29. November 2019 · Comments Off on Internal (and hateful) distinctions · Categories: Olio

I was interviewing someone about life in Jewish refugee camps after WWII and he mentioned something that floored me: refugees who survived concentration camps were looked down upon by those who survived by hiding, being partisans, or fleeing to the Soviet Union (and usually ending up in gulags). That bit of cultural info gave me context as to why my parents, who had close friends who survived concentration camps, would sometimes throw around the WWII-created Yiddish word kahtsetniker (concentration camp internee).

Everybody in those DP camps had suffered through horrors during WWII. Why would a community develop an ad-hoc pecking order that put those who suffered the most at the bottom?

As a child, I remember my parents experiencing a similar kind of cruelty in America. Many American-born Jews, geller (yellow ones, like ripe bananas) in Yiddish, wanted nothing to do with greener (green ones), Holocaust survivors. It was a strange psychology at work. Some viewed people like my parents, with their heavy accents and Old World ways, a threat to their hard won acceptance in American society. Others believed that survivors lived through the war only because they must have made contemptible compromises and sacrificed others (someone actually told me this when I was a kid and they were driving me and their son to the movies; I couldn’t wait to get out of the car). At least a few geller viewed my parents and their survivor friends like they were something out of a horror movie; they had the stain of death on them and these geller acted like it was contagious.

The pecking order Jews in Milwaukee created wasn’t universally accepted, but my parents were very aware of its existence. The lack of acceptance they experienced from geller when they arrived in America influenced who they chose for friends for the rest of their lives. They developed an outright antagonism toward American-born Jews, so much so that the worst insult they could throw my way was to say, in Yiddish, that I was acting like someone American born. It meant I was being lazy/phony/soft/insecure/dishonest/snobbish, take your pick.

Black Americans exhibit similar internal cruelty by discriminating against those with the darkest skin. Ashkenazi Israelis, generally of light skin, discriminate against Sephardic Israelis. But visual cues aren’t necessary for humans to invent internal hierarchies.

For me, insecurity partly explains why Poland was and continues to be pervasively anti-Semitic. Poland lost its nationhood for over a century and then, after a brief time of independence, was abandoned by the West and put under the thumb of the Soviet Union for fifty years. During WWII, millions of non-Jewish Poles were murdered. Poland, with a history of humiliation and worse, needed to lash out to feel better about itself over those years. It chose an internal group for the focus of its enmity, its own Jews.

It’s, no doubt, infuriating to some Poles that Polish suffering during WWII and the Soviet era has never received attention on the world stage. Instead, it’s Polish Jews who survived the war that are subjects of sympathy in movies and books. The world’s indifference to Poland’s long history of pain likely fuels more anti-Semitism (and has fueled the rise of Poland’s dreadful Law and Justice Party). Humans have the capacity for kindness, certainly, but they are also innately cruel.

I’ll stop my tendency to dwell on the dark side of humanity and end on a positive note. Anecdotally, younger Poles seem relatively free of anti-Semitism. Younger Ashkenazi Israelis seem relatively free of hatred toward Sephardic Jews. Perhaps young adults have invented new ugly and arbitrary internal distinctions. But maybe humanity is ever so gradually becoming less inclined to act upon its insecurity in pervasively awful ways. Maybe.

22. November 2019 · Comments Off on My (maybe) final third · Categories: Olio

I grew up around men who drank and smoked heavily, never exercised, whored around a bit and more or less contentedly dropped dead at around sixty five. As a kid, I figured that was my future. Plus I was a high anxiety brooder, which I thought somehow would translate into knocking my lifespan down to maybe sixty. My expected brief time on earth was one of the reasons I was always in a rush. I got out of college young, married young, got a house and a mortgage young, and had a kid fairly young. If you only have sixty five or fewer years on this planet, you need to get out of the gate early.

My parents didn’t live long. My father suffered through a long illness before he died. My brother didn’t make it to sixty. All these deaths happened in my forties and fifties and reinforced my sense that my life would be short. I made a major life decision in my forties based on that expectation: I didn’t want to spend the final twenty years, maybe fewer, of my life in the relentless backbiting pettiness of academia and the relentless summer heat of North Carolina. I left my professor job and the South in a happy hurry.

But here I am at an age when I fully expected to be six feet under and I’m not merely standing and breathing. I’m taking fifteen mile hikes. It could all end tomorrow, of course, but it isn’t likely. I went onto an actuarial web site a few months ago and filled out a detailed questionnaire. It predicted I’d live to eighty six. Two months ago, I went to visit my uncle, who is eighty two and shows no signs of slowing down. I spent a couple of obsessive weeks this month putting together an extensive family tree and one piece of data struck me: if Hitler or Stalin didn’t manage to kill them off, men in my family tended to live ridiculously long, into their nineties. My mother’s father lived to be ninety three and was rock solid healthy until he was ninety one. His brother and half brother lived into their nineties. I can well remember having a delightful conversation with one of them when he was ninety five. I’ve been emailing back and forth with a cousin of my father who is a robust ninety five. I just might get another thirty good years out of the piss and vinegar filled body that houses my brain.

