The Light, the Dark, and a Road Trip to Western Kansas: Everyday Magic, Day 890

IMG_1217This week, we drove 350 miles west one day, 350 miles east the next, with a lot of darkness and light in between. Ken and I went to Colby, Kansas so I could talk about Needle in the Bone: How a Holocaust Survivor and Polish Resistance Fighter Beat the Odds and Found Each Other, the book I wrote about the lives of Lou Frydman and Jarek Piekalkiewicz.

I first presented the book to the marvelous Pioneer Memorial Library, which brought together close to 80 people in the basement for lunch and a journey into the darkness of the Holocaust and WWII, especially how both Jarek and Lou survived by their wits, unusual luck and grace, and went on to make lives of meaning in the U.S. Then it was off to the local high school, where I got to talk to 90 16- and 17-year-olds about it all again, this time focusing more on what it means to survive, the dangers of Holocaust denial, and the power of resilience.

After both talks, people came up afterwards to ask if it was painful for me to talk about this topic, which made me wonder why it isn’t. Maybe it’s because I’ve given so many talks and classes on the book since it came out three years ago, or that I’ve just numbed myself to the killing and torturing that I’m showing images of and reading excerpts about (although I tend to avoid the more horrifying details in one-time public presentations). What happened — how Lou’s father was killed during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and Jarek’s mother was shot during the Warsaw Uprising a year later — is still and will be horrendous, along with so many stories of lives cut short in brutal ways put into motion by the worst parts of humans.

Yet there is something else that I experience each time I talk about the books and the guys’ lives: that sense of blessing they gave me by entrusting me with their stories, by encouraging me to write this book and share it widely. I feel like I get to carry and display a beautiful artwork, a mosaic of broken glass threaded with deep blue, flashes of red, gold and green, altogether not quite a vase or bowl, but open to hold the remnants of lives well-lived. These remnants include Lou’s laughter as he told me about how he knew his school was taken over by Nazis because of the giant swastika flag, or Maura (Jarek’s wife) putting her arms around Lou and Jarek at our Hanukkah party years ago, saying it was good to have the lads together. There’s Jarek putting on his British corps uniform to show me it still fit, and Jane (Lou’s wife) telling her story of threading through Nazi Germany, thanks to the wits of her mother, to get from Budapest to America. I get to shepherd these stories and many more to people, some of whom have never met a Jew before, and all of whom are amazingly interested in IMG_1253what Lou, Jarek and others surviving the Holocaust and the Polish Resistance movement made of their lives. “Like a needle in the bone,” one of the high school students said when when we were talking about what most survivors of genocides carry with them. The students among him nodded in understanding, all of them attuned to how Lou and Jarek were teenagers like them during the war, and look at what these men were able to do.

On the way home, after downing some enchiladas while Ken drove, we hit the Smoky Hills at the same time sunset did, everything golden and lit from far-off light. We have hours more to drive, but I couldn’t stop taking pictures out the windows of everything illuminated, the contrast between light and dark so vivid.

Unanswered Calls for Help and the Holocaust: Everyday Magic, Day 692.

Today I was honored to be the keynote speaker at the State of Kansas Holocaust Commemoration at the Kansas History Museum in Topeka, KS. Here is my talk. Thanks to the organizing committee for this very moving event that featured music from middle school students, readings, prayers and a beautiful candle-lighting ceremony.

An Unanswered Letter, An Unanswered Call for Help: What the Holocaust Shows Us About Caring Enough to Take Action

I’m deeply honored to speak to share some of the story of the late Lou Frydman, who is the subject along with Polish resistance fighter Jarek Piekalkiewicz in my book Needle in the Bone: How a Holocaust Survivor and Polish Resistance Fighter Beat the Odds and Found Each Other. What Lou and Jarek would say echoes all of what we’re contemplating today, especially what Rep. Paul Davis read from Elie Wiesel: “We must take sides,” and from caring enough, we must take action.

I want to share with you warning signs of the Holocaust, on the personal and global levels, that went unheeded, and what we can learn from these answered calls.

1. An Unanswered Letter

When Lou Frydman began sharing with me his oral history of the Holocaust, he started with me the most important letter he ever received: one his mother Rywa Frydman wrote 70 years ago and which Lou only received a copy of a decade ago. He was thrilled to see his mother’s handwriting as she wrote to a family friend, imploring her to help place Lou and and his brother Abe in Christian homes where they could be hidden for the war. The letter was probably written in March or April of 1943 when the Frydmans lived in the Warsaw Ghetto between years in hiding, and either death or concentration camps.


