A Man Who Didn’t Give in: Sir Nicholas Winton

 

“I work on the motto that if something isn’t impossible, there must be a way of doing it.” So said Sir Nicholas Winton when asked how he saved the lives of 669 children. Sir Nicholas died yesterday at the age of 106. Before you give up on whatever challenge faces you, get to know his story. The video documentary (above) includes a 2014 interview of Winton. I wrote this essay in 2009: To Save One Life is to Save the World/

The Power of a Picture

There are times when words fail, no matter how gifted the writer. Goethe, one of the most gifted, said that “Music begins where words end,” but even choosing the music for the above picture would be difficult.

I will say very little about the photo reproduction and leave the rest to you. The photo was taken at a wedding, the happiest of occasions. The year was 1928. The place, Hungary. The Jewish wedding of Ibolya Heisler and Erno Kaufmann. By now you are getting the picture.

Fifty-eight people, all numbered and most identified. Many would eventually be numbered differently: with tatooed identification numbers placed on the left forearm as they were swept into the Holocaust during World War II (1939 – 1945).

April 8th is Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is a day to honor those lost, but also intended to warn us never to forget what happened to them; and never to permit this depth of human cruelty to occur again. And yet, my hunch is that for the survivors and their children there has been no difficulty in remembering. The problem is instead that it is so difficult to forget.

Only two of those pictured survived the Nazi attempt to exterminate the entire Jewish population of Europe.

Each one with a life much like yours or mine. Each one. If you click on the photo, you will see an enlarged version and be able to make out the faces. Their names — the names that the Nazis replaced with numbers — can be found below.

The photo comes courtesy of the children of the two survivors.

M=male; F=female Taken at Ibolya Heisler’s wedding

(6th revision 7/7/86) Date:  Summer of 1928 (LGF)

1. F Unknown relative of #31 (OHM).  KEMPFNER, Piroska, niece of #48 (LGF)

2. M Eldest son of Isidor BRAUN, brother of #43 (OHM); BRAUN, Francis, son of #18 & #48 (LGF)

3. F HEISLER, Hermin, nee Reisz, sister of #6, married HEISLER, Ferenc, nephew of #13 & 1st cousin #37 (TH, MH, & LGF)

4. F Rosa, our maid (LGF)

5. F KEMPFNER, Irma, daughter of #9 & niece of #48 (LGF)

6. F HEISLER, Ilona, nee Reisz, wife of #37, sister of #3 (TH, MH, OHM, LGF)

7. F unknown KAUFMANN relative

8. F HEISLER, Imre’s wife, Sari (OHM):  HEISLER, Sara, wife of 1st cousin of #37 (LGF)

9. F KEMPFNER, Berta, sister-in-law of #48 **

10. F HEISLER, Ilus, daughter of #13 by 1st wife; sister of #37; married MARKUS, Imre (OHM); HEISLER, I., daughter of #13 by 1st wife, died in Auschwitz (LGF)

11. F HEFFER, Sara, daughter of #15 (LGF)

12. M KAUFMANN cousin (LGF)

13. M HEISLER, Marton (Mor) married (1) Julia Fischer (2) Arabella Weisz (MH, OHM, TH)

14. M KAUFMANN cousin (LGF)

15. F HEFFER, Theresa, second cousin of #43 (LGF)

16. M Unknown, KAUFMANN relative (LGF)

17. F KEMPFNER, Berta, sister-in-law of #48. **#9 & #17 are different persons (LGF)

18. M BRAUN, Isidor, brother of #43 (LGF)

19. F KAUFMANN, Katharine, sister of #45 & daughter of #46 (LGF)

20. F unknown KAUFMANN relative (LGF)

21. M KAUFMANN, Bernard, brother of #45 & son of #46 (LGF)

22. M Probably the gardener! (AMH)

23. F Wife of Bernard KAUFMANN, #21, (LGF)

24. F SCHWARTZ, Wilma, daughter of #25 & distant cousin of #43 (LGF)

25. F SCHWARTZ, Bertha, third cousin of #43 (LGF)

26. F SCHWARTZ, Vilma sister-in-law of #25 & relative of #43 (LGF)

27. F SCHWARTZ, Sydonia, cousin of #43 (LGF)

28. F Unknown KAUFMANN relative

29. F HEISLER, Margit, daughter of #43 married Greiner, Isidor (OHM) (LGF)

30. F HEISLER, Arabella Weisz, 2nd wife of #13 (MH)

31. F KOVACS, Frieda, nee Braun, sister of #43 (OHM); KEMPFNER (changed to KOVACS) Frieda, nee Braun (LGF)

32. M SCHNEIDER, Sandor married to #33 (TH, LGF)

33. F HEISLER, Bozsi, daughter of Heisler, Samuel & Fanny (TH); Heisler, Elizabeth married to #32 (LGF)

34. F Piroska, daughter of #42 who is 2nd cousin of #43 (LGF)

35. M Husband of #34 – they divorced later (LGF)

36. M ADLER, Bela, husband of #39 (LGF)

37. M HEISLER, Mihaly aka Michael, son of #13 by 1st wife (TH, MH)

38. F FISCHL, Josephine nee Heffer, daughter of #15 (LGF)

39. F BRAUN, Piri, cousin from #43’s side (OHM):  BRAUN, Piri, daughter of #18 & #48 & niece of #43; married (1) ADLER, (2) SPITZER, George (LGF)