The possibility that I may only be at the two thirds mark of my life is a new idea for me to consider. What am I going to do with that possible remaining third? I have no interest in more travel or leisure time. Like my uncle and grandfather, I’m a workhorse. I need to do real, productive stuff at least five days a week. I could pursue art for my final third, but that isn’t likely. For me, making meaningful art requires a significantly sized audience. Few people want to engage with the work of seventy, eighty or ninety year old writers and artists unless those writers and artists achieved fame when they were young. New audiences want fresh unwrinkled faces who look at the world in a fresh way. That isn’t me. The possibility of my relevance in the world of writing diminishes with every year. I once had a conversation with a movie director who was hot for a decade when he was in his forties and was angry that he couldn’t even get arrested in Hollywood once he turned sixty. I’m not going to be angry. I fully expect that I will be fully artistically irrelevant by the time I turn seventy and am OK with that arc.

I need to start something new, something where age isn’t a liability and ageism isn’t something to fight against every day. I know of someone who retired from a steady Fortune 500 corporation job at my age, started up a new company and made a ridiculously large fortune. That’s not for me. I don’t need or want more money. I need to do something where I work hard to give back to some aspect of society that has nurtured or benefitted me in my fortunate life. What should it be? I don’t know, but apparently I have plenty of time to figure this out.



17. November 2019 · Comments Off on The essential past · Categories: Olio

When you’ve survived a war that has destroyed your home and way of life, you’re left with little or nothing to remind you of your past. So it was with my parents. My mother had a gold lapis lazuli ring that her grandmother once wore and gave to my mother when she was nine years old. I have no idea how she retrieved it after the war or held onto it during the war. My daughter has it now. My father had absolutely nothing until an American cousin came to visit us and gave him photos of his grandfather and sister. Here’s the one of his grandfather.

I’ll never forget when my father held those photos in his hand for the first time. I’ll never forget his face, the tears and the mix of sadness and joy. Those photos were precious to my father even though they tell a sad story. On the back of the photos are some words in Yiddish. His sister’s photo simply gives her name.  But on the back of his grandfather’s photo is a cryptic message: “Please listen to my dear plea. Children are kindness. Her father and grandfather from Ludmir.”

My father had never met his first cousin before although he knew of his existence. He knew an uncle had come to America just after my father was born. My father assumed the uncle must have had children. When my father received a letter from his cousin in 1971 stating who he was and of his wish to visit, my father was both surprised and happy. He’d lost everyone in his hometown in the war save for one first cousin, who had immigrated to Israel. He longed for ties to real family no matter how tenuous.

The cousin came that summer. He was tall and thin with a full head of grey hair. Although younger than my father, he looked older. He was quiet and had a dark and sad mien. He was a bit effeminate. He had little to say and my father was disappointed in and exasperated by his newly found cousin. My father was a man’s man who pounded nails all day long for work. His cousin was probably gay and had an air of education and sophistication to go with his sadness. The two had nothing in common except their DNA.

After two days, my father wanted his cousin gone. My father needed to go back to work and that’s exactly what he did. But the cousin stayed. Every day he’d be a tourist and see what few sights Milwaukee had, come back for dinner and say nothing, and then go to his room, my brother’s old bedroom, for the night. By the fifth day, my father was gruff and slightly hostile to his cousin. He talked about kicking him out of the house, but my mother convinced my father to be tolerant if not welcoming. I was embarrassed by my father’s behavior, but also understood its source. He had impossibly hoped for the arrival of a cousin who shared his experiences and world view; instead he was hosting a soft American who seemed as Jewish as a bacon wrapped appetizer.

During the last dinner before my father’s cousin went back to the East Coast, I could sense my father’s relief. I could also sense that his cousin was used to being treated with hostility. It was a sad night, an example of how family can be hurtful. Then in the middle of the dinner, the cousin pulled out his wallet, took out two small photos, and handed them to my father. “I’ve been waiting to give these to you, but I didn’t know when would be a good time,” the cousin said.

My father took the photos. He instantly stood up from his chair. The photos were an emotional jolt. “My sister,” he said and started to cry. “Grandfather,” he said.

“My father gave them to me. I thought you should have them,” the cousin said.

”I can’t believe it,” he said. My father knew well the origin of these photos. In about 1935, his father wanted one of his daughters to immigrate to the US. She was about thirteen. Why did my granfather pick this one daughter out of all of his children? I don’t know. My grandfather wrote to his American brother to take this daughter into his home. I don’t have a copy of the letter. All I have are the photographs. But I can easily imagine the emotional content of that request. The message on the back of my great granddather’s photo tells me everything I need to know. “Please listen to my dear plea. Children are kindness. Her father and grandfather from Ludmir.” That photo and message were a desperate attempt to pull at heart strings.

