they got into. Though with almost no formal education, she was so good at arithmetic that Shaya counted on her to check his math when he returned from his trips as a peddler. My father recalls how his parents sat at a table, Shaya adding up his figures with pencil and paper, Rozsa sitting across from him, reading the numbers upside down, doing the math in her head. She always finished first and, if their totals did not agree, invariably it was hers that were correct. I too have always loved and been good at math, especially mental computation.
I know even fewer and similarly tiny details about the lives of all those in my family who were murdered by the Nazis. I share that sad poverty with countless others. So much was lost by so many. But January 27 reminds me that those people lived — and that they continue to live on in me.
My cousin, who was fourteen when she was taken to Auschwitz, remembers the heinous Dr. Mengele pointing her and her older sister to the right, and the rest of her family to the left. Now, 75 years later, she mercifully recollects relatively little of her time in Auschwitz, but she does remember that moment of separation. She recalls not knowing or understanding for several days what it meant. “We never got to say, ‘I love you’ or ‘goodbye.’”
She, and all of us who remember them, are still trying to do that.
2/13/2020 Dresden: 75 Years Later
Between February 13 and February 15, 1945, British and American war planes dropped 3900 tons of bombs and incendiary devices, including napalm, on the German city of Dresden. The bombing and the resulting fires destroyed much of the city center and killed—often in horrendously gruesome ways—nearly 25,000 people, many of them civilians.
A little more than two months earlier, on December 4, 1944—my mother’s 26thbirthday—had been among the thousands of Hungarian Jews forced into cattle cars and deported from Budapest by the Nazis. She was taken to the Ravensbruck concentration camp and, after one hellish month there, was transferred to one of Buchenwald’s sub camps in Penig to work as a forced laborer in the Max Gehrt factory making airplane parts. On Friday, April 13, 1945, two months after the bombing of Dresden, she found herself, along with her older sister, Anci, in a large group of women, being force marched to an unknown destination. The Allies were advancing, the Nazis were in retreat, and they took the women with them as human shields, hiding among them whenever Allied planes flew overhead, counting on the Allied pilots to not bomb or strafe them. My mother recalled not feeling afraid of the planes; she was too worn out, numbed by what she had recently lived through. But she did remember enjoying the terror of her Nazi tormentors.
At sundown one night, a few days later, they stopped and camped in a large open field. They had been marching for days, the Allies were close, and my mother told her sister, “This is it. I’m not going any further with them.” She talked her sister and five other women into hiding in some bushes. When the Nazis counted the next morning, of course they were short—and by more than just seven. The Nazis dared not wait, dared not take the time to count again, or to try and find the missing women. They marched on. After they left, my mother and the other women began walking toward the large city they could see in the distance. It turned out to be Dresden. Although two months had passed since the bombing, my mother recalled that strange smells still hung in the air. Nearly everything above ground was rubble, charred and burned.
The writer Kurt Vonnegut, who was a prisoner of war in Dresden during the air raids, wrote in his novel, Slaughterhouse-Five that, after the bombings, “Dresden was one big flame.” Later, the city “was like the moon now. Nothing but minerals.” To this day there is controversy about whether the bombings—coming as they did when Germany’s defeat was already imminent—were militarily justifiable as a way of shortening the war, or whether they were, instead, aimed at punishing and terrorizing the civilian population.
In Dresden, my mother, her sister, and their five friends took shelter in a partially bombed out building. Gradually, over the next few days and weeks they began putting their lives back together. Three of the women, including her sister were seamstresses. They found an abandoned sewing machine and were able to trade work for food.
The war ended with Germany’s surrender on May 7th. Then, as my mother recalled, “The Russians arrived, and they needed women. We were skinny and didn’t look good, but they didn’t care. We all started wearing shawls and kerchiefs around our heads, so they couldn’t see our hair and tell that we were young. Whenever they came near us we’d wave our arms and shriek, ‘cholera, cholera,’ because we’d heard that the Russian soldiers were terrified of the disease.”
Their less than idyllic, but still tolerable existence was shattered in the middle of one night when a gang of drunken Russian soldiers burst into their building, loudly demanding a woman. My mother, her sister and four of the other women managed to escape and hide outside. One woman did not. The rest of them cowered in their hiding places and listened to her sob, and occasionally scream, as the soldiers forced themselves on her repeatedly.
In the morning the women went to the authorities and asked for transportation home. When they were told that there were no trains heading to Budapest, they walked to the train station and camped there until, days later, they were able to sneak onto a train. They didn’t know for certain where it was headed, but it turned out not to matter anyway. Before the train could even leave, Russian soldiers boarded and ordered off all civilians. When my mother and some of the other women didn’t move fast enough to suit them, the soldiers simply pushed them out through the windows as the train began moving. Other soldiers were riding on top of the cars and amused themselves by urinating down on the women.
They finally managed to get on another train and eventually wound up in a displaced persons camp somewhere in Austria. A few weeks later, on July 7, 1945, they arrived back in Budapest. They had been gone from home for almost exactly seven months.
This year Dresden is commemorating the 75thanniversary of the bombing. The ceremonies included a human chain, an estimated 11,500 people standing, holding hands, and forming a circle around the entire city center. The symbolically protective human chain has been a part of the commemorations at each of the past ten years, to memorialize the victims, but also as a response to the attempts by far-right neo Nazi groups to co-opt the narrative of the bombing and use it to distort and deny Germany’s history during WWII.
Kurt Vonnegut wrote, with heavy irony, in Slaughterhouse-Five, “People aren’t supposed to look back. I’m certainly not going to do it anymore.” Vonnegut, who lived through the bombing and its aftermath (he and other American prisoners were ordered to help excavate bodies from the rubble) understood the terrible cost of looking back—and of not.
3/18/2020 Intimations of Mortality
A couple of months ago I happened to see a headline that widened my eyes. “71 Year Old Folk Singer Dies On Stage.” That’s a line that will get your attention, especially if—like me—you’re also a 71 year old folk singer who still spends about a hundred and twenty days on stage every year. I read on.
On Saturday night, January 18, 2020, David Olney was in the middle of a song at the 30A Songwriters Festival in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida when he said, “I’m sorry,” closed his eyes and fell silent. Olney, who recorded twenty albums over his career and had some of his songs covered by, among others, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, didn’t drop his guitar, didn’t fall out of his chair, he just peacefully, gracefully, shuffled off this mortal coil.
It was a very close-call intimation of mortality. I thought about it a lot. For about three days. And then forgot.
Life went on. Until life—as we know it, anyway—stopped being normal, ceased seeming to be a nearly guaranteed inalienable right. Somewhere around late February, with the news about the coronavirus being especially dangerous to people over 70, I started thinking about mortality again—a lot. Three days later I was still thinking about it. I’m thinking about it still.
And I remembered my parents. My mother and father passed through a very dark period when life as they knew it very nearly completely stopped, when they were forced into isolation, quarantined from most of the people around them, when mortal danger was an all-enveloping, constant reality for them.
I’m talking of course, of the period of the Holocaust.
In October 1944 my mother Blanka, her older sister Anci, and their mother, my grandmother Karolina, were forced to move from the apartment they shared on the Buda side of Budapest, into the sealed off Jewish ghetto on the Pest side of the Danube river. On November 8, Karolina died of an unknown illness that culminated in internal bleeding, and on December 4, on my mother’s 26th birthday, she and Anci were shoved into cattle cars bound for German concentration camps. They spent most of the next five months in the infamous Ravensbruck camp for women and in a forced labor camp in Penig. Despite the brutal conditions in both places, my mother clung fiercely to her routines. She washed daily with a rag and icy water, laundered one set of underwear and wore her only other set while the first ones dried. She brushed her hair and Anci’s frequently in a futile attempt to get rid of lice. She refused to allow herself to feel depressed or hopeless. When Anci would cry, “We’re going to die here. We’re never going back home.” my mother would stubbornly insist, “We’ll be all right. We’ll show them. We’re going to go home.”
I think also of my father.
In 1942, my father was conscripted into the munkaszolgálat, the work detail of the Hungarian Army attached to the German and Austrian armies fighting in Poland. Because he was, at the time, a rabbi, he at first served as chaplain to his fellow prisoners, but soon was forced, along with all the men, to load and unload munitions, and build roads and bridges. But he clung to the traditions of his faith. He led daily prayer services and, miraculously, even managed to hang on to his tefillin, the ritual phylacteries that religious Jews wind on their left arm and wear on their head during morning prayers. When he was liberated by the Russians in late 1944, he walked and hitched rides for two weeks to get back to his home in Kunhegyes, Hungary.
What is happening in our world now is not comparable to the Holocaust. Nothing really is. But there are similarities and there may be some lessons we can learn from the survivors.
My physical reality today is far, far easier than what my parents had to endure, and the faith that my father clung to is not one that I now practice, though I do also have beliefs that nourish and support me daily.
But I’m certain that the actions and attitudes that enabled my parents to survive, and later thrive, might also help us now; taking care of ourselves by maintaining as many of our healthy daily routines as possible, helping to take care of each other, and keeping close whatever faith it is that sustains us.
3/29/20 Coronavirus Musings and Memories
Lately I’ve had more time to think than usual—especially when I wake in the middle of nights and can’t fall back asleep. In those long dark hours, among the fears and worries, memories have surfaced that I’ve not had reason to recall for many years—memories that seem surprisingly relevant, and even comforting, today.
This one is possibly my very first memory. I can’t think of one that is older. When I was about two or three years old I contracted scarlet fever. This was in 1951-52 and the standard practice in those days, at least in my native Budapest, was either to quarantine whole families or, as happened in my case, if complications developed, individuals were quarantined in hospitals.
The memory is of something that happened sometime after I was quarantined in a hospital room. I was not allowed out and my parents and brother were not allowed in. I remember standing by the room’s window and the three of them waving to me from the other side. They had brought me a toy fire truck to ease the pain of separation, and a nurse brought it in to me. I raised the firetruck above my head and shouted, “Are you coming in?” When they sadly shook their heads from side to side, I slammed the truck to the floor as hard as I could, breaking it.
Fortunately, these days I’m finding it much easier to understand and accept the need for the current shelter-in-place orders. I wish the same for all of us. I also like to think I’ve mastered my temper a little bit better since that time. I wish that too for all of us.
I was seven years old when the Hungarian Revolution began on October 23, 1956 and lasted for a little over two weeks. It was dangerous to be outside as guerilla fighting erupted in the streets of Budapest when Russian soldiers attempted to put down the Revolution. Our family lived in the heart of the city, in a typical European style three-story apartment building that surrounded a courtyard. My brother and I, along with all the kids in the building, replicated the real conflicts that raged outside with mock battles of our own in the courtyard and along the interior balconies of the building. When we chose sides for our skirmishes, no one wanted to be the Russian soldiers, or the hated Hungarian secret police. Then, a citywide curfew was imposed. No one was allowed outside. In those pre-refrigerator days, my mother was used to shopping nearly every day for fresh food at nearby markets. After a few days of the curfew, our small ice box was running low on meat, fresh fruits and vegetables.
One of my father’s sisters also lived in Budapest. Her husband, our uncle Ervin, was a born and bred rebel, an outlaw, a maverick. He always carried himself with a nonconformist bravado; rules and restrictions were for others, not for him. In post WWII Communist Hungary, where entrepreneurs were nearly non-existent, he owned an electronics repair shop. In a country where private automobiles and even motorcycles were rare and mostly owned by wealthy government officials, he had both and, using his thorough familiarity with all the ins and outs of the flourishing black-market economy, managed to always find petrol for each. (Both my brother and I still remember thrilling rides in the sidecar of his motorcycle, especially when he took sharp turns at exhilarating speeds that made us glad our parents weren’t along.) Through his black-market contacts, he also found ways to acquire everything from chocolate to ladies’ nylons, all extremely rare commodities in 1950s Hungary. No curfew or Revolution was going to change his modus operandi. He somehow got hold of a Russian Army uniform, likely stolen off the body of a dead soldier, and rode his motorcycle through the city at night, avoiding checkpoints by learning their locations through his shortwave radio contacts, and brought food to us and other members of his family. He only knew a handful of Russian words and surely would have been immediately shot, had he been caught.
If he were alive today, Ervin would undoubtedly be one of the people selflessly delivering food and medicine to family, neighbors and friends, and would also know how to find hand sanitizer, masks, and yes, even toilet paper!
Early this morning I went to Arbor Farms Market to shop for groceries. I wore glasses, a red bandana, outlaw style, underneath a dust mask, the kind I use in my shop when I sand wood. I wore gloves and sanitized my cart with alcohol cleaner the store provided. I carefully avoided coming closer than six feet to anyone in the store till I got to the checkout line. The young woman who rang up my purchases wore gloves and helped me bag my groceries. I got choked up as I thanked her and walked out of the store. Ever since this crisis began, I’ve frequently thought with enormous gratitude of the many, many people today who are taking far greater risks than I need to in order to serve and help others.
4/7/20 Coronavirus Musings and Memories: Chapter Two
Passover starts tomorrow night. It is in some ways a perfect holiday for the present moment, because it looks back on very hard times and celebrates that today is better. And while we’re nowhere near being able to see the coronavirus crisis as ancient history, the story of Passover can remind us that we’ve come through some very tough times before and survived.
There is a famous question asked during the seder, Passover’s celebratory meal: “How is this night different from all other nights?” It is customarily asked by the youngest child present, and the adults answer with the stories of the horrendous trials our ancestors endured, and of their—and thereby our—eventual salvation. This year, for children and adults, there are many more questions—and uncertain answers—than perhaps ever before in most of our lifetimes.
The seder ends with the words, “Next year in Jerusalem.” The meaning of that phrase is, for many of us, not literal, but instead expresses a powerful longing, and a call to action, to work for a more just and peaceful earth for all people and for all living beings. This year it can also serve as a fervent wish and hope that next year at this time, we will be able to celebrate the seder, and all manner of other joyous occasions, in the company of our friends and families.
My wish for all of you is that this plague pass over your home—over all our homes—and that soon we will be able to again celebrate together.
Of course, it was bound to happen, and sadly, sooner rather than later. And now it has. Someone I know has succumbed to the coronavirus. A good friend’s father died on April first. I met him once a couple of years ago when he came here to visit my friend. We shared a meal and some conversation. He was in his late eighties, very fit, very active, very full of life right up to his final illness. My friend will miss him enormously, and I will remember him for more than merely being my “index case” (the term scientists use, instead of the catchier, but faintly blame-placing expression, “patient zero”). I fear my personal list of coronavirus victims will grow.
For many years now, I have regularly played music in senior communities. I know the faces, if not the names, of many, many very elderly people in those places. I wonder and worry about how many of them will still be alive when this is all over, how many might have lived longer if not for this virus. And, of course, as I am all-too-frequently reminded by my own brain’s press releases to myself, “Ain’t no guarantees you won’t make somebody else’s list, buddy.”
One of the saddest aspects of all these deaths is that people are dying alone, away from their loved ones. I’m certain doctors and nurses have, and will continue to do their best to comfort the dying, but to die without people you love near you, to not be able to say mutual goodbyes… I know it happens all the time, but I fear it is, and will be happening far more often now.
I remember a story my mother told me of her mother, the grandmother I never met. In October 1944 my mother, Blanka, her older sister, Anci and their mother, Karolina, were forced to move into one of the crowded csillagos hazak, houses with six-sided stars on them in the Jewish ghetto of Budapest. Karolina became ill soon after and was hospitalized. My mother never learned a diagnosis. New laws created by the Hungarian Nazi party, the Nyilas, mandated that all Jews wear yellow stars on their clothing, and made it illegal and highly dangerous to venture outside the ghetto. Still, my mother and her sister repeatedly sneaked to their mother’s bedside during her final illness, removing their yellow stars and pretending to be nurses going to work. Since my mother’s blood type matched her mother’s, she was able to give blood for transfusions. But the transfusions could not save Karolina. She died alone on November 8th. Her daughters dared not go to her funeral. Attending the burial in the Jewish cemetery outside the ghetto, would have meant immediate arrest and deportation. My mother was not able to visit her mother’s gravesite until seven months later, after she had endured deportation and several months in the Ravensbruck concentration camp. When she finally got back to Budapest on July 7, 1945, she went to the Chevra Kadisha, the Jewish burial society, and with their help found her mother’s grave. Karolina had been buried in a remote corner of the Jewish cemetery because no one from the family had been there to pay for the funeral costs.
A couple of weeks ago I remembered a scene from the movie, The African Queen, and ever since, I have not been able to get it out of my mind. I only saw the movie once, about forty years ago, and I’ve forgotten nearly everything about it. That one scene is my only vivid recollection, and I think it resurfaced now because it’s saying something that feels relevant to me today.
I won’t review the plot, but those of you who have seen it know that partway through the movie, Charlie, Humphrey Bogart’s character, is pulling his boat through mud and thick vegetation that’s choking the shallow river they’re navigating. At one point he climbs back aboard and discovers to his horror that he’s covered in leeches, a universally dreadful, but for him an apparently particularly personal nightmare. After he and Rose, Katharine Hepburn’s character, frantically pull all the leeches off him, it becomes obvious—without them saying a word—that he must get back in the river and keep towing the boat if they are to survive. Rose is simply not strong enough. It’s the look on Bogart’s face when that realization dawns that’s been haunting me.
I’ve seen that expression a number of times recently, or think I have; on the face of the man who brought out and loaded into my car the groceries I’d ordered and paid for online—while I stood six feet away. I’ve imagined seeing the same expression on the face of the woman who has continued to deliver our mail, and on the face of the pharmacist who filled my prescription and slid it out to me through the drive-up window. These people, and countless others, are doing their jobs and more, to keep our world functioning, and even to further reduce the risk for many of us.
I don’t remember the expression on Katharine Hepburn’s face when Bogart decides to get back in the river, or even if the film recorded it, but I know that I have felt uneasy during each of my interactions with the people who helped me. And that leaving them a little bit of money, as I have, (tip seems a completely inaccurate and inappropriate word) doesn’t do much to ease my mind. I understand that my being a septuagenarian puts me in a higher risk group than the younger people who have helped me. Still, it’s only lukewarm comfort knowing that the virus is likely to be less dangerous to them than to me.
I tried to understand what I was feeling. Of course, guilt immediately came to mind. (I am Jewish, after all.) And that’s as far as I got till I talked about it with my therapist, who pointed out that the word guilt implies blame. Is it my fault that some people’s jobs are essential and hazardous while mine is neither? No. Did I feel I deserved better treatment than they? Definitely not.
We agreed that another word was required. But what?
Perhaps, I later thought, what’s needed is one of those long German words, like schadenfreude, for which there is no one-word equivalent in English. Come to think of it, what I have felt is in some ways the opposite of schadenfreude. So, what is the antonym of schadenfreude? Google says, “fremdscham, or the ‘vicarious embarrassment syndrome’. People who have this syndrome tend to feel embarrassment for someone else’s misfortune.”
OK. That was getting closer… but then Google also adds, “It’s particularly difficult for them to witness embarrassing moments, which may explain why some people hate cringe comedies such as Curb Your Enthusiasm or The Office.”
No. That misses the mark.
Some permutation of survivor’s guilt is involved too – though the jury is still way out on that one.
I found a post by a man named Shubham Thakur, who wrote, “Compassion can be considered as an opposite of schadenfreude. It means deep awareness of the suffering of another, coupled with the wish to relieve it. Empathy and kindness can also be counted as opposite to schadenfreude.”
Those are all better, but still seem to miss an active component. What does one do to show compassion, empathy and kindness?
I remind myself that staying at home as much as possible, following social distance guidelines and wearing a mask when I’m out in the world, are meaningful contributions to the general welfare; that my donating to organizations that support medical personnel, that provide food for the less fortunate among us, to my favorite causes… There is no shortage of need. Epictetus’ two-thousand-year-old words still speak to me. “You are not some disinterested bystander. Exert yourself.”
And always, always, I offer sincere, heartfelt thanks. As Shakespeare wrote in Twelfth Night, “I can no other answer make but thanks and thanks, and ever thanks.”
4/19/20 Coronavirus Musing and Memories: Chapter Three
I’ll begin on a lighter note. As many of you know, I play an instrument called the bones. The ones I play are shaped like four pieces of curved bone, but are made of wood, in my case either cherry or pine. The bones have a very ancient history. Some speculate they may be among the earliest musical instruments human beings have played on the planet. In the middle ages, they had a unique role. Lepers played them as a way of warning people of their approach. Social distancing 12th century style.
A few hundred years later, continuing to express the high opinion people had of the bones, Bottom in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream said, “I have a reasonable good ear in music. Let’s have the tongs and the bones.”
Perhaps we need a world-wide bones revival now. If enough people learned to play, I’m certain we’d have no difficulty convincing everyone to practice social distancing. I’m also sure we’d all soon develop “heard” immunity.
I still vividly recall the first time I learned that singing for an audience could alter the way I heard the words and meaning of songs I was singing. Early in our career, about forty years ago, my brother and I were invited to sing for some kids at Mott Children’s Hospital, here in Ann Arbor. There were maybe a couple dozen children in the room, some bandaged, some without hair, some in wheelchairs, some with IV poles, some with oxygen tubes. This was years before Laz had written our signature opening Hello song, so we started our show with what was, at the time, our go-to opener, Tom Paxton’s Marvelous Toy. I sang, “When I was just a wee little lad, and full of health and joy…” and almost choked on the words. I struggled through the rest of the song with tight throat and stinging eyes. I’d never really heard those words before, and I’ve never again sung those lyrics without being hyper-aware of their meaning.
I’ve thought of that memory frequently since the coronavirus hit the fan. Emily and I, and my brother Laz separately, (because of Michigan’s Stay Home/Stay Safe directive) have been live-streaming short concerts several times a week. As of this writing, we’ve played twenty-five shows and sung about 140 songs since March 16th. I’ve been struck by how many of the songs have lyrics that in some way speak to the times. Occasionally we’ve deliberately chosen songs with lyrics that obviously relate to current events, at other times, I’ve only caught the multiple meanings of some words and phrases as we were singing them.
A couple of weeks ago I played guitar while Emily sang Summertime; “One of these mornings, you’re gonna rise up singing, and you’ll spread your wings and you’ll take to the sky. But until that morning, there ain’t nothin’ can harm you, with your Mammy and Pappy standin’ by.” Oh, if only it were so…
We sang Eili, Eili; “Oh Lord, my God, I pray that these things never end, the sand and the sea, the rush of the water, the crash of the heavens, the prayer of the heart.”
I sang the Russian children’s song, May There Always Be Sunshine; “May there always be sunshine, may there always be blue skies, may there always be Momma, may there always be me.” Amen.
One night we sang a set of Dylan songs. The titles say it all; You Ain’t Goin Nowhere, Blowing in the Wind, I Shall Be Released, and Forever Young.
On the first night of Passover I sang the old African American spiritual, Go Down Moses. The repeating line, “Let my people go” has obvious relevance for all of us these days, but I couldn’t help also think of the disproportional toll the virus is taking on African American people here in Michigan and throughout the country.
Even when the lyrics contained no timely undercurrent, the stories behind the songs did. Everybody Loves Saturday Night is a song from Africa. (Those are the entire lyrics.) Some years ago, after the government of Nigeria imposed a very unpopular curfew, it finally bowed to public pressure and lifted the curfew on Saturday nights. People poured into the streets to celebrate and spontaneously created this song. I’m looking forward to the day we learn that it’s safe to celebrate close together. I’m certain we too will pour into the streets to sing and dance!
And then there is Gracias a la Vida, Thank you to Life. Emily and I have ended many concerts—our distant, long-ago live ones—with this song. I eagerly look forward to when we get to sing it before live audiences again.
Those of you who have been watching our shows very carefully, might have—I repeat, just possibly might have—every once in a (great) while, detected a teensy weensy, teeny, tiny error or two (dozen); Usually—nearly always actually—committed by me, very rarely by Emily. When I’ve made mistakes, I’ve tried to remember a quote attributed to Beethoven, “To play a wrong note is insignificant, to play without passion is inexcusable!” Or, I refer to the guitar-god, Chet Atkins to explain, and forgive, my missteps, the way he did his own. Mr. Atkins used to say, “Guitar players, when they come to my concerts, are always looking for mistakes, so I always throw in a few just for them!”
I also recall a conversation I once had with the doctor who delivered our daughter. We got to know each other a bit over the course of my wife’s pregnancy and one day, after Emily was born, I told him how grateful I was for the amazing work he had done for our family. He replied with a comment about how much he admired my work. I thanked him, said that was very high praise coming from him, and then added that there was a huge difference between his work and mine. “Your work is often life and death. In my case, nobody dies when I hit a Bb instead of a G.” (Which is not quite true. I do die a little bit each time I hit a clam.)
A few years ago, I talked with an arborist who trimmed a dead limb off a huge black walnut tree in our back yard. It was during a particularly hot July and I asked her how she was doing in the unusual heat. She said that she and her crew had been working shorter hours to ensure their safety. I said I wasn’t surprised; that Laz and I had played a number of outdoor concerts during the heat wave, that it had been hard to keep our instruments in tune, that we drank copiously to try to keep hydrated, and that, after each concert, we’d wrung sweat out of our t-shirts. “But,” I added, “Obviously, our work is nowhere near as hard as what you do.” She disagreed. This woman who routinely climbs tall trees, carrying a chainsaw that weighs considerably more than my guitar, said, “If I had to stand up in front of a bunch of people and sing, I’d be sweating bullets for a week before!”
Brought to mind a wonderful Sesame Street skit. A little girl skips up a few stairs and sits in a chair on a small stage. Next, the famed violinist, Itzhak Perlman, who had polio as a child, struggles up the same stairs with his crutches and leg braces, sits down next to the little girl and says, “You know, some things that are real easy for you are real hard for me.” Then he picks up his violin and plays a few spectacular phrases. The little girl says, “Yeah, but some things are easy for you that are hard for me,” and proceeds to play the beginning of Bach’s Gavotte in G Minor—sounding like the beginning violinist that she is.
Which brings me back to today. One of my neighbors works as a physical therapist at UM Hospital. I see him frequently and always ask how he’s doing. We’ve exchanged similar greetings for years, but clearly these days there is more weight behind my simple, “How you doin’?” When I ask about his work, or how things are at the hospital, he says very simply, “It’s what I do.”
The daughter of another neighbor of mine is a nurse at UM Hospital. When I thanked her recently for doing what she does, she replied, “Thank you for wearing a mask and for following social distance rules.”
Yes, we each do what we do—and what we can—and some of us have the grace to return compliments and gratitude with even more heartfelt compliments and gratitude. I also understand that what we’ve trained for, and the skills and experience we’ve built, does make it easier for each of us to do work that would be much more difficult, even impossible, for people without similar attributes. I am grateful beyond words that there are people among us who have trained and built skills and experience—and have the courage, compassion and selflessness—to do life and death work on our behalf. I forgive them with all my heart for any mistakes they may make.
4/25/20 Coronavirus Memories and Musings: Chapter Four
Lately, it’s been impossible not to think of death occasionally. The other day, I remembered another time in my life when an event forced me to acknowledge my mortality.
Laz and I were in the middle of a four-day residency at Purdy Elementary School in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin on January 25, 2006 when our mom called to tell us that our dad had died. Everyone in that school community was extremely kind and generous, a number of people going quite a bit out of their way to help us get down to Florida for our dad’s funeral.
When we eventually returned home to Ann Arbor, we found we’d received a large package, stuffed with letters and drawings from the kids and staff at Purdy. (They had also sent a beautiful bouquet of flowers to our mom.) The letters were comforting; sweet, heartwarming, touching, full of profound empathy and understanding, and—at times—hilarious. In times of great sadness, sometimes tears of laughter heal as much as tears of pain.
Many of the children wrote expressions of sorrow and offered condolences.
I’m very sorry for your loss. I hope you feel better. I don’t have anything else to say except I’m sad.
I would be really sad if my dad died.
Some were very observant and thoughtful.
When you were talking to us, I noticed you talked about your dad a lot.
My teacher told us your dad was ninety-six. I hope he lived a nice long life, even though he was sick.
I’m sure your father thought you were awesome singers. I think you are.
Remember, even if your father is not there, you still have each other.
Some were heartbreaking, and…
My dad died too. I feel sad for you.
I know how it feels because my grandpa died. It hurts very bad.
Too bad your dad died, and he was your dad and not someone else’s.
I’m sorry your dad died. I had a baby bunny and he died too.
They offered encouragement.
A good suggestion for you is to look on the bright side. I hope you aren’t too sad, because if you’re sad, we’ll be sad too.
It might seem like the end of the world, but luckily, it’s not. My grandpa passed away just last year and I’m still standing. Don’t lose hope.
A number were very practical and looked ahead to our returning and finishing the residency—and even past that.
When you come back, I’ll be ready to sing. We’re practicing.
It just crushes my heart to hear about what happened to your father. I don’t know how you will be able to come back to our school some day and just sing your heart out.
I hope you don’t stop singing.
I hope this doesn’t mess with your music career.
A few were a little off topic—but sweetly.
Both of you guys are kind and clean.
What was your dad’s favorite band?
Some offered wise and wonderful advice:
You should play a song at your dad’s funeral.
Stay strong for your kids and your mom.
To make your mom happy, you could sing to her and give her a hug and a kiss.
A few showed children’s lack of comprehension of the reality of death; or perhaps showed a higher understanding than our adult one.
I hope your dad feels better.
And there were some that warmed our hearts—and exercised our belly-laugh muscles.
I am sorry your dad died. He must have been a nice guy to have around.
It’s nice you went home for your dad’s funeral. I’m sure he would have done the same for you.
There were deer in my back yard this morning. There often are, but today they sparked a memory.
Some years ago, I was driving home to Ann Arbor from New York. On I-80 through the hills and mountains of Pennsylvania, going fast on a long downhill, I suddenly spotted some deer far ahead of me on the road. I began slowing and checked my rearview mirror. I could only see one car behind me but coming on fast. I turned on my hazard lights and continued to slow down. The driver of the other car picked up on my message, or also noticed the deer, and slowed too. As we got closer, the deer scattered, leaping over the low guard rails and into the shrubs on the side of the road. All but one. A good-sized doe stayed on the road, in my lane. I kept approaching and she took off, bounding ahead of me, still staying in my lane. I kept well behind her, but matched her speed, not daring to slow more because now I could see several other cars coming fast over the rise behind us. The car behind me pulled into the lane on my right, hazard lights also flashing, and matched my speed. The two of us continued side by side for maybe a quarter mile, blocking traffic from passing us, until the doe suddenly swerved, gracefully leaped the low guardrail, and was gone.
The man in the other car and I looked over at each other, grinned, and gave the thumbs up sign. The memory warms me still.
We’d been paying attention, we’d kept a safe distance from each other, and things had turned out well. We’d managed to save the doe, ourselves, each other, and who knows how many others.
This morning the deer in my yard reminded me of those long-ago moments on that highway. I thought of what so many people have been doing lately for their own safety and for the common good—staying home whenever possible, social distancing, washing hands, wearing masks—and also of the, thankfully, relatively few who have rebuffed repeated pleas to cooperate. Despite the reckless, at times even repugnant behavior of that latter group, I don’t wish them ill. I hope they’ll change their stance, but I don’t hope they come to harm.
I don’t feel this way because I’m a saint, nor because I’m not furious at their conduct, but because I’m pretty certain that the only way we’ll get through this—without a lot more people getting hurt or dying unnecessarily—is if we look out for each other, for all of us.
4/29/20 75th Anniversary of Liberation of Dachau
Ever since the coronavirus crisis began I have been thinking a great deal about all the people who have continued working to keep basic services going for those of us fortunate enough to be able to shelter in place: truckers who transport food to grocery stores, postal carriers who deliver mail, people who keep the sewage and water plants running, who pick up the garbage and the recycling, who drive the buses, maintain the electrical grid and the internet… the list is very long. And of course, the health care workers who have been risking their lives to help people sickened by the coronavirus.
I recently came across a story I wrote in 2003 that was resonant for today and might serve as a fitting tribute to these people. It also commemorates the 75thanniversary of a significant event in world history. Dear reader, the current relevance of this story, which in large part is about that event 75 years ago, may not be immediately apparent. Please bear with me.
On April 10, 2003 Bill Basch, the 13th recipient of the Raoul Wallenberg medal, gave his acceptance speech in Rackham Auditorium on the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The Wallenberg Medal is an annual award given by the U of M to Holocaust survivors who resisted the Nazis, as well as to others who have fought for justice in a variety of situations since that time. Bill Basch was sixteen, alone in Budapest in 1944, and served as a courier for Wallenberg, delivering messages and distributing Schutz-Passe to Jews in hiding. He was eventually discovered and wound up in Buchenwald, and later in Dachau.
The Wallenberg medal is named in honor of Raoul Wallenberg, who was an architecture student at the U of M, class of 1935, before returning to his native Sweden to become a successful architect and businessman. He went on to become a diplomat and was Sweden’s special envoy to Hungary during WWII. He is credited with saving tens of thousands of Jews in Budapest from the Nazis and the Hungarian Nyilas, by issuing them fraudulent Swedish passports and sheltering them in buildings he designated as Swedish property.
(A side note: My mother was born in Budapest and was living there in 1944. She told me she had been aware of Wallenberg and his activities but was unable to make contact with him. In December 1944, she was deported to the Ravensbruck concentration camp.)
One of the most compelling statements Basch made in his acceptance speech, was this. “In order to survive we must accept the responsibility of being our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. Each one of us must do our share of improving our society one day at a time. We all have the ability to defeat evil in our own way.”
When Basch finished speaking, he invited questions from the audience. The first man to rise was Donald Brown, U-M professor emeritus in the Department of Psychology. Earlier in his talk, Basch had spoken of being liberated from the Dachau concentration camp on April 29th, 1945 by the American Army. Brown didn’t have a question. Instead, he said that he had been one of the troops in the unit that liberated the camp in 1945.
Brown arrived in Dachau as a medical aide with the 65th Armored Infantry Battalion of the Army’s 20th Armored Division. He’d volunteered two years earlier, when he was just a freshman at Harvard. “I was motivated to go in for ideological reasons. I was extremely anti-Nazi. Even as a little boy, I felt very strongly about the Spanish Civil War.” Brown had 20-800 vision, which would have disqualified him for service, but the eye exam at his induction was conducted by his family’s ophthalmologist. He said to Brown, “Donny, do you want to be in the Army?” Brown said yes, and the doctor continued, “Do you see that E over there? What is it?”
On April 29th, 1945 Brown was in a half-track bound for Munich, when orders came over the radio that his unit was to detach itself and “see what was going on at this village, Dachau.” They’d heard that it was a concentration camp. “But, at our level, all we knew was that these were unpleasant places, where political prisoners, Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals were,” he pauses, fingers quotation marks in the air, and adds, “Concentrated. We had no idea what it was really like.”
