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.

Death Tour 2014: Everyday Magic, Day 797

Portrait of the artist recovering with her cat
Portrait of the artist recovering with her cat

Within one week, I attended my uncle’s moving funeral in New Jersey, our dear community friend Maggie’s beautiful memorial service in Lawrence, and gave four Holocaust book presentations in the Kansas towns of Newton, Hutchinson, Hillsboro and McPherson. I’m beyond weary, but also inspired by the love that edged everywhere I went and most everyone I met.

The funeral for my very funny and lively uncle took place on a brilliantly blue day, where we gathered at the grave site for a short ceremony. The rabbi told about my uncle’s spirit, and his unwavering love for my aunt as the wind lightly blew and the sun brightly shone. We took turns dropping three or more shovel-fulls of dirt on the simple wooden coffin, and then the Bloom men (nephews, son, cousins, brother) continued until the grave was filled. While my trip did entail long days of flying each way, and a whole lot of driving through New Jersey, it was full of appreciation for family, great meals at diners, and laughing hysterically and mom while rolling down various highways.

The service for our friend Maggie today was sparkling with soul. Beautiful music, especially a bass solo played by one of Maggie’s nephews, and heart-opening remembrances her her brother, son and husband all culminated in the 500 or so people there standing up to sing “This Little Light of Mine” together. This is the same song a bunch of sang at her window about a month ago on a snowing March day as we sheltered our candles from the wind and leaned into each other for warmth. There’s a lot to say about the injustice of such an alive person dying from cancer at the age of only 49, but there’s even more to say about her legacy of love.

In between the funerals, I traveled with my friend Liz to a bunch of south-central communities to give presentations on my book Needle in the Bone: How a Holocaust Survivor and Polish Resistance Fighter Beat the Odds and Found Each Other. Four talks in three days meant I occasionally forgot what I told each audience, and what was left to tell. Nevertheless, the audiences surpassed expectations and numbers everywhere, especially in the small town of Hillsboro, where over 100 people came out to learn more about the Holocaust and the Polish resistance. When I showed photos of Lou’s extended family, all of whom were killed in the Holocaust, I was reminded of how, in some small way, of how right it is to remember and acknowledge these people and their lives.

Now that the week is over, I sit on the porch with Shay the dog, the wind blows fiercely, and we await whatever comes next, which might likely be another nap, with a grateful heart.

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.

Needle in the Bone Book Launch: Everyday Magic, Day 660

44700_4069537058430_72832791_n“Is this the High Holy Days?” a friend asked me as the crowd swarmed into the Lawrence Jewish Community Congregation for the Needle in the Bone launch party. With over 150 people finding seats around tables, against the walls, in the lobby outside the social hall, or simply standing in corners, it looked a little like we might launch into “Kol Nidre” instead of a presentation on this book about the survival and friendship of two local men, one a Holocaust survivor and one a Polish resistance fighter.

All day leading up to the event was a combination of all-okay and all-not-okay because, as Jarek said during the launch, “This is also very sad day because two people aren’t here.” When I started this book, it was about four people — Lou and Jane Frydman, and Jarek and Maura Piekalkiewicz. With both Maura and Lou dying in recent years, and on the same date (January 24 – 2011 for Maura and 2012 for Lou), it’s both tender and heartbreaking to share their stories with the community without them here.

Community came in abundance: well over 150 people showed up, the books sold out in a flash with many orders for more, and people listened intently to the presentation. Ken told me that the power point slide show about Lou and Jarek’s lives revealed just how important family was to each, starting with the family they lost and ending with the family they made in a new land.

Jarek spoke about he had a choice as to whether to risk his life against the Nazis, but Lou and other Jews didn’t have such a choice. He pointed out that Lou’s survival aimed Lou toward a life of family and service, reforming mental health laws that were damaging to children. He also said that even if Jews didn’t have saints, Lou was a saint to him as well as to many of us because of Lou’s heart and humor.

Jane told of how Lou survived, partially because of how smart his parents, brother and he was in thinking on their feet at crucial moments, and mostly because of “dumb luck,” such as the train out of the Warsaw Ghetto not going to Treblinka, which barely anyone survived an hour, but in saving grace, going to Majdanek instead. The near misses — while hiding in Warsaw on the Aryan side, in the camps, and even on the death march — kept Lou alive, but it was also his parents’ legacy that he could think so quickly and clearly on a dime of what to do or say to save his life.