40. F Baby:  FISCHL, Susan, daughter of #38 (LGF)

41. F Grandma KEMPFNER, mother of #48, & mother-in-law of #18 (LGF)

42. F SINGER, Sidonia, second cousin of #43 (LGF)

43. F HEISLER, Roza nee Braun married H., Jakab, brother of #13 (OHM, MH, TH, LGF)

44. F HEISLER, Ibolya, bride of #45, daughter of #43 (OHM, TH, LGF)

45. M KAUFMANN, Erno, groom of #44 (OHM); the bridegroom (LGF)

46. F KAUFMANN, mother of #45 — this was a wedding picture (OHM, LGF)

47. F SZILAGYI, Gundi, #43’s daughter by 1st marriage (OHM):  SZILAGYI, Kunigunda nee Braun, 1/2 sister of #43 by her father’s 1st marriage (LGF)

48. F BRAUN, Gizella, nee Kempfner, wife of #18 & sister-in-law of #43 (LGF)

49. F HEFFER, Ilona, daughter of #15 (LGF)

50. M Unknown Kaufmann relative (LGF)

51. F HEFFER, Jolan, daughter of #15 (LGF)

52. F KAUFMANN grandchild (LGF)

53. F GREINER, Edith, daughter of #29 (TH, LGF) married HOLZER, Alois (LGF)

54. F HEISLER, Klari, daughter of #3 & HEISLER, Ferenc, nephew of #13 (TH)

55. F GREINER, Lenke, daughter of #29 married Farkas Laszlo (TH, MH, LGF)

56. F KEMPFNER, Piroska, daughter of #17 (LGF)

57. M HEISLER, Laszlo (Laci), son of #43 (TH, OHM, LGF)

58. ? Baby on right:  Probably the child of #21 & #23 (AMH)

Dog:  Bundy (OHM);  Bundas (LGF)

Note: Sources indicated in parentheses ( ) following entry are:  OHM = Olga Heisler Marko;  TH = Tibor Heisler; MH = Mihaly or Michael Heisler; LGF = Lenke Greiner Farkas; AMH = Anne McDonnel Heisler

For a very different story on the same subject, click on the link: To Save One Life Is As If You Have Saved the World: Nicholas Winton and the “Kindertransport”.

“Being There” for Children and Others: On the Elusiveness of a Moral Life

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Important life choices don’t always announce themselves.

No brass band stands at-the-ready, playing a fanfare to let you know that you are about to do something right or wrong.

That is, perhaps, why most of us believe we are “good people” regardless of the evidence. After Auschwitz, it’s pretty easy for us to rationalize or minimize our participation in anything less awful than that.

We rarely lose the best of ourselves in a moment of operatic drama, but in the thousands of little things that go unmarked and unnoticed in the course of every day.

Morality and decency are worn away an inch at a time; and gained in just the same painstaking way.

Let me tell you about a good man.

The father of a little girl.

He is divorced and cherishes every moment with his daughter. But, his work is demanding, sometimes requires travel, and he has significant payments to his ex-wife specified by his divorce settlement; so money must be made.

A business trip had been scheduled for some time, but two days before it he was told that his child would be one of the kids receiving some special attention at a grade school evening event; one of many such events that a parent is asked to attend, whether it be a band concert, an orchestra performance, a play, or a small honor of some kind.

A few are terrific and wonderful, but most are a matter of “being there,” despite what often amounts to the dreadful boredom of  50 squeaky violins and the butt-breaking, back-breaking pain of hard-wood gym risers as you listen and watch, already exhausted from your day at work.

This man does everything he can to support his little girl. And, mindful that his “ex” is more than a little self-involved, he tries to make up for what she cannot or does not know to give.

Still, money must be made.

As he sat alone in his hotel room on the trip’s first night, he realized — perhaps a bit late — that he was in the wrong place.

That his clients could wait.

That his daughter was more important.

That it mattered more to be with her than away from her.

He reorganized everything, cancelled meetings for the next two days, and changed his flight plans.

It cost him money and time.

A happy ending?

Not exactly.

The next day’s weather was bad, he spent hours in the airport, and he didn’t get back into his home town until just after his daughter’s event occurred.

It was frustrating, but he was able to take her out for an ice cream cone and a small celebration of her recognition when the assembly ended.

No proclamation came his way, certainly no acknowledgement from his divorced partner, and probably not even an indelible memory for his child, since our protagonist didn’t mention what he had to do in order to try to attend.

Of course, money does have to be made.

And, martyring yourself for your child’s welfare isn’t healthy either.

Life is like the work of a seamstress: the fabric we stitch of small moments, rarely acknowledged, soon forgotten, but leaving a pattern behind.

Things like whether we hold a door open for someone else, give the homeless person some change, use the word “we” instead of “I,” and the like.

Things like hand-writing a “thank you,” bending down to pick up someone’s fallen package, or giving up a seat on the subway to a senior citizen.

Things like being there for your children, your friends, and even those tourists who look confused.

In 2002, on a street corner in a moderate-sized German town, my wife, youngest daughter, and I were those people; who were aided by a man driving in his car who could see our perplexity, spontaneously parked the vehicle, and walked up and down a couple of blocks over a period of 20 minutes to help us locate a very hard-to-find address.