“As we approached the village, we began to encounter men in striped suits who had escaped. The German guards were fleeing, because they knew we were coming. These were inmates who were still able to walk. They flagged us down. We took as many as we could into our half-track and they began to tell us what we were going to see. This was all within a kilometer or two of the village. So, we’re there before we could take it all in. And suddenly, we were there. And there it was.” He stops. Even sixty years later he seems to have no words to describe what he saw. He simply opens his copy of the 20th Armored Division’s “yearbook” to the pages with the horror-filled photos. “We didn’t stay long. Overnight. Didn’t sleep. Tried to help. We did what we could. Couldn’t do much. I had my two little medical bags, but they weren’t for that sort of thing. I could take care of a bleeding wound, set an arm, give a shot of morphine, but those weren’t the problems there. We radioed back saying what’s needed here is a company of engineers, a field hospital, that sort of thing. And then we got orders to catch up with our unit to take Munich.”
“When you see something like that, it’s so big, you can’t encompass it, really. I never spoke much about it.”
Other events demanded his attention. A few months later, as his Division traveled by train through France, on their way to be shipped home, “They took the very cars we’d liberated at Dachau and loaded us into them.” One night, there was a terrible crash. “We’d run head on into another locomotive. Everybody but me in my unit was killed.” He points to a picture of railroad cars crushed like accordions, and says, “That car was the one I was in.”
“I landed in NY the day the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.” He was married less than two weeks later, the day the war ended in Japan.
Fifty years went by. Brown went on to have a distinguished and varied career at Berkeley, Bryn Mawr and, since 1964, at the UofM. With his wife, June, he raised a family. His wartime experiences were forgotten. “You’re just too busy getting on with your life. My children never really knew. They had all my Army junk that they played with when they were little kids, playing soldiers.”
And then it was the 50th anniversary of D-Day. “They had all this stuff on television and they would interview these old men who were my colleagues. And these guys would start to cry. And I would sit there, watching TV, and I would start to cry. My wife said, ‘What’s the matter?’ And I said, ‘Nothing.’ And I stopped right away. Well, what was it? There were no specific memories, no traumatic memories. It was just some kind of emotion welled up. It just brought back somehow the awareness of that whole episode of one’s life. I know an awful lot of guys said the same thing. From that time, people began to realize that, look, we are getting old. In only a few years, none of us will be around. So, people began to talk. Their children were all grown up and were beginning to ask questions.”
Today, a plaque hangs on a wall in Dachau, remembering and honoring the men of the 20th Armored Division, for their role in liberating the camp. And Brown began talking regularly about his wartime experiences. Beginning in 1999, and continuing for a number of years, he taught a course at the UofM entitled, “Why Grandpa Went to War.”
Bill Basch died in 2009 at the age of 82. http://wallenberg.umich.edu/medal-recipients/2003-bill-basch/ Donald R. Brown died in 2019 at the age of 94. https://lsa.umich.edu/rc/news-events/all-news/search-news/in-memoriam–donald-r–brown–1925—2019.html
Donald Brown’s statement on the night of Bill Basch’s Wallenberg lecture in Rackham Auditorium—that he’d been one of the troops who’d liberated Dachau—was electrifying. In an evening filled with emotional, at times wrenching moments, as Basch recounted his wartime experiences in Budapest, Buchenwald, and finally in Dachau, Brown’s statement, and Basch’s response, were perhaps the most moving.
In what was the most emotional, animated voice he used all night, Basch replied to Brown, “God bless you! You have no idea what we felt when we saw you coming through the fences with your machine guns. It was giving us life again. Thank you for being there.”
We have of late been living in our own variant of concentration camps. No, of course I am not equating the coronavirus crisis with the Holocaust. As I’ve written previously, the Holocaust is unique and not equivalent to any other event in human history, before or since. (Though there surely were comparable episodes decades before the Holocaust—the Armenian Genocide, for example—and numerous echoes after; Stalin and Mao’s murderous regimes, and Rwanda and Kosovo among others come to mind immediately.) The present-day calamity has not been precipitated by a murderous madman and his all too willing henchmen, though examples of serious mismanagement by a number of world leaders spring easily to mind. Nor has the virus deliberately targeted a single ethnic or racial group, though again, the pandemic has highlighted long existing and shocking racial and ethnic disparities in our economy and health care system.
Nevertheless, there are some valid comparisons between the two situations. Our lives have been utterly disrupted, we are isolated from each other, terrifying danger is omnipresent, we have no way of knowing when the threat will abate, and some of our leaders, both here and throughout the world, are pathetic incompetents, malevolently self-aggrandizing, or both.
But, when this pandemic is finally behind us, we too, like Holocaust concentration camp inmates, will have the opportunity to thank those who have saved us; the responsible journalists, truck drivers, grocery store clerks, and countless others—above all, the medical professionals—who continued to serve and preserve us. We will say to them, as Bill Basch said to Professor Brown, “God bless you! You have no idea what we felt when we saw you, heard or read about you, when we knew you were risking everything on our behalf. It was giving us life again and again. Thank you for being there.”
5/24/20 Coronavirus Memories and Musings: Chapter Five
One night recently, I dreamt that President Kennedy had just been shot. I was in the emergency room of the hospital where he’d been taken, and the doctors and nurses there had just given up trying to save him. One of them said, as she took a step back from the operating table, “His injuries were just too traumpatic.” In the dream when I heard that word, traumpatic, I assumed it to be a medical term, perhaps related to the word trauma, and that it referred to the injuries President Kennedy had suffered from the gunshot wound. It wasn’t till I woke up that I heard the word differently; it wasn’t traumpatic, it was trumpatic. The phrase, “his injuries,” also took on a second meaning. In the dream, the word “his” referred to President Kennedy, and “injuries” referred to the injuries the President had suffered. Awake, I understood that the “injuries” were ones that had been caused or inflicted, rather than suffered. And it was obvious to whom the word “his” referred.
My family emigrated to the United States in late November of 1959. I was almost eleven years old. Neither my parents, nor my brother nor I spoke English when we moved here. The first few months were a blur; I remember very little. Among the earliest vivid memories I have of that whole time is of a conversation in the fall of 1960, almost a year later. It was in Reher’s Bakery near our home in Kingston, NY. My father, brother and I often stopped there on our way home from morning services at the synagogue to pick up bread or rolls and, on Friday mornings, challah for the Sabbath. The bakery was owned and operated by several members of the Reher family. One of them, Hyman Reher, was a regular at our synagogue, and because he had a fine singing voice, frequently assisted my father in conducting the services.
It must have been on one of those ordinary mornings, that Hyman (we all called him Hymie), standing behind the counter, ringing up our purchases, jokingly asked my brother and me, “Who are you going to vote for in November?” Going along with the joke, I replied excitedly, “Kennedy, of course!” Our family had been living in the US for less than a year. I knew nearly nothing of the history of our new country, about the American system of government, about Democrats and Republicans.
What was it that made me so sure?
And how is it that this memory has stayed with me for nearly sixty years?
Although I would not have been able to comprehend or verbalize it then, I now know that Kennedy’s words, and the atmosphere he fostered in our country—inclusive, inviting, hopeful—helped make me feel welcome here, gave me a sense that I belonged. Even before he became president Kennedy made me feel proud to be what I was just starting to become—an American. He inspired my eleven-year-old self and—despite what I have learned in subsequent years of his serious flaws, as a man, and as a president—he does so still today.
I understand now that when he urged us to “Ask not what your country can do for you…” he was not talking about our government shirking its responsibilities to us, its citizens. When he invited us to literally reach for the moon; when, through the Peace Corp he summoned us to serve our fellow human beings around the world; when with the words, “Ich bin ein Berliner” he declared himself—and by extension, all of us—to be in solidarity with a far-away people separated by a wall, he exemplified, personified the ideal of the American dream.
What an absolute and appalling contrast with the ongoing nightmare that has been the current presidency, with the occupant of the White House wholly incapable of offering even lip service to noble ideals; when he is utterly inept and unwilling to lead our country through arguably the greatest challenge it has faced since the Civil War; when he crudely disparages other nations and people, and when he monomaniacally focuses on building a wall rather than uniting our people.
Sixty years ago, when my parents decided to move our family to America, they hoped that this country would be a safe haven from the lethal prejudice that they’d experienced during the Holocaust, fifteen years earlier, and the perilous repression they faced in Communist Hungary after the war. They also believed that America would allow them the opportunity to make a better life for themselves and their children. To them, as for so many others all over the world, the America of the 1950s and 60s symbolized the best that humanity had achieved on earth. And, although there were many, many people in the United States who did not then have equal access to that image or that reality, and while there are still far too many among us who are denied equal opportunity, our country offered then—and could offer still—the hope that those wrongs would someday be redressed.
In those first years we lived in Kingston, and in the decades since, no one has ever harassed me for being an immigrant. No one has told me to “get out of my country” or “go back where you came from.” On the contrary, in those early years I recall frequently being asked about my accent and, after I’d explain where I was from, hearing, “Welcome to America.”
Today, the country which welcomed my family and me with open arms—my country, our country—is no longer that shining symbol for the world to admire and emulate. Since 2016, and increasingly since the pandemic, our nation has suffered massive injuries to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and those injuries have exposed just how far we still are from offering all our people equal access to the American dream. No, Trump and his enablers are not solely responsible for all that is wrong in our country. Like the coronavirus, Trump’s election and tenure has revealed some long-standing injustices and inequities, and also dark and ugly beliefs held by some in our country. And like the coronavirus, which simply tries to survive and replicate, but by doing so often kills its human hosts and destroys itself, Trump and his allies seem to simply want to cling to power and, in the process, are threatening our nation, and indeed the world’s survival. Nevertheless, today, when the United States has had arguably the world’s worst response, to the pandemic, both in loss of life and in economic devastation, it’s evident that many of those injuries are in significant part, Trumpatic.
I’m no Joseph. I claim no skill interpreting dreams. Like Bob Dylan, I am cautious about “attempts to shovel the glimpse into the ditch of what each one means.” But, someone once taught me a way of looking at dreams that I’ve found valuable; to view the people and events that populate my dreams as symbols. In other words, it was not John F. Kennedy, but the America he represented, that died in my dream.
When I look at the dream that way, it frightens me but also leads me to hope that we will not, like the doctors and nurses in it, step back from the work of saving the America that Kennedy personified. Rather, that, like the doctors and nurses who today struggle unstintingly to save and heal Covid – 19 sufferers, we will find ways to save the American dream and heal the Trumpatic injuries our country has suffered.
Postscript: The Reher Bakery was founded in 1908 by Hymie’s father, Frank, who emigrated to the US in the late 1800s from Krakow, Poland. Hymie was the youngest of his nine children (three by his first wife, Rachel and, after her death, six by his wife Ade.) After Frank’s death, Hymie and several of his sisters ran the bakery till 1980. Hymie and his family are long gone, but the building that housed that bakery, founded by their immigrant father, is now, fittingly, the Reher Center for Immigrant Culture and History. The Center today is a cultural and culinary community center and museum focusing on the immigrant stories of New York’s Hudson Valley.
6/10/20 The Right Hand Does Not Know
Thoughts about George Floyd and the events that have followed his murder have been crowding my mind. I haven’t known what to say, haven’t known if I had anything helpful to say, haven’t been sure that saying anything at all was what was needed. I thought my daughter might be right when she said, “I think it’s our turn to listen now, not to talk.” But I also know that silence too says something. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.”
I was stacking firewood a few days ago; wood I’d cut and split last fall. I’d had no room in my wood racks, so I’d left a pile uncovered. The racks were empty now, ready to be filled for next winter.
I’ve heated mostly with firewood for over thirty years. I’ve cut, split and stacked a lot of firewood. When I stack, I pick up pieces from the split pile with my right hand, transfer them to the crook of my left arm, and repeat until I have a load resting between my forearm and chest. Then I reverse the process as I stack the wood in the racks.
When I began stacking the other morning, my right hand was sore. It hurts sometimes; maybe my age, maybe fifty years of guitar playing, maybe the stacking I’d done the day before. So, I began picking up chunks with my left hand instead and transferred them to my bent right arm. And quickly discovered that while my left hand was not immediately adept at picking up pieces, it managed OK. It’s done similar things before, including gripping chords on my guitar neck. My right hand, however, was another story. It felt awkward securing and carrying the load. I kept dropping pieces of wood. I realized that in all these years of stacking firewood, my right hand had literally not known what my left had been doing.
As I kept stacking, my mind—its focus now redirected from the task at hand by this small insight—kept returning to George Floyd and to thoughts about all the old ways that need to change—because they hurt. And how hard it has been—and continues to be—to make those changes.
I kept stacking and my right hand and arm gradually learned, though the new way still didn’t feel comfortable or natural. Several times I found, as I bent to pick up a hunk of wood, that I was reaching for it with my right hand and readying my left to receive the load. I had to stop each time and remind myself to keep trying the new way, rather than go back to my old familiar system.
What is taking place on our streets, in our country, and even throughout the world today—sparked by George Floyd’s murder, but also by what has been going on here for centuries—is monumental, serious, complex and tragic. I am certainly not equating the simplicity of relearning how to do a trivial task like stacking firewood, with the vast undertaking before us, of learning a new way of living with each other. Nor am I so presumptuous as to think that my modest allegory explains or instructs just how to do that. No small story can possibly do justice to that Memorial Day tragedy, and to the enormousness of the tragedies that have played out in our country for so long.
My wood stacking merely reminded me, graphically, that when there’s pain—and there’s been so much pain, for so long—things need to change. Those changes will take some getting used to and will be uncomfortable, at the very least. But it’s painfully evident that our country, our people—all our people—need new ways of carrying and distributing the load—the burdens and the opportunities both.
6/12/20 Jesse Owens, George Floyd
May 25, 2020, the day George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, was also by happenstance the 85th anniversary of an extraordinary event that took place here in Ann Arbor, Michigan, my hometown for much of my adult life. On May 25, 1935, at the Big Ten Championships, in the space of less than an hour, Jesse Owens tied one track and field world record and broke five others. It has been called one of the most spectacular athletic accomplishments of the 20th century. Of course, the linkage of the two dates is purely coincidental, and the events wholly unrelated. But they do share some underlying commonalities.
In May of 1995, I wrote a piece for the Ann Arbor Observer about Jesse Owens and what he meant to my father and brother and me. In the piece I drew a parallel between Owens and my father; how Owens in the 1930s faced the racism of his day, at the same time that my father encountered the anti-Semitism of his.
Below is the Ann Arbor Observer article, followed by another piece I wrote a number of years later, after I gradually learned more about Jesse Owens and what really happened at, and following, the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
Jesse Owens at Ferry Field – June 1995 issue of the Ann Arbor Observer
Sixty years ago, on May 25, 1935 Jesse Owens, a sophomore on the track team at Ohio State University, tied one world record and broke five others — all in less than an hour. As Mill Marsh wrote in the Ann Arbor News the day after the Big Ten Championships, “There will never be another meet like it.”
Jesse Owens’s amazing hour on Ferry Field—which has been called the single greatest performance in the history of track and field—is a local legend. But my brother and I heard a great deal about it long before we moved here in the early 1970’s. When we were little children in Budapest, Hungary, some of our favorite bedtime stories were our dad’s vivid descriptions of that record-breaking day.
Even though our father was recalling events that he’d only read about in newspapers and seen in newsreels nearly twenty years earlier, his stories were filled with dramatic detail. How Jesse fell down a flight of stairs a week before the meet. How he applied ice packs in a desperate attempt to heal his injured back. How it was not even certain he’d even compete. Yet how, in his first event that afternoon, Jesse tied the world record in the 100 yard dash. It was to be his least spectacular performance of the day.
Next, he shattered his own world record in the 220 yard dash. Sprinters, if they manage to set a new mark, usually do it by shaving a few hundredths of a second off the existing record. Owens bettered the record by four-tenths of a second. In the same event he also set a new world record for the slightly shorter 200 meters. The next event, the 220 yard hurdles, was his weakest. He won by ten yards, again setting two world records in a single race.
He saved the best for last. The long jump pit had been moved closer to the stands in a recent renovation of Ferry Field, so all 7,000 spectators that day had a good view of what happened next. My father loved to tell about how Jesse asked a friend to place a towel in the pit at the world record mark. Then with his first jump he bettered the world record by nearly half a foot. Ohio State track coach, Larry Snider had seen enough. Fearing that Owens might re-injure his back in another attempt, he ordered him not to jump again. That single leap, 26 feet 8 ¼ inches, set a record that would stand for twenty-five years, longer than any other mark in modern track and field history.
My father was born in 1910, only three years before Jesse Owens, and was a fine sprinter and soccer player in his teens. He had an athlete’s appreciation and understanding of Owens’s remarkable achievements. And just as Jesse Owens faced the still virulent racism of Depression era America, my father in Hungary faced the rising anti-Semitism that would erupt, just a few years later, into the Holocaust.
Along with Jews all over Europe, my father followed with apprehension Adolf Hitler’s growing power and influence. They rejoiced when, a year after that remarkable day in Ann Arbor, Jesse Owens demolished Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy by winning an unprecedented four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. My father loved telling how Hitler hurriedly left his stadium box after Jesse’s victory in the long jump, rather than be seen in newspaper photos shaking a Black man’s hand.
As a young Jewish man in Hungary, my father saw Jesse Owens’s victories as his, too. He would not get to savor them for long. In 1939 he was ordered into a forced labor camp, where he spent the duration of the war. In 1944, while he was still imprisoned, most of his family was murdered at Auschwitz. Yet somehow, despite the horror of those years, or perhaps because of them, the sweet taste of Owens’s triumphs didn’t fade for my father. They became the stuff of our bedtime stories, and even today, sixty years later, my father becomes excited and enthusiastic when we mention Jesse Owens.
My father’s stories imbued in my brother and me a love of sports, and of running in particular. Not incidentally, they also helped instill in us a powerful aversion to intolerance and prejudice and a deep understanding of the need to stand up in struggles between right and wrong.
Jesse Owens was among the first Black athletes to cross the color bar. He was followed by Joe Louis (who became another of my father’s heroes when, in 1938 he defeated the German champion, Max Schmeling) and later by baseball’s Jackie Robinson. In one sense, Jesse Owens was simply a man who ran faster and jumped farther than anyone before him. No small achievement. But for us his legacy was greater: for my father, and through him for my brother and me, Jesse Owens became, and remains, a powerful symbol of the triumph of good over evil.
May 26, 2020 Correction: I was mistaken when I wrote that my father was in a forced labor camp from 1939 on. In later conversations with him I learned that he was actually taken in June of 1942.
Long after I first began hearing my father’s stories about Jesse Owens, and years after I wrote the above article for the Ann Arbor Observer, I also learned that the story of Hitler refusing to shake Jesse Owens’ hand is not true. It is apparently a myth that has been repeated so many times it has come to be held as truth. What does seem to be true, as Richard Mandell writes in The Nazi Olympics, is that on the first day of the Olympics, after Hitler publicly congratulated some German and Finn medalists, he left the stadium and did not shake the hands of the three Americans, the first two of whom were Black, who swept the high jump medals. The International Olympic Committee immediately informed Hitler that for the remainder of the Olympics he must either congratulate all the winners or none. Hitler decided to congratulate none—at least not in public. He did continue to hold private celebrations for German medalists. Even though Jesse Owens himself later declared the story of Hitler snubbing him to be untrue, the myth has endured in the public imagination the world over—as perhaps it should. In its essence it is possibly truer than the truth itself.
I also read several other stories about the 1936 Olympics that I never heard from my father. How President Roosevelt did not send a congratulatory telegram to Owens after his spectacular performances in Berlin, and how, upon his return to the US, Owens was not invited to the White House to shake the president’s hand, as white Olympians were. (That injustice was not corrected till 1976, when President Gerald Ford honored Jesse Owens with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Owens was one of seventeen Black athletes on the 1936 US Olympic team who was snubbed by FDR. In September of 2016, President Barack Obama righted that wrong as well when he invited relatives of all those athletes to a ceremony at the White House.)
I also learned that in Berlin in 1936, despite Nazi propaganda about Aryan supremacy, which emphatically excluded Jesse Owens, and in fact relegated all Blacks to the level of sub-humans, the German crowds cheered him wildly, rhythmically chanting his name, Yesseh Oh-vens, Yesseh Oh-vens, whenever he appeared. It also turns out that the man who suggested to Owens that he take off behind the board on his final qualifying jump (after he fouled on his first two jumps and was in danger of not even making it into the final round) was Lutz Long, the German champion, and the man who eventually wound up with the silver medal. Surely Lutz knew that by helping Owens, he was practically guaranteeing that he himself would not win the gold medal. After the competition, the two were seen congratulating each other, walking arm in arm on the infield.
I discovered another story, not nearly as uplifting, nor exemplifying the highest ideals of the Olympics. American sprinters Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, (a University of Michigan student) who were scheduled to run on the heavily favored 4X100 meter relay were replaced by Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe on the morning of the qualifying heats. Glickman and Stoller were the only Jewish members of the 1936 US Olympic track and field team, and the only members of that team who did not get to compete in the Games. (Unlike in more recent Olympics, where the 4X100 meter relay is comprised of the top four finishers in the 100 meter dash at the Olympic trials, in 1936 and in earlier Olympics, the tradition was that the first three finishers at the trials would race in the same event at the Games, while the next four finishers made up the 4X100 relay.) There was, and continues to be, controversy and a lack of clarity about the exact circumstances surrounding the last-minute change but, as Peter Levine writes in Ellis Island to Ebbets Field, there is little doubt that the atmosphere of the Berlin Games, and the prevalent anti-Semitism in the US in the Thirties played a part in the decision.
My father eagerly followed the Olympics every four years. When I talked with him, he told me his stories, as he had so many times before. My father was a good storyteller. I always listened and enjoyed. I never could bring myself to tell him the stories I discovered. I had the feeling that he preferred his own, less complicated ones.
I am a father and my daughter also loves sports and the Olympics. I have told her all these stories—my father’s and the ones I’ve learned.
There is no way, and no need, to compare two colossal tragedies: the murders of six million Jews in the Holocaust, with the brutal enslavement of millions of Black people; the vicious persecution of countless Jews for centuries, with the crippling discrimination and ruthless violence Black people have experienced and continue to endure in our country, even since the Civil War and Emancipation.
It is, however, instructive and very disheartening to once again be painfully reminded that, despite some significant—though admittedly unequal progress—in reducing racism and anti-Semitism since the 1930s, both are still unmistakably manifest. George Floyd’s death, the deaths of so many other Black men and women at the hands of police and others, the hugely disparate effect of the current pandemic on people of color, as well as the recent resurgence of anti-Semitism in the US and globally, show that we still have a very long way to go before those twin iniquities are eliminated from our world.
Despite the monsoon of sad and awful news of the past few weeks, I am heartened by some good news, such as yesterday’s Supreme Court decision affirming the civil rights of the LGBTQ community, and the persistence of the people worldwide who, at considerable risk to themselves, are protesting centuries of racial injustice. As I follow the news, I am also pausing to take note of an anniversary.
Five years ago today, on June 16, 2015, Trump descended on his personal conveyor belt to what has become our hell, to announce his decision to try to ruin—pardon me—run our country.
Today, I don’t recognize that country. The land I thought I knew five years ago, now seems like a mirage that has all but disappeared. A complete inventory of the ways America has deteriorated in the past five years would be mind-numbing and demoralizing. If in 2015 anyone had predicted what America would look like today, who wouldn’t have thought him insane? On the other hand, we’ve been through something similar before. In 1855, had anyone forecast that in five years the country would be at war with itself and nearly three quarter of a million soldiers and civilians would die, who wouldn’t have judged him mad?
For five years now we have been living in the era of DT—during Trump—and it’s hard to remember what life was like BT—before Trump. He has held up a funhouse mirror before us, completely distorting our country’s image. His mirror has magnified the racists, anti-Semites, homophobes and xenophobes who have always been among us. But that is not what we will allow to become the dominant image of who we are.
Granted, not all that is wrong in our country, even all the injustices of the last five years, can be blamed solely on Trump. Many others have aided and abetted. To them, Trump has been like the proverbial filthy-rich old uncle, who has always been overweening, arrogant and mean, but who now also suffers from debilitating dementia; his cronies are still franticly indulging and enabling him because they fear getting cut out of his will.
“…There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” That’s Hamlet declaiming his Zen-like, deeply unsettling, and chilling truth. But we also know, as Hamlet is finally forced to agree, that as human beings we are obligated to decide what is good—and deserves our support—and what is bad and does not; what we must defend, and what is our duty to oppose.
Trump and his allies do not deserve our support. The people who do deserve that are the ones who are risking their lives on our pandemic-ravaged streets to protest George Floyd’s murder and the deaths of so many other Black people, and to fight the virulent racism that has festered in our land for 400 years and for even longer throughout the world.
Anniversaries are useful. They are the marks on the yardstick of history that can serve to remind us who we were, and also give us a sense of where we are and where we’re headed. Today’s anniversary marks where we were. I look forward to November 3, 2020 marking who we will become.
6/23/20 Call 911?
One night some years ago, I was awakened by what sounded like a car spinning its tires in deep snow. In my sleep-confused fog I thought, “What the… it’s July.” I got up, went to the bathroom; it has a window overlooking our driveway and yard. I saw a car where no car was supposed to be, at the bottom of our steeply sloped front yard. Its headlights were on and it was rocking backwards and forwards, the driver trying to tease it out of the ruts the front wheels had dug. It was about three in the morning. I dialed 911, described the scene to the dispatcher, gave her our address and went downstairs to keep an eye out and to wait for the cops. I took my baseball bat with me. The car had stopped rocking, but the engine still ran, the headlights were still on.
In about ten minutes a police car came slowly down our driveway, its lights off. I met the officers, confirmed that I lived here, and they asked if I’d been down to the car. I told them no, and one of them, a beefy guy in his fifties, picked up a long flashlight, and off they went. I didn’t go with them, but I could hear as the cop banged hard on the passenger window with the flashlight. I couldn’t see or hear what happened next, it was dark, the cops’ bodies were blocking my view, but I heard the car door open, and one of the cops say a heartfelt, disgusted, “Shit,” drawing it out much longer than a one syllable word has a right to be.
The driver was stumbling drunk, a twenty something white guy with shaved head. The cops parked him in the cruiser. “Barfed himself, but good,” the younger cop told me. A tow truck arrived, its driver expertly winched out the car, and by four AM all was quiet. (Amazingly, my wife and daughter slept through the whole thing, as did most of our neighbors.)
We live at the end of a dead end street. The guy had driven down our driveway, likely thinking he was still on the street. When he saw our house, he’d turned into the yard, undoubtedly hoping to get back to the street, and got stuck. He’d passed out by the time the cops arrived. We were lucky he hadn’t plowed into our car at the end of the driveway, or into our house.
The following day, while we were away from home, he left a note of apology on our front door and offered to fix the damage to our lawn. I didn’t reply. I didn’t want to deal with him. The ground was dry, the tire tracks barely noticeable except in one spot. Our yard is not manicured like a Better Home and Gardens model anyway. I raked a little, dumped a wheelbarrow of dirt in the deepest hole and gradually forgot about the whole thing.
I thought about it again a few days ago when I read that a policeman shot and killed Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta. Brooks was apparently drunk and had fallen asleep in his car in the drive-thru of a Wendy’s—and then events spiraled horribly wrong.
I have no way of judging fairly what happened in that interaction, and I’m not going to speculate. But I can’t help wondering. What if the guy in my yard that night had been Black? What if he’d put up a fight when the cops dragged him from his car?
Since George Floyd’s murder, more and more people have been asking why are armed police called upon to handle so many situations for which force may not be necessary? Why don’t 911 dispatchers have any other option but to send the police?
Of course, I was frightened that night—hence the baseball bat—and of course there are times when the police are the best, only, option, but today, in light of all that has happened in the last few weeks, I have also wondered, would I—now—still call 911? Would I consider other possible actions? Might I decide to check if the man in the car was OK, or needed help? Might I call a couple of my neighbors and ask them to stand by in case the guy got belligerent when he awoke?
I have been asking myself, what would I do if the same thing happened tonight?
7/2/20 Hamilton and Fiddler on the Roof
The long awaited, eagerly anticipated film of Hamilton will drop tomorrow. My family and I will watch it—and then will likely watch it many, many more times. We saw the musical on Broadway in May of 2016, and it made a huge impression on all of us. The power of that experience has not faded, in some ways it has actually intensified, because our recollections of the show also bring back memories of where we were as a people and as a nation, and who our president was four years ago. Today it’s hard for me to recognize the country in which we are living as being the same one we lived in four years ago.
Four years ago, we also managed to see the 2016 Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof — in the same week we saw Hamilton. Fiddler made an enormous impression on me as well, partly because it enlivened my memories of seeing it on Broadway as a teenager fifty years ago, but also because the themes of the two shows echoed, reinforced and amplified each other.
I wrote a piece about my experience with the two musicals a few months after we saw them in 2016, and I ended it with a line from Hamilton; “Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now!” I felt that way about my life then, and even about the state of the world. No, I was not unaware of the enormous threat of climate change, I was not oblivious to the racism that suffuses nearly every aspect of our nation, (although I’ve lately been forced to see that it’s even more pervasive than I knew), and I was not unmindful of the myriad enormous challenges our country and world faced. Still, I felt we were headed in the right direction—albeit way too slowly—on many of those issues.
When I read that same line today, “Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now!” it sounds like a cruel, sarcastic joke. Trump’s entire tenure, especially his and his cohort’s insults and assaults on the poor, on people of color, on the LGBTQ community, on immigrants and refugees, on the environment, on much of what is good and decent in our country, as well as his spectacularly feeble and feeble-minded response to the pandemic, render that quote a gut punch line. And I’d be lying if I claimed never to feel hopeless, thoroughly disheartened, as well as enraged, by much of what surrounds us now. Not infrequently these days I find myself thinking of the “blessing” from Fiddler. “May God bless and keep the Tsar… far away from us!”
But, despite all of that, and more, and with full awareness that I might sound like a naïve Pollyanna, I am mostly still inclined to agree with the line from Hamilton. “Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now!” There are many reasons I feel that way. Here are just a few.
Yes, the virus is terrifying, but we are so much better equipped to respond to this pandemic than human beings were to the one in 1918, when a third of the world’s human population was infected and 50 million people died, including about 675,000 Americans. Today’s numbers are horrific, but pale next to those. (I know, I know…so far.)
A hundred years ago we had almost none of the amazing technological devices we have today that allow us to connect with each other, to work, to solve enormous problems, and still have the possibility of sheltering from the virus. (I know, I know… not available to far too many of us.)
In 2016 I, like many of us, had been lulled into thinking that we had, and were continuing to make, progress toward racial equality. The murders of George Floyd and of countless other unarmed people of color, and the protests that have followed, have shown how wrong we were, and also how fast and how much things can change—and how far we still have to go.
Yes, Broadway is dark today, but Hamilton, Fiddler, and other great works of art have not died; they are, and will be available, at a cost that is manageable for many; they still live and continue to inspire, to uplift, to tell our stories.
I hope you all get to see and enjoy Hamilton.
Here is the piece I wrote in 2016.
Since 1964, when Fiddler on the Roof opened on Broadway, it has been nearly impossible to grow up Jewish—or anything else—in America—or anywhere else—and not know the story outline and at least some of the songs from the iconic musical. And, unless you just emigrated here from Mars, you’ve undoubtedly heard of the current Broadway-and-beyond sensation, Hamilton. Earlier this year, in May, I was lucky enough to see both musicals on Broadway in the same week.
First of all, credit where credit is due. The only reason I got to see the shows is because my daughter Emily is a fan of musicals. (Do you recall that “fan” is short for “fanatic”? Enough said.) She discovered Hamilton soon after it opened on Broadway last year and started listening—non-stop—to the original cast recording. Last September she showed my wife a ten-minute clip she’d found online. When the clip ended, Brenda looked at her and said, “We have to go, right?” They didn’t have to work hard to convince me. “Why don’t we get tickets for Emily’s 22nd birthday, and all go together to see it next May?” The next day they went online and bought three tickets to Hamilton. (I’ll tell you later what we paid for them.)
Then in February Emily went to NYC with her theater class at EMU to see a number of shows on Broadway, including the new revival of Fiddler. Before she left, I regaled her with stories about how Fiddler was my first Broadway musical. It was in 1966, about two years after it opened. Herschel Bernardi was Tevye, having taken over the role a few months earlier from Zero Mostel who originated it. I told her how my aunt, who lived in Queens, managed to get my brother and me two standing room only tickets, how I was completely oblivious to the fact that I was standing for nearly three hours, totally mesmerized by what I was seeing. How, to this day I have a brilliantly vivid picture in my mind of Bernardi roaring, “There is no other hand!”
Emily saw the new Fiddler. Loved it. Raved about it. Insisted we had to see it. So, Brenda got two tickets to a Sunday matinee, while Emily got a ticket to She Loves Me, another Sheldon Harnick musical that was also revived on Broadway this year. The Fiddler revival is magnificent. I relished the restoration of my fifty-year-old memories, and I fell in love with a whole new set of marvelous ones. When Brenda and I finally left the theater, among the last ones to leave, both of us still wiping our eyes, she turned to me and said, “I thought about you, and how this might bring up some hard memories and feelings for you.” She wasn’t talking about the last time I saw Fiddler in 1966. She was referring to events long before that. In early 1957, when I was eight, my family left our native Hungary in the wake of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. It was less than a decade after my parents married, and only twelve years after they both survived Nazi concentration camps. So yes, Fiddler’s family leaving their homeland touched off many memories and feelings for me.
Three days later we saw Hamilton. (Because we bought our tickets so early, before most of the world discovered Hamilton, we got them for $89 each. These days the show is sold out at least six months in advance and some people are paying four and even five figure prices for tickets.) Our seats were in the very, very last row of the Richard Rodgers Theatre. You cannot sit any farther from the stage in that theatre. It mattered not one bit. Oh sure, we couldn’t clearly see the actors’ facial expressions, but in retrospect that may have been a good thing. The show, even from where we were sitting, was so powerful, so moving, so stunningly beautiful, so overwhelming, that I’m not sure how we would have handled the additional impact of seeing the actors’ faces emoting the show’s many striking and tragic moments. Hamilton completely lived up to its unprecedented hype. I have never attended an artistic event that was as affecting, heartrending, soul stirring… I’ll run out of superlatives before I’m done trying to convey its effect on us. Months later, we still talk about it frequently. It’s the yardstick by which I will measure all artistic moments from here on out.
But I am not writing here to review Hamilton or Fiddler, or to crow about our good fortune in getting tickets at reasonable prices. Instead, I’d like to share with you, dear reader, some of my reflections about these two musicals.