I told about the four themes of the book, which I grappled with when writing it and will always grapple with: 1) What it means to survive such trauma, and how we carry such trauma within us; 2) The relationship of Poles to Jews when it comes to both anti-Semitism and how so many Polish families risked everything to save Jews; 3) The nature of good and evil, and how such a thing could happen; and 4) How we stand or could stand in relation to atrocities such as the Holocaust. Here is an excerpt of what I read:

Both Lou and Jarek bear an obligation, based on the holocausts they each went through, to create, educate, and make a difference. Maybe it’s a Jewish thing, a need to draw nourishment from the painful memory of near-annihilation: “The ultimately Jewish statement is the Messianic statement. We say this world will be redeemed; we say that human life will ultimately be worth everything. Anne Frank wrote in her diary that if she survived the war, she understood that she would have to make something of her life. The rabbis told us that the Messianic act is achieved when, in the face of total destruction, people choose to take on the grubbiness, the difficulties, the complexities of recreating life at all costs,” writes Eli Wiesel. Or maybe this is even more a human thing.

Surely, the weight of an experience such as the Holocaust is made bearable only by what we can make out of the wreckage.

In the end, there were lines of people hugging us and having us sign books, laktes, Kelley’s cookies, Terry’s vegetarian meatballs and lots of treats to eat, lingering visits while cleaning and packing up.

As Lou was dying, I knew he didn’t believe anything happened to us after death but that we simply and completely were no more. I believe quite the opposite, that the soul lives on (and not just in the hearts of loved ones). I told Lou that if I was right and he was wrong, he should send me a sign. This morning, I woke up to realize last night was a sign as well as a high holy day of its own.

Thank you to all who helped: the Lawrence Jewish Community for passing on all the food, drinks and wine left over from the Hanukkah celebration and hosting us, the Raven Bookstore, my husband Ken who worked with me for hours to prepare for and clean up from the event (as well as set up the AV), and many who helped: Sandy Snook, Kelley Hunt and Al Berman, Eve Levin, Forest Lassman and others. Special thanks to Jane and Jarek.

Riding in a Convertible With Books: Everyday Magic, Day 654

1202121400Planning a book tour is a mysterious process that leads to great mystery when reality hits the pavement. Sometimes there are hours of exhausting travel only to arrive at a bookstore where no one bothered to post a flyer you sent them. Or there are occasional landings in vast places (such as a lovely chapel that seats 800) to discover the audience consists of three. Even the best divination tools doesn’t mean a writer won’t find herself reading to someone falling asleep while a baby screams like Ella Fitzgerald nearby.

I’ve adopted an attitude of trying to love whatever the readings might bring, even if it’s mostly the sound of my own voice reading a passage in my book that I enjoy. If I can connect with one person in the audience, even if that’s the whole audience, I figure there’s some value. Maybe afterwards, I thrash around and complain, but eventually, I come back to how doing readings is about leading with the heart. Sometimes, the wind hits you head-on and sometimes the wind is at your back.

2012_chrysler_200-convertible_actf34_ns_12811_717Like today. But that was, in part, because of the convertible. It turns out that  my inner administrative assistant, months ago when I wasn’t paying attention, snagged a convertible for me to drive around Florida (yes, the same one in this photo!). Finding a coupon for a cheap car with removable lid was far easier than removing that lid. Flash forward to this morning when my lovely sister and brother-in-law helped me figure out how to get the top off. It’s not as easy as you’d think, but thankfully, my sister’s past-life experience working in the car rental universe taught her a few tricks (including where rental cars hide their manuals), and we discovered the secret to  making the top of the car fold itself into the back trunk.

Next thing I know, I’m on a lidless road trip on a perfect Florida day, heading to the panhandle for a reading in Tallahassee. Alternating cialis for sale mexico between E. Street radio, showtunes, spa music, coffee house folk tunes and occasional songs by Sinatra, Yes and Tanya Tucker (Sirius radio — who knew!), I drove close to 300 miles. Ample breezes abounded until sometime in Gainesville, getting too wind-blown to remember my middle name, I converted the car back to its lid-on state.

In the end, I found the beginning: the first reading for Needle in the Bone: How a Holocaust Survivor & Polish Resistance Fighter Beat the Odds and Found Each Other with the book in hand, and what’s more, happening in the home of that Polish resistance fighter’s daughter. Ellen and Marek were outrageously wonderful, turning their home into a perfect venue for such a reading. Between wine and cheese, the reading (which also included an excerpt from The Divorce Girl), and chili dinner afterwards brought people together to really visit, talk about the book and catch up with each other, ask me questions about the process, and enjoy astonishing chocolate peppermint pie and carrot cake. We ended with a small group of us warming ourselves outside around the primordial (and literal) fire in the outdoor fireplace Marek built. I was especially moved by a Polish woman telling me how important it was to share stories of Poles who saved Jews (“Every Polish family has a story,” she told me), and a young Polish man telling how his grandfather’s family saved a large Jewish family by feeding and housing them for five years.

In the quiet that follows, I sit before a large arch-shaped window, my heart full, the luggage lighter, and the green world around us alive with weather, change and motion. Tomorrow, the car, books and I go east to the ocean for another reading. I’ll push that magic button before I go, let the car fold up its top so that I can feel the sun and wind, blessings upon blessings.