If it doesn’t cost you something it might be just a little too easy.

The “Three Stooges” used to say, “one for all, all for one, and every man for himself!”

Let’s hope not.

Today is another day. Lots of chances to live by the Golden Rule.

Twenty-four hours of opportunities to put your humanity and integrity over your convenience and advantage.

Will you see those chances? Will you rationalize those opportunities away? Will you be a better person at the end of the day than when the day begins?

No revelations, just the thousands of tiny events that make up a life.

Make a life worth living, not just a living.

The above poster was issued by the United States Government Printing Office during World War II. The image is called Freedom From Fear and originally appeared in the March 13, 1943 issue of the Saturday Evening Post. The painter is Normal Rockwell. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The oil painting is one of four that Rockwell based on the “four freedoms” mentioned by President Franklin Roosevelt in his January 6, 1941 State of the Union Address: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. The posters that used Rockwell’s images were intended to remind the country of what it was fighting for in the war against the Axis powers. The same four freedoms were to become part of the charter for the United Nations.

On the Elusiveness of Vindication (and How Special It is When It Happens)

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I suspect there is hardly anyone among us who has not hoped that the person who broke our heart would come back to us, see the light, apologize, and say:

You know what? I was wrong. I didn’t give you a chance. I should have. You deserved better treatment than you received from me. It was unfair of me to blame you as I did, not to see how good you are.  I hope that you will forgive me and we can start over.

Vindication can take a number of forms. It might involve being reinstated to a position you lost unfairly, being exonerated of a crime you were alleged to have (or convicted of having) committed, receiving a belated medal for acts of courage performed in combat, or having a parent apologize for abusive or neglectful mistreatment.

There is only one problem.

When the injury is great, these things almost never happen. Or, if they do, they come much too late. Think about the occasional news story that documents the exoneration of someone who had been wrongly imprisoned after years behind bars, now finally permitted to return to civilian life. Or the long-denied medal for heroic service to one’s country in an almost forgotten war, awarded to a man now aged or perhaps deceased, and therefore only a posthumous recipient of the honor.

Perhaps even rarer is the parent who apologizes for child abuse. First, such people rarely acknowledge the extent of what they have done. And, to the degree that there is any recognition or admission of  mistreatment of their child, it is nearly always minimized on the one hand, and justified on the other; justified, usually by the child’s alleged misbehavior or provocation.

By the time the parents in question are senior citizens, the fog of time and self-deception has clouded and distorted their memory. Moreover, were they to admit (even to themselves) what they had done, they would almost certainly be shattered and humbled by that self-awareness; and left with the fact that there would be no way to make up for the lost time and the pain they inflicted – not enough of a future available to redeem the sorry state of the past and remove the stain on their conscience.

Perhaps it is therefore not surprising that they do not admit their errors even when confronted – in effect cannot do so psychologically without jeopardizing their ability to live with any measure of equanimity.

My wife likes to say that her favorite punishment for such people would be one minute of self-awareness. Unfortunately, they are the least likely among us to achieve this kind of insight.

A useful book to read on the subject is Frauen by Alison Owings. Owings interviewed numerous German women who had lived through the period of the Third Reich. She observed the extent to which self-deception, rationalization, and denial were present as they looked back upon what they claimed they knew or witnessed (or didn’t know), and what they did or didn’t do in response to the mistreatment and murder of their Jewish neighbors by the Nazis.

Beyond the individual level, even nations have a problem admitting that wrong has been done in their name. Turkey continues to deny the Armenian genocide of the twentieth century’s second decade, while Austria and France have historically skirted their participation in the Holocaust, preferring to be considered co-victims with other sufferers of Germany’s misdeeds.

And, it was not until 1988, that the United States formally apologized for the 1942 forced internment of Pacific Coast residents of the USA, solely because they were of Japanese decent, in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Of those people, 62% were US citizens.

While none of what I’ve described thus far permits a very optimistic take on human nature, I do want to relate one very beautiful story I heard from a former patient on this subject. It stands out because it demonstrates that obtaining personal vindication does happen every so often, and can produce any enormously healing experience for both parties involved. I’ve changed the circumstances of the story to disguise the identity of my patient, but I think you will get the idea.

The young woman in question was a high school volley ball player, a member of the school’s team. She was a junior and had played, usually as a starter, for most of the season. Her coach was a young woman as well, that is to say, a relatively new teacher, just shortly out of training.

Toward the end of the season, the student’s mother was to receive a special award from her workplace. Mom and dad both wanted their daughter to be at the dinner honoring the mom, and the young athlete wanted to be there as well. Unfortunately, the award ceremony conflicted with an important game for her team. She explained in advance to her coach that she would not be able to play in that game, but the coach was furious. Thereafter the coach repaid her absence by keeping her on the bench for most of the remainder of the season and treating her with disdain.

Although she liked volleyball, my future patient chose not to try-out for the team as a senior, expecting either to fail to make the roster chosen by the same coach; or, if permitted to be on the team, anticipating the same sort of mistreatment from her for another year. And so, the athlete’s high school athletic career ended prematurely.

This turn of events did not, however, destroy her love for the game. She continued to play in various park district leagues for many years. But the memory of being humiliated by the coach did not go away, nor of the lost senior year of competition that she might otherwise have enjoyed, playing a game she loved.