Rywa Frydman wrote with heart-breaking candor, “The world belongs to the brave, but I have lost my bravery, my nerve, with everything else. I have especially lost my trust in people….Thirty-two of us live in one room, sleeping on tables….it is not possible to go out to the street. We are with people who have, in most cases, lost most of their family members. They are demoralized, have no faith in anything, no longer even feel any pain. It is difficult to live in such surroundings.” She went on to ask,


Regarding our placement, the truth is that I would like all of us to live together. Why should my fate be better than anyone else’s? On the other hand, one would like to live. The world is so nice.


If you could place Lolek (Lou) by himself and me and Aba (her husband) together, I would never leave the house at all, but I would like to be assured that those around knew of my family situation. Please kindly take care of this matter as I think that this is likely to be my last request of you. I worry that we may not succeed as time is fast running out. Whatever you can do, dear lady, please do it now – let’s have a clear conscience that everything was done that could have been done. Beyond this, I feel at peace. I hold no ill feelings toward anyone……At this moment I have become very emotional and am crying like an old lady. I have received so much kindness from you and I believe I have not deserved it – this causes me much pain.


We don’t know if the dear friend actually received this letter, sent a reply that didn’t arrive in time, or, fearing for her own life (as Poles who helped Jews were regularly sent to concentration camps or shot) didn’t answer at all. But we do know that on April 28, 1943, the final residents of the Warsaw Ghetto were ferreted out of the 600 underground bunkers and other hiding places. They shipped to Treblinka to be gassed to death, or toward other camps to mostly die and, very rarely, survive. Lou’s father Chaim Mejer Frydman was shot that day along with the other men from the bunker where his family had hidden with other 400 other Jews. Rwya Frydman went to a concentration camp, where she was killed. Lou and Abe, only 13 and 14 years at the time, went onto six concentration camps, starting with one of the most brutal, and three death marches (two for Abe), until, two years later, they found their way toward freedom and a new life. They were the only ones not murdered during out of dozens of people in their large and loving family.

2. Warning Signs

When it comes to any genocide, and especially the Holocaust — which was the most mechanized, planned-out, coldly calculated genocide in our history — we need ask how this could have happened. In the case of the Holocaust, the warning signs were incremental, starting with Hitler stripping Jews of their rights, starting in 1933, in what seemed like a nonsensical pattern. Each small change conditioned the Jews to believe if they could just make it through the next incremental insult, they might survive. After 1933, when political demonstrations were first banned in Germany and the Nazis opened Dachau for their political opponents, each month brought new changes. n 1934, Germany began to sterilize people the Nazis considered “unfit.” That same year, Jews were forbidden to act in theaters or grow vegetables. Jews were soon forbidden to own property, swim or buy milk. After Kristallnacht, when mobs were encouraged by German police and to smash the windows of Jewish businesses and burn synagogues to the ground, the German government began sending Jews to concentration camps as well as expelling Jewish children from German school and “aryanizing” – turning over to non-Jews – all Jewish businesses. The same year, Jews in Dresden were forbidden, oddly enough, to own combs or to cut flowers.


The overall state of denial, even among the victims, speaks to how the Holocaust’s impossibility – or at least, its supposed impossibility – turned into the systematic annihilation. Put into action by extensive coordination between government agencies, this denial made killing easy, almost second nature, for those involved. Furthermore, because it tended to traumatize buy cialis online melbourne German soldiers to shot hundreds of Jews each day, the mechanized gas chambers took hold, often staffed by concentration camp prisoners who would lead new arrivals in, and afterwards, remove and sort any remaining valuables for the Nazis.


Yet there’s another element that Lou pointed out to me that was essential to the plan: the power of the group. Lou said that Hitler succeeded in making the German people feel like they belonged. That sense of belonging is key, connecting people to a common identity. From sharing such a strong sense of belonging and purpose, it’s easier for one people to dehumanize another people, to see them as less than livestock or manufactured products; as only a problem to be eliminated.


We just celebrated Passover, a holiday based on a story of oppression and liberation in which Pharoah hardened his heart against the plight of the Jews. A hardened heart is what fueled the machinery of mass murder and the heartbreak for generations for come. A hardened heart — playing out in indifference or hatred, turning away from those in pain or turning toward them with anger — allows us to distance from the reality of other people’s very real and beating hearts.

