16. January 2020 · Comments Off on Acts of kindness · Categories: Olio

I was in New York at a theater last week and just two days before developed a shoulder condition that inflamed my right rotator cuff and restricted the movement of my arm to zero. Broadway theater seats have never been known for their comfort and as I sat down, I knew I wouldn’t be able to sit in my seat next to my wife and daughter without occasionally yelping in pain. I got up and explained my problem to the house manager. She expressed sympathy. They didn’t have seating for disabled people, but she could bring a dining room chair out and put it next to one of the seating rows “as long as you don’t call the fire marshal because what I’m offering you is illegal.” I told her I wouldn’t call the fire marshal. I sat in a comfy seat that gave me enough room to put my dead arm in a position that kept me pain free and enjoyed the show.

The house manager did not have to do this for me. It was extra work. It was a violation of fire laws. But she decided to be kind. It was a small favor that she gave to a stranger, albeit a paying customer. During intermission I thought of acts of human kindness big and small that have impacted me and my family.

My mother was a great believer in human kindness. She was, given her past as a child who lived through WWII, also alert to any potential danger. Somehow her view that people will often go out of their way to help others mixed happily with her belief that a new Stalin or Hitler could come back any day and ruin her life and the world again. She never would have survived the war without acts of kindness. After the war, that was true as well.

In 1946, my mother, 17 and on her own, left the safety of the American Zone of Germany to go back to Poland and search for her father. She wandered from town to town. It was dangerous to do this. Poland was, at the time, lawless and rubble-filled.

My mother searched for her father for thirty days, when she ran out of money. She had failed and it was time for her to return to Germany. She waited at a train station for the train that would take her back. A Soviet soldier at the train station was ogling her. Finally he shouted, “Come here, girl.”

My mother was scared. She’d heard the stories of young women being raped and murdered by Soviet soldiers. She knew she was trapped and approached the soldier. He asked for her name and she didn’t lie. The soldier heard my mother’s Russian accent, the result of being in a Soviet gulag with her family during the war, and was surprised. “What’s a Russian girl doing here?” he asked.

My mother told the soldier her story of being in a Soviet gulag town during the war, of being separated from her father when the Germans attacked the Soviet Union and her father was conscripted into the Soviet Army, and of her failed effort to find her father in Poland. The soldier said, “You don’t have to stop looking for your father. Take this.” He handed her a suitcase. “I’m going home today. I don’t really need it.”

The suitcase was full of Polish zloty, nearly worthless as a currency. But given the large quantity of bills it contained, the suitcase would allow my mother to continue her search. She found her father two weeks later and with false papers reunited him with his wife and my mother’s kid brother.

Why did the Soviet soldier decide to help my mother? Humans have an innate capacity for kindness. We respond with empathy to other’s hardship. In difficult situations  big – my mother in search of her father – and small – me in search of a seat at a Broadway show – we can find it.

We live in a time when we’ve elected a president who doesn’t believe that kindness is possible, that everyone is on the make. Our news is full of tales of cruelty, selfishness, and greed. But we can be better than our president, better than what we read in the newspapers. In fact, many respond to their better angels every day.

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