Perhaps 10 years after the incidents I’ve described, this woman was now my patient. And one day she told me that just the day before she had found herself in another volley ball contest against a new team. And, wouldn’t you know it, she saw that one of the opposing players was her old coach, now in her early to mid-thirties.

My patient recognized the coach, but hoped the recognition was not mutual. As the game progressed they soon enough were face-to-face across the net from each other. The coach said “hello,” calling her by name, and my patient replied in kind. Perhaps, she thought, that would be the end of their interaction.

At the end of the game, however, the coach came over to my patient. She asked if she could speak with her privately. They moved away from the other volleyball players to a place where they would not be overheard.

What the young woman’s ex-coach said went something like this:

I’ve thought about you for many years. I realize that what I did to you was very unfair. I took your decision not to play that game too personally. Of course, there was nothing wrong with your attending a dinner recognizing your mother. Who wouldn’t have? I was very young, but I should have known better than to treat you as badly as I did. I have felt guilty for years that I caused you pain and that I made it almost impossible for you to even think of trying-out for the senior team. I have been hoping to run into you all this time, so that I could say this. I’m so sorry.

As my patient related this story to me she was in tears, enormously touched by what the coach had said. The coach had given her closure for a painful part of her history and had done it with grace, courage, and integrity; taking full responsibility for injuring my patient. In so doing, I suspect the coach found relief too, because her former charge was an enormously likeable, decent, and forgiving person.

Everyone here was a winner.

As I said, the tale stands out for me because this kind of ending occurs so rarely. I suspect many of us have been the victims of similar hurts.

But, perhaps more importantly, some of us have probably inflicted comparable injuries on others.

Sometimes its worth reflecting on that — on one’s own failures and mistreatment of others.

You just might discover that like the coach, there is still an opportunity to put things right.

Of course, that is up to you.

The image above is Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer by Rembrandt, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Do You Know Who You Are? A Meditation on Identity, Mid-life Crisis, and Change

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Who are you?

In times of war, men define themselves by three pieces of information only: name, rank, and serial number. I suppose that the peace-time equivalent is name, profession, and age; not social security number, which you are wise to keep to yourself for fear of identity theft. Stolen identities aside, the question of who you are is still an important one.

But let me formulate it differently.

How would you describe yourself? What human characteristics or traits or values are essential to you? What makes you different from any other person on earth?

Let’s start at the beginning of life. You are given a name. How does the name define you and influence the rest of your life? If you are A Boy Named Sue, as in the old song, you can be sure that your identity and life have been changed by your parents’ decision about appellation. Indeed, there is now research evidence that some names, those thought to be used predominantly by blacks, cause potential employers to discriminate against a job applicant’s resume when compared to individuals with the same qualifications who have names that are less racially-linked.

Name-changing has long been a way for white Americans to avoid discrimination based on ethnicity or religion. Others had their names compromised when reaching this country from Europe and were processed for entry to the USA on Ellis Island. Thus, a Paderewski became a Patterson and a Rifkin became a Riff, due to the simplifications created by the randomly assigned immigration official. And, from the start, the new arrival had to deal simultaneously with a change of name, a new nationality, a loss of homeland, and the now restricted opportunity to use his native language, all playing on the question of his identity. Meanwhile, his young offspring encountered the attitude of teachers (and, much later) potential employers or lovers to someone named Patterson rather than Paderewski, just as he saw himself as the former and not the latter.

For the immigrant, the “dislocation of place” both parallels and creates the dislocation of his sense of who he now is. The person has gone from being (perhaps) an unremarkable resident of his home country to someone “different,” who speaks (at best) with an accent, and who has a history that is at odds with the shared past of his new neighbors. The man has become, truly, a stranger, but he is not just strange to others—he is strange to himself.

Just as some people voluntarily attempt to hide their ethnicity, so too do some few work to hide their race. You might want to watch the 1959 movie, Imitation of Life, starring Lana Turner and John Gavin, for a cinematic take on this subject, the attempt to pass for white. More recently, Philip Roth’s year 2000 novel The Human Stain (and the movie of the same name) deals with a black University professor passing as a white man; and Bliss Broyard’s 2007 memoir One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life—A Story of Race and Family Secrets describes her father Anatole Broyard’s self-transformation from black to white within the literary world.

And one must give at least brief mention of a condition called Gender Identity Disorder, in which children may be born anatomically of one sex, but of the opposite sex in terms of identity.

Religion also helps create one’s sense of self. As the European generation who survived World War II began to approach death, a number of adult Polish Catholics discovered, through these aging parents or other relatives, that they were born Jewish. The children had been rescued from the Holocaust by Polish gentiles. It was therefore often easier and safer to treat them as Catholic during the Nazi occupation than to try to persuade them to keep a secret of their religion. Once this identity alteration was performed, however, it proved to be hard or uncomfortable to undo, particularly in a nation with an antisemitic history. The revelation of the religion into which they were born surely transformed the identity of a number of these religiously recast people.

Revelations of another kind occurred in post-World War II Germany. The children of Nazi authorities and SS members did their best to keep their identities secret for fear of being prosecuted for crimes against humanity. Nonetheless, their children sometimes discovered (to their dismay)  the answer to the question “What did you do during the war, daddy?” This type of revelation can lead the child to wonder who he really is, and whether he has inherited some of the unfortunate qualities of his father.