3. An Unanswered Call

“Let me tell you a story,” Lou says. “In 1975, Jane and I visited the death camps, including Treblinka, where most of the Jews from Warsaw were gassed. To get to Treblinka, at least to where the gas chambers were, you had to pass over an inland bridge. It wasn’t over water. If this bridge were destroyed, Treblinka would be useless until they could rebuild it. It would take them years. The Underground never touched the bridge, but neither did the damn Allies.”


This story is one of many. The Underground government of Poland, while very effective at damaging the German war effort, and even more so, the Allies, hardly ever liberated a camp, nor attacked a transport so that people could escape.


Lou continues, “With Dachau, the camp I was liberated from [at the end of the war], the American troops were sent in by accident…..We were written off. We were prematurely dead. Nobody expected us to survive.”


In the end, there were only verbal protests. The U.S. Government held that planes to bomb the camps couldn’t be spared, asserting that “such an effort, even if practicable, might provoke even more vindictive [acts] by the Germans,” in the words of John J. McCloy, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of War. Other fighters in this conflict, while sympathetic to the plight of the Jews in ghettos and camps, were focused on their own agendas.


Lou went on to tell me, “In fact, Hitler, in one of his speeches, in 1939 or 1940, commented on it. He said, ‘Look, nobody will cry for what we are doing to them.’” Lou showed me documentation of a British diplomat who said the Jews were the Nazi’s responsibility, and the Allies shouldn’t interfere.


What Lou says is confirmed by my research. “The terrible truth was that in ten crucial years, 1933-1943, there were over 400,000 unfilled places within U.S. immigration quotas for refugees from countries under Hitler’s rule. Each place unfilled was a sentence of death for a European Jew.” According to the United States Holocaust Museum and other statistics I’ve found, many countries turned away from taking on refugees who might have escaped the gas chambers had their visas been approved.


There is ample research to show just how much the Allied governments knew about the Holocaust, and just how little was done. There are millions of people — including very likely one third to one half of all Germans, according to research, who knew what was happening and didn’t intervene. While the whole tangle of unheeded calls is infinitely complex, the result is simply horrendous. We know that approximately 9 million people died in concentration camps, 6 million of whom were Jews, and even those who survived carried and carry within them galaxies of loss.

4. Heeding the Warning Signs: Answering the Call

“Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe,” as Elie Wiesel said and Rep. Davis shared with us. Answering the call also means stepping into the center of the universe: into what makes us human, into our birthright to care for each other and live with dignity. “The world belongs to the brave,” Rwya Frydman wrote in her unanswered letter, and also, “One would like to live. The world is so nice.” The world is so nice, despite and because of that space that lies between devastation and the life force.


Educating ourselves, in greater depth over time, about what humans are capable of at their worst, and what signs to heed as well as wonders to protect, is part of what makes us our best.


“What do you want people to know about the Holocaust?” I ask Lou.


“Everything! As much as possible.”


Yet learning what we can, grasping what we’re capable of grasping, and considering deeply the best course of action for the good of all must come first from opening our hearts, however hardened they’ve become, to seeing others as precious and alive, and through this vision, as part of who we are. Only through cultivating such compassion can we find the necessary clarity to see what is and what is needed, and the essential courage to speak, act and live with integrity for ourselves and dignity for all.


As Christians, as Jews, as Moslems, as Hindus, as Buddhists and as members of other faith traditions, and as Republicians or Democrats or Independents, we must overcome what divides us to step into the center of the universe at such crucial times. To get there, and to stay there, especially when it means working with others who have different perspectives than us, we are called upon to unharden our hearts so we can care enough to speak to injustice, speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, and speak up for life. Let’s not leave such calls for help unanswered.

For the Love of Lou: Lou Frydman’s Memorial Service: Everyday Magic, Day 560

Rick, Tess and Hannah singing “Sunrise, Sunset” to open the celebration

Today was the memorial service for Lou Frydman, my friend who I wrote about in a forthcoming book. The service was intensely moving with singing, poetry, stories and letters — even a remembrance with stage directions — shared from Lou’s children, grandchildren, brother-in-law, friends, students and fellow activists. Here is the talk and poem I shared.

Some years ago, Ken and I were having brunch — blintzes of course — with Lou, Jane, Jarek and Maura, and the thought I had been percolating for years — that someone should write a book of Lou’s story of the Holocaust, Jarek’s story of the Polish Underground, and their remarkable friendship — slipped out my lips. I asked them if I could write this story despite my repeated thoughts over the years that I shouldn’t offer such a thing because I was way too busy with work, writing and living in a household of teenagers. It was the best slip I ever made.