If you follow Broadway minutia the way Emily does, you’ve probably read about the somewhat controversial frame that director, Bartlett Sher put around the current revival of Fiddler. But just in case you haven’t heard about it… Sher has Danny Burstein, who portrays Tevye (magnificently) start and end the show wearing a modern red parka, a clear reference to the millions of Syrian and other refugees fleeing the Middle East, Africa and other war zones, dangerous places, or debilitating poverty and lack of opportunity. Burstein’s weary stance on the stage at the beginning and end of the musical was a moving gesture that brought the fifty-year old musical powerfully and painfully into the present. Fiddler has never been only a Jewish story, but rather a universal, everyman, everywoman, every human story. And Hamilton is not really only about our founding fathers and mothers—though it does go a long way to help replace some of the sentimental, inaccurate, and untruthful Hallmark histories that we were taught in school. Fiddler on the Roof’s lyrics, melodies and characters—and the actors who portray them—could not look and sound more different than those of Hamilton. But on deeper levels, the two musicals are more alike than different.
While Fiddler portrays a moment in one of the more horrific chapters of European Jewry’s history, the era of the pogroms, it also foreshadows one of the more glorious chapters in Jewish history, the massive migration of European Jews to America, to the great benefit of both those Jews and our nation; and of Broadway, in particular. (It’s not inaccurate to say that Broadway as we know it would not be possible without the contributions of Jews.) Hamilton, meanwhile, is set in the pivotal moments surrounding the birth of our nation, but also takes place at that critical period when the institution of slavery was codified in our constitution and laws, legitimizing enormous human misery, and creating a system of gross injustice with which we are still struggling today. Alexander Hamilton did in fact argue strongly against slavery, and the musical’s lyrics touch on the issue a number of times. “We’ll never be free until we end slavery!” And, given its cast—primarily people of color—and its hip-hop language and music, it is impossible to see Hamilton and not be forcefully reminded of the subject.
Fiddler on the Roof is about the end, and near destruction, of a culture and its second chance at survival in America. Hamilton is about the creation of that America which—despite its history of brutal racism, numerous prejudices, xenophobia, and yes, even genocidal policies and actions—is also arguably our world’s primary embodiment of second chances for countless people, as it was for Alexander Hamilton.
This is why Fiddler and Hamilton struck particularly personal chords for me. Alexander Hamilton was able to emigrate from his impoverished birthplace in the Caribbean Islands, where the circumstances of his birth would have doomed him to a miserable and very limited life, while Tevye and his family were able to escape the murderous prejudices of their homeland. My family was incredibly fortunate to be able to come to America and make new lives that would never have been possible for us in Hungary.
The last lines of Hamilton are, “Who lives, who dies, / Who tells your story?” I will always be grateful to the creators of Fiddler and Hamilton, and all the people who have made it their life’s work to bring these shows to all of us, for telling these stories. As one of my favorite lines from Hamilton says, “Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now!”
7/15/20 Coronavirus Musings and Memories: Chapter Six
I’ll begin this installment of my Musings and Memories with a few, hopefully, amusing items. In the midst of this decidedly unfunny, dark time, (assuming—perhaps with unrealistic optimism—that we are in the midst, rather than just past twilight and still far from dawn) I am often surprised, and always grateful for my fellow human beings’ ability to create comedy about this catastrophe, as well as at my ability to smile and laugh at their creations, even in the face of this ongoing tragedy. Here are a few small samples.
What’s the difference between the pandemic and Romeo and Juliet? One is a coronavirus, the other is a Verona crisis.
In response to discussions about socially distanced audiences at theaters and concert halls, a performer wagged, “I have played venues at 20% capacity many times in my career.” I can relate.
And a uniquely personal one. Over the course of our more than seven decades, many people have had difficulty distinguishing between my identical twin brother, Laz and myself, despite the fact that for many years now I have worn a full beard and he a goatee. The pandemic has apparently even made it harder to tell us apart. I recently received an email from Anne Ormand, a fellow musician, friend and neighbor, in which she wrote, “I identify you and Laz by your goatee or beard—but NOW you both wear MASKS! Good grief! Life has truly become impossible!”
There have also been some jokers whose unwitting witticisms have caused me to simultaneously or sequentially laugh, cry, snort, and grit and gnash my teeth—hard. Trump, of course, has too many such pithy (try saying that without a lisp) incoherent interpolations to enumerate. I’ll just restrict myself to awarding medals to a few of his fellow clowns for their comments and capers that have sunk to truly Olympian depths.
The bronze medal goes to Joni Ernst, the junior senator from Iowa who in 2014 accused President Obama of “failed leadership” after two Americans died of Ebola. Last week, after she was reminded of that statement, and after the death count from Covid-19 climbed to well over 130,000, she defended Trump, saying he is “stepping forward.” If this has been Trump stepping forward, what we desperately need is for him to step the hell back!
The silver medal goes to Ken Horn, the Michigan state senator who, after Governor Whitmer issued an executive order requiring mask wearing indoors and in crowded outdoor settings, invoked his grandfather’s death at the hands of the Russians and his father’s experience of being tortured in East Germany. As a child of two Holocaust survivors myself, I understand and sympathize with Mr. Horn’s uniquely personal concern about government overreach and share his feeling that we must always resist illegal or immoral orders. But seriously? Wearing a mask during a pandemic equals state sponsored torture?
And the gold medal, blue ribbon, and top spot on the podium this week goes to Danny McCormick, the Louisiana state representative, who, in word and deed completely outclassed the field. He not only talked the talk but walked the walk, posting videos of himself first crumpling, then beating with a large stick, a piece of paper on which was printed the masking mandate issued by the governor of Louisiana. He also burned a mask with a blowtorch and, to complete his hat trick, he cut up a mask with a large chainsaw—while wearing ear protectors and safety goggles. Because, safety first!
Then, for extra credit, he also brought Nazis and Jews into the current to-mask-or-not-to-mask question. “People who don’t wear a mask will be soon painted as the enemy just as they did to Jews in Nazi Germany.” Breathtaking!
And, McCormick, who is also on record opposing abortion, railed against mandatory masks because, “your body is your private property.” I’m speechless.
Well, not quite.
I find it extraordinarily bizarre that these people, who have been largely silent, and mostly complicit, while Trump and cabal have tried countless times and ways to strangle the Constitution and, more importantly, common human decency—the deployment and encouragement of violent crackdowns on constitutionally protected peaceful protests for racial justice being the latest and one of the most egregious examples—have now found their voices and backbones in standing against common sense protections in this deadly pandemic.
It makes me think of the recent injunction against screaming on amusement park rides in Japan to help prevent the spread of the virus, “Please scream in your heart!” An apt suggestion to all of us.
7/23/20 Coronavirus Musings and Memories: Chapter Seven
Today is opening day for major league baseball. In our current through-the-looking-glass world, the baseball season starting in late July is a sign of just how weird this year is, and also how much we’re yearning for it to be normal. As Alice says in Adventures in Wonderland, “It would be so nice if something made sense for a change.” Not that baseball, pandemic style, will be normal, with empty stadiums peopled by cardboard cutouts, and players cheered by canned crowd noises; not to mention players restricted from spitting, high fiving and hugging. I haven’t read of restrictions on butt slapping, but can they be far behind?
I’ve missed baseball, especially the sounds of baseball on the radio; that unique instantly recognizable static-like buzz of a baseball crowd, the cheers, the boos, the anguished groans, the ump roaring strikes, the crack of the bat, the slap of the ball in the catcher’s mitt, the organ, the patter of the play-by-play announcers, even their generous silences when nothing needs be said, all combining to paint lovely soundscapes that are almost better than the real thing.
And, will the national anthem still start the games? Who will sing it, will players doff their caps and place hands over hearts, or will they kneel, or raise fists? And what of baseball’s anthem, Take Me Out to the Ballgame? We’re not going out with the crowd, so that too needs to change. Therefore, with apologies to Jack Norworth and Albert Von Tilzer, here are my 2020 updates to their 1908 classic; two complete versions and—in acknowledgement of the truncated season—a partial one.
I’m not going out to the ballgame
I’m not going out with the crowd
I don’t want to spread the coronavirus
I’m staying at home and avoiding the chorus
Of voices cheering the home team
If they don’t wear their masks, it’s a shame
For the Covid-19 will always bat last
In this new ballgame.
I’m not going out to the ballgame
I’m not going out with the crowd
I’ll wait till the time that a vaccine’s on track
After that I am sure I’ll come back
But for now, I’ll root for Joe Biden
If he doesn’t win, it’s a shame
For these one, two, three, four years are more than enough
Of the Trump foul game!
If I go out to the ballgame
I’ll socially distance the crowd
I’ll slather Purell and put on my face mask
If you don’t, I may never come back…
And, speaking of coming back…
Yesterday the NEOWISE comet, scribing its enormous, lustrous arc through our solar system, was at its closest point to the earth. Closest is a relative term here, astronomers are talking 64 million miles; not an easy distance for our minds to grasp under normal circumstances, (whatever those are anymore) but likely more difficult than usual now, given how much the pandemic has proscribed and circumscribed even our normally much shorter forays during the past few months.
A few nights ago, I stayed up late to look for the comet. Late is a relative term here, I’m talking eleven, about an hour past my usual bedtime. I drove to the top of Water Hill, five minutes from my house and one of the highest points in Ann Arbor, and parked on a mostly dark street. Thin, wispy clouds hung lacy curtains over part of the sky, but the handle and bottom of the bowl of the Big Dipper was in the clear and easy to spot in the northwest. I was lucky, the clouds didn’t move, and with binoculars I found the comet pretty quickly.
I’ll confess, my initial glimpse of NEOWISE was a little disappointing; nothing like the remarkable images I’d seen on the internet, the spectacular photos of the comet set in magnificent clear skies, against pristine horizons. But once I got over my unrealistic expectations, the view before my eyes began to touch the neurons behind my eyes, and they began sparking and glowing.
I’d read that the last time NEOWISE was this close to earth was 6,800 years ago. I thought about that visit coming 300,000 years after the first emergence of homo sapiens on the planet. When did early people begin noticing its subsequent returns? NEOWISE’s last visit was also about 2,000 years before the invention of writing and the dawn of recorded history. Did our ancestors note and remark on it in any other way? It will be another 6,800 years before it’ll again be visible from earth. Will human beings still be here? Will they wonder about us and what we thought of NEOWISE?
I found myself acutely humbled, intensely aware of my minuteness, and paradoxically also wondrously uplifted by the sudden glimpse my view of the comet had afforded me; of the immensity of time and the limitlessness of the universe—especially now, when both time and space seem to have become so twisted and warped.
I got back in my car and drove for a time on the silent, darkened streets, very aware of my good fortune to be here and—despite everything—now. Before I went into my house, the place that has been the center and, to a significant extent, the totality of my universe for the past few months, I stood in my yard and looked up at the night sky—gratefully.
8/12/20 Coronavirus Musings and Memories: Chapter Eight
Today marks the third anniversary of the Charlottesville demonstrations, the one in which alt-right, white supremacists chanted racist and anti-Semitic slogans. The one in which one of them drove his car into a crowd of counter protesters, killed Heather Heyer and wounded many others. It’s the one after which the president said there “were very fine people, on both sides.”
Yesterday Joe Biden chose Kamala Harris as his running mate.
I am still dismayed by what happened in Charlottesville. I am still elated by yesterday’s announcement.
The president was utterly wrong three years ago when he claimed that there were very fine people on both sides in Charlottesville. I’m certain he’ll never say the same about all four of the candidates in the November election—though he says it about himself almost daily. But if he did, he’d be even farther from the truth, and even far more in the wrong.
I was very heartened by the sight of the women of the Wall of Moms at the Portland protests for racial justice. This despite my recognizing the uncomfortable, unpleasant truth that the WOM highlighted; that a group of middle aged, middle class white women can get a lot more notice than a similarly comprised group of women of color. Nonetheless, it has been refreshing and truly uplifting, after viewing so many dispiriting events and despicable actions on our pandemically overheated screens, to see a group of selfless, courageous women, standing up on the right side of history. What a welcome change from the unremitting lying and the callous contempt for others, exhibited by the male figureheads of America, Brazil, India, China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, England, Hungary, Poland, the Philippines… God, what a miserable list—and sadly incomplete at that.
There is historical precedent for the WOM. There have been a number of similar group-of-mothers’ righteous protests in the past fifty years; against apartheid in South Africa, to advocate for and memorialize “disappeared” sons and other relatives in Argentina and Sri Lanka, and to remove a president who unlawfully tried to stay in power in Armenia. My personal favorite, the Rose Street Women, goes back even further. In 1943, in Berlin, a group of non-Jewish German women staged a series of peaceful protests to demand that the Nazis release their Jewish husbands. The men had been arrested and were being held in a building on Rosenstrasse (Rose Street) waiting to be deported to Auschwitz. The women, only a handful at first, but eventually about a thousand, stood in the street in front of the building, in winter weather, and chanted over and over, “Give us back our men!” They refused orders to leave, even after SS troops set up machine gun nests. After their forceful stand had gone on for six days, in late February and early March, Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, ordered the release of the men.
I always try to be extremely careful about drawing parallels between Nazis and current fascistic leaders, but I feel it’s worth noting that even Goebbels, at least in this one singular instance anyway, backed down, and that the governments in all of those other countries with mothers’ protests have for the most part not attacked the moms, while the current occupant of the White House has repeatedly teargassed and flash bombed peaceful demonstrators, including the women of the Wall of Moms.
The phrase, “That’s for civilians,” is one I have long enjoyed citing. It’s not original with me, though I no longer recall where I first read or heard it. Possibly in a detective novel; the kind in which heroes park on fire hydrants, tear up parking tickets, flout, bend or break other minor—and sometimes major—rules and laws, in their quest for clues, killers and the cracking of the case.
I adopted the phrase when I was still a callow fellow and, I’m a bit ashamed to confess, have continued to rely on it occasionally, even into my dotage, and still with the same hubris and arrogance with which I first began using it. I’ve deployed it most frequently as a clever riposte when, for example, a cherished member of my household says, while I’m backing into a parking space, “The sign says, ‘Do Not Back In.’” I’ve employed it in response to another dear relative asking, “You sure you don’t want to use a step stool instead of that rickety chair?” as I was about to change a lightbulb.
I’ve thought of the phrase recently, while observing the to-mask-or-not-to-mask culture kerfuffles, as well as the contemptuous comments and dismissive gestures of those who believe that the pandemic is either a hoax, or better yet, that they—the don’t-try-this-at-home and hold-my-beer-dear crowd—are immune to the virus due to either their superior physical attributes or conditioning, their dosing with hydroxychloroquine and/or bleach, their unwavering belief in god, or in a merciful god, or because somewhere in their youth, or childhood, they must have done something good. As Jane Austen, that peerless observer of human foibles wrote in Persuasion, “How quick come the reasons for approving what we like.” Or what we don’t, as the case might be.
I don’t know if such pandemic related obstreperous obstinacy has equally infected ordinary men and women, whether on this issue the two sexes have achieved an egalitarianism not found in most other spheres of our world. I’m guessing though that, as in most things, men have the edge here too. However, when it comes to leaders of countries around the world, we have the data and, to date anyway, the verdict is in. As many have pointed out, women-led countries, such as Germany, Taiwan, New Zealand, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Iceland, have fared far better in handling the pandemic than the nations with authoritarian style, male leaders. (See earlier list.) I am absolutely certain that the United States would not now have the world’s most lethally bungled pandemic (mandemic?) response if Hillary Clinton was president. (Which is not much of a compliment—Bozo the Clown would have done better.) The collateral damage resulting from the adaptation of the that’s-for-civilians attitude is far, far higher when it concerns the pandemic than for less consequential, more private actions.
I’m not aware of any research to determine if a similar pattern holds regarding female versus male governors of the fifty American states. (Such a study would likely be skewed—trumped, I regret say—more by Democrat/Republican affiliation, than by female/male attributes.) Nevertheless, I am grateful to live in Michigan now, where Governor Whitmer’s pragmatic response has, despite sometimes unhinged resistance, managed to fashion one of the better outcomes in controlling the virus.
8/21/20 Catch a Falling Star
The night that astronomers predicted would be the best opportunity for viewing this year’s Perseid meteor shower I went out late to see if I could catch a falling star. (I know, I know, a meteor is not a falling star, but “catch a falling fragment of ancient comet debris” just doesn’t sing as well.) I drove up Fountain Street, turned onto the aptly named Sunset Street, and found a relatively dark stretch on one of the higher hills in Ann Arbor. I craned my neck back, scanned the sky, and waited for my eyes to adjust to the night.
There was not much going on there at that hour; few lights were still lit in nearby houses, only two cars and one jogger passed by the whole time I was there. But it wasn’t quiet. The harsh drone of the traffic from highway 14 mixed with the high-pitched whirr of cicadas, the ratcheting of katydids and the chirping of crickets, created an ever changing, polyrhythmic soundscape. I slowly swiveled my upturned head back and forth and searched the night sky.
While I waited to spot a fleeting streak, and as my neck started cramping and my eyes began to burn, I found myself asking why I had come here this night. After all, I’d long been aware of the Perseids’ annual August appearance, but had never before stayed up late to look for them. What was I doing, well past my bedtime, with stiffening neck and irritated eyes, on this street where I’d stood late at night less than a month ago, waiting to spot the comet NEOWISE? What was it that has sparked my newfound curiosity in the stars?
It didn’t take long for the light to dawn. As the song says, “For when your troubles start multiplying/and they just might/It’s easy to forget them without trying/With just a pocketful of starlight.” Given the recent hell on earth triggered by the twin calamities of the current presidency and the pandemic, it wasn’t hard to intuit why I’ve lately developed a greater interest in the heavens.
Soon after that flare of insight illuminated my interior landscape, a streak flashed abruptly overhead—a threadlike flame scoring the sky—faint, fast, and gone almost instantly, leaving no trace it had ever existed. I almost doubted I’d seen it. But I knew I had.
It wasn’t till I got home that I remembered— “Starlight, star bright, first star I see tonight…” I’d seen a falling star and hadn’t made a wish. Ordinarily, I don’t put stock in such rituals, but then these days are not ordinary. What could it hurt? So, I stood by my front door and gazed up into the night sky again. If another star fell, I’d be ready—with two wishes—one for each sighting.
It didn’t happen. It was getting late and I saw no more falling stars. But two fireflies blinked on and off in the yard, embroidering their brief designs on the darkness. I wished on them. “I wish I may, I wish I might, have this wish I wish tonight.”
The next big meteor shower will be the Leonids, an annual event that this year is expected to fall on November 17. I’ll watch again. By then we may know whether at least one of my wishes has come true.
On September the 11th, we will not forget the year
At ten in the morning, there were planes still in the air
All of them were commanded to land straight away
This is what happened, to one of those planes that day.
Delta Flight Fifteen, from Frankfurt, Atlanta bound
Looked for an airport, the closest one they found
Gander, up in Newfoundland, four hundred miles away
Granted them permission to land their plane that day
The captain told the passengers the little that he knew
Gasps of shock and disbelief greeted his sad news
Then there was just silence, what was there to say?
Many tears and folded hands and prayers said that day.
Chorus: This kind of love, this kind of caring / Is like the blood that’s in our veins
That warms us with its course. An endless flowing circle, nourishing every moment
It always comes straight from the heart and goes back to its source.
The people at Gander airport made sure everyone was fed
No small achievement, when they hadn’t known ahead
That more than fifty planes, bound for the USA
Would be stranded unexpectedly in Gander that day
Gander and the nearby towns, were all put to the test
They didn’t have hotels for seven thousand guests
They opened churches, schools and homes for all of them to stay
Welcomed everyone who dropped in from the sky that day
The people on Delta Flight Fifteen were housed in Lewisporte
They all were treated warmly, they were offered much support
Their hosts took them fishing, showed them Notre Dame Bay,
Some even took them moose hunting in the next few days.
People who live in Lewisporte, they don’t have much to spare
But they gave all that was theirs to give, and willingly did share
Home is where the heart is, we’ve all heard the cliché
The folks in Gander and Lewisporte, proved it true those days.
When Delta Flight Fifteen, took off Friday afternoon
A passenger stood up and said, “I know we’ll be home soon.
But before we go back to our lives, I’d like to find a way
To thank the folks of Lewisporte for what they did these days.”
“I’ll set up a trust fund, send some of their kids to school
If you’d all like to contribute, our money we could pool.”
Fourteen thousand dollars, with more on the way,
The people on Delta Flight Fifteen contributed that day.
9/10/20 Coronavirus Musings and Memories: Chapter Nine
With the election looming, I’ve been reading with intensified interest the news coming out of Belarus following their presidential election last month. The more I read, the more apparent are the striking parallels between Aleksandr Lukashenko, the president and dictator of Belarus, and the president and would-be-one of our country. Here’s an abbreviated list, a few lowlights, of similarities between the two.
Let’s start with a timely one; both men are staunch Covid-deniers. Trump’s reactions to the pandemic have contributed significantly to America’s world-leading death toll and to the unprecedented damage to our economy. Lukashenko has been equally feckless. Like Trump, he’s denied the existence of the virus, “There are no viruses here,” and has touted crazy cures for Covid, though admittedly his proposals—drinking vodka, playing hockey, taking saunas and driving tractors—while ridiculous and useless, are not as deranged as Trump’s chloroquine and bleach prescriptions. Predictably, Belarussians, like Americans, have suffered many needless deaths.
Both are poster boys for misogynists. Trump’s long list of loathsome comments and gross misdeeds regarding women are well known. Lukashenko seems less a self-styled stud duck Lothario, relying instead on demeaning comments about women being too weak to be leaders. He described his main rival in the August election, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, as “a little girl who does not know what she is doing.” In the runup to his election Amnesty International repeatedly condemned him for misogynist and discriminatory practices.
Each resort to crude, puerile insults when referring to their political opponents, journalists, and anyone who disagrees or opposes them. They’re past masters at linking old national traumas to present day opponents. Lukashenko calls his opposition “wild Nazis” trying to couple them to the horrors Belarussians suffered under German occupation during WWII. Trump stamps Democrats “socialists”, attempting to tap into cold war fears buried in the psyches of Americans from the days of the Red Menace. (And, speaking of Russia, both men consider themselves friends of Putin, while that worthy has only adopted a hot and cold, transactional relationship with each. Like many other despots, Putin, Trump and Lukashenko all came into power vowing to “clean up” corruption in their respective governments. And, as we all know by now, “clean up” they have.)
Attempting to discredit and muzzle a free press is always a hallmark of dictators everywhere, and Trump’s constant refrain of “fake news,” echoed by Lukashenko’s references to the “dirt-spitting” press have aped that time-and-time-again-dishonored script. And remember the “lock her up” chants at Trump rallies? Lukashenko may have been listening. His main opponents in August were three women, all of whom as of this writing have been forced into hiding or exile after being detained and threatened.
Lukashenko has been president of Belarus since 1994 and, after the national election on August 9, he claimed to have been reelected by 80% of the voters. There is overwhelming evidence to disprove that claim, and it appears that the people of Belarus finally had enough of Lukashenko’s long, and often ruthless reign and began staging a series of massive protests, 100,000 people in the streets of the capitol, Minsk. (The population of Belarus is less than 10 million, so 100,000 protesters are approximately 1% of the entire country; our equivalent would be 3.3 million Americans in the streets of Washington.) Lukashenko’s security forces responded with thousands of arrests, beatings, torture and even killings. Despite that brutality, the protests continued and have even grown, and Lukashenko has been forced to change his tactics. Responding to outrage at home and condemnation abroad, Lukashenko’s security forces stopped beating and shooting people in public, although mass arrests continue. Now political rivals are imprisoned or expelled from the country. Lukashenko admitted the other day that he has perhaps been in power too long but insisted he must remain because “only I can” hold the country together. (This “only I can” phrase is a telltale signature of most fascistic leaders. Trump claimed, “I alone can fix it” at the 2016 Republican Convention.)
In the past few years there have been significant anti-government street protests in many countries. Some, such as in Armenia, Bolivia, and South Korea, have successfully ousted corrupt, autocratic leaders. Others, as in Algeria and Lebanon have had limited success, while still others, such as in Hong Kong, have been harshly repressed. It will be instructive to see what happens in Belarus.
The US is not a fledgling quasi democracy like Belarus. Ours is the oldest and largest democracy on the planet and—despite some enormous systemic injustices baked into our institutions—have a powerful set of checks and balances that have managed to prevent the enthronement of fascistic leaders for nearly 250 years. Despite Trump and his Republican enablers’ vigorous attempts to destroy them, many of those safeguards are still in place.
Trump has lately begun making noises about a third term, and hinting at a family dynasty with Ivanka, or Donald Jr, to follow him.
Trump will not go easily or quietly. Like Lukashenko, he’ll try to rig the election—he’s already begun—and if he loses, he’ll dispute the results. It’s simply not in his nature to gracefully accept defeat, or graciously bow to the will of the people. I don’t believe he is capable of giving a concession speech. It’s not in his makeup. If he loses, it will be up to the democratic institutions that he has not yet managed to weaken or subvert, to remove him. It will be up to the people in government and in the military who are still willing to uphold the rule of law to displace him. And if they can’t or won’t, it might—as in Belarus, and many other countries—be up to us.
Till then we’d do well to keep a close eye on Belarus. We may learn something useful about what to do after November 3rd.
9/16/20 Coronavirus Musings and Memories: Chapter Ten
Classic works of art have universal appeal; they last, because they manage to speak to us long after they were created. We recognize ourselves in them, find that they have resonance and relevance in our own lives. I thought of these things the other night when my family and I watched a table reading of the screenplay of the movie, The Princess Bride, performed by the original cast.
The Princess Bride, written by William Goldman and directed by Rob Reiner in 1987, is not even forty-five years old, not exactly an example of longevity even in the history of movies, one of the youngest of human artforms. Nevertheless, it has a great many devoted fans and has long been a favorite of ours; we’ve watched it probably a dozen times over the years and can recite many of its lines by heart. (Warning: If you’re not a fervent fan of the movie, much of what follows may be mysterious to you. Go watch the movie, then read on. Or read this now, it might inspire you to see the movie.)
The table reading we watched on Sunday, September 13th was a fundraiser for the Wisconsin Democratic Party, which is working hard to make sure Wisconsin’s electoral votes wind up in Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’ column. That, as well as the reality of Covid-19 — all of the cast members delivered their lines via Zoom, from their own homes — colored our viewing that evening, compelling us to hear many of the movie’s long-familiar lines in new and currently relevant ways. “Let me explain! No, there is too much. Let me sum up.”
For example, never before when we’ve watched the movie, did the following lines seem prescient. At their first face to face meeting, (what’s a face to face meeting? you ask) Fezzik, the giant, asks Westley, the hero/protagonist, “Why do you wear a mask? Were you burned by acid, or something like that?” Westley replies, “Oh no. It’s just they’re terribly comfortable. I think everyone will be wearing them in the future.”
The movie also anticipated today’s anti-maskers. “You be careful. People in masks cannot be trusted.”
Westley’s comical David vs. Goliath wrestling match with Fezzik ends when he manages to put a choke hold on the giant, rendering him unconscious. When I first saw that scene forty years ago—and every other time since—I laughed, as the screenwriter and the movie makers intended I should. The other day, I didn’t laugh. Nor do I think I ever will again. I did smile at Westley’s humane lines after Fezzik falls to the ground. “I do not envy you the headache you will have when you awake. Rest well and dream of large women.”
And how could we hear, “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something,” and not think of our present reality? Same with … “Fair? Who says life is fair, where is that written? Life isn’t always fair.” Also… “When does it get good?”
There were many lines that presaged our frequent exclamations of outrage since November 2016.
“Oh! The sot has spoken.”
“What hideous sin have you committed lately?”
“Oh boy, are you a rotten liar.”
“You’ve got an overdeveloped sense of vengeance. It’s going to get you into trouble one of these days.”
“You are nothing but a coward with a heart full of fear!”
“You ARE the Brute Squad!”
“Then why is there fear behind your eyes?”
There were others that anticipated Trump’s numerous non bon mots.
“Unless I’m wrong, and I’m never wrong.”
“The loser is nothing.”
“Did I make it clear that your job is at stake?”
“No one ever likes to doubt you when you run a country.”
“I’m sucking life!
And how did William Goldman foresee nearly fifty years ago The Brute Squad, The Thieves’ Forest, the Fire Swamp, (complete with rodents of unusual size, R.O.U.S.) and the Pit of Despair?
Disinformation, mendacity, and violence against the opposition are, as today, the modus operandi of the government in The Princess Bride. There is a telling dialog—I’ve edited it slightly below—between Humperdinck, the evil king, and Yellin, his fittingly named enabler-in-chief.
“HUMPERDINCK: As chief enforcer… I trust you with this secret. Killers… are infiltrating the Thieves’ Forest…
YELLIN: My spy network has heard no such news.
HUMPERDINCK: I want the Thieves’ Forest emptied and every inhabitant arrested.
YELLIN: Many of the thieves will resist. My regular enforcers will be inadequate.
HUMPERDINCK: Form a brute squad, then! I want the Thieves’ Forest emptied… “
As there, here. As then, now. “The Brute Squad had their hands full carrying out Humperdinck’s orders.”
And nevertheless, the opposition persisted. “We are men (and women) of action, lies do not become us.”
This was, and still remains, “inconceivable!” to some of America’s leaders, to the so-called defenders of “truth.”
“You keep using that word,” says the opposition, speaking with one voice, “I do not think it means what you think it means.”
In perhaps the most hilarious line of the entire movie, one that rivals even Trump’s worst un self-aware, tone-deaf, pronouncements, Humperdinck says to Princess Buttercup, “Please consider me as an alternative to suicide.” I—and nobody I know—have any intention of shuffling off this mortal coil in order to escape “the law’s delay, the insolence of office” (no, those words are not from The Princess Bride!) but the line accurately captures Princess Buttercup’s, and our, fierce resistance to being wooed and wed by a monster. Or, quoting from the movie, in a lighter tone, “I’d rather eat lint!”
The Princess Bride reaches the pinnacle of its compassionate heart when, near the very end, Inigo, having finally avenged his father’s murder, says, “Where do I go now? Is very strange. I have been in the revenge business so long, now that it’s over, I don’t know what to do with the rest of my life.” That will be our task as well, to discover what we will do, and how we will heal and conduct our lives after November 3rd.
Till then, “I hope we win,” and I also hope that, “Soon you will not be here!”
“As you wish.”
10/19/20 Do You Miss Your Homeland?
The other day I heard a voice in my mind. Like most of us, in addition to my dreams, my night time theater of the absurd, I also have a full time repertory theater in my waking mind that continuously stages brief scenes and long running plays; tragic dramas, mysterious whodunits, romantic comedies—all starring me—filled with breathtaking action, dazzling monologues, delightful dialogues, devastating retorts, etc. But this voice that I heard the other day was not from one of those hit shows; in tone and content it seemed, at first anyway, a complete non sequitur. It asked very calmly, with no dramatic affect, “Do you miss your homeland?” The question interrupted my regularly scheduled programming. I was born in Budapest, Hungary, but have lived in the United States since I was eleven years old, now more than sixty years ago. I’ve long considered myself an American, have long thought of America as my homeland; it seemed a strange time for that question. In all the years I’ve lived here I don’t recall anyone—in or outside my head—ever asking me that before. I do remember that in the first few years I lived in the US, people frequently inquired how I liked it here. (They never asked if I did like it here. Despite some robust recent evidence to the contrary, we Americans have long thought that we’re pretty exceptional.) Even at that callow age, I was aware of the self-congratulatory attitude rather than genuine curiosity behind those questions. Nevertheless, I was always happy to enthusiastically, and honestly, answer that I loved it here. If anyone had asked me if I missed my homeland, I’m sure I’d have answered—again whole heartedly, and quite firmly—no. I had no deep attachment to anyone or any place in Budapest, or in Israel, where our family lived for almost three years after we left Hungary and before we got to the US. No, I didn’t miss my homeland.
(The feeling was, I’m certain, quite mutual. Hungary didn’t miss us, not then, and not since. Hungary was at the time, and certainly would be now, happy to have us gone. While the lethal anti-Semitism of Nazi era Hungary had briefly relaxed, though never fully released its grip during the post WWII period in which I grew up, the unspoken quota system that regulated how many Jews were allowed into universities, government positions, etc. was still in full force, and frequent microaggressions against Jews were normal. Today, things are far worse. Hungary now serves up a complete alphabet soup of hateful attitudes, from anti-Semitic to xenophobic, and everything in between.)
So no, the voice inside my head knows better than to ask if I miss Hungary. Surely it was asking about some other place. Maybe the homeland in that question was America before some of us decided that if we didn’t like the policies of an elected leader, the acceptable response was to plot to kidnap her and try her for treason; maybe it was the America whose president didn’t repeatedly praise and encourage those views and acts; maybe it was the America before some of us refused to wear a mask during a pandemic, believing it indicated admirable insouciance and courage; maybe it was the America whose president set that example and mocked those who didn’t follow it; maybe it was the America before KookAnon and the president who “appreciates” that “They like me very much,” and who informed us that “They are very strongly against pedophilia and I agree with that. I agree with it very strongly.” Glad to hear it, Mr. President. Good to know.
Maybe it was the America before a policeman kneeled on George Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes…
No… it couldn’t have been that America. In that America policemen did similar things—for generations; in that America, Americans lynched Black people, and murdered Native Americans, among many other “others”; in that not-that-long-ago America, women could not vote or own property, while in that same America, at that same time, it was permissible to own and enslave Black people…
No, that voice couldn’t possibly have been asking if I missed that America. It knows me better than that. I’ll be damned if I’m homesick for that America.
Yes, I do miss my adopted homeland—my pre-Covid America, my pre-Trump America—far-from-perfect-for-all, distant-even-from-decent for many, though she has been good to me and I believe was still, in some ways, among the best that our world offers. Yes, I miss that America, but no, I won’t miss any of the blinkered illusions and heartbreaking delusions I had—that all was well and good—for all of us.
Yes, I do miss the “land” of my homeland, the pre-Covid, pre-Trump days when this whole glorious land was ours to explore, to cherish, when I didn’t feel so alienated from so many of my fellow Americans. Today only the “home” in my homeland feels safe, and even that limited privilege is not available to far too many Americans. But no, if the Fates allow on November 3rd, I will not miss the Theatre of Cruelty of the past four years—the horror shows that have far outstripped the most despicable plots and dismal scenarios my brain’s gloomiest playwright-in-residence might have ever conjured.
I never thought to ask my parents if they missed their homeland. My father was 47, my mother 39 years old when our family left Hungary. They each had nearly half a lifetime of memories by then, many horrific ones to be sure—they each survived, albeit with unimaginable losses, Nazi concentration camps—but surely many joyful ones too. They must have missed much that they left behind.
Yet the promise of America was beguiling enough that they made the wrenching decision to leave their homeland, to leave behind their friends and relatives—and the bones of their ancestors—their work, their mother tongue, all that they had absorbed about the workings of their culture, their society, their government… and begin to learn a new world, a new homeland. It is that homeland I miss most, the America that drew my parents here, that has made possible my life here, that still may make possible the life my daughter hopes to build here.
Yes, I am homesick. I do miss that homeland.