The 1989 movie Music Box starring Jessica Lange and Armin Mueller-Stahl deals with a similar circumstance, but one transported to the Chicago area. It involves the question of a father’s activities in Hungary during the war and his daughter’s legal defense of him against the US government’s attempt to deport him.

If you have seen or read the Arthur Miller play All My Sons, you know still a different take on the same theme, this time without war crimes entering picture, at least as they are usually defined. The play takes place in post World War II America. Joe Keller ran a wartime factory with his former neighbor, Steve Deever. The men knowingly shipped defective airplane cylinder heads causing the death of 21 U.S. Air Force pilots. Steve goes to jail for this, although somehow Joe is exonerated of the crime. But when Joe’s pilot son Larry finds out what his father has done, his shame translates into suicide, so devastated is he by the identity-altering knowledge of who his father is and what his father has done.

As I hope these examples make clear, the question of your identity also involves awareness of who your parents were or are. Adopted children often seek out their biological parents, as do those who have been abandoned and left with only one parent to raise them. They also lack the medical history that informs the lives of those of us who know our parents well. The difference can mean life or death. Am I at risk for heart disease or not? It depends, in part, on who your parents are or were, and that information can change your life.

Children who have lost a parent to disease or death-by-accident or in war-time have a similar problem, even if they don’t have to deal with the knowledge that a parent or parents gave them up, and the attendant implication that they were worthless to those parents. And, their identity is influenced by the fact that they are “different:” the ones who lack a parent, have no partner at the daddy-daughter dance, have no father to teach them to play ball and no male parent to root for them at the Little League game.

Shifting gears, our identities are surely influenced by physical and intellectual characteristics: short/tall, young/old, handsome/homely, smart/stupid and so forth. But not all such qualities are fixed. Witness the change in identity that happens as people age, especially if they were once beautiful or handsome, or once athletic and now infirm. For those who trade on superficial characteristics exclusively, the change that comes with the passage of time is more than troubling.

Gorgeous women, in particular, find that they no longer turn the heads of men so much, if at all. Instead, the male of the species looks to other, younger women. Germaine Greer talked about this in terms of becoming “invisible,” though she found freedom in it to be more herself, less concerned with how she looked. One way or the other, it is an identity changer. Similarly, those who are injured, scared, or lose a limb or a breast must redefine themselves, reconfigure who they are in their own minds just as they have been quite literally reconfigured physically.

On the other hand, if you receive an organ transplant, you face an unusual assault to your sense of self. You are no longer the physical entity of earlier days, but now have a part of another person inside of you.

Yet, sometimes external changes do not alter identity very much. I have counseled more than one naturally beautiful adult woman who was the fat kid or the ugly kid while growing up, or the child who was criticized and belittled by parents. Too often the early labels seem to adhere to the person’s self concept as if they were tattooed on their flesh. Thus, it is not a surprise that cosmetic surgery does not always achieve the sense of self-worth that the patient is looking for.

Other life events can also transform one’s self-image. Men are notoriously vulnerable to a loss of identity when they retire or lose a job and are no longer the CEO, breadwinner, “doctor/lawyer/Indian chief” of their working days. I recall hearing it said that for a time after his retirement from baseball, the great New York Yankee outfielder Mickey Mantle had a recurring dream about trying to reenter Yankee Stadium by crawling under the fence that surrounded the ball field and getting stuck there! This is a stereotypical example of a man who was suffering from his loss of identity as an athlete.

So too, women who defined themselves exclusively in terms of their job as mothers frequently seem bereft and without a sense of self when the children leave the nest. In addition, women historically are more likely than men to define themselves by their partner, and achieve a sense of who they are by who their partner is. Being, for example, “the doctor’s wife” might have some value until the day that you are the doctor’s ex-wife. But, it must be said that men do this, too, and take some measure of self-definition and pride in having a talented or beautiful or charming wife.

Before closing, one must certainly comment on the notorious mid-life crisis of identity usually associated with men. Some men begin to get the sense of time passing them by and of not having accomplished all that they wished for in life. Jean Améry has said that a young person “is not only who he is, but also who he will be.” In other words, his self concept is informed by the expectations he has for his future. For most men in middle age, however, “who he will be” is not all that promising.

As the (usually unconscious) sense of mortality and “doors closing” begins to encroach, males have been known to act foolishly in order to hold on to or recapture their youth. A fast, new model car will suffice on occasion, but the stereotyped search for a new model “trophy” love is certainly something I’ve encountered in my clinical practice. It has been known to take the form of a rekindled high school or college romance, as well, for those men less concerned about external appearances and more about “the road not taken.”

However the crisis manifests itself, the crisis-driven actions inevitably fail to find the “Fountain of Youth” that is their real goal. Grudgingly or not, one must accept one’s mortality and the accompanying aging process or make some big and painful mistakes, costly to yourself and to others around you, as the price of trying to hold onto an identity whose time has passed. Dylan Thomas wrote, “do not go gentle into that good night,” but, gentle or not, go we will.