After his cousin left, my father told me about receiving the response from his cousin’s father to the letter and photos. Life was hard in America, his uncle had written. He couldn’t afford to feed another child. My father told me my grandfather was despondent over this response. A little more than a half dozen years later, my father’s sister, father, grandfather and everyone else were murdered in the war.

We never saw the cousin again, but my father cherished the portraits he received, He kept them separately from our other photos, in the drawer where he kept his socks. I don’t know how often he pulled them out and gave them a look. I do know how strongly I feel a need to look at images of my own childhood. They are always a comfort, no matter how bittersweet those images may be.

10. November 2019 · Comments Off on A reassessment · Categories: Olio

A couple of weeks ago, my daughter sent me a link to passenger lists of Holocaust survivors who came to the US. Not many people know this, but the American people were against the immigration of Holocaust survivors and because of this enmity Congress and Truman heavily restricted immigration. My parents were lucky to come to America. Anyway, those ship manifests were fascinating and they led me down the rabbit hole of my family’s history.

I’d never been interested in constructing a family tree before. Given the war-devastated nature of my family, I didn’t think I’d find very much. Plus I was young and as is typical of young people, I didn’t care much about the past. But now I’m old and, surprise, history seems more important. Plus there are all kinds of online tools available to make finding info – even Polish and Ukrainian records – about my family a snap. Plus it turned out that unbeknownst to me other relatives I’ve never met and just plain curious genealogists had already posted major branches of my family tree online.

It took me an obsessive week to put all the online branches together and add some fresh info I found along the way. I found out exactly how I was related to the late congressman and Federal judge, Abner Mikva (second cousin once removed). I found my great, great, great grandparents’ marriage certificate and, more or less, how my grandparents were cousins. But maybe most importantly I found out about a somewhat mysterious cousin in my family, Fela.

Fela survived the war because of my father. When war broke out in September 1939, my father, who was living in Warsaw, fled immediately and went to his home town. He told his entire family that it was time for everyone to flee east, that Hitler would come and kill them all. Everyone thought my father was crazy except for his Cousin Fela. She was the one member of his family who went east with him to the Soviet Union. She was the one member of my father’s family who wasn’t murdered.

They ended up in Tashkent. My father joined Anders’ Polish Army and was almost killed by his own troop-mates during training because he was a Jew. Then my father was conscripted into Stalin’s Polish Red Army. After the war, he found Fela in Germany in a DP camp. She moved to Israel, my father moved to the US.

Fela had a hard life after the war. She married, lived in poverty and adopted a kid. Her husband died young, and then her kid grew up and cut ties with her. I met her in Israel once and she talked about marrying a rich American. I thought she was manic – mood swings and worse run in my family – and delusional. But no. She really had found, in middle age, a rich American living in Israel. She did marry him. It didn’t stick and she soon was back in poverty.

Through it all, my father would send her money, clothes and whatnot. She was the sad sack of the family in my estimation, the one who, in a family of strivers, lacked essential grit.

A few years ago, someone asked me online if I was related to Leon Rojstaczer, who he had met at a wedding or bar mitzvah (I can’t remember which event he mentioned) in 1968 in Chicago and who his father said was a cousin. I was amazed this person could remember an event and a family introduction from 1968. Leon was my father. The man’s own father, who was born and raised in a tiny town in Ukraine, also lived through the war, We texted a bit and tried to figure out how we were related. Somehow he mentioned Fela. It turned out that she was the likely connection. He, too, had met Fela in Israel. His father, too, had sent her money and whatnot for decades.

We still didn’t know exactly how we were related, though. There are no official records of Fela’s birth. I didn’t know her maiden name. I’d forgotten her married name. Last week, I woke up one morning and thought, “Maybe she gave testimony at Yad Vashem about her murdered family.” I went online that morning and, sure enough, it was there, individual documents about her parents, brothers and sisters murdered during the Shoah and signed in 1999 by Felitzia X. Fela = Felitzia, obviously. The name X matched the name on the back of the wedding photo below, a photo from 1952 that I found in my parents’ house and kept.

The names on the Yad Vashem documents were of Rojstaczers except for one. Fela gave the maiden name of her murdered mother. That name was the same as the last name of the man who contacted me online. Fela was a first cousin to both my father and his father. They were the closest relatives she had after the war.

In my old age, I think about Fela in a different light. I think of her in 1999 toward the end of her life. She felt compelled to take the bus from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and then take another bus to Yad Vashem. Fela took several sheets from a stack of forms and one by one unburdened herself of her profound loss. My father never did this. Fela did. One by one, she gave testimony about her murdered family. Hers was a life filled with hardship and worse. I don’t know how Fela got the emotional strength to make this trip. I think of her on that day filling out those documents by hand and am overcome with a strange mix of both sympathy and pride.