11/1/2020 When This is All Over
In the past few months I’ve frequently said, seen, or heard the phrase, “When this is all over.” In a variety of iterations, it has served as a prelude to plans, promises, and proposals for when this is all over. For more than half a year we’ve been waiting, hoping, and looking forward for this to go the hell away so we could resume living the way we were before this. (Well, not exactly the way we were before. More on that later.) For longer than we ever thought possible when this all started, we’ve felt ourselves living in the shadow of grave danger. Though this has never officially declared war on us, it’s still felt like we’ve been living under the constant threat of imminent attack and ambush. Many of us have been hurt, many of us have died, and many of us continue to live, besieged and exhausted as though under occupation by a cruel and heartless invading force.
This of course, has been Covid-19. But for many of us, this has also been the Trump era. For more than five years we have been waiting, hoping and looking forward for this to just go the hell away so we could resume living the way we were before this. (Well, not exactly the way we were before. More on that later.) For longer than we ever thought possible when this all started, we’ve felt ourselves living in the shadow of grave danger. Though this never officially declared war on us, it’s felt like we’ve been living under the constant threat of imminent attack and ambush. Many of us have been hurt, many of us have died, and many of us continue to live, besieged and exhausted as though under occupation by a cruel and heartless invading force.
Lately it’s begun to sink in that this pandemic will not end soon, nor conclude like many past wars. This virus will not surrender. There will be no cease fire, truce or peace treaty; there’ll be no iconic kiss in Times Square like the one that emblemized the end of WWII. Guerilla fighting in the form of spikes, surges, outbreaks and waves is going to continue long after effective vaccines are formulated, especially if distribution of those vaccines is as hapless as most of the national pandemic response has been to date, and if resistance to vaccination is as widespread as it has been to masks and contact tracing.
Similarly, the Trump presidency may not end the way all previous American ones have. If Joe Biden wins, there may not be an orderly, peaceful transfer of power. Trump will undoubtedly be a sore loser—as he’s proven to be a graceless winner—and very unlikely to concede. He’ll call foul, claim fraud, he’ll litigate and sue—as he has so often before—and he will have his coterie of Republican enablers, Supreme Court appointees, his Proud Boys and others of similar ilk, standing by.
The pandemic will end when we begin to listen to epidemiologists and commit to using all the tools, technology and practices human beings have created and learned about plagues and pandemics for hundreds of years, instead of relying on the dangerous, heartless proposal promoted in the Great Barrington Declaration and embraced by Trump and his loyal accomplices—which will overwhelm hospitals and unnecessarily harm and kill numberless Americans and people around the world.
The Trump presidency will end when enough political, military, police and civil service leaders, as well as a great majority of Americans stand up to the unethical, immoral, unjust, and illegal actions of Trump and company.
When this pandemic ends it will not be the last time human beings will need to confront and defend against this kind of danger. We must do far better in the future.
When the Trump presidency is over, it will not signal the end of the shortcomings and injustices—the systemic racism, unequal access to health care, homophobia, and so much more—that Trump exacerbated but which predated him and have long confronted our country. We must do far better in the future.
Both these struggles, against the pandemic and against Trump, will end like all wars have—a great many people will fight hard and sacrifice a great deal.
I am looking forward for all of this—the pandemic, the Trump presidency, and this election—to be over.
In a scene from my favorite TV show, The West Wing, as President Bartlett is about to win his second term, on election night Sam is surprised to learn that Toby has written an acceptance, as well as a concession speech. “You wrote a concession?” To which Toby replies indignantly, “Of course I wrote a concession. You want to tempt the wrath of the whatever from high atop the thing?” When Sam sheepishly replies, “No,” Toby continues yelling, “Then go outside, turn around three times and spit. What the hell’s the matter with you?”
(Small aside here: Could there possibly be a more thankless job than being a speechwriter for Trump and, especially, to be tasked with crafting his concession speech?)
Since I also dare not tempt the wrath of the whatever from high atop the thing, I too have created two alternate plans for my life after Tuesday night—or whenever the hell this election will end.
If Trump games the system, and by hook and crooks manages to hang on to his wannabee autocracy, I will go into mourning. I will grieve the loss like I did the first great death I experienced, that of President Kennedy. I will lament like I suffered the deaths of my parents and loved ones. I will feel saddened beyond measure for my country, for her unhealed wounds of racism, xenophobia, inequities, and divisiveness… all repeatedly torn open these past four years; injuries that will continue to fester agonizingly under Trump and his cohort. I will, above all, grieve for our planet because, on Trump and his Republicans’ watch, every living being on earth will be forced closer to climate change catastrophe.
If Joe Biden wins, and Trump slinks off to who-the-hell-cares, I will celebrate joyfully. I will open the bottle of champagne I have already bought expressly for that occasion. (I know, I know…I’ve gone outside, I’ve turned around three times, I’ve spat!) I’ll pop the cork to the ceiling and let the bubbly gush all over. I’ll pour generously and chug from the bottle. I’ll hug and kiss my wife and daughter, we’ll dance wild jigs, we’ll whoop, and holler and we’ll toast our great good fortune. We’ll call our relatives, friends and neighbors and congratulate each other on a job well done. (If it wasn’t for this damned pandemic, I’d also run down Main Street and hug everyone I saw.) I will savor this initial victory on the road our country, our world, will then begin to travel—toward healing and unity.
After this election is decided—no matter whether I’ll be compelled to grieve or encouraged to rejoice—I will not forget that once the euphoria or despair fades there will be enormous tasks ahead. It will be time to wipe away the tears of joy or sadness and begin again. It will be time to get back to work.
I will continue to encourage and help the people and organizations that are working to protect and uplift humanity and all of Nature. I will continue to resist and oppose those whose vision does not embrace all of humanity, all of Nature. I will continue to love and support my family, my friends, my community, my country and our world.
I know you will too.
The pandemic will end when we begin to listen to epidemiologists and commit to using all the tools, technology and practices human beings have created and learned about plagues and pandemics for hundreds of years, instead of relying on the dangerous, heartless proposal promoted in the Great Barrington Declaration and embraced by Trump and his loyal accomplices—which will overwhelm hospitals and unnecessarily harm and kill numberless Americans and people around the world.
The Trump presidency will end when enough political, military, police and civil service leaders, as well as a great majority of Americans stand up to the unethical, immoral, unjust, and illegal actions of Trump and company.
When this pandemic ends it will not be the last time human beings will need to confront and defend against this kind of danger. We must do far better in the future.
11/18/20 Musings and Memories: Chapter Eleven
Earlier this year, in August, I stayed up one night to try to catch a glimpse of falling stars, or more accurately of the Perseid meteor shower. I did see one tiny meteor streak across the sky, forgot to immediately make the traditionally prescribed wish, and remedied the situation by wishing on the light of two fireflies in my yard. I wished for two calamities to end—the pandemic and the Trump presidency.
Hey, I’m batting .500… sort of. Close to a quarter million Americans have died, countless others are in hospitals or still struggling with the effects of their earlier infections, and the pandemic is uncontrolled in much of our country. Despite several recent pieces of encouraging news about vaccines it’s clear that Covid is a long way from gone. And as for the Trump presidency… don’t get me started.
The last couple of nights I’ve been trying to spot shooting stars from the annual Leonid meteor shower, but it’s been cloudy, and I’ve not been able to star gaze. I’ve seen it as an accurate metaphor for our current predicament. We’ve had a glorious sunrise—the new dawn of the election—and there have been some sparks of light concerning both the pandemic and the presidency, but the situation in both cases is still quite cloudy, still not at all clear.
Speaking of the presidency; Trump’s end game resembles the final minutes of some basketball games. You know how when there’s very little time left in a close game (which I hasten to point out, this election was neither—not close, nor a game) the team that’s behind begins fouling the other team in an effort to get the ball back. I don’t recall ever seeing that strategy succeed. But when it’s the only option left; teams try it. Which is what Trump and bad company are now doing, fouling left and right, flailing and failing embarrassingly.
And speaking of bad company, a few nights ago Scott Atlas, Trump’s leading pandemic advisor, conveyed the following, via Twitter of course—his boss’ favorite vehicle for dog-whistles and thoughtless, gas-on-the-fire pronouncements—in response to Governor Whitmer’s directive closing bars, gyms, and high schools. “The only way this stops is if people rise up. You get what you accept.” This only a few weeks after the FBI broke up a plot—to hell with alleged—to kidnap the Governor, try her for treason and then set her adrift in a disabled boat on the Great Lakes. Scott Atlas is a medical doctor. What travesty of the Hippocratic oath did he take? ”First, do great harm?”
Our next president—in truth the first one who has behaved like one since January 20, 2017—responded this way to Atlas in particular, and to Trump and his band of the criminally negligent in general. “What the hell’s the matter with these guys?” I had said the same thing earlier that day, although I substituted a different four letter word for hell—and a two syllable expletive for guys. President-Elect Joe Biden also added, with some heat, “It’s totally irresponsible.”
When the election was finally called on Saturday morning November 7th I was—of course—elated. And also, somewhat subdued. I knew it wasn’t over. As was widely predicted, including by me, Trump didn’t concede. Today I’ll again go way out on a very stout limb and predict he will never do that. Still, when the Pennsylvania results were final, it was time to celebrate. As befitting our slightly muted mood, I placidly opened the bottle of Scharffenberger champagne I’d bought for the occasion. No cork hit the ceiling; no bubbly gushed on the floor. To the best of my recollection, it was the first time in my life I’d ever had champagne with lunch.
My daughter and a group of fellow actors have been reading one Shakespeare play on Zoom every Saturday afternoon since the pandemic started. That Saturday, their choice was All’s Well that Ends Well. We’ll see. We’ll hope.
A few days later, as I was fuming about Trump’s revanchist actions, I remembered a story my mother once told me; how in January 1945, the German Army, retreating from Budapest ahead of the Red Army, blew up all five of the bridges across the Danube to slow down the Russians chasing them.
(My mother did not witness the destruction of the bridges. She was by then an inmate at the Ravensbrück Concentration Camp in Germany. She didn’t see the ruins of her favorite, the Lánc Hid, the Chain Bridge, till she returned home in June of 1945. Over the span of the next four years, while the bridge was being repaired and reconstructed, she did the same with her life. She found work, met my father, they married, and by November 20, 1949, the day the Chain Bridge reopened, she was the mother of nearly one year old twin boys—my brother and me.)
I know why I remembered my mother’s story now.
Trump and his faction, as they are being pushed out, as they retreat, are using their remaining time to hinder and impede the incoming Biden/Harris team and will leave behind them a trail of destruction—in addition to all the harm they’ve already caused these past four years—that may take decades or longer to repair and reconstruct. The list of their recent injurious actions is long, but perhaps topping it all is their refusal to allow the Biden/Harris team access to the pandemic response information. The definition of treason is “to betray one’s country.” It is hard to see Trump’s actions as anything other. In a profound perversion of Patrick Henry’s famous statement, he and his circle are in effect saying, “If this be treason, let us make the most of it.”
12/11/20 Liminal Spaces
One night, almost exactly four months ago, a thought occurred to me that I wanted to remember and revisit later. I wrote it down and copied it into a program on my laptop where I store dates of future events and obligations such as special birthdays, quarterly tax payments, etc. What I recorded was, “At some point this pandemic will be over. What will our lives be like then?” I filed the note so it would pop up in four months, in early December, figuring that by now we’d have a better sense of when the pandemic will end, and it would be time to start planning and preparing for our new, post-pandemic world.
The old saying, “Man proposes, God disposes” comes to mind. (The Hungarian version I often heard my parents say is even more chilling, “Ember tervez, Isten végez,” “Man plans, God finishes.”)
In early August there were no vaccines yet and the election was two months away. It was an uncertain present. Not a fruitful time to plan for the future. Rather—for many of us anyway—a time to continue to alter, avoid or eliminate many of our normal activities, so we’d still be here when the future did arrive.
Now things are different. While day to day concerns about our safety have not changed, the advent of the vaccines and Joe Biden’s victory our country, indeed our world, has moved into a new phase—in fact two simultaneous liminal spaces. One is the ongoing, Kafkaesque period of the pandemic itself: the gap between our old, pre-pandemic world and the world post-pandemic. The other interim is the remaining days of the Trump administration. It’s beginning to look a lot like we might be in the final scenes of both of these horror shows. Maybe it’s now time to begin planning for the post-pandemic, post-Trump world.
Or maybe not. Another old saying comes to mind. “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” (From Robert Burns’ poem, “To a Mouse.”)
We still can’t wholeheartedly or effectively plan for the future because of how we’re behaving now and how we’ve acted in the past. In early August the pandemic was in a semi-contained phase. Infections and deaths were down, the curve was relatively flat. But then we committed, what are referred to in tennis, unforced errors—abandoning or rejecting the recommendations of public health officials. The pandemic spiraled out of control exponentially, and now the soon-to-be available vaccines will need significantly more time to rein in Covid-19. We’ll need to continue pandemic precautions longer, and more people will be impoverished, sickened and die.
Similarly, Trump and his toadies’ despicable behaviors, increasingly crescendoing in his lame-duck stage, are hamstringing the transition to the post-Trump world. Just as we allowed the pandemic to run wild, making it much harder to subdue, Trump’s Republican enablers have let him and his sycophants run amok, ensuring that the Biden/Harris administration will find it more difficult to temper their malevolent revanchism.
“Now is the winter of our discontent…” The coronavirus and Trumpism, both of them feral and virulent, have been loosened on the world. It will be a monumental task stuffing these “diable en boîte,” devils-in-boxes, (the original name of the Jack-in-the-box) back in their containers, especially while cranks continue to be turned, and devil-clowns are still popping out.
Nevertheless, today, after a week of continuously cloudy skies, it was clear again and the sun was shining. A friend dropped off delicious homemade blueberry scones as a Hanukkah gift. I kissed my wife good morning, she made us coffee, my daughter and I went for a long walk. We’ve done these things nearly every morning throughout the pandemic. We savor them. We don’t take them for granted. We know we are very, very fortunate. I’m aware that it may be unrealistic, even Pollyannaish, to feel hopeful despite all the struggles, sickness and death around us, but I nevertheless still believe that the pandemic and the Trump presidency will end at some point. I still wonder what our lives will be like after both of them are finished. And I feel confident that it won’t be long before it’ll be time to start planning again.
12/30/20 Silver Linings
“There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” Hamlet’s declaration, which has often seemed wise and true in the past, rang so hollow, sounded so callous and glib this year. It has been bad. This year has proven—decisively—that despite what the old proverb claims, every cloud does not have a silver lining. Or if it does have a lining, this year’s Covid-cloud has an extremely leaden, ragged and tattered one.
It’s probably true that some of us fortunate enough to have been spared the pandemic’s most devastating blows have found upsides in our new circumstances. (I know I will always remember with joy and gratitude this extra time my wife and I have had with our adult daughter, who moved back with us after her job and living situation in another city evaporated in March.) It’s even possible that those who have endured enormous losses and are coping with ongoing struggles and anxieties about the future have also experienced bright spots in their daily lives. But looking at what has befallen our nation, our world, and our species as a whole, it’s hard to imagine the good that may yet result from Covid-19. Even after the pandemic has run its course, it’ll still be wrenching to reconcile any positive benefits with their enormous cost. Peace, when it follows a war, is not the silver lining of that war.
Perhaps though, historians of the future—those born after Covid-19 is history and equipped with the twenty-twenty hindsight that time alone bestows—may look back on 2020 and point to some good aftermaths of the pandemic. If so, here are some of the ones I pray they’ll find.
I hope they conclude that the protests that grew out of the murders of George Floyd and many other Black people, and the lethal health inequities that Covid-19 so graphically exposed, finally led to a complete dismantling of the age old disgrace of systemic racism.
I hope they discover that the pandemic also illuminated and then goaded us into remedying the vast income and wealth inequalities in our country and in much of the world.
I hope they’ll note that it was the pandemic that prompted us to extend good quality health care to all Americans, not just to those who can afford it.
I hope they find that the eventual subduing of the pandemic resulted in a growing respect and appreciation for the work of scientists.
I hope they eventually report that it was the pandemic-inspired intimations of mortality, and our fresh apprehension of the precariousness and preciousness of every breath we take, that spurred us to act to mitigate climate change.
There is however, one Covid-cloud silver lining I don’t need to wait for future historians to recognize, one I can clearly see today, even without the benefit of a long historical lens.
Were it not for Covid-19, we might have—God forbid—reelected Trump, which undoubtedly would have dashed all those other hopes. It was the pandemic that helped defeat Trump by highlighting his massive incompetence and complete callousness.
I am not saying that I am grateful to Covid-19 for Trump’s defeat. The cost has been much too high. What I am saying is that I am grateful for this peace that may now follow the four year war Trump has been waging on us. And I yearn for the day when future historians will report that in the wake of this pandemic, we never again chose to follow people like Trump and his toadies.
I don’t usually make new year’s resolutions, but I am making one this year. For the past four years I have written regularly about my contempt for Trump, his enablers, and their actions. They have richly deserved it, and I have no regrets or remorse. But it’s time for me to stop. In the coming year I don’t plan to give them any more of my attention. I am delighted to accept that I “…won’t have Trump to kick around anymore.“ Trump and company will probably sink to new lows in the three weeks they have left, and they are likely to continue trying to hobble the Biden/Harris administration even after that, but they are unlikely to inspire fresh outrage in me. I think we know enough about them by now that little they will do will be surprising, though some may still prove amusing or enraging. (Is that Vivaldi’s famous “Make America Baroque Again” I hear—or is it a different Four Seasons—the one with Frankie Valli? And nice, Mr. President—your despicable exercise in futility, holding off signing the stimulus bill, or the similar idiocy to come—stay tuned—on January 6th.)
Instead of keeping the focus on Trump—which often seems to be his only real demand of us—I plan to reflect on the underlying issues and divisions in our country that allowed Trump to be elected, and how we might talk with each other and work together. I intend to bring my attention to the stories and accomplishments of people who are working to help heal us all. There are countless numbers of them. I know I won’t run out of stories.
1/11/21 Wednesday Was Our Kristallnacht, Our (Attempted) Lynching
Less than two weeks ago, on the last day of 2020, I wrote the following; “I don’t usually make new year’s resolutions, but I am making one this year. For the past four years I have written regularly about my contempt for Trump, his enablers, and their actions. They have richly deserved it, and I have no regrets or remorse. But it’s time for me to stop. In the coming year I don’t plan to give them any more of my attention. I am delighted to accept that I ‘…won’t have Trump to kick around anymore.’ Trump and company will probably sink to new lows in the three weeks they have left, and they are likely to continue trying to hobble the Biden/Harris administration even after that, but they are unlikely to inspire fresh outrage in me.”
What…was…I…thinking? Three days after I wrote that, my new year’s resolution was on life support, (remember Trump’s call to Brad Raffensperger?) and three days after that it was ashes. Turns out that after four years of Trump, I still am capable of feeling—massive understatement alert—fresh outrage.
On New Year’s Eve 2020 I also wrote, “Thank you, Mr. President for your despicable exercise in futility, holding off signing the stimulus bill, or the similar idiocy to come—stay tuned—on January 6th.”
Wednesday’s mob rampage was foreshadowed by a number of other appalling events during Trump’s term, including the Charlottesville rally, the confrontation at the Michigan State Capitol building at the end of April, and the plot to kidnap Michigan’s Governor, Gretchen Whitmer in October, to name just a few, but its real antecedents are Germany’s Kristallnacht, and the numerous lynchings of Black people in America. Even the broken glass throughout the Capitol building, the gallows and the nooses carried by some in the mob on Wednesday were ghoulish reminders of those earlier events.
While the Washington riot differs from Kristallnacht and lynchings in a number of critical ways, it is nevertheless reminiscent of them in several significant respects. In all three cases, a group of citizens were first systematically and repeatedly, over generations and centuries, demonized and dehumanized; Jews in Germany and Black people in America. Then it took only about five years for Hitler, who took power in 1933, to whip up that age-old hatred and unleash it on Kristallnacht in 1938. It also took Trump only about five years from the day he declared his candidacy, to when he incited his mob to riot on January 6th. Kristallnacht was a modern day outbreak of the lethal virus of anti-Semitism that has infected Europe for centuries, just as the white supremacy movement, so blatantly on display on Wednesday, is today’s upsurge of the plague of racism that has festered in America since before our nation’s birth.
One critical difference between Hitler’s Germany and today’s America—and which may yet prove to be our saving grace—is that by 1938 Hitler’s stranglehold on most aspects of Germany’s power structure was nearly complete, whereas, as we’ve seen throughout Trump’s tenure, and increasingly since the November election, many public servants, Democrats and Republicans alike, have followed the rule of law, rather than kowtow to his autocratic demands. And while the pandemic, as well as the stark contrast between the police response to the predominantly white mob on Wednesday and the Black Lives Matter protests this summer have clearly exposed the harsh inequality people of color still face in our country, they have also forced a fresh reckoning that may result in some long overdue changes in our society.
I know from my own family’s experience where Kristallnacht and events like it can lead. Five years before I was born, my father lost in Auschwitz—in addition to countless more distant relatives—both his parents, three sisters, one brother, two nephews, and perhaps most wrenching, his wife, two sons and a daughter. My mother lost her only brother and her fiancé. And the stories about what the survivors in my family endured will fill a book.
The mob on Wednesday was comprised of a broad range of equal-opportunity-haters; there were white supremacists, anti-Semites, xenophobes and many people who simply defined themselves as patriotic Americans and thus different from all of us who were not them. Wednesday was also the day Georgia elected— for the first time—a Black man and a Jew to represent the state in the United States Senate. The exact timing was undoubtedly a coincidence, but it was no accident that it was also the day that a mob attacked America.
Kristallnacht in Germany and lynchings in America served to terrorize, to declare with stunning finality, “You are not one of us! You can never share our country equally with us. We will kill you if you try.” Kristallnacht is less than a hundred years in Germany’s past, and that nation still does, and long will struggle with its shame. Lynchings of Black people in our country were mostly halted a little over fifty years ago, but are still ongoing.
Wednesday’s rampage unmistakably and shamefully showed that we too have a long struggle ahead of us.
Postscript: After I started working on this piece, I learned that Arnold Schwarzenegger released a video on Sunday in which he also compared the D.C. rampage to Kristallnacht. Given that Arnold’s life and mine have much in common, from our births in adjacent European countries, Austria and Hungary respectively, to our fathers having both been participants in the Holocaust—albeit on different sides—and of course the similarities of our physiques, it is not surprising that we would both frame our reaction to Wednesday’s events similarly.
1/20/21 Open Letter to President Joe Biden
Welcome back to the White House, Mr. President. We’ve missed you. It’s been far too long, sir.
To say that I am overjoyed that you are—finally—in the White House, is a vast understatement. Yet my joy is tempered by memories of the events of January 6, as well as by the ever-present awareness of the incalculable trauma our country and our world has suffered in the last four years—and especially this past year. All Americans, and indeed many throughout the world, know the tremendous challenges you now face; Hercules with his Labors had it easy compared to what you are confronting.
Nor will it come as breaking news to you that many Americans are not—to put it generously—as happy about your move into the White House as I am. Even those of us who support you wholeheartedly, do not delude ourselves into thinking that you are an omniscient saint who will miraculously and instantaneously remedy all our difficulties. No, I think we feel more like Toby on TV’s The West Wing. “Tell you what, though, in a battle between a President’s demons and his better angels, for the first time in a long while, I think we just might have ourselves a fair fight.” I think many of us also share the similar sentiments you expressed in your first speech as President-Elect, “Our nation is shaped by the constant battle between our better angels and our darkest impulses. It is time for our better angels to prevail.”
I believe that you will side with your angels far more often than with your demons. I believed you when you pledged, “I will work as hard for those who didn’t vote for me as those who did.” And I share your hope and wish, “Let this grim era of demonization in America begin to end—here and now.”
If not for the pandemic, and but for the events of January 6, I’d have travelled with my wife and daughter from our home in Michigan, to join the crowds lining Pennsylvania Avenue and to stand with them on the National Mall, cheering your inauguration. We’ve never attended a presidential inauguration, but we’d have tried to go to yours. We’d have been delighted to witness and celebrate the first day of your presidency. We would have been thrilled to see Kamala Harris inaugurated as Vice President, 100 years after women were first able to vote in America. I also would have stood where, exactly sixty years ago, the newly inaugurated President Kennedy’s words rang out. “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”
I was twelve years old that day; our family had emigrated to the US barely a year earlier. My tongue was still tinted with a strong foreign accent, my grasp of English was still tenuous, but I understood President Kennedy’s words. Although I would not have been able to verbalize it then, and though I would not become an American citizen for four more years, I know that when he said, “My fellow Americans,” I felt welcomed to this country; when he said, “…ask what you can do for your country,” I felt inspired, personally invited to join in the never ending American mission of creating “a more perfect Union.”
That day in 1961, here in the United States, felt like a fresh start for our family. For my parents—both survivors of Nazi concentration camps—it was a chance, really for the first time in their lives, to live without fear of the virulent anti-Semitism that had haunted them from birth. For my brother and me, though we did not yet understand it, living here would give us opportunities for a good education, to choose work we loved, and to build fulfilling lives that would not have been possible in our native Hungary.
Your inauguration day, Mr. President, also feels like a fresh and hopeful start, for all of us in our country, and indeed for all the people of the world.
There is another passage, far less famous than the “Ask not…” quote, from President Kennedy’s speech, but one perhaps even more apt and timely now. They are words that you, Mr. President, could very well have voiced today. “In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility—I welcome it.”
Today we are once again in a time of maximum danger. Our most precious freedoms—freedom from prejudice, hate and persecution—still must be defended and fostered; our very lives need protection from this pandemic, and our entire planet must be safeguarded from climate change and preserved for future generations.
Thank you, Mr. President—from the bottom of my heart—for not shrinking from this awesome responsibility but welcoming it. We stand with you in this grand endeavor.
I wish you well, Mr. President. May God bless you. May God bless us all.
2/20/21 It’s the Crime and It’s the Coverup
President Biden signed seventeen executive orders and directives on January 20th, his first day in office. Each of those orders addressed critical issues confronting Americans and the world, the pandemic, climate change, racial justice, LGBTQ rights, immigration, the economy and government ethics and accountability. All were consequential and crucial, but I took special note of the one that disbanded the 1776 Commission.
The 1776 Commission was created by Trump via executive order on November 2, 2020, the day before the election. Then, on December 18th, he appointed eighteen people to serve two year terms on the commission. The commission met for the first time on January 5th and began work on their assignment, to write a history of America for use in schools to promote what Trump called “patriotic education.” The commission’s mandate, in their own words, was to craft “a dispositive rebuttal of reckless ‘re-education’ attempts that seek to reframe American history around the idea that the United States is not an exceptional country but an evil one.” (Yeah, I had to look up “dispositive” too. It means, “bringing about the settlement of an issue.”) The commission’s directive was to concoct a history that would counter, according to Trump, “decades of left-wing indoctrination in our schools” which, he claimed, led directly to the “the left-wing rioting and mayhem” of the Black Lives Matter protests of last summer.
The day after the commission’s first meeting was January 6th. Talk about a “rebuttal of reckless re-education attempts!” There were definitely “reckless re-education attempts” and, fortunately, their rebuttal.
Forming this commission was a typical Trump move; proposing something dishonest and damaging and appointing unqualified loyalists to implement it. The press release announcing the commission’s first—and final—report, which they managed to fabricate in less than two weeks, and which they released, perhaps not coincidentally on Martin Luther King Day, begins like many of Trump and his coterie’s statements—with a blatant lie. “The 1776 Commission—comprised of some of America’s most distinguished scholars and historians…” In fact, there was not a single historian in that “distinguished” group.
Unsurprisingly, genuine historians immediately lambasted the report for its, to put it charitably, shoddy scholarship, its numerous critical omissions (not a single word about Native Americans!?) and distortions, (Reconstruction worked fine until Progressives ruined it!!) and its egregious whitewashing—I’m choosing the word quite purposefully—of American history. (Never mind that, as all real historians know, there is no such thing as a “dispositive” history of anything. History, like science, is a constantly evolving discipline, changing as new facts come to light, as more powerful theories are formulated, tested and adopted.) I am merely an amateur historian, with a fifty-year-old BA in History—and that with a concentration in the history of science in the 17th century to boot. I’m fully aware I’m not qualified to judge the report. However, given Trump and his coterie’s record—and I do mean record—of pathologically lying about everything, from the pandemic, to climate change and so much more, I have no doubt that it is the historians and not the commission members who are right.
When I was in high school in the late 1960s, my American history textbook taught me that “Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery.” That’s probably not an exact quote, but I know it must have been something very much like that because I vividly recall my profound disenchantment a year later when, in my college freshman American History survey course, I learned that Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation freed enslaved Black people only in the Confederate states; in other words, only in the parts of the country that the Union, and Lincoln, did not control. I also, for the first time, read about some of Lincoln’s other less than salutary statements about Black people and about race relations in our nation. I felt that that high school textbook, and my teachers, had lied to me. Today, over fifty years later, I still remember how disillusioned it made me feel.
I’d grown up in Hungary in the 1950s. We’d only been living in the US for eight years. At the time I still had fresh memories of my parents’ voices dropping to whispers whenever they spoke of the Hungarian authorities. In Budapest we’d lived on Andrássy ut, not far from the headquarters of the feared and hated AVO, the secret police. Even as a child I understood that walls had ears, and that it was not safe to say anything critical of the government or of our leaders.
By the time I was in high school I had been taught to expect better here in the US. I’d read about George Washington and the cherry tree, and a number of other far more insidious fairy tales. For example, my high school history textbook also informed me that FDR was a deservedly revered president. But at home my mother told me she didn’t like him because he “did not let in that ship.” She was referring to the St. Louis which, with more than 900 Jews on board, fleeing Nazi persecution in 1939, was refused permission to dock by FDR and was forced to return to Europe. By the end of the war, nearly a third of those people had been murdered by the Nazis. My textbook didn’t have a word about the St. Louis, nor about FDR’s role in creating the Japanese internment camps, his racist compromises during the creation of Social Security, or about his State Department’s anti-refugee, anti-Semitic stance during the Wannsee Conference. My mother didn’t know about those things, and my teachers made no mention of them either. Years went by before I learned of them.
While I was receiving my “patriotic education,” as a senior in high school, people my age were being drafted and shipped to Vietnam. Four years after I graduated, 18 year-olds became eligible to vote. I’m certain I would have been capable of hearing a more nuanced and truthful history of our country.
Today I look back on that earnest young naif with a mix of amusement, bemusement and, yes, a little pride. My 1967 eye-opening college history course was concurrent with the still swelling Vietnam War, and Watergate was not far down the road. My outrage was neither misplaced nor reserved only for past events. But that’s not all I felt then. I learned more about Lincoln, how the Emancipation Proclamation, limited though it was, also led to the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, the last two after Lincoln was already gone. The 1960’s was also the time of President Johnson’s Great Society and War on Poverty, policies that reinforced my gratitude for this country, as well as for my parents for moving our family here.
The decades since then have continued to teach me more about our country’s and leaders’ evolving stances, lofty goals and great achievements, as well as about their Faustian bargains and the dangers of hero worship. I’ve come to see that my youthful anger was not only at Lincoln, FDR or any other president or policy. Of course, I was disappointed in them for not being only what I’d been taught they were—and what I wished they had been—but I felt equally let down by my textbooks and teachers. The old Watergate saying comes to mind, “It’s not the crime, it’s the coverup.” In truth, it is both: “It’s the crime and it’s the coverup.”
I’m encouraged that President Biden, in prioritizing the abolition of the 1776 Commission along with his other initial executive orders, seems intent on righting some of our nation’s historic crimes, is not permitting another coverup, and may add more to our history for which I can be grateful.
On Thursday, February 18th, at about three o’clock in the afternoon, I tuned into the live broadcast from the mission operations center at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Pasadena, California to follow Perseverance as she made her final descent to the surface of Mars. Watching a large roomful of people sitting, socially distant, masked, staring at computer screens, was not exactly gripping video, but the soundtrack, the voice of Dr. Swati Mohan, was. Dr. Mohan is the head of the team at NASA that designed the Attitude Control System Terrain Relative Navigation which, translated into you-and-me language, is the system that enabled Perseverance to scan the proposed landing area on Mars to determine, on the fly, the ideal flat location where she could land upright. Dr. Mohan’s job also entailed communicating with all the other teams involved in landing Perseverance and additionally, on the 18th, explaining minute-by-minute what was happening with the spacecraft to the rest of us.
When I tuned in, she was reporting that Perseverance was continuing to transmit “heartbeat tones,” signals indicating that everything was “nominal,” NASA-talk for all’s well. I was immediately drawn into the drama of the event and began having the eerie sense that Perseverance was not merely a spacecraft, but something alive and about to enter the final stages of a dangerous, but grand adventure.
In a calm, matter-of-fact voice, only slightly more animated than a sportscaster describing a golfer about to putt, Dr. Mohan described the various steep challenges Perseverance would face once she entered Mars’ atmosphere, and what technologies her team and others had created to help her complete her mission.
About ten minutes before the scheduled landing time, Dr. Mohan announced and described Perseverance’s “straighten-up-and-fly-right maneuver,” getting the spacecraft positioned so the on-board radar can get a “better look at the ground.”
My sense of Perseverance being alive grew stronger. Curious about the origin of her name, I looked it up. She was named by Alex Mather, a seventh grader from Virginia who won NASA’s “Name the Rover” contest almost a year ago, on March 5, 2020. It occurred to me that on the day Perseverance’s name was announced, few of us could have known how relevant and fitting that moniker would turn out to be for the year ahead. Early last March, you might recall, the pandemic was just beginning to ring faint alarm bells here on Earth. Since then, perhaps more than ever before in most of our lifetimes, perseverance has been a character trait we’ve sorely needed to develop, bolster, or rely on.
Once that juxtaposition clicked, one thing led to another and I was off on a free-association spree.
Last March we could not have foreseen that we—all of humanity—like Perseverance, would be setting off on our own long, precarious journey through a vast, inhospitable darkness, and would need to do our own straighten-up-and-fly-right maneuvers, get some clear pictures about where we stand, and hope to once again land on our feet.
Perseverance traveled from our planet, which appears blue from space, to the red planet. By last March we might have been able to predict that those two colors would have outsized significance in the coming year. Didn’t Perseverance’s long journey mirror the vast distance separating the red and blue worlds here on Earth? Wasn’t Mars the ancient God of War? Might it help if NASA were to send a probe to Venus soon, to bring back some magic dust from the planet named after the Goddess of Love?
Earth to San! Earth to San!
I snapped out of my daydream. It was almost time for Perseverance to land. Dr. Mohan was still speaking in her composed, measured voice, her descriptions occasionally punctuated by smatterings of applause in the room each time she announced that Perseverance had successfully completed yet another stage on her landing checklist. The parachute has opened, the heat shield has fallen away, the Rover has been lowered to the ground via cables, the cables have been cut… And then it was 3:55, Perseverance’s anticipated landing time. Dr. Mohan’s voice suddenly got louder, even slightly overwhelming her microphone levels, and now there was no mistaking her tone for that of a sportscaster during the late stages of a boring blowout. Her voice shaking with exhilaration, relief, and yes, joy, she announced—no, proclaimed—”Touchdown confirmed! Perseverance is safely on the surface of Mars, ready to begin seeking the signs of past life!”