A few years beyond the mid-life crisis stage, most men and women find themselves thinking about different things than they were in their youth. Thoughts related to sex diminish and thoughts about aches and pains increase. In both cases, the mind is reminded by the body of one and not the other. The only difference is that the body steals upon you with sexual thoughts and feelings while young and, as these diminish, perversely tries to make up for it with sensations that hurt more! If you are like me, the first change you notice is that you actually have knees. Now, for the first time, you are aware of the work they do, and the knowledge is not consoling. These thoughts and sensations make their own contribution to who you are.

Finally, Richard Posner, the public intellectual, scholar, and judge has asked an interesting question about identity. What if, Posner wonders, we send a young man to prison for a serious crime, but he reforms himself and becomes an admirable human being during his lifetime confinement? Are we still punishing the same man 40 years after the wrong has been done? Certainly his name is the same and his history marks him as the same man. But his personality might have been altered by rehabilitation, reflection, experience, study, faith, or any or all of the aforementioned.

I hope that it is clear that identity is not so simple a thing. It is made up of one’s history and those histories of one’s forebears. At least partially, it is a function of a name and a place and a time, whether friendly to a person or not, particularly if society is prejudiced. Physical characteristics, too, play their part, as do what we think and what we do; and, of course, whether we have much self-awareness or, instead, see ourselves as different from who we really are.

And, it is a thing that can change — that must change — as we age and take on new roles in our families and in our community; and as changes occur not just in our mind’s eye, but in the mirror.

It is worth some thought, I think, that question with which I began.

Who are you?

The image is called Pentaeagondodekaeder by Lokilech, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Jerry, Raya, and the Shadow

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Do you ever find yourself thinking of an old childhood friend? Someone you haven’t seen in an age?

My friend Jerry lived across the alley from me in Chicago’s West Rogers Park neighborhood.

If you grew up in the suburbs, you probably don’t know much about alleys. I met some of my best friends there, playing lots of softball in the narrow confines of cement bordered by an endless row of garages on each side. I learned to climb roofs to retrieve softballs that landed there and (like my friends) occasionally beat a hasty retreat when a line-drive shattered a garage door window.

Jerry wasn’t much of a softball player. He had dark brown hair combed straight back, handsome features, and a smile of devastating charm. His eyes could be impish and alive as he stood there in the shadow of one of the garages on a summer evening taking a drag on his cigarette, especially when he talked about something slightly naughty for a 12-year-old, like sex.

Or they could be sad and mournful, as if he knew something that none of the rest of us knew about.

His parents were Holocaust survivors.

He lived with them on the first floor of a two-flat building. He had a sister, I seem to recall. His aunt and her husband owned the upstairs flat. Jerry’s mom, a sweet woman who had likely once been very pretty, was always kind to me; but worn out, faded in appearance, weary, looking older than my mom, although they were probably about the same age.

Jerry’s father was short, with a bristly, full head of salt-and-pepper, almost angry hair. He was never mean, but there was a grim severity about him, a desperate seriousness. I never once saw him smile.

Jerry told me that his dad disapproved of him. Jerry’s relatively poor school work was the reason. I could never understand why Jerry didn’t do better at his studies. He could be witty and clever — he was certainly bright enough. But, he didn’t have much interest or heart for it, seemed not to try very hard, even was held back by a half-year, winding up in my eighth grade class despite the fact that he should already have been in high school.

I remember one conversation. Something about money. Jerry told me that his parents were pretty careful with their money and didn’t want him to spend it unwisely. But, he said, there was one exception. “They say that for food I can have as much money as I want — so I can buy it anytime I want.” Peculiar, I thought. Nice of them, I guessed. But, it stuck there in my mind, not fitting somehow, an inconsistency that I couldn’t fully understand.

My friendship with Jerry dropped away in high school. He continued to struggle in school and we both gravitated toward other people. I don’t think he graduated, but I heard that he eventually got his GED (high school equivalency degree).

When I was in college or graduate school I ran into him on the bus. We had one of those semi-awkward reunions, catching up on our lives, not having much more than that to say. Jerry was then a hair dresser. And, I suspect, a good one, since he always had an artistic flair.

I met Raya in college. She was tall and very pretty, with wavy, long brown hair. Her form was willowy, and she moved with the grace of a dancer, as if trying, in her fluid motion, not to disturb the air. Raya spoke with an accented English, having come to this country with her parents from Israel only a few years before.

It was hard not to find Raya attractive, but she was very quiet and conversations were always a struggle. I find that curious in looking back, because you’d think that I would have asked her tons of questions about her life in Israel and how it was different than Chicago.

Maybe I did.

Nonetheless, Raya and I went on two or three dates. I remember the first one, driving to her home to pick her up and meeting her father there. He reminded me of Jerry’s dad: a very strong and dark presence, grave, serious, not to be trifled with.

At the time, I probably wrote that off to the protective relationship between a father and a daughter. As I said at my youngest’s wedding, the job of being a father to a beautiful daughter is not an easy one. You spend a lot of time thinking unkind thoughts about little boys, wondering what plots they might be hatching to ensnare your female child!

In any case, Raya and I went to a movie that evening, the highly rated The Pawn Broker starring Rod Steiger. I didn’t know anything about it, just that it was the movie on everyone’s lips. I don’t think Raya knew much about it either.

It turned out to concern a man, played by Steiger, who lost his family in the Holocaust, later becoming a pawn broker in Spanish Harlem; and especially about his relationship with a young Hispanic man who works for him, and a social worker who attempts to draw him back into the world from the dark, shadowy place into which he retreated after his wartime experience.