04. November 2019 · Comments Off on Bye, bye (mostly) social media · Categories: Olio

When I was fourteen, I figured out something about myself. It was not of any value for me to chase after the popular, the hip or anything the mass public viewed as desirable. I loved the obscure, the uncool, and the stuff that made you think hard. If I wanted to be happy (or at fourteen, not be unhappy, which is how most fourteen year olds are), I needed to ignore all the art and entertainment that the news and most of my peers told me was great. TV? Nothing on the glass box engaged me (although TV had been a great tool for me to learn English and understand American culture a bit as a kid). Best selling books? Forget them. Arena-filling  musicians? No way.

I needed to raise the bar. Mass art and entertainment was almost always at best mind-numbing for me. I needed art, entertainment and books of ideas that didn’t scream at you, but instead forced you to slow down and come to them. For most of my next fifty years, I happily followed the obscure. Obscure musicians. Obscure books. Obscure movies. If I entered an auditorium and it was half empty or pulled out a book that had been gathering dust on a shelf, I was in heaven.

My own art and work was happily obscure, too. I got a Ph.D. and taught in a subject area, geophysics, that most people had never heard of. I helped launch earth observing satellites that the public knows nothing about but have been used countless times in environmental assessments of our planet. My music charted in the low thirties of the top forty of a national chart. My novel was in the low thirties of the top forty of the American Booksellers Association bestsellers list. This Goldilocks-land was exactly where I wanted to be. I was not too hot, not too cold, I was just right.

My encounters with popular culture have been, at best, boring. I fell asleep at a Frank Zappa concert a friend dragged me to (his girlfriend, who didn’t want to go either, followed my lead; the girlfriend is long gone, but we’re still good friends). Two years ago, I desperately needed a nap before an evening event and I knew exactly what to do: I went to a movie theater, bought a ticket for a Marvel superhero movie and began to sleep like the dead two minutes after the opening credits.

There has been one major exception to my “if it’s popular, run away as fast as you can” rule: social media. About nine years ago, I was working on my first novel and I read an article by a novelist who praised Facebook for helping him make contacts essential for his career. I thought this praise was odd. I only knew Facebook (whose first office was just four blocks from my home) from its beginnings as a site for gossip and flirting for teens. But lo and behold, it had changed! It had real people on, real novelists and real readers of novels. I signed on and one of my first friends was the novelist who had written the Facebook-praising article.

Then about five years ago, my editor asked me to join Twitter. I barely knew what it was. She said it might help me sell a few books. Of course I wanted to sell books! I signed on.

Social media requires you to be or pretend to be an extrovert. I’m not. I’m a science/math geek who happens to love music and literature. In my crowd, I’m considered outrageous and wild, but that’s only on a science/math geek scale. In comparison to your average American, I’m a classic introvert. I don’t like loud parties. I love spending hours alone thinking about projects I’m working on or reading. I’m pretty damn good at performing in front of a crowd, but I’m absolutely happiest socially when I’m with four or fewer people. I am wholly unsuitable for social media.

Still, I did try. I made “friends” with one thousand or so people on Facebook. I’ll never meet the one hundred people I interacted with regularly, but they were perfectly nice and thoughtful. I posted regularly. So did they. It was almost all superficial stuff, but it wasn’t awful. I liked these people I’d never meet. Ultimately, though, it was a waste of time to be on Facebook. Then Mark Zuckerberg turned fully evil and let Russia and Cambridge Analytica screw up our 2016 election. Then he decided to let everyone screw up our upcoming 2020 election. Why was I helping Zuckerberg, a democracy destroying s.o.b., make money? I decided to get off Facebook.

This was a great decision. I was no longer wasting my time posting trivialities. I was no longer pretending to be an extrovert. I was happily following the rule of thumb I discovered when I was fourteen: if it’s popular, run!

From there, it was an easy step to walk away from Twitter, which is full of nasty people insulting everyone on the planet and not much else. Plus I’m certain Twitter doesn’t sell many books. Twitter is so filled with sourpusses that participation is a good way to kill your mood and faith in humanity. Plus it’s popular. I’m happy to avoid it now.

If I have a new book in the marketplace, I’ll of course go back onto Facebook and Twitter to tell a few hundred people that it’s coming out. It’s free (very minor) advertising. But I’m off the social media train. Social media is like Lady Gaga or Marvel movies or Las Vegas or the tipping point author. I understand that these products and destinations give many people joy. But they aren’t for me. As for promoting my work, I’ll stick with what I enjoy and do best: standing (or sitting during a Skype or Facebook session) in front of a group of 10-100, telling jokes, reading out loud and answering questions.