The room erupted, NASA’s scientists all jumping to their feet, clapping, cheering, yelling, shrieking, arms raised, football touchdown-signaling, fist bumping, (it’s the pandemic, remember, no shaking hands, no hugging). I found myself getting choked up and watched their celebration through a film of tears.
Perseverance was launched on July 30, 2020 and landed less than a mile from its intended target site on Mars, which on February 18th was a mind-shuddering 127 million miles from Earth. Imagine flinging a dart from the back of a moving pickup truck somewhere in Maine and landing it nearly seven months later—at the exact minute you’d predicted—on the emblem of a previously chosen Prius in Southern California. Which also has been traveling throughout that whole time. I know full well that much of what we’re confronting here on Earth, the pandemic and climate change for starters, are vastly bigger challenges than even landing Perseverance on Mars. But, at 3:55 in the afternoon, on February 18th, 2021, and every time I’ve thought of it since, I have felt, “Anything is possible.”
3/12/21 Tone Deaf
Sailor Sabol, a 19-year-old freshman at the University of Central Florida, sang the National Anthem at the opening of the Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC, in late February. I saw a video of her performance, and it was evident that Sabol suffers from amusia, in laymen’s terms she is tone deaf. Her rendition of the Anthem was noteworthy primarily for the number of incorrect notes she sang.
Of course, the internet took note, and much ridicule and derision were flung digitally at Sabol. Pretty standard fare for anti-social media. I wasn’t surprised, but the comments nevertheless touched a nerve for me. I took them personally. Not because they brought to mind insecurities about my own singing, although, come to think of it, those online sneers and scorn did trigger one memory of youthful trauma.
About sixty years ago, almost past puberty, when I had nearly arrived at baritone-hood, but the boy soprano I’d long been, still occasionally piped up, I was one day asked to demonstrate a short section of music in choir practice. Singing in front of our school’s large choir, on a tricky little passage, my voice slid off the correct note and, like a car spinning out on black ice, went skidding up into the next octave. A hundred and twenty of my schoolmates cracked up helplessly. They clearly thought it was the funniest thing they’d ever heard. That has been the only time I recall anyone laughing at my singing, but today, after nearly fifty years as a professional singer, I still vividly remember the moment.
But that wasn’t why the spiteful response to Sabol’s singing set my teeth on edge. It was because when I saw the video, and read the reactions, I thought of my mother who, like Sabol, was tone deaf.
There are degrees of tone deafness, from mild to profound, and while I won’t evaluate Sabol on the basis of that one performance, I can safely assert that my mother had a serious case. She loved music, she loved songs, yet could not reproduce them. It must have been enormously frustrating for her. If she hummed a melody without words, our father, my brother and I were hard pressed to identify the song. I remember how, in early 1964 she discovered the Beatles before we did, hearing them on the radio at work. She loved them and regaled us with her covers of “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” It was quite a revelation to hear the real melodies the first time I heard the Beatles sing them.
My mother had the misfortune of being born into a family that already had two highly talented musicians, her father and older brother were both excellent pianists. When she married my father, a professional singer from about the age of thirteen, the stark contrast was freshly evident. It was further highlighted when my brother and I began to show a bit of musical talent. And my father was not kind when he teased her about her singing. As I grew older, I could see that his jokes stung. The memories have stayed with me.
Some years ago, I was asked to lead a small children’s choir in a local school. I know I had my mother in mind when I insisted on a no-audition policy; any child who wanted to sing would be welcome, regardless of ability. I wound up with a variety pack; kids who could sing on pitch and maintain rhythm, and kids who could do neither. There was a boy in the choir who stood out both for his difficulties matching pitch, and for the obvious and infectious pleasure he took in singing and performing. At the end of the school year, our choir recorded a CD for the kids’ families. There was one song I really wanted to include on the recording, but it had a tricky rhythm and the choir often stumbled on it. Still, I figured we’d give it a try. Want to guess who, through sheer will and enthusiasm, pulled the rest of the choir through that thorny spot?
Several years later, I got to see that same, now young man, perform as the lead in his high school’s production of “Singin’ in the Rain.” He was not pitch perfect, but he was close enough, and his joy in performing was clearly visible even from the cheap seats. I was thrilled to see that no one had told him he couldn’t do it.
If there’s a heaven, and if I get invited to audition for it, this will be one of the stories I’ll tell to try and convince the supreme casting director in the sky to let me into the ultimate musical.
A few further thoughts:
Amusia is to music what dyslexia is to reading. (There is even evidence to indicate that they are related disorders.) Amusia interferes with the brain’s ability to correctly process musical notes, (in the same way that dyslexia inhibits the brain’s ability to decode the symbols of the alphabet) resulting in everything from off key singing, to finding the sounds of music to be unpleasant. It’s congenital—no character flaw of Sobal’s is in any way responsible for her condition. The blame, if blame must be laid in this case, should go to the person or people who designed the contest that Soral won, which resulted in her being invited to sing the Anthem at CPAC. It was a careless, thoughtless plan. You don’t pick a winning ticket holder to drive the first lap of the Daytona 500.
Singing the Anthem is hard. Many ordinary people don’t have the range for it. Singing it acapella is harder. Some people who do well singing it when accompanied by an instrument to help keep them on pitch, have a hard time singing it solo. Singing it in front of a large group of people is harder still. Plenty of pros have clutched or caved under the pressure. I recall seeing a famous operatic baritone singing the Anthem before a major league baseball game and noticing how frequently he was glancing down at the cheat sheet in his hand.
I’m aware that some of the spleen directed at Soral originated from a desire to make fun of tone deaf Republican politicians—a cherished pastime for many, myself included. My only defense is that I’ve always tried to “punch up”, that is, to call out people in powerful positions, rather than ones with less power and privilege than me. Poking fun at an amateur with a disability is not my idea of “punching up.” The attacks on Sabol reminded me too much of Trump mocking a disabled reporter. I found it particularly disheartening that some fellow musicians even posted videos of themselves “accompanying” Sabol, thus highlighting her mistakes and shortcomings.
I anticipate that some people might respond with, “Oh, don’t be so sensitive!” Guilty as charged. Not proud nor ashamed of it. And to the bully’s standard refrain, “We were just having fun,” I retort with, “Define ‘we’ please. Also ‘fun.’” And to, “She should have known better,” I’ll rejoin with, “Yes, but so could you.”
When I invite my audiences to sing along, I often see some people who don’t. I wonder, who told them that they should remain silent? Was it an early music teacher saying, “Johnny, you just mouth the words?” Was it a parent, sibling, friend, or lover who mocked them once, or often?
“The woods would be quiet if no bird sang but the one that sang best.” (Henry van Dyke)
I have no expectation that my little homily here will make social media interactions more humane. And I also know that in the grand scheme of things there are much bigger issues confronting us than easing one young woman’s humiliation. Still…
Helen Keller, who knew more than most about living with disabilities, once quoted her friend, Henry van Dyke, as saying, “I’m not an optimist, there’s too much evil in the world and in me. Nor am I a pessimist; there is too much good in the world and in God. So, I am just a meliorist, believing that He wills to make the world better, and trying to do my bit to help, and wishing that it were more.”
Amen to that.
“Georgia, Georgia, no peace do I find…” That line from the ninety year old Hoagy Carmichael/Stuart Gorrell song, sounds especially true of late to many people—Georgians and not—who maybe don’t agree with each other on a great deal else but can probably agree about that. Georgia has been much in the news lately, with a horrific mass shooting and numerous notable political machinations, maneuvers, victories and defeats, many of them related to race. But Georgia also has a very lengthy and checkered racial history—some bright moments and many dark periods—going back to long before the Civil War.
Major League Baseball’s decision last week, to pull the All-Star Game from Atlanta this July, got me to recall and reflect on how baseball has been, for much of its history, a symbol of America’s struggle toward equality and justice for all of our people.
It’s a fitting coincidence that Atlanta had been the scheduled site of this year’s All-Star game, given that nearly fifty years ago the city was the setting for a momentous moment in racial progress for both baseball and for America. It was there on April 8, 1974, that Henry Aaron belted his 715th home run, besting Babe Ruth’s long-thought-unbreakable record. Aaron’s pursuit of the record inspired countless letters of admiration, encouragement and support, but also provoked significant quantities of hate mail. There were even credible enough death threats that he and his family had bodyguards, police protection, and the FBI investigated a number of the threats against them. For white supremacists, the idea of a Black man breaking the Babe’s record was anathema and intolerable, even in 1970’s America. But for many others, Black and white people alike, it was a glorious achievement. Vin Scully, the great Los Angeles Dodgers’ announcer, who was calling the game that day, also hit it out of the park with the words he chose to describe the historic homer. “What a marvelous moment for baseball; what a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia; what a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A Black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol. And it is a great moment for all of us, and particularly for Henry Aaron.”
Aaron, who came up in the Negro Leagues in the early 50s, endured blatant racism in the minor leagues just like what Jackie Robinson and other Black players faced in the majors in the nascent years of baseball’s integration. But he kept hitting homers, moved up to the majors, and quickly acquired the nickname Hammerin’ Hank.
There was another, earlier Hammerin’ Hank in baseball, who in the 1930s and 40s also faced hostile prejudice—in his case anti-Semitism—and who also was famed for long homers. He was Henry Greenberg of the Detroit Tigers and, while anti-Semitism was never as pervasive or as deadly as racism in America, it was still an ugly reality that colored his entire career. Greenberg later recounted that when he was still in the minors, playing in the South, people would come to games to confirm their suspicions that Jews had horns (like the devil). He also related how at nearly every game he played in the majors there were fans who’d repeatedly bray “Christ killer” and other epithets. In a 2014 New York Times article, Michael Bechloss wrote that, “During the 1935 World Series against the Tigers, as Greenberg recalled, members of the Chicago Cubs loudly called him ‘Jew this and Jew that.’ A few weeks after the commotion that followed when the umpire tried to get them to stop, the baseball commissioner, the ex-judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, fined three Cubs players $200 (about $3,480 today) each for using ‘vile, unprintable language.’”
Playing for the Detroit Tigers, Greenberg also was at the epicenter of 1930’s American anti-Semitism. Detroit was Henry Ford’s town and Ford was a rabid anti-Semite. Detroit was also the home base of Father Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest whose weekly radio broadcasts, foreshadowing today’s right wing talk radio shows, were often filled with anti-Semitic, fascist rants, and had a national listenership that ran into the tens of millions.
Greenberg’s last year in baseball, 1947 (he was by then with the Pittsburgh Pirates) was the legendary Jackie Robinson’s first. About a month into the season the two men met, literally collided, on a freak play at first base that sent both men sprawling. Later in the game, after a Robinson single, first baseman Greenberg reportedly apologized, asked if Robinson was all right, (he was). Then the dual veteran of baseball and of triumph over bigotry, gave some words of encouragement to the rookie in both. Robinson later told reporters, “Mr. Greenberg has class. It stands out all over him.”
When Greenberg’s playing days were over, he went on to become the Cleveland Indians’ farm system director, and eventually their General Manager and part-owner. While in those roles he brought more Black players into baseball than any other team executive of that era and contributed significantly to the Indians’ success in the early Fifties. He was not, however, perfect. (As all baseball fans and players sadly know only too well, even great hitters fail two out of three times, even great pitchers get bombed on some days.) Russell Schneider, writing in the Cleveland Indians Encyclopedia, tells how Indians’ center fielder Larry Doby, the second Black man to play in the majors, told Greenberg in 1949 that he should scout three players Doby had played with in the Negro Leagues, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks and Willie Mays. When Doby later followed up, Greenberg said, “Our guys checked ’em out and their reports were not good. They said that Aaron has a hitch in his swing and will never hit good pitching. Banks is too slow and didn’t have enough range [at shortstop], and Mays can’t hit a curveball.”
I simultaneously laughed out loud—and cried helplessly—when I read that. All three of those men eventually wound up in baseball’s Hall of Fame. Sure, those scouts could have just made honest mistakes—it wouldn’t be the first time—and maybe Greenberg shouldn’t be faulted for listening to them. But it’s also possible that the scouts were not color blind but saw those three players through racist-colored glasses and recommended against them.
Henry Aaron died earlier this year, on January 22nd, and July’s All-Star game was to be a celebration of his life and career with the Atlanta Braves. Now that the game has been moved to Colorado to protest the voter suppression laws that Georgia’s legislature recently pushed through, I hope that MLB still goes ahead and dedicates the game to Aaron’s memory. (Colorado Republicans, like Georgia’s, have also proposed five voter suppression laws, but since the Colorado legislature is controlled by Democratic majorities the bills are unlikely to pass.)
Baseball and its fans ignored racism for the first 100 years of its history, but in 1947 it finally took the highly controversial, unpopular stand; boldly declaring that the game, unlike so many other institutions in our country at the time, would no longer be segregated. Until last week, MLB did not take a public stand against Georgia’s new law despite repeated earlier calls for it to do so, waiting till after it was passed. The decision to remove the All-Star game from Atlanta is a faint echo of that better-late-than-never decision to integrate the sport. Nevertheless, it’s heartening to imagine that the new MLB’s decision, like its 1947 action, may now play a similar role in helping to defeat yet another attempt to disenfranchise Black people in our country.
6/25/21 It’s Quiet. Yeah, too quiet
Several times recently the phrase, “It’s quiet,” immediately followed by its familiar rejoinder, “Yeah, too quiet,” has whispered in my mind. After this melodramatic little dialog began making regular visits, I started wondering what it was trying to tell me.
Of course, with the pandemic apparently easing its grip on our country, and the Biden presidency being immeasurably saner and more sanguine than that which preceded it, day to day life does feel quieter now than it has felt in… well, forever.
But you know what happens in B Westerns after one character says, “It’s quiet,” and another one responds, “Yeah, too quiet.” All hell breaks loose, right? While the twin toxic, terrifying traumas of the last administration and of the pandemic have eased, the coronavirus is still raging in many parts of our country and throughout the world, and the polarization of our people and the dysfunctions of our government have by no means disappeared. In other words, despite some notable advances, I still have the sense that at any minute now a whole series of other shoes might drop. A Covid variant could prove too tough for the vaccines, and the current voter suppression efforts might further endanger our democracy—to name just two, for starters. After feeling like I’ve been holding my breath for the past five years, and especially for the last fifteen months—at times literally—I’m not yet ready to let out a big sigh of relief. I still remain on high alert and hyper vigilant: after all, it’s hardly been two months since Michigan suffered through a horrific pandemic third wave during which an abundance of caution seemed not at all adequate; and I can’t forget that it’s barely been six months since January 6th.
Around the same time that I was thinking about the “quiet, too quiet” dialog, I came across a quote by Goethe. “A man can stand anything, except a succession of ordinary days.” While of course he was not referring to our pandemic restrictions, Goethe’s words seem an apt depiction of our shared cabin fever brought on by the constrained sameness of the last fifteen months.
In other words, “Enough with the quiet already. How ‘bout a succession of some loud, extraordinary days for a change?”
But then on second thought it also occurs to me that, “Actually, quiet is quite nice, and ordinary is pretty appealing. After what we’ve been through, we could all stand a long succession of quiet, ordinary days.”
Besides, in fact it’s not been quiet lately. To give just a couple of examples, the markedly rancorous din that has lately passed for communication and dialog in our country has not abated; neither has the brutality experienced by people of color, nor by victims of gun violence. At the same time, happily, the recent easing of pandemic restrictions has also encouraged the revival of many joyous celebrations—parties, weddings, concerts, festivals and more—that have long been muted or silenced.
I’ve even personally contributed a bit to those cheerful noises. In the past couple of weeks—for the first time since the pandemic started—my family and I have begun playing live public concerts. I can’t quite describe what it felt like to play the first of those shows, an outdoor concert in Wurster Park in Manchester. But I can tell you that the MC for the evening broke into tears as she began greeting the audience, “We’re so happy to see you all here.” Only time I’ve seen that happen in nearly fifty years of playing shows. Not to be outdone, I later bookended the evening by getting so choked up on our final tunes, a medley of America the Beautiful and This Land is Your Land, that I barely managed to get through the songs. I think our tears—and I saw that many of us shared them that night—spoke to the wonder, gratitude and relief we felt in being at such a simultaneously ordinary and also extraordinary event, reveling in each other’s company, cherishing the chance to be together again. But those tears were also acknowledging the grief and sadness for all we’ve lost in this pandemic. I expect we’ll shed more of those yet.
As Joni Mitchell sings, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you got till it’s gone?”
The coming days will tell whether what’s been gone for so long may or may not now be returning; whether we’re in a deceptive calm before another dangerously stormy time, or if we’ll get to enjoy a succession of quiet, ordinary, as well as thrilling and joyous days.
7/16/21 Why History?
In the wake of the current spate of laws attempting to control and constrain how our nation’s history will be taught in our schools and colleges (nine states have already passed such laws, with fourteen more planning to), I have been thinking a great deal about the ways and whys of history.
I’ve been drawn to the study of history for almost as long as I remember. Along with music, it was my favorite subject in high school. But I headed off to college to study engineering—not my idea, but I went along. Following three miserable semesters of engineering courses in which I never got higher than a C, while meanwhile acing the three history and three music courses I also took in those semesters, I finally saw the light and switched my major to history. It never crossed my mind to choose music; at the time, even I thought that was a dream too far. But, after I was done with college I knew that while I still loved history, I was going to become a musician. It never occurred to me at the time that I could be both—an amateur historian and a professional musician. And yet that is what has happened. Over time I’ve become the historian of a very, very tiny cranny in the vast mansion of history—the history of my family. I have studied and tried to comprehend how our lives have been shaped by the larger forces and events in the times and places in which my ancestors and I have lived; how the aftermaths of my grandparents’ lives have continued to resonate in my parents’ and in my and my family’s lives to this day. The things I have learned, and am still exploring, have led to insights and understandings that would not otherwise have been possible for me.
History, like the sciences, medicine, and all other human attempts to understand ourselves, our world, and the universe, has constantly evolved and changed. The truths of yesteryears have repeatedly been modified, updated, and not infrequently discovered to be profoundly false. It wasn’t so very long ago that many human beings were certain that the earth was flat—and situated at the center of the universe to boot—that bloodletting was an effective way to cure some diseases, and that God and natural law sanctioned the enslavement of one people by another.
All this is not to suggest that our schools should teach about the brutality of slavery, or of the Holocaust, or the many other human tragedies in our history in graphic detail to young students. It is of course, absolutely necessary to try to protect young children from aspects of life that are overly harsh, painful, or traumatizing. As the poet Maggie Smith writes, “The world is at least fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative estimate, though I keep this from my children.” However, as Cicero wrote, “Not to know what happened before one was born is always to be a child.” To hide or distort age-appropriate truths from children and young adults—and of course from adults—is to infantilize them and leave them vulnerable to charlatans, totalitarians and tyrants.
Nevertheless, it is a very understandable human tendency to try to avoid confronting uncomfortable, ugly truths about the past. We are after all, like most living organisms, built to seek pleasure and avoid pain. The histories of slavery, systemic racism, Americans’ treatment of Native Americans or, in my family the Holocaust, are subjects we prefer to evade. My mother told me that when she returned from the Ravensbrück concentration camp, no one wanted to listen or believe what she had endured there. Her own sister, who managed to avoid being deported from Budapest during the war, was skeptical. My parents, like so many other Holocaust survivors, rarely talked of their wartime experiences partly, I’m certain, because it was so painful, but also in part because they were often met with uneasiness or disbelief. And yet, as President Biden said on June 1, 2021, when he spoke on the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre, “We do ourselves no favors by pretending none of this ever happened or doesn’t impact us today, because it does.”
My own experiences learning about my family’s history perhaps exemplify both the difficulty, and the necessity of uncovering the truths in our past. I was sixteen when my mother told me that she was my father’s second wife, that he’d lost his first wife and three young children in Auschwitz. Yet it was something our family rarely mentioned. I was in my forties when I began pressing my father to tell me about his wartime experiences, and I was fifty when I finally dared ask him to tell me about his first family. I know that without the knowledge of my father’s life before I was born—and especially of his losses in the war—that I gleaned from our talks, I would never have been able to understand our often difficult relationship.
Recently, I’ve had occasion to explore another tragic chapter in my extended family’s history.
My cousins, Lilly and Edit Weisz, were thirteen and seventeen respectively on May 9, 1944, the day that they, along with seven members of their immediate family, and approximately 3,000 other Jews, were herded into an improvised ghetto, a handful of tobacco curing sheds on the outskirts of their hometown of Balassagyarmat in northern Hungary. On June 11th, four days after Lilly’s 14th birthday, the Nazis—with the assistance and enthusiastic support of the csendör, the Hungarian special police—forced them all onto cattle cars bound for Auschwitz.
There, at their first “selection” by the infamous Dr. Mengele, Lilly and Edit were separated from their maternal grandparents, Shaya and Rozsa Slomovits, from their aunts, Erzsi and Eva, their younger brothers Gyuri and Josef, and their mother, Lenke Weisz. They never saw them again. Lilly and Edit, who—though they didn’t know it at the time—would also lose their father, Ignacz, in a forced labor camp, were the only ones to survive Auschwitz.
For much of my early life Lilly and Edit and their families lived far from ours, and our parents only interacted with them via mail and occasional phone calls. But, when in my twenties I moved to Ann Arbor, I began to see Lilly more regularly because she was by then living in Oak Park, also in Michigan, and less than an hour away.
Lilly was my father’s niece, the daughter of his older sister, Lenke, so she and I, despite the almost nineteen years between our ages, shared common grandparents. She had grown up just around the corner from them and she told me stories about their lives that even my father didn’t know because he had moved away from Balassagyarmat as a very young man and only visited rarely.
It took me years after I reconnected with Lilly to work up the courage to ask her about her concentration camp experiences. The few times I did, I felt like I was listening to someone who’d literally returned from hell. But, despite the distress I always felt when we talked, as well as my fear and guilt about causing her renewed pain, I now wish that I’d asked her earlier, more often, and in greater detail.
After enduring three months in Auschwitz, Edit and Lilly were transferred to Bergen-Belsen, in Germany, which she remembered as being even worse, barely any food, rats… In January 1945 they were moved again, this time to work as forced laborers in an airplane factory in Aschersleben, Germany. Finally, via a hellish forced march they ended up in Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia, where they were liberated by the Russian Army on May 8, 1945. Edit and Lilly eventually made their way back to Budapest, where they reunited with two of their surviving aunts. Then, still holding out hope that they might find the rest of their family alive, they returned to Balassagyarmat, the only home they’d ever known. They had been gone for more than a year. In their absence, the townspeople had looted the homes of all the deported Jews. The Nazis, who had stored munitions in the town’s eighty-year-old synagogue, had blown it up when they retreated before the Russian Army in December of 1944. Lilly and Edit’s family home, as well as their grandparents’ house, both of which had been near the synagogue, were gone as though they’d never existed.
I last spoke with Lilly in person in January of 2020, a week before the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz on January 27th of 1945. Aware of the upcoming anniversary, I brought up the subject and Lilly again related some of the litany of horrors they’d endured. It was in this conversation that she recounted working in an airplane factory in Aschersleben, she and Edit on either side of plane fuselages, using heavy “luft” guns, tightening rivets on the sides of the planes, constantly terrified that the Germans would punish them for making mistakes. I reminded her that my mother had also worked in an airplane factory in Germany during the war. Like Lilly she’d been an Aussenkommando, a concentration camp inmate who was forced to work outside the camp during days and marched back and locked away nights.
After talking with Lilly that day, I drove home and opened my laptop. A quick Google search confirmed that there is a German city named Aschersleben, that during the war there had been a concentration camp there, a subcamp of Buchenwald, and also a Junkers airplane factory. The second item the search engine turned up for Aschersleben was a document archived in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Survivors and Victims Database. It was a transport list entitled, “Neuzugänge Vom 23. Januar 1945 500 weib. Häftlinge von KL Bergen-Belsen nach Akdo Junkers – Aschersleben. January 23, 1945, 500 Women From Bergen-Belsen To Junkers-Aschersleben.”
I sat stunned, staring at my computer. It was as if I’d once been told a hard-to-believe story about an ancient grave in my back yard and then, while digging in my garden, I’d turned up a skeleton. Lilly had said to me, just hours earlier, that she and Edit were transferred from Bergen-Belsen to Aschersleben, and here was the proof, glowing on my screen.
I clicked on the link and a twenty page document opened. It was an alphabetized list of the names, with the birth dates and birthplaces, of each of those 500 women. And there, at the bottom of page 19, was Edith Weisz, born April 15, 1926 in Balassagyarmat, Hungary. Correct in almost every particular, except for the “h” at the end of her name, and her birth date was off by a year. Edit was born in 1927, not 1926. I theorized that the “h” on the end of her name might have been accidentally added by the translator/transcriber of the German document. (We’ve all heard about names or birthdates that got changed inadvertently, or deliberately, in the inevitable disarray at Ellis Island. And surely that bedlam paled when compared to the chaos of Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen.)
As for Edit’s birthdate being off by a year, perhaps it was the result of a similar translation/transcription error, or maybe even a mistake when the document was created in 1945. It even occurred to me that Edit may have deliberately lied about her age in an attempt to make herself appear older, hoping to increase her chances of surviving.
But Lilly’s name was not on that list, or so it appeared at first. I immediately called to tell her what I’d found and asked her to speculate why her name was not there. She was very excited to hear about my discovery, but of course, had no knowledge, or even a theory explaining why her name was missing from the list. We agreed that while the Nazis were famously meticulous about keeping accurate records, surely they were not perfect. However, Lilly didn’t seem at all fazed by the omission. It was clear she had no need for official documentation. She knew she’d been there. She asked me to send a physical copy of the document to her as well as to her children and grandchildren. I mailed one to her and sent the link to her children, and we dropped the matter for a time.
Then the pandemic hit, and we all had other things to think and talk about. Edit contracted Covid and died in August of 2020 at the age of 93. Lilly, after a long struggle, also succumbed to the virus and died on January 5, 2021 at the age of 90. The coronavirus finally finished what the Nazis had not managed.
In the days and weeks following Lilly’s death my mind kept returning to that list of 500 women. One day it occurred to me that Lilly was not a particularly Hungarian-sounding name. Was that really her given name? I wrote to Lilly’s daughter, Eva, who confirmed that her mother had been named Lilla and had Americanized her name when she’d emigrated to the States in the late Fifties. (She also told me that when Lilly arrived in America her birthday was mistakenly recorded as July 7, 1930, rather than the correct, June 7, 1930,)
I went back to the list. Earlier I had been looking for Lilly Weisz, born in Balassagyarmat on June 7, 1930. Now I found a Lila Weisz, but her birthplace was listed as Baraszai, and her birthdate as May 7, 1927. I’d discounted that name before. Could these be mistakes as well? Did Lilla also possibly lie about her birthdate, for the same reason Edit may have? And what about Baraszai? I checked as meticulously as I could and found that no city with that name seems to have existed anywhere in the world. (I found another woman on that document whose birthplace was listed as Barassagy, which looks and sounds close to Baraszai and also, more faintly, like Balassagyarmat. Barassagy also does not exist.) Were Baraszai and/or Barassagy scrambled versions of Balassagyarmat? I found some other things on the document that I’d not noticed earlier. A number of the women were listed with incomplete information, only a partial name, partial birth date, or no birthplace; there were fourteen women named Weisz, including two more besides Edit and Lilla from Balassagyarmat. The possibilities for errors seemed high.
I wrote to the United States Holocaust Museum and asked for their help in correcting, clarifying the data on that document. I have not yet heard back. I’ll keep at it. This extra and corrected information needs to be included. How would it feel to someone who has been told that an older cousin of theirs had died in Vietnam, then visit the Vietnam Memorial and not find his or her name on the wall?
I talked with my therapist and berated myself for not following up with the Holocaust Museum while Lilla was still alive to ask for more clarification following my discovery of the transport document. He urged me, as he frequently does, to be kind to myself. It was understandable, he said, that I’d been reluctant to follow up. “Would you have really wanted to find her on that list? Does she belong on that list?” Of course, he was right. No, I’d rather not have found Lilla or Edit on that list. They don’t belong there. None of the 498 other women on that list belong there.
And yet, there they are—and there they were.
My halting, fits-and-starts method of following up on gathering the information about Lilla’s story is an object lesson in the difficulty of studying fraught histories. Sometimes we simply do not want to know. But, as Jacqueline Winspear writes In This Grave Hour “…truth has a certain buoyancy—it makes its way to the surface in time.”
Most, if not all of the women on that list are probably gone now. Only two of them were younger than Lilla, both by just a few months. Any that are still alive would be over 90. Lilla and Edit’s story are two out of an unimaginable number of stories from the Holocaust. But theirs is also the story of 498 other women and is linked to the stories of the thousands of people related to them—their mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, husbands, children, grandchildren and so many others. All their stories are worth knowing and telling. “Will you speak before I am gone? Will you prove already too late?” (Walt Whitman – Song of Myself)
We need not fear that learning the truths of our nation’s history—the admirable and praiseworthy ones, as well as the dishonorable and appalling—will turn our children against our country. Our children will not hate America for knowing her sometimes shameful, inglorious past. But they will hate us if they learn that we tried to keep it from them. An American history that chronicles our triumphs and successes, alongside our failures and shortcomings, will not make us despise our country or mistrust our government. Being lied to will.
7/26/21 Why History Part II – The Olympics
The recent rash of efforts by some Republican state legislators to restrict how American history may be taught in our schools are very one-sided. They all seem focused on shrouding only the less savory aspects of our past, especially slavery, systemic racism, and the treatment of Native Americans. None of them are directed at concealing facets of our history of which we are rightfully proud. Nobody’s clamoring to hide Jefferson’s eloquence, Benjamin Franklin’s brilliance or Washington’s bravery; nobody’s saying we shouldn’t take credit for winning WWII or sending people to the moon. That’s as it should be. It’s only right that we take pride in our nation’s accomplishments and remember and extol the virtues of remarkable people.
However, we diminish the legacies of those people when we don’t acknowledge their failings and thereby make it harder for us to learn from, and not repeat their mistakes. We cheapen our triumphs when we don’t also face up to our shortcomings. And equally, and perhaps even more importantly, by not acknowledging and hiding the deeply objectionable episodes of our national story, we make it harder to atone and make reparations for some past events and actions that still need to be addressed today.
With the Tokyo Olympics underway and much in the news lately, I’ve found myself thinking about historical truths, and of my father. A fine amateur soccer player in his youth, (nicknamed “a Vörös Ördög,” “The Red Devil,” a moniker he earned for his speed and quickness, as well as for a favorite red shirt) he loved sports, avidly followed the Olympics every four years, and passed along his passion to his sons, my brother and me.
I was born in 1949 so I don’t remember the 1952 Olympics. Because the 1956 Olympics were held in Melbourne, in the southern hemisphere, those Games began on November 22nd that year, just a month after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution began, and barely more than ten days after it was crushed by the Soviet Union. In Budapest, where I was born, my parents must have had more far pressing concerns than the Olympics, so I have no memories of those Games either. (Though years later my father did tell us about the blood in the water during the water polo match between the Hungarian and the Soviet teams at those Olympics.)
By late August of 1960 when the Rome Olympics opened, our family was safely in America, having left Hungary in 1957, taken refuge in Israel for a couple of years, and finally emigrating to the US, which had been my parents’ goal all along. The Rome Olympics were the first ones to be televised and, although we were still struggling to learn English and become Americans, our family did already have a TV, for the first time in our lives. I remember Ethiopian marathoner Abebe Bikila winning in his bare feet, Wilma Rudolph sprinting to three gold medals, and Cassius Clay, before he became Muhammed Ali and heavyweight champion, punching his way to Olympic gold. This must also have been when my father started telling us about his memories of the 1936 Olympics and of the great Jesse Owens. (This was also when he probably began telling us of Joe Louis’ by then mythic victory over Max Schmeling in 1938, but that’s a story for another time.)
Like this year’s Games, the 1936 Olympics were held under a looming cloud of terrifying danger for all of humanity. Hitler was already in full control of Germany and there were plentiful and powerful signals about his militaristic and territorial ambitions, and of his attitudes regarding basic human rights. The Dachau Concentration Camp had already been established three years earlier. And, as in recent history, when many nations have battled Covid quite haplessly, and climate change miserably, most governments in the 1930’s also chose to hope that Hitler’s threats were empty and the menace he clearly represented would not come to pass. The 1936 Olympics were seen as an opportunity for the nations of the world to focus on friendly competition, rather than on the looming tragedy.
A year before the 1936 Olympics, living in his native Hungary, my father had already heard of Jesse Owens. How one spring afternoon in 1935, (coincidentally in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I’ve lived since my early twenties,) in the space of less than an hour, the magnificent Owens tied one world record and set five new ones. How one of those records, the long jump, lasted for more than twenty-five years, longer than any other record in modern track and field history. In his, and my brother and my favorite story, our father told us how Jesse Owens won four gold medals in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. How Owens’ triumphs humiliated Hitler, who had predicted victory for, and had cheered on the German sprinters and jumpers. How Hitler hastily left the Olympic stadium after Owens’ victory in the long jump, rather than stay to congratulate Owens. Our father explained, “Hitler didn’t want to be seen in a photo with a Negro. He wouldn’t shake Jesse Owens’ hand.”
Our dad was a gifted storyteller, and the stories of great men were among his favorite subjects. He knew many stories. Some of them were of singers like him: of Moshe Koussevitzky, the legendary Cantor, Gigli, the great Italian operatic tenor. and Chaliapin, the famed Russian bass baritone. Others were of the great Rabbis of history and about their teachings and sayings, while still others were of his own childhood, and young adulthood in Hungary between and during the two World Wars.
Always, always though, and especially when we’d watch the Olympics, he came back to his stories of Jesse Owens.
One day, when my brother and I were about sixteen years old, my mother told us that she was our father’s second wife. That he’d lost his first wife and their three young children in Auschwitz.
This almost unbelievable news was barely comprehensible to me at first. And it was somehow silently understood in our family that we would not talk about it with our father. After my mother’s revelation that day, many years went by before I allowed myself to even think about these things, and years more before I braved talking about them with my father; years before I understood the sadness I’d always sensed in my father even when I was still a little child, but whose cause I’d never before known; years before I knew why he kept to himself so much, why he rarely joined my mother, brother and me on family outings to parks or beaches, often saying that he needed time to study for the next week’s Torah reading. We all knew that was not true. He could almost recite the readings by heart after so many years of study and repetition. He didn’t need to rehearse every Sunday afternoon, all afternoon.
The truth was, he wanted to be alone. It sometimes seemed to me that he wanted to be alone so much that he was not a part of our family. He was still mourning his first family. His frequent stories of Jesse Owens gradually came to take on a different meaning for me. I began to see why Owens’ triumphs held such mythic power for him.