It was not long into the film before I noticed that Raya was quietly weeping. I asked her if she was OK, but she tried to minimize her upset. And when the movie was over, she told me that her parents were concentration camp survivors.

Now, you’d think I would have been more careful about this, about what exactly the movie was about and who exactly was this pretty girl underneath her surface beauty and grace.

But, to my discredit, I hadn’t been.

Apparently, Raya didn’t hold this against me particularly, because we went out one or two other times. But, as I said, it was difficult to generate conversation and we parted in a not-unfriendly way. Perhaps there were things too deep for words, things that one simply couldn’t talk about on a “date” with someone you hardly knew.

It might be of interest to you to know that the word “Holocaust” was not immediately applied to the genocidal murder of six million Jews by the Nazis during World War II. In fact, if you watch the old 1959 Alfred Hitchcock movie North by Northwest, you will see in the scene just following Cary Grant’s narrow escape in a corn field, a prominent newspaper headline using the word “holocaust” to describe the explosion of an oil truck when it collided with a low flying airplane.

These days, that word is rarely applied to anything except the European Jewish experience of the 1930s and 1940s.

Today, April 12, 2010, is Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Back in the time that I was in high school, the 1960s, virtually no reference was made to these events. One simply did not talk about them in any great depth and it was not the subject of special study or attention in class. In fact, this failure to mention it was particularly true of the homes of most of the survivors. But, the children of these unfortunate people, mostly about my age, came to know enough about what happened to their parents to give them special consideration, and to try to protect them and compensate them for what they lost in the European tragedy.

It was a heavy burden for the generation just behind the survivors, one written about for the first time by Helen Epstein in the classic book, Children of the Holocaust. For everyone else among Jewish children of the time, the shadow of the event was there, even without a name. Simply the idea that but for the accident of time and  place — had you been born just a few years earlier in Europe — you would have almost certainly been a human target in a deadly game, along with everyone else you loved.

Long after my relationships with Jerry and Raya ended, I was reading a book by a French Holocaust survivor in which he described his return to Paris. It was within a few months of his homecoming. The man was on the subway, close to two teenage girls who were talking together. He heard one say how hungry she was; “I’m starving,” she said.

The survivor knew the words, understood the meaning, and thought to himself, “I have no idea what she is talking about.” Put another way, this man knew “starvation” to mean the severe malnourishment that he experienced in a concentration camp, not the colloquial, everyday meaning that the girl was giving it, an expression he might have used himself in the time before the war.

When I read that passage, I flashed back to my conversation with Jerry, the one when he told me a bit about his parents’ exception to their usual cautiousness with money: “They say that for food I can have as much money as I want — so I can buy it anytime I want.”

And then, I understood just a little bit, what they must have meant.

I wonder where they are now, Jerry and Raya.

I wonder who they are now.

It would be nice to know.

The image above is Russian Stamp No. 583 created by Russian Post, Beylin V., painter. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Moral Choices

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It is easy to judge others, but are not without blind spots in judging ourselves. In the domain of moral choices, this becomes particularly problematic. How many times have you heard or thought to yourself, “If I were he, I would have done that differently.” Or perhaps, “If I were he, I wouldn’t have done what he did.” But how many times have you said to yourself, “If I’m honest, if I were in the same situation, I really don’t know what I would have done.”

I’ve listed below a few such moral dilemmas, some drawn from real life accounts. I hope you will put yourself in each one and ask yourself three questions:

1. What is the right thing to do?

2. Would I do the right thing?

3. Am I absolutely sure what the right thing is?

A. If you have seen the 1957 movie Abandon Ship, you know the moral quandary in which Alec Holmes (Tyrone Power) finds himself. Holmes is second in command of a luxury ocean liner which strikes a mine. He takes charge of a life boat when the captain (Lloyd Nolan) dies from injuries sustained in the explosion. The small vessel is seriously overcrowded (including numerous people who are hanging on from ocean-side), has limited supplies of food and medicine, and is in shark-infested waters with only small amounts of  shark repellent in hand. Those hoping to survive include the young and old of both genders, some of whom have been grievously injured as the ship went down.

Soon they become aware that no SOS was sent, because the explosion destroyed the radio. Concluding that no rescue ship will be looking for them, Holmes determines the infirm and weakest must be ordered off the so that the remaining individuals can have a chance at survival by rowing the very great distance to the nearest land mass, with enough food to sustain them until they reach it. What would you do if you were in charge?

B. This comes from the oral history of a Holocaust survivor as described in Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory by Lawrence Langer. Imagine that you are one among many Jews swept up in the Shoah (the Hebrew word for the Holocaust). You have been separated from your parents. You aren’t certain whether they are alive or dead. In fact, the Nazis have taken a large group of Jews, including your mother, to a place in the forest. They have required these people, at gun point, to dig a long, deep trench. While doing this, the soldiers are joking, smoking, and drinking. Once the trench has been dug to an adequate depth, a handful of the soldiers shoot their machine guns at the diggers along the line of the trench. Some are killed instantly, some dive into the trench to escape the gun fire, and others are wounded to various degrees of severity.