Although Lou and I disagreed about all things spiritual (or even the existence of spiritual), for me, receiving Lou’s story was one of the two greatest spiritual gifts of my life, the other being the wave of love and forgiveness I experienced at my father’s death. Lou’s story is obviously about survival, making a life in a new

John (Lou’s son) telling us that Lou was just like a father to him

world after the world he came from was destroyed and eliminated. Yet it’s also a story about how to live, particularly in light of the worst darkness humankind has experienced, that of the most systematic murder of millions.

In telling me his story, Lou didn’t just invite me in for the ride; he made sure my seat was well-padded with laughter to make the passing through all the places we would visit bearable for me. The worst the atrocity, the harder we laughed. One time I ran into Rick in the produce section of the Merc, and he told me, “My mom says you and Dad are laughing your asses off.” It was true, in some part because of the jokes Lou told me, like this one:

It turns out Hitler survived WWII and was in hiding in Argentina when some SS men find him and beg, “Please, Furor, can’t we just do it all again? Please?” Hitler thinks it over for a moment, sighs, and then says, “Well, alright, but this time, no more Mr. nice guy.”

Lou brought so much humor to his story that one of the many publishers that rejected the book — Needle in the Bone: How a Holocaust Survivor and Polish

Jarek, Lou and me in January

Resistance Fighter Beat the Odds and Found Each Other — said that Lou was too happy and obviously not coming to terms of what he had been through. This limited view of a Holocaust survivor is one of the many mythologies Lou sought to break through, and his story as well as his life is a testament to living outside narrow views, closed-mindedness and apathetic or frightened avoidance of what’s most wrong with the world.

But beyond the jokes, Lou constantly made me laugh, both of often laughing so much I would start to cry too. Lou had one of the greatest laughs of all time, and he also brought that laughter to his story not just to show how ludicrous the Nazis were (which, in addition to being evil to and beyond the bone, they were), but how life goes on despite and because of almost all his beloved — mother, father, cousins, aunts, uncles, friends — killed.

Lou’s story didn’t just teach me about survival and resiliency, but about what it means to live with our eyes and hearts wide open. His discernment of what he experienced was profound and precise, but he also saw what could be. The goodness he made out of his life was more expansive and higher than the depth and complexities of the evil he experienced.

Jane and Lou

When Lou’s cancer started metastasizing, and it seemed likely he didn’t have years left but only months, I decided to write him a poem. Having written a poem for Maura’s (may she rest in peace) memorial service, I knew I would want to read Lou a poem too, but why not write it while he was still here so he could have that too? Strangely enough, as some of you know, Lou died on the one year anniversary of Maura’s death. While I would much rather have had to dig this poem out years from now for Lou’s service, I’m sad to say now is the time, yet for me, Lou is still here — right in my heart.

For Lou, While He’s Still Here

“I won’t last long,” Lou says, his voice bright on the phone.

I pace the deck on a shining autumn morning, Lou stands

in his kitchen or walks to his couch, the books to re-read

marking his place. We talk of his health, his grandkids, my kids,

and of course, Nazis. “This one just cracks me up,” he says,

his voice rising to tell me what he found in the paper. Meanwhile,

more doctor’s appointments, his granddaughters’ college papers,

a magazine article in Polish, another book on what really happened.

Never paranoia in Lou’s case, but the simple clarity of facing

death too many times. He rifles through his memory, lands

on a story he wants to tell, and starts talking.

Almost 70 years ago, he fell asleep instantly each night in the camps,

his body trained on survival. He stood at attention when he had to,

shoveled or peeled or carried for hours, and walked until

he could no longer go on, ready to die. Having lived, he made a life

from tenderness and beyond the ruins of evil. Now he laughs about

how, after the darkest pain last night, he ended up, this morning,

drinking 7-up, amazed at how delicious it was. Meanwhile,

the cancer advances, the world continues to fall apart and

come together, brilliant photos of sea creatures come across

the internet, and his son shows up with home-made cookies.

If anyone can show us what it is to live, it’s Lou, who keeps close

the folders of news clippings, a photo of family at a costume party

before the war, receipts and visas, letters delivered years later.

The family long gone, and the family now here: all he lives for,

their entwined voices alive with laughter, urgency and calm,

stories and realizations, song and surprise because of him,

because of what he shows us about the love that endures.