In August of 1936, when Jesse Owens was thrilling sports fans at the Berlin Olympics, my father was living in Kunhegyes, a small town a hundred-twenty-five kilometers east of Budapest. He served as Rabbi, Cantor and schoolteacher for the Jewish families living in that community. Although he was happy in his life there, he must have been aware of the gathering horror of Hitler. After Kristallnacht in 1938 he had visible proof that Hitler’s insane rantings could inspire very real violence. In 1942 that horror and violence pounded on his door. He was ordered into the munkaszolgálat, the work detail attached to the Hungarian Army into which many Jewish men were conscripted. He spent much of the rest of the war in work lagers in Poland. When he returned home to Kunhegyes in late 1944, my father discovered he had lost everything to the Nazis.
While he was away in the munkaszolgálat, much of his family was taken to Auschwitz in cattle cars. There, besides numberless more distant relatives, he lost his father Shaya, his mother Rozsa, his only brother, three sisters, and, perhaps most excruciating of all, his wife, two sons and a daughter.
Jesse Owens was an exceptional man, worthy of my father’s admiration. However, my father did not look up to him only for his athletic feats. He revered him because Jesse Owens did something my father had not been able to do.
Jesse Owens beat the Nazis.
Many years after I first heard my father’s story about Hitler refusing to shake Jesse Owens’ hand, I learned that in fact it is not true. It is apparently a myth that has been repeated so many times that it has come to be held as truth. What does seem to be true, as Richard Mandell writes in “The Nazi Olympics,” is that on the first day of those Games, after Hitler publicly congratulated some German and Finn medalists, he left the stadium and did not shake the hands of the three Americans, the first two of whom were Black, who swept the high jump medals. The International Olympic Committee immediately informed Hitler that for the remainder of the Olympics he must either congratulate all the winners or none. Hitler decided to congratulate none—at least not in public. He did continue to hold private celebrations for German medalists. Even though Jesse Owens himself later declared the story of Hitler snubbing him to be untrue, the myth has endured in the public imagination the world over—as perhaps it should. In its essence it is possibly truer than the truth itself. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” (From the movie, ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’)
I also read some other stories about the 1936 Olympics that I never heard from my father. How, despite Nazi propaganda about Aryan supremacy, which emphatically excluded Jesse Owens, and in fact relegated all Black people to the level of sub-humans, the German crowds cheered him wildly, rhythmically chanting his name, “Yesseh Oh-vens, Yesseh Oh-vens,” whenever he appeared. It also turns out that the man who suggested to Jesse Owens that he take off behind the board on his final qualifying jump (after he fouled on his first two jumps and was in danger of not even making it into the final round) was Lutz Long, the German champion, and the man who eventually wound up with the silver medal. Surely Lutz knew that by helping Owens, he was practically guaranteeing that he himself would not win the gold medal. After the competition, the two were seen congratulating each other, walking arm in arm on the infield.
I came across another story in Peter Levine’s “Ellis Island to Ebbets Field,” one not nearly as uplifting, and not exemplifying the highest ideals of the Olympics. American sprinters Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, (a University of Michigan student) who were scheduled to run on the heavily favored 4X100 meter relay were replaced by Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe on the morning of the qualifying heats. Glickman and Stoller were the only Jewish members of the 1936 US Olympic track and field team, and the only members of that team who did not get to compete in the Games. (Unlike in more recent Olympics, where the 4X100 meter relay is comprised of the top four finishers in the 100 meter dash at the Olympic trials, in 1936 and in earlier Olympics, the tradition was that the first three finishers at the trials would race in the same event at the Games, while the next four finishers made up the 4X100 relay.) There was, and continues to be, controversy and a lack of clarity about the exact circumstances surrounding the last-minute change, but there is little doubt that the atmosphere of the Berlin Games, and the prevalent anti-Semitism in the US in the Thirties played a part in the decision. (Avery Brundage, then president of the American Olympic Committee, was possibly the man responsible for the substitution. He had lobbied strongly against the US boycotting the 1936 Olympics to protest Hitler’s policies, was known to admire Hitler, and maintained those views even after WWII began.)
There is one more heartbreaking story I learned about Jesse Owens and the 1936 Olympics. When Owens returned to the United States after the Games, he was not invited to the White House to be congratulated by President Roosevelt.
All our history, the honorable and the ignoble, is important and necessary for us to know. Not so we will feel ashamed or guilt about our past, but so we may learn from our successes and our failures. Few will deny that Roosevelt’s extraordinary leadership helped steer our country through arguably one of the most difficult times in our history, but that does not mean that we should ignore his role in the creation of the Japanese internment camps, his refusal to allow the St. Louis to land, or his decision not to invite Owens to the White House. On the other hand, we can take pride in recalling that three years after that snub, Eleanor Roosevelt publicly resigned from the DAR following their decision to not permit Marian Anderson to sing at Constitution Hall. “They refused to allow her use of the hall,” Anderson biographer, Allan Keiler said, “because she was black and because there was a white-artist-only clause printed in every contract issued by the DAR.” Instead, Eleanor Roosevelt helped arrange for Anderson to sing on the National Mall, in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
Another example: I will curse Hitler’s name till the end of time, but I still get a warm feeling remembering that the German crowds at the 1936 Olympics cheered Jesse Owens, and that Lutz Long selflessly came to his aid.
My father eagerly followed the Olympics every four years. I always listened and enjoyed his tales, but I never could bring myself to tell him the stories I discovered. I had the feeling that he would prefer his own, less complicated ones. Knowing what my father suffered, and how much his memories of Jesse Owens’ victories may have comforted him, I was, and still am, OK with that.
I am a father now too and have also raised my daughter to love the Olympics. But years ago, I started telling her all these stories—my father’s and mine.
9/7/21 Afghanistan and Hungary
The tragic news coming out of Afghanistan lately has brought to mind recollections of my family leaving our native Hungary in the wake of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. I was only seven years old at the time, so my memories are few and faint, but it seems to me that the two events, though separated by 65 years, and the two countries by nearly 6,000 miles, share some crucial similarities and, of course, significant, critical differences. First, the differences.
The ’56 Revolution, which sparked the Soviet Union’s violent, repressive response, was a relatively brief episode lasting a few weeks, unlike the current crisis in Afghanistan, which is yet another bloody chapter in a decades long saga of carnage and terror. While the 1956 brutal crackdown and its aftermath further constrained free speech, political dissent and other freedoms that already barely had a tenuous existence in post WWII Hungary, it didn’t adversely affect many people’s daily lives to the extent that the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan is likely to—particularly for girls and women.
Many of the people recently airlifted from Afghanistan had worked for the US in various capacities, some for many years. That was not the case at all in Hungary in 1956, though there is evidence that the CIA and others in the US government led Hungarian revolutionaries to believe that if they rose up against Communist rule, the US would support them—which, of course did not happen. And while a not insignificant number of people were killed in Hungary during the Revolution and in the weeks and months of retribution that followed, (estimates are approximately 2,500 Hungarians, plus 700 Soviet troops) those numbers pale when compared to the loss of life so far in Afghanistan—American and Afghani—and the almost certain likelihood of a great many more to come.
As appalling as are the differences between the two upheavals, the parallels are perhaps even more depressing and heartbreaking. Like a great many Afghanis today, in 1956 countless Hungarians were looking for ways to emigrate from their homeland even before the Revolution, due to the lack of economic opportunity, as well as the many restrictions on religious practice and other freedoms. And certainly, after November 1956 in Hungary, and today in Afghanistan, people have compelling reasons to fear reprisals and a repressive regime taking control of their country. Then, as now, many did not, and will not, make it to safety.
In predominantly Catholic Hungary, people had long chafed under the Communist hostility to all religious practice. One of the first things that the Soviet troops did while quelling the revolt was to close all churches and synagogues. Today by contrast, it’s the Taliban who are likely to reinstate and force their barbaric version of Sharia law on the Afghani people.
The scale of the refugee crisis is also similar between the two disasters. Approximately 200,000 Hungarians (out of a population of less than ten million) fled their homeland in the weeks and months following the Revolution, some via Yugoslavia, most literally walking across the border to nearby Austria; which is what my aunt and uncle did, piling what they could of their possessions on the sled on which my brother and I slid down the snowy hills of Buda, and pulling it to a displaced-persons camp near Vienna, eventually making their way to New York. (My parents did not want to risk a similar trip with two seven-year-olds. Instead, they managed a semi legal move, trading our fully furnished Budapest apartment for an exit visa to Israel. Two years later we were able to make it to the US.) Despite the more than 120,000 people already airlifted from Afghanistan, the flow of refugees is unlikely to stop.
What will likely prove to be the greatest similarity between the two events is the human toll; a very large number of people, their lives upended, forced to leave behind their homeland, native tongue, family and friends, work, most of their possessions—and start all over, to seek a new life in another country. Afghanis will be compelled, as were Hungarian refugees, to learn a new language, adapt to new customs, new norms, and to find jobs that may or may not relate to the work they were doing or have been trained for.
Our family, and many of the refugees who fled Hungary after 1956 have been extremely fortunate and have fared well. Americans and people in many other countries opened their arms and welcomed us and the rest of the other Hungarian refugees. My parents were able to find work, rebuilt their lives and created many opportunities for my brother and me to live fulfilling lives here. I know without a single doubt that the life I have been able to live in the US has been immeasurably better than any I’d have been able to lead in Hungary
Given the current attitudes by some in our country regarding refugees and immigrants of color, I have my fears for those arriving from Afghanistan now, but I pray that they will be received with the same open arms that greeted our family. May they come to feel truly at home here, as I have had the good fortune to feel.
11/25/21 Magical Thinking
My mother had a magic kerchief. When my brother and I were little and came down with sore throats, she’d gently wrap that magic kerchief around the sick one’s neck and assure us that the magic kerchief would make us feel better soon. And it always did—eventually. My brother and I believed implicitly in the kerchief’s power—even that it contained enough magic to cure both of us when we the two of us were sick at the same time and had to share it.
The kerchief, triangular, with red and white flowers and green leaves scattered on a field of navy blue velvet, was baby-skin soft and I can still recall its palliating feel on my neck. It had been our mother’s colorful, festive head covering before she repurposed it and imbued it with her magic.
Long after we stopped believing in the kerchief’s magical curative capabilities, my brother and I still wore it whenever we had colds. It was a soothing ritual, and it felt good. We only stopped when the thin fabric began disintegrating after years of use and washings.
I still have my mother’s magic kerchief. Carefully folded to conceal its faded, worn, and threadbare segments, it occupies pride of place on top of the bookshelf in my work room. It is a tangible symbol of my mother’s love for my brother and me. I never see it without thinking of her.
The other day a glimpse of that kerchief also made me think of the people who feed the unvaccinated their magical thinking, misleading distortions and outright lies; who have been working to convince them that they’re doing the right thing, assuring them that they’ll be safe from Covid—and that they will not harm anyone else. And I thought again of my mother, who also spun comforting fairy tales for her young children but who, having faced hell in concentration camps, never afterward turned her back on reality. She never depended on that magic kerchief to ward off anything, not even a cold.
We humans are storytelling creatures. We tell ourselves and each other stories all our lives, stories that allow us to make sense of those aspects of reality that we do experience with our magnificent—though very limited—senses and brains. I know that some storytellers try to help others, while others merely try to help themselves; that some stories heal, and some do harm. We listen to stories—our own and others—and rely on them to guide our actions, sometimes even after reality repeatedly contradicts them. “People will do a great deal to support the image they have of themselves.” (Robert B. Parker, “The Widening Gyre”)
My mother invented that magic kerchief for us, but she understood its comforting purpose and its healing limitations. I learned a great deal from her about the power of stories, and the importance of knowing whose stories to listen to and whose to challenge or ignore. I remember her with love and gratitude.
It was, of course, bound to happen. Another school shooting—the worst one in the country this year, though unbelievably, only one of thirty-four in 2021; just the latest in the tragically long litany from Columbine, to Virginia Tech, to Sandy Hook to Parkland and now to Oxford. This one was especially close to home for me‚ literally, barely sixty miles from where I live. And it wasn’t only geographically close. Because of my work, playing music with my brother for children and families, I have played in the Oxford school district a number of times in the past fifteen years—never at the high school, but nine times in three of the elementary schools and at the Early Childhood Center.
The minute I heard the news it hit me that the 15 year old boy who shot and killed four of his school mates and wounded seven other people, might have been in our audience at one of those shows. A trivial and distant link to be sure, even if it was the case, but one that somehow still made the horror more immediate for me. Of the theoretical six degrees of separation, this was one more sad degree closer.
I thought of Sandy Hook, now almost exactly nine years ago. That morning in 2012 my brother and I were in an elementary school in Trenton, MI, less than an hour from Oxford, when we heard what happened at Sandy Hook. We had just finished playing a concert. An hour before we had been standing less than ten feet from a group of first graders and their teachers—kids and teachers just like the twenty first graders and six teachers who were shot in Newtown.
After that day, after Sandy Hook Elementary, my brother and I continued to play music in many schools. No big testament to courage that. School shootings are exceedingly rare. By way of contrast, we all blithely get in our cars nearly every day despite being aware that almost 40,000 people lose their lives in car accidents in the US every year. We buckle our kids in car seats, or nag them to wear their seat belts, and chauffer them everywhere, despite knowing that over 1,200 children under the age of 16 are killed in car crashes each year; far more than die in school shootings yearly.
We’ve gotten used to these things. We’ve come to expect and accept this carnage on our streets and highways and, similarly, these chronic mass shootings. The Oxford High School shooting was one of two that day and, as I write this, there have been three more.
Of course, school shootings are not really comparable to car accidents. Those are after all accidents, only very rarely deliberate acts, the way many shootings are. (There are also a great many accidents involving children and guns, far more than deliberate school shootings. And, conversely, one could argue that a significant percentage of car accidents are the result of deeply anti-social attitudes.)
But, although likely with a greatly heightened emotional response, we have come to react to school shootings, in fact to all mass shootings, much as we do to car accidents. “How awful. There but for the grace of god…”
On the day of the Oxford shooting, Michigan Governor, Gretchen Whitmer said,
“This is an unimaginable tragedy.” That same day, President Biden said, “My heart goes out to the families of all those in Oxford, Michigan experiencing the unimaginable grief of losing a loved one.” The word “unimaginable,” in each statement, caught my ear. I remembered the song, “It’s Quiet Uptown” from the musical Hamilton. Angelica sings it after Alexander and Eliza Hamilton’s son Phillip is killed—shot to death, though in a duel—which used to be an acceptable way to resolve a conflict. “There are moments that the words don’t reach/There is suffering too terrible to name./You hold your child as tight as you can/And push away the unimaginable.”
In response to Oxford, Governor Whitmer ordered flags to fly at half-mast. They will almost undoubtedly, heartbreakingly, have to be lowered again, and again. It’s abundantly clear that we can’t count on our political leaders to enact laws that will help. Perhaps eventually, like duels and other barbaric practices that were tolerated in the past, our national fascination with the type of guns whose primary function is to kill other human beings will fade. Until then, no matter where, no matter how far away the shootings will be, they will always still be too close to home. Again, from Hamilton, “We push away what we can never understand./We push away the unimaginable.”
12/31/21 Year End 2021
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
Charles Dickens wrote those words about 162 years ago. Don’t they read a bit like a description of the past year? Here then is a brief Tale of 2021.
It was the best of times…
Wait, that sure doesn’t sound like an account of this past year! For starters, the Covid pandemic continued to seethe and erupt.
But at times it was the best of times. It was the year in which Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. moved into the White House.
And, not only President Biden, but also Vice President Kamala Devi Harris. About time!
And, the Covid vaccines—not a second too soon.
It was the worst of times…
January 6, 2021 joined December 7, 1941, November 22, 1963 and September 11, 2001 as dates we’ll always remember, and will always wish we could forget.
And the pandemic… several more horrific waves. More than 800,000 Americans, and nearly five million worldwide dead by the end of the year.
It was the age of wisdom…
The enormous advances in medicine, epidemiology and public health in the past century have greatly lessened the toll that this pandemic has, so far, taken—compared to the 50 million lost in the 1918 pandemic, or in earlier epidemics like the Black Death of the 14th century, which wiped out possibly as much as half of Europe’s population, or the American Plagues that killed an enormous percentage of the Indigenous population of North and South America.
And then there is AIDS, which has killed over 35 million people since 1981 and which, arguably, has been and continues to be much more deadly than it might have been, were it not for the foot-dragging due to the so-called “moral” issue. As in 2020, in the early Eighties when AIDS first surfaced, we also had a president who refused to accept the reality of an epidemic.
Similarly, the reality of climate change would have been undetectable—and impossible to mitigate—in any earlier age. (I know, I know… human beings were not capable of creating destructive climate change before the advent of the industrial revolution.) Which brings me to…
It was the age of foolishness…
The refusal to accept the reality of climate change, and the unwillingness to address it adequately, is undoubtedly the defining madness of our age, perhaps comparable only to the lunacy of the nuclear arms race of the middle decades of the 20th century. At times the suicidal destructiveness of our species leaves me breathless.
There is also the refusal to accept the vaccines, masking, and other public health measures. Don’t even get me started…
It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity
Dickens of course intended belief and incredulity to be contrasting opposites, but I’m choosing to use another meaning of the word incredulity—not disbelief, but awe and wonder—the emotions I felt as I watched on my computer as Perseverance touched down on the surface of Mars on February 18th. “These are the days of miracle and wonder” as Paul Simon wrote in his song, “The Boy in the Bubble” twenty-five years ago. I know that it may seem odd to feel thrilled at Perseverance’s success, an accomplishment that has so little to do with our daily lives, especially at a time when those daily lives are in such peril. Yet I would argue that perhaps it is when we’re in the darkest despair that it’s most vital, and most healing, to encounter inspiration; to have reasons to believe that human beings can achieve the apparently impossible.
It was the season of light…
While there is considerable disagreement about the numbers, methods, and costs, there is no doubt that President Biden and the Democrats’ American Rescue Plan has, at least temporarily, pulled millions of Americans out of poverty. This is surely something to cheer about.
And while the Hydra-like many-headed monster of racism has by no means been vanquished, the guilty verdicts of the policeman who murdered George Floyd, and the three men who murdered Ahmaud Arbery, as well as the establishment of Juneteenth as a national holiday, plus the greater awareness, understanding and acknowledgement of systemic racism, are all hopeful signs that may point to a more equitable future for everyone in our country.
The death of Archbishop Desmond Tutu a few days ago reminded me again of the truth of Margaret Meade’s words, “Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all who ever have.”
Similarly, (no need or possibility of comparing) here in Michigan our independent redistricting commission grew out of the efforts of Katie Fahey, and her desire to “take on gerrymandering.” Five years later, the commission has created an electoral map which is far fairer than what has been in place for more than 25 years.
it was the season of darkness,
The school shooting in Oxford, Michigan, along with the other 33 this year. Yes, these are very rare events, with relatively few victims—at any rate compared to the loss of life from all gun related events, including many of which also involve children—but young people deliberately killing, and maiming others is an undeniable indication that we must make much greater efforts to eliminate the causes of these tragic events.
it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
I woke early on Christmas morning. Excited. Not for the usual, familiar reasons. I was not expecting Santa or presents. I got up to watch the launch of the James Webb telescope. As I did during the Perseverance touchdown in February, I found Webb’s blastoff very moving; both for its impossibly lofty goal—to observe the early history of the universe—as well as for the collaborative, cooperative nature of the endeavor—NASA combining with the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency to propel the telescope on its way.
The liftoff seemed to encapsulate both the spring of hope and the possibility of the winter of despair. Just as there are magnificent potentials, there are also very difficult challenges ahead for Webb—and for all of us.
The takeoff served to remind me that despite the pandemic (everyone in the control room wore masks) humanity keeps progressing, striving, in matters both mundane and magnificent. “It was like when you come back from the war and the front lawn looks just as it did and people are cooking supper and you realize they’ve been doing it all along, while you’ve been gone.” (Robert B. Parker – The Judas Goat) People are still falling in love, babies are being born, and all of life—including the virus—is living, growing, decaying and dying in an ongoing, seemingly unstoppable loop. The great balancing act between the needs of all living beings, both the taking and the giving, continues to endure.
Paul Simon again, “The way we look to a distant constellation/That’s dying in a corner of the sky/These are the days of miracle and wonder/And don’t cry, baby, don’t cry/Don’t cry.”
I wish for all of us a healthy and peaceful 2022.
1/21/22 Hungary and US
For several years now I’ve felt disheartened whenever I’ve read of American conservative and right wing leaders expressing admiration for Hungary, or more accurately for its prime minister, Viktor Orban and his Fidesz Party. That Trump, Bannon, Tucker Carlson, and others of their ilk should wax rhapsodically about Orban—Trump going so far as to offer his support in Orban’s upcoming election—is hardly surprising. Talk about birds of a feather… Orban, who in the decade he’s been in power has come to be recognized by many in Hungary, Europe and here in the US, as being brazenly corrupt for channeling lucrative contracts and the country’s European Union subsidies to his family, friends and supporters. He has also increasingly muzzled the free press, hobbled the courts, and has made it all but impossible for competing political parties to unseat his Fidesz Party. Add to that his appalling statements and behavior vis a vis LGBTQ people, migrants, and people of color, and he and his actions sound depressingly familiar to those of us who survived Trump.
I was born in Budapest. My family left Hungary in the wake of the 1956 Revolution when I was barely eight years old. I don’t recall ever having strong feelings of loyalty, longing, or love of country for Hungary—not while I lived there as a young child, or in the years since. Not surprising, given my parents’ lukewarm attitudes about our mutual homeland—a place that often treated them, because they were Jewish, as second class citizens at best, and pariahs at worst. That is why they chose to leave in 1957 and likely that’s why they never instilled in me any great devotion for my native land.
Still, my family has roots in Hungary that go back generations, and my maternal grandparents and several of my aunts are buried in Budapest. (My paternal grandparents’ ashes, along with those of many others of my family, are scattered in Auschwitz). I still speak and love my mother tongue and, although I have only few memories of my early years there, whenever I hear of my birthplace, it draws my attention.
I don’t claim any expertise in Hungarian politics based on my having been born there. (My sources for much of the information in this essay are Wikipedia and a number of articles in the NY Times and other reputable publications, arguably not the only or final founts of truth. However, compared to Fox News? I rest my case.) Still, hearing about Hungary’s deterioration in the past decade feels like learning that the people who now inhabit our symbolic family home have totally trashed the place since we moved away. But what makes me sadder and angrier are the Americans who, with dyed-in-the-Trumpian-wool pulled over their eyes, look to emulate the same here. When they speak highly—even enviously—of Orban’s rule, and more importantly, when they excuse Trump’s Big Lie and wave away the significance of January 6, I can’t help thinking, “Be very, very careful what you wish for.”
Hungarians have experienced something like their recent history before, in the period between the early Thirties and the late Sixties when they were dominated first by the Nyilas, Hungary’s Nazi Party, and later by the Communists, controlled behind the Iron Curtain from Moscow. Even as a young child there in the Fifties I noticed how my parents’ voices dropped to a whisper when they talked of politics and the government. Or how my aunts, when they’d pretend-play at frightening us into better behavior, didn’t threaten us with the boogieman, but with the AVO, the Hungarian Secret Service. Later, as I grew older, I came to see how my parents’ skepticism and cynicism about anything they heard in the news, even after we moved to the US, grew out of a deep distrust of the government-controlled media during their formative years in Hungary.
Last August, when Tucker Carlson traveled to Budapest to interview Orban for Fox News, despite my enduring interest in my native land, I could not get myself to watch. But recently, hearing about Orban’s reelection bid and his latest dispute with the EU over, (surprise!), his human rights violations, and hearing fresh acclaim here in the US about his reign in Hungary, I decided I needed to see that interview.
My first attempt lasted about two and a half minutes, by which time I had lost count of the number of lies Carlson spurted. I had my fill when, with crocodile tears streaming, Carlson bemoaned the fact that liberals in the West were, “Backing the open anti-Semites who are running against him (Orban) in next April’s elections in Hungary.” This from the guy who openly supports the anti-Semitic (not to mention batshit crazy) QAnon Theory, and who has so frequently and relentlessly blown his all-purpose Great Replacement Theory dog whistle—which manages to simultaneously be racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and for bad measure also LGBTQ-phobic—that the Anti-Defamation League has twice in the last year insisted that his bosses at Fox News fire him. (Which they’ll do when his ratings drop… or hell freezes over.)
Of course, as is occasionally the case with Carlson, there is a whiff of truth mixed with the stench of lies emanating from him. In point of fact, Orban’s main opponent in the upcoming Hungarian election does have a history of anti-Semitic statements, including announcing to his supporters that the Fidesz Party has Jewish members. (Which is a laugh any comedian would kill for. During the 2018 Parliamentary elections, Orban and Fidesz promoted a series of very thinly veiled anti-Semitic tropes about George Soros, who they claimed was trying to flood Hungary with Muslim migrants. Plus, Orban’s constant description of Hungary as a Christian country does not—at the very least—sound warmly welcoming to Jews or Muslims.) And, in any case, Orban’s opponent being anti-Semitic is hardly a deal-breaker in Hungary. My homeland has a long history of anti-Semitism, including pioneering anti-Jewish laws in 1930s Europe, even before the Nazis did.
Near the end of the interview, after pitching a bunch of cotton candy questions to Orban, Carlson lobbed him a big fat one, effectively setting up Orban’s version of the Big Lie by asking, “Are you worried that there will be international interference in your elections in Hungary?” Orban didn’t miss the pitch. “That will happen. We are not worried about that, we are prepared for that. Obviously, the international left will do everything they can do, probably even more, to change the government here in Hungary. We are aware of that and we are prepared for that.”
In other words, Orban—just as Trump did, and Hitler before him—is already sowing the seeds of election fraud and hinting at a Trump-like attempt to ensure the election goes his way.
He’ll first need something else to go his way. The European Union’s treaty allows for legal charges to be brought against member states that violate E.U. laws. It looks like the E.U., after years of letting Orban get away with thumbing his nose at their laws, especially concerning the treatment and rights of migrants, has finally lost their patience and, if Orban loses before the European Court of Justice this month, may begin withholding the billions in subsidies it has been giving Hungary. I don’t know if that will change Orban’s behavior, I doubt it, but still, I hope for the best for Hungary—and for us.
1/21/22 Webb Almost There
The launch of the James Webb space telescope on Christmas Day, 2021, was one of the happy highlights of my year. It was thrilling to watch the project take off brilliantly, especially after we were warned of numerous caveats, 344 “single points of failure” to be precise, by the scientists of NASA, the Canadian Space Agency and the European Space Agency who are jointly running the spectacular show.
Now, nearly a month later, “so far so good” is the mots justes that best describes Webb’s progress. “So far”—as I write this, about 875,000 miles from Earth, over 95% of the way to the point, nearly a million miles away from us, where the telescope will set up shop and go to work sending back images of objects farther away, and further back in time, than we’ve ever been able to see before. And “so good”—the telescope has performed nearly all its planned activities flawlessly to date—only a handful remain of the original 344—and engineers here on Earth have been able to adjust and correct the few that were not 100% perfect.
I continue to feel uplifted every time I hear of Webb, not least because I am glad that at least the telescope has managed to slip “the surly bonds of Earth.” While we here are continuing to wrestle with those surly bonds, I repeatedly and freshly feel inspired that an incredibly complex and ambitious undertaking, necessitating thousands of people to work together, over more than 25 years, is unfolding—literally, the telescope has stretched out its mirrors—and flourishing. It is a vivid and helpful reminder that while plenty of things on Earth are not unfolding as planned, a great many, including some very great things, still are.
Smooth sailing the rest of the way JWST!
(Many of the details in this piece are from a recent article in the NY Times by Dennis Overbye and Joey Roulette.)
What can I say about the war in Ukraine? And why should I say anything, when I have little knowledge of the history of that part of the world, and even less understanding of geopolitics, and when so many with vastly more credentials and experience seem utterly confounded by what has happened? And conversely, when so many others, with precious little familiarity with the situation, still feel emboldened to loudly proclaim their two cents worth. A quote by Wolfgang Pauli, the Austrian physicist, comes to mind. “I don’t mind you thinking slowly. I do mind you publishing faster than you think.” Bearing that firmly in mind, here are a few thoughts…
First of all, as we’ve been told, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not a war; in Orwellian doublespeak it’s a “special military operation.” Right. A war by any other name would stink as foul.
Second of all, who knows what will be when whatever-you-want-to-call-this is over? Will there be both war and peace? Almost certainly. Will there be a best of all, and a worst of all? Undoubtedly.
I’ve seen this before, though with much younger eyes and with even less comprehension than the little I claim now. I was seven years old in Budapest when the Soviet Union ruthlessly crushed the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. While that event was not remotely the equivalent of what is happening now in Ukraine, it is still in some ways comparable.
The Hungarian Revolution lasted a little less than three weeks. Several thousand Hungarians died, over 200,000 fled the country, our family among them.
It’s been a week since Russia invaded Ukraine. Already hundreds of Ukrainians have died, and nearly three quarters of a million have escaped from their native land.
As in Hungary in 1956, today ordinary Ukrainian citizens are taking up arms to defend their homeland, despite the overwhelming odds against them. As then, more than six decades ago in Hungary, the Ukrainian people today are hoping the rest of the world will come to their aid. And, in the case of both of these wildly mismatched battles, much of the rest of the world has looked on in horror, in sympathy, and with admiration for the invaded people’s courage; in Ukraine’s corner the West has applied unprecedentedly severe sanctions, sent arms and supplies, and a number of businesses, arts and sports organizations have excluded Russians. All that has, so far, left the fighting and dying to Ukrainians. Will might once again crush right, as it has so often before. Or will right prevail, as it also often has before.
Ever since the start of the war in Ukraine I’ve been thinking about the Spanish Civil War and of the International Brigades, the approximately 50,000 people from 52 countries around the world, including almost 3,000 from the US, who in the years 1936 to 1939, made their way to Spain and volunteered to fight alongside Spaniards who were battling the fascism of Franco, and his allies, Hitler and Mussolini. (Ironically, in that conflict the Soviet Union was on the side of the anti-fascists.) Fascism won that brutal war—remember Guernica—at a cost of more than half a million lives, 200,000 of them in combat, with more than half of those dying on the anti-fascist side. The International Brigades lost 15,000 people on the battlefields.
Historians now see the Spanish Civil War as Act One of the monumental tragedy that became WWII. It is likely a very small consolation, but possibly still a source of great pride for the families of those killed in that first conflict—particularly of those in the International Brigades—to know that they were on the right side of history.
I am hoping against hope that the Ukrainian war does not become, the way the Spanish Civil War did, a prelude to something even worse, a much larger war that drags in many more on each side—or even the unthinkable—a nuclear conflagration. I am also fervently hoping that the Ukrainian people, and for that matter, even the Russian soldiers, do not end up being sacrificed due to the grandiose delusions of yet another megalomaniac in the mold of Franco, Hitler and Mussolini.
We will have to wait and see what the judgement of history will be.
3/24/22 Ukraine: A Month Later
A few days ago, I was helping my wife relocate some books from one of our bookcases. The job took a lot longer than it needed to because, of course, I first glanced through each of the books, many of them favorites I’ve not read in years. Among them I came across Grooks by Piet Hein. The book is a miniature, four by six inches, barely more than a hundred pages, and half of them are blank. I bought it in the late 1960s and it has remained with me through every one of my moves since then. Its back cover blurb reads, “Piet Hein is probably the most quoted man in Scandinavia. His grooks (in Danish: gruk, a name of his own invention) are short aphoristic poems… Piet Hein began writing them during the Nazi occupation of Denmark. They were, quite literally, underground literature—Piet Hein was in hiding as a resistance leader. Soon becoming effective weapons of the resistance, they enabled Danes to talk to one another about what really mattered in a range just beyond German understanding and several octaves beyond Nazi sensitivities.”
Here are two Piet Hein grooks that seem particularly apt today, a month into the war in Ukraine.
The noble art of losing face
may one day save the human race
and turn into eternal merit
what weaker minds would call disgrace.
and I hear
and I speak no evil.
within my breast;
yet quite without
a man to the Devil
one may be
to hope for the best.
Another of the books that caught my eye while we were reorganizing was an anthology of poetry and prose by Ann Arbor authors called “Writer’s Reading at Sweetwaters.” In it I came across an old essay of mine called “What is War Like?” I wrote it in January 2003, during the runup to the war in Iraq, and a little more than a year after the beginning of the war in Afghanistan. The essay was sparked by a conversation I had with my then nine year old daughter. Reading it now, almost twenty years later, I can’t help thinking, “If my daughter has a child, will the two of them be forced to have a similar conversation years from now?
Here’s the essay:
On the way home from school, my daughter asks from the back seat of our car, “Dad, what is warlike?”
She loves language and words, and frequently asks for definitions.
“It’s when someone, or a group of people, behave in a hostile, threatening way,“ I reply.
“No dad. I said, what is war. . . like?”
She’s nine years old, and when not under the amusing delusion that she knows everything, often still operates under the even more charming one—that her parents do. I resist the temptation to rely on the “war is hell” cliché, and instead I say, “You know how sometimes kids get into a fight at school? War is when whole countries get into a fight.”
“What do countries fight about?”
“Some of the same kinds of things kids do. One country may have something another one wants, like land, or…”
“You mean like when Simon and Jake both want the tire swing at the same time?”
“Exactly.” I know it’s not that simple, though it often seems just as childish, but I don’t tell her either of those things.
“Why do you ask, honey?” My wife and I, trying to protect her childhood as long as possible, have deliberately shielded her from media news stories about the buildup to war, and have not discussed the events with her.
“One of the kids at school was talking about Iraq and this guy Saddam Hussein. So what is war like?”
Of course, she was bound to hear. And undoubtedly some of the boys, who seem to know more than the Pentagon about the military machines used in combat, have regaled her with tales of precision guided bombs, F-16s and Tomahawk Cruise Missiles. But I know that’s not what she is asking about.
So, I tell her that I’ve never fought in a war. That I don’t know anything about war first hand. Horrifying images from “Saving Private Ryan” and Kenneth Brannaugh’s “Henry the Fifth” rise in my mind. I push them aside, refusing to be frighteningly graphic.
I also decide to say nothing about what her grandparents endured in W.W.II concentration camps. Of my mother who, after escaping a death march from Ravensbrück, survived for weeks on potatoes she dug from abandoned gardens in burned out Dresden. Or of my father’s frostbitten toes, the only physical, visible reminder of several bitter Poland winters in a forced labor camp. Of other invisible scars and horrific memories that I know they bear, and ones I’m certain they never told. I push these images aside too. As my parents did with me, I will wait until she is older. And perhaps even then I won’t tell her all I’ve heard.
What I do say, carefully picking my way through the minefield of these images, sounds hollow and unconvincing.
She doesn’t buy it.
“Dad, I still don’t get it. Can you explain more clearly? Why are we going to war?”