Meanwhile, you are far from this action. Perhaps you heard the gun fire in the distance. But once it is finished, the Nazis assemble a group of Jews to fill in the trench, to cover over their dirty work, quite literally. You are in this group, assigned to this grisly task. The soldiers have their guns on you and your co-workers, reminding you to work quickly or else. Much moaning and screams of pain are heard from this place. And one more thing: From the trench in front of you, a familiar voice is also heard, quite distinctly. It is your mother’s voice. She is telling you that she is not wounded and pleads for your help. What should you do? What would you do?

C. You are Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek expedition to Troy, provoked to war by the abduction of Helen of Troy, the wife of your brother Menelaeus. Before you and your 1000 ships can reach Troy, however, your fleet is stuck in place, stopped by the intercession of a god named Artemis. Time passes. Your supplies of food and water are dissipating. In addition to your family responsibility to defend the honor of your younger brother and help him retrieve his wife, you are aware that Zeus, the most powerful and important of the gods, has demanded that you sail to Troy. A seer is consulted to determine what might be done to appease the god Artemis and enable the fleet to be launched. You are told that you must sacrifice your virgin daughter, who is not far away. What should you do? What would you do?

D. The economy is tough. You have been out of work for some time. You don’t want to lose your home or apartment, and you are afraid that if you can’t find work soon, that might eventually happen. But, you’ve been networking, and it finally pays off. You are offered a job selling AK-47s, assault weapons that fire 600 rounds per minute, whose principal use is to kill people. While you would only be expected to sell these arms to “legitimate” buyers, you are also aware that the AK-47 is one of the world’s most frequently smuggled weapons and the rifles you sell are likely to get into the hands of criminals and drug lords. Should you take the job? What would you do?

E. An elderly aunt dies, one you have not seen in many years. She has named you the sole beneficiary of her estate, a total of $600,000. You are doing well financially, so the money is not a necessity for you, but you can certainly imagine an enormous number of uses for it (including charitable giving), not to mention the fact that it would allow you some peace of mind, knowing that you will be even more financially secure. You also have two siblings and two cousins, none of whom were more or less close to your aunt than you were. You are under no legal obligation to share the money with them, but you wonder whether you should. What would you do?

F. You are politically “pro-life.” You have campaigned for candidates who believe, as you do, in the sanctity of life from the moment of conception. You believe that abortion is murder, without qualification. Financially stable, you have donated money to prevent abortion. A young woman approaches you, someone you know, and who knows and respects the aforementioned beliefs. She is pregnant out-of-wedlock. She would like you to adopt her child. She knows that your two children, who you had when you were quite young, are grown, and believes you would be just the right parents for the new life she carries inside of her, in part because of your moral stance against abortion. She is terrified to give up her child to someone she doesn’t know and who might not provide the kind of home that she believes you and your spouse can provide. But the two of you had decided some time ago that you only wanted two children and, in fact, you have been looking forward to any empty nest and to the freedom it would permit you while you are still in your 40s. What should you do? What would you do?

G. The Holocaust again. This time you are a German gentile. You have a spouse and children. You are not wealthy, but you are getting by. You are not sympathetic to Hitler, but well aware of how the Gestapo works, and that anything seen by them as disloyal to Hitler and the Reich would likely cause you to be interrogated, perhaps sent to a concentration camp, or worse. Your family depends on you for their livelihood. A Jew comes to your door after dark. You know him, but only very casually. He asks you to hide him. You have heard rumors about what is happening to the Jews once they are sent away and, in fact, have been told by a witness that they are being murdered. What should you do? What would you do?

I am not here to give you answers to these questions, assuming that I would be able to come up with just one acceptable moral choice; or that I am some sort of moral authority, which I am not. It can be argued that some of these situations do not allow for a “right” action; not all situations in life offer absolute clarity. Life can be complicated, as these examples demonstrate.

To be sure, none of us are as good as we could be, but that does not mean what is good is always apparent. Indeed, in Aeschylus’s telling of Agamemnon’s story, the title character utters the words “(Which) of these things (choices) goes without disaster?” in describing the the conflict between his public responsibilities as leader of his troops, head of his (and his brother’s family), and the demands of the gods Zeus and Artemis versus his private responsibility as the father of young Iphigenia. The heart break is readily apparent in this man’s dilemma of whether to honor all the aforementioned interests except the one closest to his heart in “such sacrifice of (the) innocent blood…(of) the beauty of my house.”

On a daily basis, we can only do our best to lead moral, principled lives. Not just to talk about it, or formally worship a deity on a holy day, or even to donate some money, but to weave those beliefs into the fabric of daily, commonplace interactions, and try not to fool ourselves when we fall short; to minimize the everyday fibs, moral compromises, and inconsiderations; to show kindness, be forthright, go out of our way for others. To do what is right when no one is looking.

On the other hand, if we want to find out if our morality goes the distance, then we have to be tested — confronted with something difficult and costly, if not dangerous, if not horrible in its implications, as in the examples I’ve given you above; and until then, be humble, not knowing exactly what we would do.

Being a “nice person” is easy enough … until the chips are down.

Most of us won’t ever know the answers to the kinds of questions I have posed, that is, what we would do if actually faced with them.

Best not to know, I think.

The photo above called Choices, choices… is the work of Duncan Lilly, originally sourced from geograph.org.uk, sourced for this blog from Wikimedia Commons.