Passover: Have a Taste of Life: Everyday Magic, Day 530

All week, it’s Passover preparation: hiding all the matzoh and matzoh soup mix (along with the macaroons — do not even ask where they are, my sons!) to keep my family from inhaling it all, stuffing massive amounts of vegetables into the refrigerator to be transformed into our traditional (for our Passover, at least) vegetarian shepherd’s pie, and rolling my eyes at the dog when he tries to eat the plastic glasses we would have been using. Tonight the men in my house clean while I cook. Tomorrow, we rent tables and chairs and carry them into position on the porch or in the dining room/living room. I don’t mind any of it; it’s my favorite holiday, hands down.

Yet this Passover, I feel both an outrageous abundance and accumulating grief nipping at my heels. Springtime is over-the-top ahead of itself to the point of impersonating summer, chiggers, ticks and all. The leaves on Cottonwood Mel have, in one week, poured themselves into full form, now fluttering in the wind. The rain came last night full-force, then the clouds and dampness earlier today, and now clear skies and crisp sunlight. Everything is everything.

At the same time, I’m thinking a lot of Lou Frydman, who has done Passover with us for many years. Two and a half months dead, and yet it still seems to me that he’s going to show up. I’m also thinking of Ben Zimmerman, who spent well over a dozen Passovers with us until he died at the end of his long, vibrant life. But. Yet. Strangely enough. I can’t reconcile the dead and the living at my sedar. It’s odd to me that Ben is gone although it’s been a long time. It’s odder x infinity that Lou is gone.

In the liberation, there’s oppression. In the lushness, there’s drought. In the beauty, there’s grief. Passover is a time to celebrate freedom while not forgetting freedom’s cost in human suffering. In the middle of it all, I love and miss Ben & Lou, and I love this moment of arrival that is Passover to me.

So this year, we’ll have not just our usual cup to Miriam and cup to Ben, but a cup to Lou. Someone or a few of us will drink all that wine, and in the middle of the sedar, we’ll eat the bitter herbs and sweet choroset together in the little matzoh sandwich, saying out loud, “Life is a mixture of the bitter and the sweet. Have a taste of life.”

For the Love of Lou Frydman, July 1, 1930 – January 24, 2012: Everyday Magic, Day 489

Jane and Lou

All last night I thought about Lou, waking between my dreams to wonder if he was still alive, feeling that sense of Lou-ness surrounding me. His voice is vivid to me (especially his laughter), and no wonder since I have dozens of hours of interviews with him and many years of hearing his stories of surviving and making a new life after all his family members, except for his brother, were killed in the holocaust that put him through six concentration camps and three death marches. I know Lou from the vantage point of being his friend, but also his biographer (for the book Needle in the Bone about the Lou and his dear friend, Jarek, who was a Polish resistance fighter during the war).

Jarek & Maura

All last night, I also thought of Jarek’s wife, Maura, who died on this precise day one year ago. Maura was so full of spirit and sass, laughter and outrageously entertaining stories that it’s still astonishing to comprehend that she simply stopped being alive a year ago today.

I awondered if Lou would die on this anniversary, especially after I saw him Sunday, lying so still on the hospital bed in the living room, only opening one eye in understanding when I kissed him goodbye. It turns out he did: at 3:30 this morning, peacefully at home with Jane by his side.

There are those who might say Lou lived a long life, with a notable second act supreme after surviving Budzyn, one of the most brutal concentration camps; the selection process at Auschwitz; and many near-death, nothing-left-to-lose experiences. But none of those rationales mean anything to me or those of us who love him: Lou is dead, and when someone you love dies, it is always too soon, and it always breaks your heart into a million pieces.

Driving to and from Topeka where I had dental work (a good diversion actually because the physical pain distracts from the broken heart), sometimes crying so hard that I kept taking wrong turns, I thought about Lou and his family. Although there was no way he wanted to die, at least he died the way he chose: at home, in the peace that befits such a gentle man, and with Jane beside him after many family members from Lawrence to Paris, San Antonio to Northampton, called and visited, told him how much he was and still is loved.

But what speaks to me most is how he lived. He found the strength to go on after his father was shot, mother was gassed, and extended family members were

Lou shortly after the war

killed. He survived starvation, illness, oceans of loss, greedy foster families, having to learn multiple languages on a dime, and moreover, the world in which he grew up being utterly destroyed beyond recognition. He and Jane, who was able to flee Europe with her parents before being sent to the camps, made a life here that rippled out into two more generations.

What Lou gave me — the gift of hearing his story, threaded with laughter that took the edge off the unimaginable horrors of it, and the gift of trusting me to convey his story to others — is one of the greatest gifts of my life.