I resist the urge to give voice to my feelings of cynicism, anger, and helplessness. Instead, I tell her, in carefully sanitized language, what President Hussein has done. She seizes on the word president and makes a childlike connection.
“Why on earth would the people of Iraq elect someone like that?”
Which leads us onto safer ground, an explanation of various systems of government. I begin by explaining that not all countries elect their presidents and leaders the way we do. And again resist the urge to say something bitter about how we elected our current president. Or about regime change, at home and abroad.
My dry, intellectual narration holds little interest for her. She brings the discussion back on track.
“Dad, what countries have gone to war?”
I tell her the sad truth.
Finally, she comes to the heart of the matter.
“Dad, will you have to go fight in this war?”
“No, honey. Only young people fight in wars.” As soon as the words leave my mouth, I desperately wish I could take them back. Both because of their tragic truth and because I instantly know what’s coming next.
“Will I have to go to war?” It sounds like she means now. She is not quite four feet tall and weighs less than fifty pounds.
“No, honey, you’re too young.” Like a carelessly played piece on a chess board, I have gotten myself snared in a trap of my own making.
“Will I have to later?” She speaks simply and matter of factly of what I find unspeakable, almost unthinkable.
The other day, while listening to the radio about news of the war in Ukraine, a childhood memory surfaced, one I’d not thought of for many years. It was of a book our mother used to read to my brother and me when we were little; not a children’s book, but a historical novel in Hungarian, called Egri Csillagok. Set in the middle of the 16th century, the book follows a young boy as he grows to manhood over the course of 25 years of Hungarian resistance against the Ottoman Empire. He participates in some key battles and historical events and ultimately is instrumental in helping to save Hungary from the Turks. Lots of canons, castles, fighting, handsome heroes, brutish villains, brains outwitting brawn—it was completely engrossing and enthralling for us.
When my brother and I were eight years old our family left Hungary in the wake of the 1956 Revolution. We had to leave most of our possessions behind, but our mother managed to cram a handful of our favorite books into the bags we carried. She packed David Copperfield, The Three Musketeers, and of course, Egri Csillagok (the Stars of Eger.) We still have them, but I’ve not opened Egri Csillagok in at least fifty years. I doubt if by now my Hungarian is good enough for me to get through it, but as children we read it avidly over and over. Fragile from age and our repeated readings, Egri Csillagok is the most worn of our childhood books.
It didn’t take long for me to identify several reasons why my mind dredged up Egri Csillagok while I listened to the news from Ukraine. The frequent stories of desperate Ukrainians fleeing their homes, carrying only a handful of their most precious belongings, resonated with my memories of leaving Hungary. This despite the fact that our family’s departure then was under circumstances far easier and safer than what Ukrainians are facing now.
I also recalled my mother telling us how in 1944 she was forced to move from her apartment in Buda—on one hour’s notice and allowed only one suitcase—to a csillagos ház (starred houses, their facades marked with large stars of David, in the sequestered Jewish ghetto) on the Pest side of the Danube. (Perhaps that word csillag, star in Hungarian, appearing in the title of Egri Csillagok sparked my memory of what my mother endured.) It was from that house, a couple of months later that she was deported by train, in a cattle car, to the Ravensbrück concentration camp.
Finally, I remembered that the final section of Egri Csillagok is a fictionalized treatment of a real historical event, the 1552 siege of the city of Eger in northern Hungary. Then too, as today in Mariupol, a small group of fighters and civilians in the castle of Eger held off a much bigger and far better equipped Turkish army for 39 days, despite nearly constant 16th century style shelling with over 12,000 cannonballs, some of which are still embedded in the walls of the castle. That siege, which over the centuries became a famous part of Hungary’s foundational myths, ended after 39 days with the retreat of the demoralized, humiliated Turks.
As I write this, the siege of Mariupol, which began on March 2nd, has been seething for more than two months, with the Ukrainian fighters and civilians who have holed up beneath the Azofstal Iron and Steel Works complex still holding on, still refusing to surrender, despite massive, daily Russian bombardments.
The sieges of Eger and Mariupol also reminded me of some other one sided and brutal struggles. Remember the Alamo, in which a handful of brave Americans holed up in a fort in San Antonio and held out for thirteen days before fighting to the death against a massive Mexican army? It has long been the cherished origin myth of Texas even though, as recent historical research has conclusively revealed, much of the story is false. And, even worse, the real impetus for that conflict turns out to have been racism, an attempt to ensure that slavery would be allowed in Texas. (See Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson and Jason Stanford’s excellent book, “Forget the Alamo.”)
History is written by the victors—so says the old saw. But, like some similar saws, that one sounds sharp, but ultimately doesn’t quite cut it. The self-serving, self-congratulatory myths about brave conquerors or heroic martyrs are sometimes eventually revealed to be untruthful.
I thought also of two other, less ambiguously noble, courageous stands, the sieges of the Warsaw Ghetto and of Leningrad in WWII. The Warsaw Ghetto was cordoned off by the Nazis beginning in November of 1940 and they liquidated its inhabitants by gradually transporting them to concentration camps. A small number of Jews in the Ghetto, vastly outnumbered and outgunned, began fighting back on April 19, 1943 and were only finally subdued on May 16. May their memory be a blessing.
The Nazis besieged Leningrad on September 8, 1941 and the Russian Army was unable to liberate the city until January 27, 1944. More than a million people died and, as in Mariupol now, much of the city was leveled. It’s ironic that it is Russian soldiers, perhaps some with grandparents who endured or died in that ruthless siege, who are now inflicting similar barbarity in Mariupol.
Of course, I don’t know when and how the siege of Mariupol will end. Whatever the outcome, it will certainly be a deeply tragic story—it already is. I also don’t know if a free Ukraine will still exist when the war is over, nor the effect the war will have on Russia. There is a famous story about Croesus, an ancient Greek king who asked the Oracle of Delphi if he would succeed in a war against Persia. The Oracle foretold that the war would obliterate an empire. Croesus interpreted the prophecy as predicting the fall of Persia. Instead, he was decisively defeated. The empire that was destroyed was his own. I don’t know what horoscope, crystal ball, or tea leaves Putin consulted before invading Ukraine, but they all seem to have, so far, failed him miserably.
My mother was not normally given to cursing or even to using unkind words. The only time I ever heard her use a harsh word was when she mentioned Hitler. “Bár megdögölt volna az anya hasában! If only he’d died in his mother’s belly.” And the word she used for “died” was not how Hungarians describe a person’s death. She said megdögölt, an extremely ugly word. It’s a word reserved for talking about the death of a malevolent creature, a vicious dog or a venomous snake.
Whatever the outcome of the war, I know that the stories of the siege of Mariupol will be told and retold for generations. There will be countless tales of heroes and heroism and of villains and inhumanity. People in Ukraine, in Russia, and—terrifying to contemplate if the war expands—people in many other countries, will long grieve those lost in this war, and Putin’s name will be spat out with the same contempt and loathing that is now reserved for Hitler.
September 2022 A Moment of Joy
I had every intention of writing here primarily about climate change. Despite the many crises that Americans and people throughout the world are confronting, it seemed clear to me that climate change dwarfed them all. It is, ultimately, perhaps the only genuinely global existential crisis, impacting every living being on the planet. Nevertheless, I felt I could not ignore the other emergencies, catastrophes and calamities that we are also facing, because many of them either directly affect climate change, are affected by it, impair our efforts to mitigate it, or all of the above.
I began writing this essay on July 11. As you read it now, it’s a couple of months later, (due to the publication schedule of the Crazy Wisdom Journal). Do you recall the three weeks and some of the crises-du-jour preceding that date? Permit me, dear reader, to refresh your memory.
There were the Supreme Court’s rulings on gun rights, abortion, and limiting the EPA’s power to reduce power plant emissions. Additionally, some of the Justices made thinly veiled threats of perhaps even more draconian decisions to come.
Then there was the July 4th Highland Park shootings, triggering excruciating memories of the Uvalde and Buffalo massacres, and all the others before them.
The Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the US Capitol was exhuming and examining the sordid and by now almost buried details of that traumatic day.
The war in Ukraine was still raging, the threat of it exploding into a worldwide conflagration still looming, and its damaging effects on energy shortages and hunger in many parts of the world still unresolved.
The pandemic, depending on which expert’s crystal ball was Windexed the clearest, had either eased, entered an endemic stage or, with the recent advent of the most contagious variants yet, about to flare into its maximally dangerous phase to date.
High inflation in the US and throughout the world was further squeezing many people already in the grip of poverty.
What a dismaying, disheartening list. And a tragically abbreviated one at that.
Oh yes, and don’t forget climate change.
After I finished writing the first draft of the previous paragraphs, I felt thoroughly enervated. I looked at that list and thought, “No one will want to read this. And especially, no one will want to read that climate change may be even more daunting than all of these issues, and that all of these are likely to make addressing climate change even more difficult.”
And then, unexpectedly, I heard a little voice singing a brief blues lyric in the back of my head. “A thimbleful of good news, a bucketful of bad.” Thinking that a line that good likely did not originate with me, I immediately Googled it. And found to my happy surprise, that in fact it had. The closest one that I found to it was by Henri Matisse who supposedly said, “A thimbleful of red is redder than a bucketful.” Which is, I’m sure, good advice for painters but seemed, at first, not at all what my inner lyricist was singin’ about.
So, I asked my interior songsmith-in-residence for an encore and he doubled down with this. “A bucketful of bad news, a barrelful of worse.”
“That’s more like it,” I thought sourly. The original line had seemed, in my mood of the moment, Pollyannic, too good to be true. I couldn’t see, “A thimbleful of good,” on that list—or on any other I could conjure. I only saw buckets and barrels.
And then, as if on que, a notification popped up on my laptop screen. “Breaking News from the Washington Post.” Glad for the distraction, I opened the email. And immediately felt—literally, physically felt—different. My mood, my state, suddenly reoriented 180 degrees. All because I found myself looking at the first picture the James Webb Space Telescope had sent back from its parking spot a million miles from Earth.
It was breathtaking! A Jackson Pollack style spattering of innumerable galaxies on a black field—an absolutely jam packed view of an infinitesimally tiny fraction of the universe, a magnificent postcard from the edge of time. I was gobsmacked. I stared at the screen through wet eyes. It literally took me out of this world. As Dante wrote at the end of The Inferno, “We beheld through a round aperture/Some of the beauteous things that Heaven doth bear;/Thence we came forth to behold the stars again.”
None of the items on the crises list I’d just compiled had changed. None of the issues were clarified, mended or resolved by the sight of that picture. Nothing in the world had changed.
But I had.
I got up from my desk and headed outside for a walk. My neighbor was gathering daisies from her garden to bring into her house. The daisies looked especially lovely in the sunset’s fading light. I remarked on them and she said, “Yeah, I need something cheerful to bring inside.” I nodded, “I know what you mean.” And told her about the Webb photo I’d just seen, how beautiful it was, how it had uplifted me. She said she’d look for it as soon as she went inside.
A single picture, a handful of daisies. Maybe Matisse’s maxim, “A thimbleful of red is redder than a bucketful” applied in this respect also. Maybe a thimbleful of good can be more powerful than a bucketful, or even a barrelful of bad. Maybe Webb’s shining example of international cooperation, of technological miracle-making (scientists from many parts of the world contributed to Webb, and of course the accumulation of thousands of years of human wisdom underpinned the entire endeavor), might help inspire us in solving our difficulties closer to home.
The next day there were more pictures from Webb, each one more spectacular, more glorious than the next. One of them was a side by side comparison of pictures taken of the same speck of sky by the Hubble telescope and by Webb. By looking deeper, Webb had been able to see so much more, and so much clearer; had uncovered what had not been visible before. Perhaps that’s also what is needed here on Earth. Maybe it will help if we try to look deeper and try to understand more about each other and the challenges we face.
We, the planet and everything living on it will, I sadly fear, sink deeper into the inferno that is climate change before we rise from that hell and heal. (I am not willing to entertain the possibility that we won’t.) Of course, I am by no means suggesting that simply feeling uplifted and energized by Webb’s astounding accomplishments—or by any other joyful experience—will alleviate climate change. I know that I must continue, and even increase my efforts to be mindful of my actions, to do my small part to tread lightly on the Earth, to advocate on her behalf, to value her gifts. I respectfully submit that we all must. But my experience with the Webb photo on July 11 reminded me that it is in touching joy—even just a thimbleful of joy, in the myriad and unique ways we all have—that we will find the strength to do those things.
9/20/22 Human Beings Being Humane
I’ve been reading, mostly during daytime hours because it’s not very restful nighttime fare, War and Remembrance, Herman Wouk’s 1978 giant historical novel about WWII. The book is filled with painfully graphic, you-are-there descriptions of the horrific destruction of Russian towns and cities, and of the almost inconceivable carnage wrought upon the Russian people by the German army. (Some claim that later in the war the Red Army repaid Germany, and Germans—with interest—but who can truly quantify and compare the butcheries of war?) Wouk also attempts to convey the absolutely grotesque Nazi concentration camps, a task at which even his incomparable descriptive powers undoubtedly fall short.
Making the rough reading even harder are the unavoidable comparisons to the current war in Ukraine. Just as Ukraine was the site of many atrocities during WWII—the massacre of over 30,000 Jews by the Nazis in the course of two days at Babi Yar on the outskirts of Kyiv, was perhaps the most horrendous, though certainly not the only one—Ukraine is again being ravaged, this time by Russian forces who are leaving behind destroyed cities, mass graves and untold heartbreak as they alternately advance and retreat in the country.
Also, the US role in the current conflict, supplying vast amounts of military hardware, but no troops to Ukraine is similar to the Lend-Lease Act of WWII, which allowed us to supply food, oil, weapons and other materials to the British and other Allies, before we entered the war following Pearl Harbor.
Those are not the only resonances to today’s events in the book. A few days ago I was reading a chapter in which Wouk describes some of the elaborate and cruel lies the Nazis fabricated to deceive Jews so they’d not resist deportation orders and so they’d not realize that they were on a one way route to deadly slave labor, or to be murdered outright. The Nazis’ deceits, that the Jews were being moved to work sites, persisted almost up to the moment they were murdered. The infamous arch over the entrance to Auschwitz proclaimed, Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Sets You Free), while the signs on the gas chamber doors at Dachau read “Shower/Bath”.
Dear Reader, since you probably know by now where I’m headed, let me hasten to assure you that—despite their recent despicable actions—I am NOT about to claim that DeSantis of Florida, Abbot of Texas and Ducey of Arizona are the equivalents of Hitler and the Nazis. Their words resonate with only faint echoes of those monsters, their deeds emanate barely a whiff of the vile stench of those efforts. I will simply say that their recent actions are contemptible.
For those of you who, perhaps in self-defense, have not been following the news lately, allow me to review. The Republican governors of those three states have recently been bussing South American immigrants, after misleading them into believing they would receive expedited work papers, jobs and housing, to New York City, Chicago and Washington D.C.—specifically to the residence of Vice President Kamala Harris—as their way of protesting current US immigration policy. DeSantis in particular upped the ante when on September 14th he chartered two airplanes, with $615,000 of Florida taxpayers’ money, and flew about 50 Venezuelan asylum seekers to Martha’s Vineyard, hoping to embarrass the residents of that island, expecting them to reject the arrivals. That’s not what happened. But he may try again. He still has more than eleven million dollars left of the twelve million dollar fund that the Florida legislature authorized for these purposes.
Sadly, we don’t have to reach back to WWII Europe to find historical precedence for DeSantis and company’s dirty tricks. As a number of journalists have recently reminded us, in the 1960s people in several Southern states, using similarly heartless mendacities, sent Black people to Boston and cities in other Northern states to similarly try to humiliate President Kennedy and his stance on Civil Rights.
DeSantis apparently even hired a videographer to document the arrival of the Venezuelan immigrants in Martha’s Vineyard. He was, it’s been reported, hoping to be able to provide Fox News with video of the island’s residents confronting the new arrivals with indifference or even hostility. Instead, the residents promptly organized food and shelter for their unexpected visitors. Which, frankly, did not surprise me. Not because I think that the people of Martha’s Vineyard are saints, nor because I think that all Democrats are angelic, and all Republicans are… not. But because I think that many, maybe most people, of whatever political party, religion or ethnic group, when seeing other human beings in distress, try to help.
Obviously, I am well aware that the ugly opposite has, many times, and in many places, also proven true—I submit DeSantis and gang as exhibit A—but still it was heartening to see human beings being humane this time.
Even though I am not yet three quarters of the way through War and Remembrance, of course I know which side will win. I wish I could be as certain about the outcome of the war in Ukraine and about the resolution of the current conflicts in our country.
10/2/22 Bravo DART
While I was watching NASA’s broadcast of the successful end of the DART mission last Monday, an old memory blinked on in my mind. I remembered that, late in my senior year of high school I wrote a short story. I wrote it soon after I came home from a two week hospital stay due to a bleeding duodenal ulcer. In the story, my protagonist was an astronomer who discovers a giant asteroid that’s on a collision course with Earth. Global catastrophe, total annihilation of humanity, is imminent—only days away, as I recall. I have no memory of what might have inspired—if I may use that word—that plotline. I’m positive I didn’t invent it; that theme was, and has continued to be, ubiquitous in movies and science fiction books. I now also have no idea how I managed to validate such an impossibly unlikely scenario and how—or even if—I resolved this ultimate existential crisis in my story. And of course, I claim no prescience about the technique that DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) just employed.
The DART mission was the first step humanity has taken to learn how to redirect an asteroid that might collide with Earth, like the one which caused massive destruction and—most scientist now believe—led to the extinction of the dinosaurs about 65 million years ago.
The basic idea behind DART is very simple: launch a spacecraft, (a bit littler than a Mini Cooper) on a path to crash into a small asteroid (about the size of the UofM’s Big House) and nudge it into a slightly different orbit. The mission’s goal was to test the feasibility of using this technique to redirect an asteroid. Pretty straightforward, right? Like throwing darts and shooting pool… albeit on a bigger scale. On a much, much, much bigger scale. Dimorphos, the asteroid chosen for this honor, this interplanetary variation on a crash dummy test, is about seven million miles from our planet. And, to make hitting it an even more interesting challenge, we were going in blind. We’ve never seen Dimorphos even with our best telescopes. It’s almost constantly obscured by Didymos, a much larger asteroid around which Dimorphos orbits. To accomplish its mission, DART was launched ten months ago and traversed about 470 million miles on the way to its fateful rendezvous with Dimorphos. The names of both asteroids, not to mention the math and science involved, are all Greek to me!
I have an easier time thinking of it like this. Imagine if a BB pellet, shot from an air gun in London last November, were to hit—last week—a dinner plate-sized piece of driftwood carried by a rapid current around a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific!
DART’s spectacular success was made possible by scientists’ sophisticated understanding of the laws of physics, and the fact that those laws seem to operate identically throughout the universe. It could be safely assumed that DART, for the entirety of its unfathomably long voyage, would not encounter any unfamiliar forces that might alter its course, that might influence it to behave unpredictably.
I know that as mind bogglingly complex as the DART mission was, in many ways solving the problems encountered on that mission pale next to the challenges we face here on earth. Watching the NASA broadcast the other night, I couldn’t help wishing that the laws that govern human beings’ actions here on Earth were as well understood as the laws of physics that govern the movements of the heavenly bodies in space; that the long range consequences of our current choices and actions were as predictable—and that we were wise enough to then act accordingly—as the path of a spacecraft over time and vast distances.
Or, to put it another way, “Houston, we have a problem.”
Unfortunately, and often tragically, we have a much more limited understanding of the laws that govern the behavior of people, perhaps especially of our leaders; we have no sure way to predict the consequences of many of our actions over time that have led to climate change, mass extinctions, a still raging pandemic, racism, misogyny and more. As an example, imagine how different world history would be today had more people been able to see, early in Hitler’s rise, where Nazi ideology would lead. Or for that matter, what would result from Trump’s would-be reign.
On the NASA broadcast the other night, commentators made much about DART being the first time that humanity has been able to move another celestial body. True enough, but then we’ve had a lot of practice. We’ve been doing that to earthly bodies—alive and inert—for eons. DART marks the latest datapoint on a line stretching back to the dawn of humanity; the line that charts the ever increasing power and accuracy of projectiles launched by human beings. DART is the most recent in a lineage that began when the first humanoid picked up a rock or a stick and hurled it at another creature—sadly, quite possibly at another humanoid—and discovered that his reach was greater than his grasp. Bows and arrows, darts and spears soon and later followed. Then came the catapults, guns, cannons, V-2 rockets, ICBMs, drones, and the space program.
I am fully aware that NASA, and space programs the world over have progressed partly because of the relentless push by militaries everywhere to develop evermore effective ways of killing people, or prevent others from killing us. (In fact, some of the technology that DART utilized was first developed for missile defense systems, which likely in turn grew out of technologies developed in the space program.) Extending our reach ever further beyond our grasp….
Having said all that, DART is still marvelously special and valuable. Its sole raison d’etre is to serves as a guardian angel, to be an altruistic gift to all of humanity, perhaps to all life on Earth. I delighted in celebrating its success.
Watching the broadcast the other night, and being reminded of my long ago short story also led me to me speculate why I chose the plot that I did. Might it have stemmed from the aftermath of that first serious illness of my life, an episode that made me uncertain and concerned about other unforeseen catastrophes that might loom ahead of me? Was I hoping that, perhaps like the hero of my short story, I’d somehow manage to deflect disasters I might encounter when I moved from the safe, if somewhat constricting orbit of life with my parents, to a new, unfamiliar, untethered adulthood?
When I wrote that short story, so long ago now, I had no idea what trajectory my life would follow, what orbit I would settle into. Looking back now over more than five decades, I can see that I’ve been very fortunate. Very few of my fears materialized. Things have mostly turned out far better than I could have hoped.
As a species, we too can’t predict what the arc of the future holds for us and our planet. We can only hope, and work for a future that is filled with missions like DART, ones that are designed to solve challenges such as climate change, loss of biodiversity, war, racism, hunger, pandemics… missions that benefit all humanity and all life on the planet.
10/10/22 Lizzo and the Flute
As must be obvious to all, Lizzo does not need me to defend her. So, I won’t bother responding to the blottosphere gang who felt dutybound to hysterically attack her for daring to play James Madison’s crystal flute. My mother had a word for their type of behavior. Although she only began learning English at the age of 42 and, naturally, mispronounced and misused some words, she also originated a few. “Jeekers” was a favorite word of her own invention, one she coined to express—among many other things—extreme disdain, as in, “Jeekers! How could you say that!”
So, I’ll just point out that Lizzo didn’t say something like, “Here I am, a Black woman in 2022, invited to play a flute owned by James Madison over two hundred years ago who, by the way, also owned a bunch of Black slaves, some of whom may have been my great, great, great, great, great ancestors! Isn’t America great!” Which, in my book, she would have been more than justified in saying. Or, as my mother might have said, “Jeekers! How could you resist saying that?”
Reminds me of a story told to me by Arie Lipsky, a superb flautist and cellist, and the former conductor of the Ann Arbor Symphony. Arie’s niece is a brilliant classical harpist living in France, and some years ago she was invited to be a member of the Berlin Symphony. It was a magnificent opportunity, and she was very excited to accept, but was also concerned. Her grandfather, Arie’s father, was a survivor of Auschwitz. How would he feel about her playing in a German orchestra? She kept her news secret for a time, but when it became clear that he would find out, she decided to brave telling him. His response? “My granddaughter playing in Hitler’s favorite orchestra? This is the best revenge!”
Many years ago, someone told me that the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn had in its collection, though at that time not yet available for public viewing, a number of rare antique violins and bows, including two Stradivariuses, and a Guarneri Del Gesu that had all belonged to Henry Ford. I also heard that a musician was hired to play the violins regularly, because wooden instruments tend to degrade if they are not played and cared for properly.
Some years later, I became aware of Ford’s history of venomous antisemitism. He undeniably earned the dubious honor of being mentioned favorably in Mein Kampf, the first volume of which is titled “The Settling of Accounts,” or “Revenge.” I remember thinking that it would be the perfect comeuppance and just deserts if a great deal of Mendelssohn, Mahler, Schoenberg and other Jewish composers’ music was played on those violins—preferably by Jewish violinists.
Ford apparently purchased those instruments as part of his crusade to encourage what he thought was traditional American culture, specifically square dance music, (which actually primarily grew out of British Isles, French and German tunes) and thereby combatting the increasing popularity of jazz, which he perceived as an unhealthy blend of African American and Jewish influences. (Of course, I’m sure it didn’t hurt that those instruments were also very lucrative investments, greatly increasing in value over time.)
However, Ford, like most people, wasn’t one thing only. Inconsistent with his stance about Jews, in the 1930’s he loaned out one of his violins to a young Jewish prodigy, Grisha Goluboff, after the Nazis forced a German violin dealer to withdraw the loan of another antique violin that Goluboff had been given to play.
Madison, Ford and—thank the stars—Hitler, are long gone. They’re well past comeuppance, just deserts, revenge and, sadly, justice. What is left is the judgement of history, the still unfolding true stories of their deeds.
A special unsung-heroine award must go to Dr. Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress, (the director of the Library of Congress). Dr. Hayden is the woman who invited Lizzo to play Madison’s flute at the Library and approved her playing it in concert. In our current climate, Ms. Hayden must have known that some people would object. Nevertheless, she didn’t pass up the opportunity to bring awareness of the Library to the legion of Lizzo’s fans and to so many others.
Finally, a giant shout out, bravo and thanks to librarians, museum curators, archivists, historians everywhere, for preserving and making available to all of us the stories and art of our past, present and future.
P.S. Had French flute virtuoso Jean Pierre Rampal been given the same opportunity to play the crystal flute as Lizzo—it was after all made as a gift for Madison by a French maker—there might have been a similar outcry in 2003 (aside from the fact that Rampal was three years dead by then) when, in response to France’s opposition to the planned American invasion of Iraq, French fries were renamed Freedom Fries in Congressional cafeterias by the then Chairman of the Committee on House Administration, (which oversees the Library of Congress) Republican, Bob Ney.
Plus ca change.
10/31/22 All is Fair in Love and War
The familiar adage, “all is fair in love and war” was a bit wordier when it made its first appearance in English about 450 years ago in John Lyly’s novel Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit. But I’ve long thought that in both its original form, “the rules of fair play do not apply in love and war,” and its more streamlined version, the aphorism is a bit too narrowly focused. I’m aware that Lyly didn’t write “the rules of fair play do not apply only in love and war” but his implication is that love and war are somehow different from other human activities. Surely Lyly was not naïve enough to think that the rules of fair play do apply in all other human interactions. Who knows, maybe he was just exercising his poetic license. Or perhaps—although I doubt it—in his day cheating or breaking the rules of fair play was restricted to just love and war. In any event that has certainly not been the case for a very long time. The rules of fair play are all too frequently flouted—and not only in love and war.
As I am writing this it’s nearing the end of October 2022. In just this past month alone, there’s been plenty of cheating outside of the two spheres of love and war; to wit, in bicycling, poker, chess, fishing (fishing?), in Irish dancing and in the Miss USA pageant. (More on that one later. However, if it’s important for you to know all the sordid details of the rest of these pathetic proceedings, I refer you to your trusted internet provider. Ha!)
But these relatively small tempests in teapots pale next to the “love” and “war” in the old aphorism.
Russia’s war on Ukraine amply affirms that the old maxim is, tragically, still apt. The war, a match between two combatants in wildly mismatched weight classes, a massive heavyweight versus a minute bantamweight—and especially Russia’s targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure—are particularly ugly illustrations that all is considered fair in war. Putin’s not punching up, he’s hitting well below the belt.
Speaking of below the belt, let’s cut now to the “love” half of the old saw, but not to talk of stealing hearts. Instead, skirting the obvious and ignoring the countless celebrity cheating scandals that provide the tabloids—and not only the tabloids—with their titillating tone and content, I’ll spotlight other “loves;” the “love” of country that justified January 6, the “love” of truth that legitimizes calling an election “stolen” when it wasn’t, the “love” of democracy that validates withholding the vote from those who are not like the “lover.”
The rules of fair play have not applied to those “loves” and “lovers.” To those “lovers” level playing field means level all competitors. To those “lovers” fair and square means if you’re playing fair, then you’re a square.
Back now to one of the mini scandals I mentioned earlier. In a Washington Post article on October 27th, Maham Javaid wrote, “This is not the first time Miss USA has been accused of letting its organizers have influence over who would wear the crown. ‘When former president Donald Trump owned Miss USA, everyone knew that he would pick the favorites,’ said Hilary Levey Friedman, the author of “Here She Is: The Complicated Reign of Beauty Pageants in America.” ‘This has been the organization’s historical reputation.’
I’m shocked, I tell you, just shocked!
We’re still in October. The Houston Astros are competing in our national pastime’s World Series for the fourth time in six years—despite their not-according-to-Hoyle-STOMP-style-garbage-can-banging-Morse-code-ain’t-kosher-sign-stealing-sophistry in 2017.
“Say it ain’t so, Joe.”
(If you’re not a baseball fan, and/or not yet of a certain age, and don’t recognize that quote, I once again refer you to your trusted internet provider.)
Today is Halloween.
Putin has just reneged on a deal allowing grain exports from Ukraine, and his troops are again bombing civilians in Kyiv.
In Brazil, Bolsonaro has not yet conceded after his loss to Lula, and some of his supporters are blocking highways with their trucks.
Dirty tricks, no treats.
Here at home, there’s an election coming up. Will it be fair or foul? Will there be tricks or truth?
Will the rules of fair play apply?
December 2022 – Fifty Years Since We Last Went to the Moon
(This was published in the Winter 2023 issue of the Crazy Wisdom Journal)
Fifty years ago, December 1972, was the last time men walked on the moon. (Yes, it’s only been men. I’ll get back to that later.) Eugene Cernan, Commander of that Apollo 17 mission said then as he prepared to step off the moon for the last time, “… as I take man’s last step from the surface, back home for some time to come—but we believe not too long into the future …”
In fact, it has been fifty years, quite a long time by human standards. It wasn’t until November of 2022 that NASA launched Artemis 1, an un-crewed flight to orbit the moon. (Artemis, in Greek mythology, is the twin sister of Apollo, which was the name of the first NASA program that sent Americans to the moon.) Artemis 1 successfully returned to earth on December 11, 2022, almost exactly fifty years after Apollo 17 left the moon for the last time. NASA’s plan is to follow Artemis 1 with a crewed mission in 2024 to also orbit the moon, and by the following year to again begin landing astronauts on the lunar surface.
Our nation’s reasons for returning to the moon now are very similar to the ones that animated our decision to go there when President Kennedy said, “We choose to go to the moon,” over sixty years ago. The primary impetus for those first Apollo flights was to get to the moon before the Soviet Union did. Now it seems that the US once again wants to demonstrate that our country is the world leader in space, this time competing against joint Chinese/Russian space ambitions.
But it’s not accurate to cynically attribute everything about the space program to geopolitical rivalry. (I’m choosing here to focus only on the moon missions. Of course, NASA and the space programs of a number of other countries have launched many other spacecrafts into, and even beyond our solar system, including landing probes on Venus and Mars.)There were, undeniably, many other reasons why we entered the space race, why we stopped focusing on lunar missions after 1972, and why we are once again planning on returning to the moon. It’s beyond the scope of this essay—or perhaps more truthfully, of this essayist—to list and fully explore all those reasons. Instead, I’ve been looking back along history’s space-time continuum and thinking about the echoes and resonances—encouraging ones as well as disheartening ones—between where our country was in 1972 and where we are today.
Fifty years ago:
Barely more than a month after the crew of Apollo 17 returned from the moon in 1972, the Vietnam war effectively ended in January of 1973, though the last American troops did not come home for a couple more months, and the fall of Saigon, in April of 1975, was still two years in the future.
The Afghanistan war, America’s longest, (Vietnam was our second longest) ended in August of 2021 a little more than a year before the first scheduled Artemis launch. Both the Vietnam and Afghanistan wars ended with massive and dramatic evacuations of troops and civilians, from Saigon in 1975, and from Kabul in 2021.
And although the US is not now fighting in Ukraine, we are very involved in the conflict, which still has the potential of flaring into a much wider conflagration. And the war is having a deleterious effect on our economy, and those of many other countries, as well as on food and energy supplies around the globe.
Fifty years ago:
Watergate began in June 1972 with the discovery of the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters, and ended when Nixon resigned in August of 1974—though one could convincingly argue that the scandal’s damaging ripples and shock waves have not subsided even yet.
Well… suffice it to say that many events in the last six years have made Nixon and his gang of crooks appear as virtuous as the holiest of saints and made the Watergate break-in look like a grade school April Fool prank, or like teens egging cars and TP-ing houses on Halloween.
Fifty years ago:
The long overdue Civil Rights Act was barely eight years old in 1972, Martin Luther King had been murdered four years earlier, the Supreme Court had recently affirmed busing as a means of achieving integration in public schools, and the shameful Tuskegee Study was finally stopped, forty years after it began.
George Floyd’s murder in May of 2020, along with many other injustices, has prompted a renewed attention to racial disparities and social justice issues perhaps not seen since the Sixties.
Fifty years ago:
The Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution was passed by Congress in March of 1972 but was not ratified by a sufficient number of states to be included in the Constitution. On the other hand, Title IX was signed into law in June of 1972, and in January of 1973 the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade ruling recognized the right to abortion.
In June of 2022 the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, but the results of the November 2022 midterm elections clearly signaled that the majority of the country supports women’s reproductive rights. And NASA recently publicly committed to include a woman and a person of color in the first Artemis crew that will land on the moon. At present, half of the 18 astronauts training in the Artemis program are women and, while people of color are still under-represented among astronauts, they are there.
Which brings us back to the future, prediction of which, unfortunately, is also beyond the scope of this essayist. But here are a few thoughts on, and hopes for, the future of humanity’s space programs.
One of the main objections many people, politicians and the public alike, have had about the US space program is its expense. Landing the first Apollo mission on the moon is estimated to have cost about 20 billion dollars. I agree that there were and are many other needs here on earth that were and are not being addressed with adequate funding. However, compared to the unfathomable waste of resources, not to mention the horrific loss of American and other lives in the Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan wars, or the cost of our political campaigns, about 17 billion dollars in just the recent 2022 election, even taking into account the comparative worth of 1972 and 2022 dollars, I know we can find funding for NASA, and many other things, by limiting some of those expenses.
Even though it’s been fifty years since we last went to the moon, Americans and all of humanity, face many of the same concerns—war, political upheaval, racism and misogyny—that bedeviled us in 1972, but we’ve also added a couple—climate change and worldwide extinctions—that dwarf them all. It’s worth noting that it was partly the remarkable technological advances, especially orbiting satellites, that were developed by the space programs of the US, Russia, and a number of other nations, that enabled scientists to gather the data to comprehend the threat of climate change. It was James Hansen, longtime director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, who testified before the US Senate in 1988, and delivered perhaps the first warning of the dangers of climate change.
For a number of years now, some people have suggested that we should be going to the moon, Mars and beyond, to colonize “spares” if or when our Earth becomes uninhabitable due to climate change or some other disaster, man-made or otherwise. I am willing to go way out on Earth’s gravitational limb to suggest that this hypothetical cosmic rapture plan seems profoundly Icarian, utterly untethered from reality and unfathomably dystopian to boot. Creating small sustainable outposts on the moon and Mars will certainly become possible, perhaps even in the lifetime of some people already born. However, the idea of moving humanity (eight billion as of November 15, 2022) off the planet… I don’t think so. (If you thought the evacuations of Saigon and Kabul were desperate and chaotic! If we all don’t get to go—with our pets…)
Instead, I think that the best possible outcome of our space explorations might be the development of universal awe and gratitude for our home here on earth, and united and unanimous efforts to heal the planet’s ills. I also think that we need to fiercely strive not to repeat in space the innumerable and immense mistakes of our past earthbound colonizations.
In the 1950s and 60s the US and the Soviet Union each flew solo in their space programs, but even by 1967, with the signing of the Outer Space Treaty by the US, Soviet Union and Great Britain there was consensus that space was to be explored only for peaceful purposes, even if we hadn’t managed that on Earth. Since then the vast majority of countries on Earth have signed that agreement, and in the past half century there have been many, many examples of cooperative ventures in space, including by countries like the US and Russia, that have had difficulty cooperating on much else. The Artemis program, for example, while headed by the US, is a partnership with the Canadian Space Agency, the European Space Agency, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, and nearly two dozen other countries.
We can hope that this tradition continues and grows. We should hope that the current heightened tensions between the US and Russia over Ukraine, and between the US and China over Taiwan, will not for long curtail cooperation in space, even if only in that one area. We can also hope that human beings will continue to “slip the surly bonds of earth” in space and, perhaps find a way to remove more surly bonds on humanity here on earth.
As Eugene Cernan, the last man on the moon in 1972 said when he stepped off the lunar surface for the last time, “We leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.”
12/31/2022 2022 Year End Review
Our spinning planet has nearly finished one more of the innumerable revolutions around our sun that, over untold eons, it has invisibly inscribed on the four-dimensional surface of the universe. Or, to put it another way—less fanciful and more human-sized, human-centered—tomorrow 2022 will be history.
My family and I have long had an end-of-year tradition. On or about December 31st we sit together and take a little time to look over our scrapbook for the previous year. Throughout the year, in every annual scrapbook I collect souvenirs, keepsakes and mementoes of the significant events in our lives and in the lives of our friends and family—announcements of births, graduations, weddings and funerals, birthdays, anniversaries, professional achievements, concert and theater tickets, photos, etc. (What can I say? I have a BA in history, I’ve always liked artifacts and primary documents.) Every year that we’ve done this I find myself freshly amazed at how much we’ve forgotten in just the past year, and how glad I am—usually—to be reminded in this way.
In the past three pandemically-limited years our annual scrapbooks have been much thinner. We’ve traveled less and attended far fewer of all manner of family, social and artistic events than we used to. Perhaps in response, in addition to our scrapbooks, in the last couple of years I’ve also been reviewing some of the local, national and international stories that particularly caught my attention. When I did that for 2022 the other day, I noticed a common thread running through many of the stories of this past year. In one way or another, it seemed to me, they were about human freedom; freedom in its many forms and structures—and strictures.
- In January and February weeks-long “Freedom Convoy” protests in Ottawa were, depending on your viewpoint, either righteous resistance to tyrannical government rules, or dubious defiance of common sense public health measures.
- In September the “Women, Life, Freedom” protests in Iran were triggered by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in morality police custody. The protests are still ongoing, and some protesters have been tried and executed by the government.
- In October a large anti-government movement was sparked in China by Peng Lifa who hung protest banners on a highway overpass in Beijing. The protests have led to the abandonment of the zero-Covid policy with unknown but likely deadly repercussions which we may only discover next year.
- In late October, after Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s election victory in Brazil, former president Bolsonaro’s supporters have staged a series of January 6 style actions, parroting his, and his American counterpart’s claims of a “stolen” election.
- In November, Netanyahu cobbled together the most far right government in Israel’s history. It will, I fear, almost inevitably lead to more bloodshed between Palestinians and Israelis. As Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times about the new Israeli coalition, “These are not people known for stopping at red lights.”
- In December, more than two dozen people were arrested in Germany for plotting to overthrow the government; also, in Afghanistan the Taliban began severely restricting access to education beyond the sixth grade for girls and women; and on the US southern border migrants and asylum seekers were still illegally—according to US and international law—being prevented from entering our country.
- Finally, also in December, on a much smaller, but nevertheless very moving scale, Brittney Griner was freed from her imprisonment in a Russian jail, though Paul Whelan is still imprisoned there, and political prisoners are still in confinement in many parts of the world.
All these events and others around the world were about freedom and its constant ebb and flow, freedom and its ceaseless waxing and waning.
A little more in depth…
Speaking of ebbing and flowing, waxing and waning, this past year, like the two years before it, has also been about—to sort of quote James Carville, “It’s the pandemic, stupid!” This was a third year in a row when reports of Covid’s demise were greatly exaggerated. On January 20 there were nearly 160,000 Covid patients in American hospitals, the most since the beginning of the pandemic. By early May more than a million Americans and, according to the WHO, approximately 15 million people worldwide had died of Covid. But this year, because we also had very good vaccines, boosters and treatments, and more awareness of how to protect ourselves, we were simultaneously far freer of Covid than ever before. However, with the recent change in China’s pandemic policies, its enormous and largely unprotected population, Covid’s future is once again ominously uncertain. The virus continues to haunt us.
Speaking of a virulent sickness that still haunts us and, more than two years later still refuses to leave, and in fact has announced a plan to return… ‘Nuff said.
The war in Ukraine—I beg your pardon—Putin’s “special operation,” which began in late February, hit hard and close to home for me—geographically and emotionally. My native Hungary shares a border with Ukraine, and my family left our homeland in early 1957 in the wake of the 1956 Russian invasion. My parents’ decision to flee at that time is what led to the freedom and safety that our family has enjoyed here in the US ever since. I can only hope that similar good fortune will come to pass for all Ukrainians—those who have fled their homeland and those who have stayed. Ten months into the war, confounding most predictions and expectations, Ukraine is still “alive and kicking” and, as President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also said in his speech before Congress, “we defeated Russia in the battle for minds of the world.” I am proud of President Biden and everyone in Congress who, along with allies around the world have come together in support of Ukraine. Ukrainians have inspired people around the world; however, in their land there is no victory or peace in sight and a very hard winter is surely ahead.
In April, Ketanji Brown Jackson was confirmed as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, over four hundred years after African people were brought to the North American continent as slaves, and one hundred and fifty-nine years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Things certainly do take time sometimes.
And speaking of things that take time, when the Supreme Court’s final decision overturning the nearly fifty year old Roe V. Wade ruling was announced in June, after Justice Alito’s draft opinion was leaked in early May, it also portended further regressive verdicts about contraception and same sex marriage. These actions, combined with the widespread book bans initiated nationwide—mostly directed at books featuring people of color and LGBTQ people—plus the numerous anti-LGBTQ laws recently proposed and passed in many states, call to mind the anti-Jewish laws passed in the early 1930s in Nazi Germany and in other European countries, including in my native Hungary. Coupled with the recent dramatic rise of antisemitism in our country, all these measures are, for a child of Holocaust survivors like myself—and I trust for many others—a very disturbing trend that needs acknowledging and healing.
Another very disturbing trend that needs acknowledging and healing—one that is uniquely American—is our continuing spate of horrifying mass shootings: Buffalo, Uvalde, Highland Park, University of Virginia, Club Q, to list only a very small percentage of incidents of gun violence this year. However, a small encouraging sign, Congress did pass the first major piece of gun safety legislation in a very long time—even in slightly bipartisan fashion to boot. Not a panacea by any means, but it did provide a glimmer of hope that our country might eventually manage to free herself of this menace.
Also, speaking of freeing our country of a menace, the January 6 hearings, from the first one in June to the last one in December also provided—again in slightly bipartisan fashion—glimmerings of hope that we won’t allow our nation to forget what happened that day and that we’ll take steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again. The Electoral Count Reform and Presidential Transition Improvement Act that Congress passed in December was one small, but significant response in that direction. Our country owes a great debt of gratitude to all the members of the Committee, perhaps especially to Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, and to everyone who testified truthfully before them.
The August Kansas election and the November general elections convincingly repudiated the Supreme Court’s abortion decision, and also turned back most election denying candidates. In December the Respect for Marriage Act officially repealed the Defense of Marriage Act, by affirming the validity of same-sex and interracial marriages. Of course, these issues are by no means conclusively settled, bringing to mind the hoary truism, “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” (Falsely attributed to Thomas Jefferson, the quote most likely originated with the Irish statesman, John Philpot Curran, who said in 1790, “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance, which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt.”)
My home state of Michigan also rejected the Supreme Court’s abortion stance, and an independent redistricting commission which grew out of Katie Fahey’s effort to “take on gerrymandering” has, five years later, borne fruit. While still imperfect, the far fairer electoral map which the commission created, helped free the legislature from a longstanding and inequitable stranglehold. (Though why anyone would want to work in public service in the face of the abuse they’ve had to endure in the past few years is at once genuinely mysterious and deeply laudable. Specifically, as 2022 is drawing to a close, the story of the attempt on Governor Whitmer’s life is still unspooling with the ongoing trials and sentencings of the conspirators.)
Dwarfing all of the above are the dual existential concerns, climate change and biodiversity loss, and there was news on both those fronts throughout the year. There were devastating floods in Pakistan which, beginning in June, affected over 30 million people, while unprecedented heat waves in China and Europe, and many other extreme weather events around the world signaled to all but the most dyed-in-the-oil/coal/gas die-hards—of whom there are still plenty—that at least climate change is no hoax. On the plus side, President Biden has initiated significant policies and investments to respond to these crises; worldwide, solar power grew so much that some are predicting it will outstrip coal in electricity production in the next five years; and Bolsonaro’s defeat in Brazil is likely to be significant good news on environmental issues, as Lula has pledged to reverse his predecessor’s destructive policies and protect his country’s rain forests. And COP27 in Egypt and the UN Biodiversity Conference in Montreal, while accomplishing only modest objectives, nevertheless indicated at least an awareness of the need to seriously engage with these twin harbingers of apocalypse.
Some of the finest sources of upliftment for me this year have come from the field of science, especially from NASA; the magnificent pictures from the WEBB telescope, the dazzling achievement of the DART mission, and the impressive success of Artemis One. And late this year scientists at the US National Ignition Facility in California produced the first man-made fusion process that released more energy than was used to create it. While not near a useful stage, the experiment showed the possibility of human beings eventually being able to harness an almost unlimited supply of clean energy.
This year we have become aware, perhaps more than ever before, of the contrast between the physical and temporal immensity of the universe, and the minuteness of our earth in space and time; of the almost certain insignificance—in the universal context—of events on our planet and, concurrently, the inestimable importance of those events to all the life forms on it.
This was the year that humanity reached a new milestone. As of November 15, the UN estimates that there are now eight billion of us on the planet—all huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
Today, as our blue planet is about to start yet another circle around our sun, it may be useful to once again remember the words Thomas Paine said during the Revolutionary War, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” Tomorrow, January 1, 2023, it will be 160 years since President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Those days in Lincoln’s time, and many other times in our nation’s—and indeed in humanity’s history—were trying days. Out of one of those trying times grew the Emancipation Proclamation; an imperfect, yet noble document, still a shining example of humanity’s constant striving for perhaps our greatest attainment—freedom.
2/23/2023 Anniversaries-Ukraine and the Pandemic
Tomorrow, February 24, will be the one year anniversary of the start of the war in Ukraine. The date will also serve, for all intents and purposes, as the three year anniversary of the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. Though years apart, and in most ways unrelated, there are some notable similarities between the two events.
For starters, both the pandemic and the war actually began months before that anniversary date. Although there were no pandemic lockdowns or much serious response to the virus before February 24, 2020—notwithstanding the CDC’s announcement on February 25,, 2020, that Covid was heading for pandemic status—the NY Times had already reported on a mysterious and worrisome new illness in Wuhan, China on January 6, 2020. (January 6??? Oh, right, not that January 6.) That article related that Chinese officials were very concerned after 59 people had fallen ill from a new pneumonia-like disease; in China the outbreak triggered memories of the SARS epidemic of 2002 and 2003 which killed 800 people worldwide!
As Elizabeth Strout writes in Lucy by the Sea, “It is a gift in this life that we do not know what awaits us.”
The war in Ukraine also began long before February 24, 2022. In fact, one could argue that it started almost exactly eight years earlier, on February 27, 2014, when Russia attacked Ukraine and annexed Crimea. The current conflict certainly began in earnest by the end of 2021 when the buildup of Russian forces in the region clearly signaled Putin’s intent to again attack Ukraine.
Given the shambolic aftermaths of the first and second World Wars in Europe, as well as the lessons learned—and not—in the 1918 pandemic, there’s probably a case to be made that both the current war and the still-ongoing pandemic have roots that go back even further. But I am choosing to keep this short, if not sweet.
In the early days of the pandemic and of the war, we didn’t—couldn’t—imagine that either would last as long as they have, or that today neither would yet have an end in sight. (I know many say the pandemic is over… I think the jury’s still out on that.) Pandemic prophecies in early 2020 ranged from epidemiologists’ worried and hesitant predictions of an uncertain end date, to our equivocator-in-chief’s by then familiar blend of fabulist hyperbole. On March 24, 2020—on Fox, naturally—he said, “I would love to have the country opened up, and rarin’ to go by Easter.” In other words, just three weeks later, on April 12.
Similarly, in the leadup to the war, most military and intelligence analysts in Europe and the US predicted a short war and an overwhelmed Ukraine. Just as in the early days of the pandemic most people underestimated the virus, by a month into the war in Ukraine, it had become clear that most had severely misjudged the Ukrainians’ resolve, their military’s skill, and the US and most of Europe’s determination to support her. By then it had begun to look like Putin’s “Special Operation,” predicted to be as brief as his earlier assault on Crimea, would turn into a longer war.
Today, three years since the beginning of the pandemic and a year past the beginning of the war—years in which both Covid and Ukraine have repeatedly defied expectations and have surprised us time and time again—we’ve all become a bit more humble with our prognostications.
The two crises have shared language: words like war, battle, invade, enemies, weapons, attack, mobilizing, and stockpile, were applied to both, but each also expanded our vocabulary in new ways. We learned to distinguish between epidemic, pandemic, and endemic. We learned a bit about virology and vaccines, heard about herd immunity and flattening the curve, and debated the pros and cons of drinking bleach and ingesting horse de-wormer or fish tank cleaner as Covid cures.
A year ago, what little I knew about Ukraine I had learned, like most Americans, during the first impeachment trial of the, “I-would-like-you-to-do-us-a-favor” guy. In the past year we also added some geography lessons; how many of us knew where Ukraine actually was? And what about Kyiv, Mariupol, Odessa, and Snake Island? Or that Chernobyl is not, in fact, in Russia. We got a brief history review of Babi Yar and, on the first day of the war we learned how to say, “Idi na khuy,” Russian for “go f— yourself,” a phrase that is surely destined to become an essential expression for all future defenders of national sovereignty in Eastern Europe, and elsewhere.
Some other parallels between the war and the pandemic include the strong “we’re-all-in-this-together” spirit they both engendered in their early stages, and how those feelings have, partly or largely dissipated over time. Three years ago, we lauded and applauded medical professionals and essential workers, but less than two months into the pandemic, we already had furious anti-lockdown protests, (with Michigan, shamefully, leading the nation) and vaccine and mask mandates divided us further.
Similarly, last year we wore Ukrainian colors and flew her flag and gave Volodymyr Zelenskyy standing ovations in the Capitol. Today, while Ukrainians’ unity, grit, and willingness to sacrifice has not been shaken, many Americans, especially those of the America First persuasion, seem ready to abandon the Ukrainians to the Russians’ tender mercies. So, I was proud of our country when President Biden visited Kyiv a few days ago and vowed American support for Ukraine and rallied the leaders of other nations to do the same.
President Biden’s words and actions reminded me of a story about President Truman, how in October of 1947 he used the first ever television broadcast from the White House to ask Americans to “refrain from eating meat on Tuesdays, and poultry and eggs on Thursdays, to help stockpile grain for starving people in Europe.” The NY Times also quoted Secretary of State George C. Marshall, the architect of the Marshall Plan. “Food from the United States would deter the march of hunger, cold and collapse, not only enabling Europe to recover its economic stability, but also contributing to the resolution of a crisis that could mean the difference between the failure or attainment of world peace and security.” Those words still make pragmatic and humanitarian sense today.
But by far the most consequential commonality between the pandemic and the Russo-Ukrainian War has been the untold misery both have unleashed on human beings. The pandemic and the war have caused serious economic distress throughout the world with many people losing livelihoods, savings and businesses; an unknown number of people are still suffering from long Covid, and of course nearly seven million of us have died from the virus.
The war in Ukraine has caused ongoing food shortages in many parts of the world that used to rely on Ukrainian grain; millions of Ukrainians have been forced to flee their homes, either to safe harbors within Ukraine or out of harm’s way outside her borders; a much smaller, but still significant number of Russians have fled their country to evade being conscripted into the military, or to avoid the economic consequences of the war. And of course, we don’t yet know what the final toll will be in people traumatized, wounded and killed in Ukraine, and in the Russian military.
Perhaps the saddest consequence of these twin calamities—the pandemic and the war—has been the trauma suffered by an enormous number of children throughout the world. An entire generation who are coming of age now will have been marked by these twin catastrophes.
Many years from now people will have a better perspective on which was historically more significant, which had longer lasting, more powerful consequences, the Covid-19 Pandemic or the Russo Ukrainian War. The only thing certain today is that, despite all the war metaphors applied to the pandemic, it was not, is not, a conflict between humanity and the virus; it is not primarily a human-caused tragedy. The War, in its abhorrent entirety, is.
And still, “The world — unbelievably, inexplicably — went on.” (Kate DiCamillo Rayme Nightingale) It went on because even during the worst days of the pandemic, and throughout the horror of the Ukrainian war, people have continued to perform countless acts of courage, selflessness, and humanity. It is because of those people that our world will continue on.
3/29/2023 O Say, Can You Hear
Our father did not approve—to put it mildly—of my brother’s and my choice of career. Multiple reasons for that, and no need to get into the nitty gritty here. Let’s just say that I can count on the fingers of one hand, and still have enough digits left to play an e minor chord, the number of our concerts he attended in thirty years—nor was he all that complimentary when he did come. But, when in 1989, we told our parents that we’d been invited to sing the national anthem before a baseball game at Detroit’s Tiger Stadium, our father seemed genuinely excited. He wanted to know how many people would be in the stands, how much money we’d make, (and didn’t even seem too disappointed when we said it’s an honorary function, not a paying one) and asked whether we’d sing alone or with organ accompaniment.
He knew the Star Spangled Banner. It was the first song he learned in English after we moved to the US in late 1959. He needed to know it for his job as a cantor in synagogues, where most social events began with the singing of our national anthem and the Hatikvah, the Israeli anthem. It was very difficult for him to memorize the English words by rote, and even more problematic to pronounce them correctly. He relied on my brother and me to help him, but his accent still mangled the lyrics pretty thoroughly. However, the sheer beauty and power of his voice lent the anthem great dignity and majesty, and there was no denying the reverence with which he sang. Over the years it remained the only song in English that the three of us all had in our repertoires.
So, in 1993, when our parents came to visit us in Michigan for the first time, Laz and I arranged to sing the anthem before a ball game during their stay.
On the drive to Tiger Stadium our father asked nervously if it would be okay for him to wear his hat at the game. As an Orthodox Jew, he always wore a hat or a yarmulke, but still seemed uneasy, the way he must have often felt in our native Hungary, about identifying himself so conspicuously as being Jewish. I reassured him that other than during the anthem it would be fine to wear his hat. I also told him that I’ve even seen people wearing yarmulkes at the ballpark and added that nothing he could possibly wear would look out of place at Tiger Stadium.
We parked on a side street, a few blocks from the stadium. Downtown Detroit was filled with sights my parents didn’t often see in the sleepy little town where they lived in Florida and may have even brought up for them some bad memories of post WWII Budapest. I could feel their nervousness about the litter-filled streets, the boarded-up houses, the panhandlers and street people, the scalpers aggressively offering to sell us tickets, and the vendors loudly hawking everything from peanuts to T-shirts.
We picked up the tickets held for us at the will-call window and headed into the tunnel underneath the stands of the stadium. It was an hour and a half before game time, but the dingy tunnel was already crowded and noisy with people buying food, baseball hats, pennants and miniature bats at the concession stands. Occasionally a small group of children came running through the crowd—probably spurred on by a rumor, or a glimpse, of a player signing autographs in another part of the stadium.
We spotted our section and turned, heading up the ramp, into the ballpark. That first glimpse of the field never failed to delight and refresh me. I glanced at my parents and saw them also visibly relax at the sight of the lush green of the outfield, the beautifully raked red clay of the infield, the bright white uniforms of the players. The ballpark was a small, emerald isle of beauty in the sea of gray despair that surrounded Tiger Stadium.
The ushers remembered Laz and me from our previous visits and welcomed us warmly. They led us to our row and wiped the dust off the blue stadium seats. My wife, Brenda, her parents, Bill and Norma, Laz’s wife, Helen holding their baby Daniel, were all with us. We watched batting practice and tried to explain baseball to our parents.
In all his years of living in the U.S., our father never developed a taste for the game. “Nothing happens. Not like football.“ (He was referring to soccer, calling it by the name it is known all over the world, except in the U.S.) “Now that’s a real game.”
I told my parents that the pitcher tries to throw the ball in such a way that the batter can’t hit it. And that the batter tries to hit the ball where the fielders can’t catch it. My father looked bewildered and I remembered a story he told me about the first, and only time, his father, Shaya, came to see him play soccer. After the game, Shaya said, “What a stupid game! You were trying to kick the ball in the net and that guy wasn’t letting you. And then there was that idiot blowing a whistle all the time—what was he doing?”
I explained about the home run. Everyone else chimed in with the intricacies of the double play, the sacrifice fly, the intentional walk. I could see that my parents were not following any of this. I marveled at how hard it was to describe a game you’ve learned simply by watching and playing. Like explaining the colloquialisms of your mother tongue to a foreigner.
Laz and I left the baseball tutorial to go warm up our voices. We found a deserted corner under the stands and began to sing. My voice was tight and my breathing uneven. Laz also sounded tense. We always got more nervous for this two-minute appearance than for almost any concert. Our parents being there added still more tension. But, after about fifteen minutes of singing and walking around in the stadium tunnels, we finally began to loosen up.
We headed back to our seats. My father-in-law was regaling my father about seeing Denny McLain start a triple play in a game in 1968. And how his wife missed the whole thing because she had leaned over to wipe mustard off their nephew’s chin.
A few minutes before game time, Jim Brylewski from the Tigers marketing department came to our seats and accompanied us down from the stands, through the little gate near home plate, and out onto the field. We stood on the cinder track surrounding the diamond and made small talk with Jim, with a member of the grounds crew who set up the microphone for us, and with the man who was scheduled to throw out the ceremonial first pitch that day.
Every few minutes Laz nervously blew into the small pitch pipe we use to get our starting note and we hummed it to ourselves, trying to memorize it. Because of the crowd noise we feared we might not be able to hear it when it was time to start. (The Star Spangled Banner is notoriously difficult to sing. It has a big range, an octave and a fifth, so it’s crucial to not start it too high or too low.)
The managers and umpires finished their meeting at home plate and Jim gave us the signal. Carefully stepping over the chalk line that connects home plate and first base, we walked to the microphone near the pitcher’s mound. We faced the flag in deep center field, about 450 feet away, with our backs to the crowded part of the stadium. Laz leaned away from the microphone and sounded the pitch pipe one last time as the PA announcer said, “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, please stand for the singing of our national anthem by Sandor and Laszlo Slomovits.” I knew from hundreds of hours of listening to games on the radio that up in the WJR booth Ernie Harwell and Paul Carey just finished announcing the lineups and were now telling the radio audience, “Let’s go down to the field now for the singing of our national anthem.”
A video image of us, taken from the back, was projected on the screen above the bleachers in center field. It was not a view I often had of myself. I noticed how bald we were—just like our dad. The words to the anthem were also projected line by line onto the screen. I looked away from them and focused on the flag instead. I worried that if the lines were flashed too fast or too slow, I’d get confused.
As on every previous visit to the stadium, I was struck by the sound of our voices, enormously amplified, echoing, coming from everywhere. The crowd began to roar as we held the last note on the word “brave” and nearly drowned out our ending. But the little cantorial cry in the voice that we’ve inherited from our father was clearly audible as we sang the word “home” in the last phrase.
We waved to the crowd and ran off the field. Our path took us near the visiting team’s dugout. Phil Garner, the mustachioed manager of the Milwaukee Brewers, had a big smile on his face and reached out to shake our hands. “Great job. Much better than what we usually hear.” We made our way up to our seats a few rows behind home plate. Our father was visibly moved. He said with genuine warmth, “Was beautiful. It’s wonderful, people cheer like that for you.”
April 2023 The Past Rarely Stays Only in the Past
(This was published in the Spring 2023 Issue of the Crazy Wisdom Journal)
Sometimes it’s hard to uncover the truth about past events. Other times the past reveals its truths almost unbidden. Either way, the past rarely stays only in the past.
I came upon a striking personal case of that recently, and then noticed some correspondences to current events in our country.
It began with a book review by Chuck Newman in the Washtenaw Jewish News. (Newman also hosts a biweekly series of “Conversations” presented by the Jewish Community Center of Greater Ann Arbor.) The book Newman reviewed is called The Nine, by Gwen Strauss. Its subtitle is what caught my eye; The True Story of a Band of Women Who Survived the Worst of Nazi Germany. I am the son of two survivors of the Holocaust. Between them, my parents lost more than a dozen close relatives. When I see the words, “survived” and “Nazi Germany” I tend to pay attention.
Very soon after I started reading The Nine, I realized it was going to hit even closer to home than I had anticipated.
The Nine is about nine women who were imprisoned in the Ravensbrück concentration camp in 1944. My mother was also imprisoned in the Ravensbrück concentration camp in 1944.
The nine women were forced to labor at a munitions factory in Germany during the war. My mother, too, was forced to work in an airplane parts factory in Germany during the war.
My brother and I were about sixteen when our mother first told us of her wartime experiences. Of course, we believed her, but still, her stories had a kind of unreal, mythical quality. The events she described had taken place so far away, and years before we were even born. And, it was—and still is—very hard to imagine or accept that people had done to other people the things she described; that they had done them to her! That despite everything, some people managed to survive those ordeals and return to ordinary life; that she’d managed to do that.
As I read The Nine, I found that Strauss’ detailed accounts of what the women endured—culled from interviews and from their writings after the war—not only confirmed everything our mother told us; they also made evident that our mother had in fact toned down or even completely hidden some of the harshest aspects of her detention in Ravensbrück, as well as of her subsequent transfer to forced labor in Penig, and her escape from a death march in April 1945.
In researching The Nine, Strauss travelled to Germany and visited the Gedenkstätte Für Zwangsarbeit, the Memorial for Forced Labor in Leipzig. The Memorial is located near the site of the HASAG munitions plant where the nine women, and thousands more, were held captive and forced to build weapons for the Nazis. The Memorial is devoted to preserving the history of that lager and of other Nazi labor camps in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. It makes its library and archives available to scholars, survivors and their relatives, and also offers lectures, tours and other educational events. Anne Friebel, a member of the museum staff, helped Strauss find documentation about the nine women’s detention in the HASAG lager.
Shakespeare had it right when he wrote in The Merchant of Venice, (where else, of course!) “Truth will come to light; murder cannot be hid long… in the end truth will out.”
When I finished The Nine, I sent Friebel a brief email in which I related what I knew of my mother’s wartime experiences and asked if the Memorial might have any further information about her. A few days later I had a reply from Friebel. Yes, she had found my mother in the Arolsen Archives. (The Arolsen Archives are the most comprehensive archives on the victims and survivors of the Holocaust.) She attached digital copies of my mother’s prisoner card in Ravensbrück, and of her prisoner card in Penig, a small town near Leipzig, where she was transferred in January 1945 to do forced labor in the Max Gehrt airplane parts factory.
Friebel also wrote, “Today in Penig, there is an active association commemorating the women of that camp,” and offered to put me in touch with them. In the next few weeks, I exchanged dozens of emails with her and with two of the people in the Erinnerungsort-Penig (Penig Place of Remembrance) and they sent me more information about the Penig lager. In response to my questions, they wrote, “Our group was founded in 2013 after neo-Nazis brutally beat up a student [in our community]. At first, we started to raise awareness, to promote democracy and tolerance. In this context, the idea arose in 2015 to investigate the history of the concentration camp that existed in our hometown from 1944 to 1945 and especially what crimes intolerance, anti-Semitism and racism can lead to. That is our motivation.” Their website says, “…over the past 15 years a neo-Nazi scene, which was prone to violence and had a strong national network, had been able to establish itself in our rural area, and was responsible for a whole series of attacks on non-whites, people living differently, the homeless and those committed to democracy.” Their mission statement ends with, “Above all, we want to counteract racism, anti-Semitism and neo-fascism with the help of education and awareness-raising work.” I continue to be in contact with them.
I’ve rollercoastered through an enormous range of emotions since I first read The Nine and wrote to Friebel. I’ve felt by turns, excited, fascinated, horrified, repelled, frightened, furious, sad, grief-stricken and more. I often questioned what I was doing and why. I felt a variation of survivors’ guilt; I only research what happened – they had had to endure it. When I felt overwhelmed or numb, I withdrew, and found I could not look away. I remembered a line from Crimson Joy, a mystery by Robert B. Parker. “If she could suffer it, I could look at it.”
And, through it all, I couldn’t help but notice current parallels in our country; the craven attempts to deny and erase truth and history, some focusing on the 2020 election, the January 6 insurrection, or the 1619 Project, others more broadly on slavery, racism and the treatment of Native Americans. Rising anti-semitism, xenophobia, and efforts to marginalize and attack the LGBTQ community are just some of the despicable echoes of the Nazis’ past.
I don’t know where continuing the search for my family’s past will lead me. Here’s what I do know. Where I stand now is in gratitude; gratitude for Gwen Strauss for her tremendous skill and effort in creating The Nine; to Anne Friebel and the other staff and volunteers at Gedenkstätte Für Zwangsarbeit and Erinnerungsort-Penig for their dedication to preserving and teaching what at times must be some very painful truths; for their kindness in helping me and many others who are still seeking those truths; to those people in our country who rejected the lies about the 2020 election, and the violence of January 6; to all people everywhere, who courageously stand for truth on behalf of all humanity. Above all, I feel more gratitude and admiration for my mother than I can put into words.
Almost exactly four years after she was deported to Germany in a cattle car bound for the hell that was Ravensbrück, then shipped, again in a cattle car, to Penig and forced to labor for the Nazis, my mother endured another painful and difficult, but this time freely chosen and joyous labor; she gave birth to twin sons—my brother and me.
5/29/23 Hole in the Bucket Day
Pop quiz: What connects the song, Hole in the Bucket, Harry Belafonte, Odetta, the debt ceiling fiasco, the British comedy duo of Flanders and Swann, and Hank Williams? To find out, you’ll need to read to the end of this piece. But if you just want to hear Hole in the Bucket sung by Emily and me, here it is. https://youtu.be/Bu-hCDa7CqA
Every dog has its day, so they say. And not only every dog, but every…um… thing. In fact, there are way more things that have their day—and week, and month—than there are days, weeks or months in a year. There is National Hangover Day, yup, on January 1, and there is National Thank God it’s Monday Day, and Fruitcake Toss Day—and that’s just the first three days of the year! And there is also, wait for it, National Hole in My Bucket Day.
I discovered this charming little factoid while doing online research on the origins of the old song, Hole in the Bucket. I’ve been singing that song for about forty years, first with my wife, Brenda—we even recorded a live version of it for Gemini’s second children’s music album, Swingin’. Then, when our daughter Emily came along, Brenda passed the singing baton to her. Eventually, when Emily was about nine, (twenty years ago) it became a standard in our concert repertoire, and we’ve continued singing it off and on ever since.
A few weeks ago, Emmy and I happened to have a concert scheduled for the day after Harry Belafonte died on April 25 and, in his honor and memory, we began our show that day with Hole in the Bucket. (Belafonte recorded perhaps the definitive version of that song with Odetta in 1960 at Carnegie Hall. The audio is still available on YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AthT8kw7CIo There’s also a really charming live video, made around the same time, of Belafonte and Odetta performing the song. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JsQ8ETQvC-c
I learned a long time ago, way before Google-knows-all days, that Hole in the Bucket was originally a German folk song called Heinrich and Liese (which became Henry and Liza in English). Now the all-knowing Wikipedia enlightened me further, that in that earliest version, circa 1700, the man in the song was unnamed, and was asking the woman to stop up the hole in the bucket, rather than as in the modern version, in which the woman is ordering the man to fix the leak. (The effect of feminism? Color me dubious. In the song the is on the woman now.) Google also offered a link to National Hole in My Bucket day, https://nationaltoday.com/national-hole-in-my-bucket-day/#faqs, which it cheerfully informed me, is celebrated (if that’s the right word?) on May 30th every year.
Google further informed me that the immortal Hank Williams had also penned a version of Hole in the Bucket, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MJvTtuB215A, which featured the following lyric genius gems.
Well, I went up on the mountain/I looked down in the sea/I seen the crabs and the fishes/Doin’ the be-bop-bee.
Oh well, they can’t all be Hey, Good Lookin’ and I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.
A friend also suggested that I check out the 1953 political parody of Hole in the Bucket by the British comedy duo Flanders and Swann https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ecEMxrdULQ. Which I did and, with our own looming debt ceiling debacle freshly in my face, and unavoidably on my mind, I quickly jotted down the following doggone doggerel, thus conclusively proving that I can do worse than Flanders and Swan—just as perhaps our governments can do worse than theirs!
There’s a hole in your budget Mr. President, Mr. BidenThere’s a hole in your budget, Mr. President, there is.
I’ll negotiate the budget dear Speaker, dear KevinWhen you raise the debt ceiling, we’ll talk about it then
The MAGAs won’t let me, Mr. President, Mr. Biden/The MAGAs won’t let me, Mr. President they won’t
My sympathies dear Speaker, I feel for you, Kevin/Good luck in ’24 if you make it till then
I’ll lose my nice podium and also my gavel/If I budge on the budget Mr. President
I won’t budge on the budget, dear Speaker, dear Kevin/When you raise the debt ceiling, we’ll negotiate it then
And if you didn’t listen to Emily and me sing Hole in the Bucket at the beginning of this rabbit hole, here it is again. https://youtu.be/Bu-hCDa7CqAHappy Debt Ceiling Disaster Day Everybody!