Antisemitism, from Kristallnacht to Pittsburgh 

This has been a sombre week: November 11th was the hundredth anniversary of the end of World War 1, a solemn reminder of the awesome cost of war. A war that, unfortunately, was not the end of wars.

November 9th marked the night in 1938 when Germans burned 1000 synagogues, plundered homes and businesses, rounded up 30,000 Jewish men and sent them to concentration camps    – the night known in history as Kristallnacht, the night of the broken glass. Eighty years later, on October 27  – just two Sabbath ago – eleven Jews were killed while they were worshipping at a synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Clearly, in the intervening years, anti-Semitism did not go away. Nor was it confined to Germany.  In the thirties, while Nazis were terrorizing Jews in Germany, elsewhere Jews faced quotas at universities, understood that certain clubs and buildings would not accept them, met signs that said NO DOGS and NO JEWS outside hotels.  As Hitler’s armies advanced across country after country, the news of the persecution of Jews became more widely reported, only to be discounted or ignored.  Some influential Americans formed the America First movement, using its stance against the USA entering the war as a platform to demonize Jewish influence.  At the same time, the Canadian- born Father Coughlin attracted hundreds of thousands of listeners to his American radio broadcasts in which he embraced Hitler and Mussolini and denounced Jewish interests. And, in Washington and Ottawa, diplomats proudly wore the title “Arabist” and greeted the plight of Jews trying to escape Hitler with indifference.

With the end of World War two the world was forced to acknowledge the consequences.  Newsreels portraying the awful truth of the concentration camps, the pictures of Jews being rounded up, marched into gas chambers, the testimony of survivors and the Nuremberg trials made it impossible to ignore the cost of that indifference.  The horror of the holocaust silenced anti-Semitism. Temporarily.  For a while, the conscience of the world was awoken and  it was socially unacceptable to express antisemitic views.

But then came the holocaust deniers, and the birth of Israel. Israel provided the anti-semites with cover. It was not that they were against the Jews: it was Israel that they were against. It is a tragic irony that the country born from horror of the holocaust would become accused of fascism and apartheid,  would be the butt of United Nations condemnation. When it turned out that the Israel, like other governments, was not perfect, that its leaders made political and public relations blunders, instituted policies that were debatable, those things counted more in world’s opinion than Israel’s  giving up the Sinai to make peace with Egypt, its offering viable ways to create a two state solution,  the very creation of a democratic vibrant state, its contributions to the world in medicine, technology, science . The Palestinians became the cause celebre, while terrorists stalked the streets of Israel, a coalition of Arab armies led by Egypt and Syria invaded on Yom Kippur, and Israelis, to this day, with rockets raining down continually, have never known a moment of true peace.

In this century, antisemitism comes from both the far right and the far left. and has been openly and sometimes violently expressed in France and Germany.  Here, in North America, there has been an onslaught of desecration of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries, news  items often buried on the back page, if reported at all. On campuses all across the United States and Canada, the BDS movement — Boycott, Divest, and Sanction Israel – is camouflage for persecution of Jewish students and increasingly angry displays of antisemitism.

At the same time, President Trump has whipped up a nationalism that exploits the many anti-groups – anti-black, anti-gay, anti-women, anti- Muslim, anti-elites, all the groups looking for scapegoats for their grievances – they have all found an echo of their discontent in his rhetoric.  He did not create the hate that dominates the news today and that led to the Pittsburgh murders – but he gave that hate a home.  He has made hate acceptable.

So, yes, what happened in Pittsburgh was a shocking event.  But we should not have been shocked “that it happened here”. And when politicians try to reassure us by telling us that this is not what America is, well, perhaps not.  But there is a grave danger that this is what America is becoming.

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Prosecuting Evil:War makes murderers of us all.

Let me introduce you to two remarkable men, Canadian film producer, Barry Avrich, and Romanian born Ben Ferencz, investigator of Nazi war crimes, Chief Prosecutor for the United States Army at a trial in Nuremberg, and advocate of the establishment of an international rule of law and of an International Criminal Court.

If you happened to watch an interview on Sixty Minutes last year, you will have met Ben Ferencz. That is how he came to the attention of Avrich.  His family was watching the program and they called out to him, “You have to come and see this man.” Intrigued, as everyone who meets or hears Ferencz is, Avrich did some research and was surprised to see that although there were media interviews here and there, particularly in legal circles. no one had gathered together the account of his inspiring life. He set out to correct that and the result is Prosecuting Evil, a documentary that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival a few weeks ago.

I was privileged to see it at its American Premiere at Temple Emanu_El in New York City. This is an important film, important at any time in our history but even more so now when we find ourselves in this frightening time, when bigotry, intolerance, hate, every kind of evil, has been given license to thrive.

Ben Ferencz is now 99 years old and a great advertisement for aging.  The man has all his intelligence, his wit, his humor, and energy.  I fell a little bit in love with him which won’t do me the slightest bit of good as he has been happily married to the same woman for 72 years.  As I heard him describe his first exposure to the concentration camps and then his role as the prosecutor in the Einsatzgruppen Case, I was impressed by his ability to separate emotion from reason.

His description of the camps is vivid – from the emaciated survivors to the bone filled ovens and the stench over all.  But, when it came to prosecuting the 22 men he put on trial, he insisted that it was not vengeance or revenge that would bring the men to justice, but the facts.  And he had the facts, for the Germans had carefully recorded in a notebook their forays into towns and villages, scrupulously noting how many Jews they had killed each day. All of those men were found guilty, 13 received death sentences of which four were carried out.

In the documentary, Ferencz focuses on one of the Germans, pointing out that he was a cultured, educated man, a good husband, good father, good neighbor. “Except”, he says “he killed thousands of Jews.” What made him cross that line?  There is no doubt in Ferencz voice.  “War”, he says “War makes murderers of us all.”

It is for that reason that he has been an ardent advocate of an international court which, he believes ,used properly, could help the world avoid wars.

Ben Ferencz’ family fled pogroms in Romania and emigrated to the United States where they settled in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a crowded, ghetto-like home to many immigrants.  There was little money, but education was valued. A teacher recognized his abilities and encouraged him to enroll at City College of New York where he won a scholarship to Harvard.  He enlisted in the Army and served in an anti-aircraft artillery unit.  In 1945, he was assigned to the team that collected evidence for war crimes. After leaving the army, he was  asked to return to Germany, to join the prosecutors at the Nuremberg trials. Following that, he helped secure reparation for the Nazis’ victims, and played an important part in negotiations that led to the historic Reparation Agreement between Israel and Germany.

Returning to New York in 1956, he entered private practice and then joined the movement to establish an International Criminal Court to deal with crimes against humanity and war crimes.  He remains disappointed that although the USA signed the treaty it did not ratify it. He has not hesitated to criticize many of the actions of the United States, from its role in Vietnam to the Iraq war, Trump policies, and the current political climate.

He is a serious man who is full of joy.  Despite all that he has seen of evil, he and his wife raised four children.  That is surely the definition of hope. And instead of giving into despair, he espouses a route to change the future for the better.  That is also the definition of hope.

I urge everyone to make it a point to see this film and stress that its importance goes beyond the obvious relationship to the Jewish community.  Over the next few weeks and months, it will be available in many cities in Canada and The United States.   In Toronto it will be shown on November 11th, in a special benefit for the survivors of the holocaust who are living in poverty.  The event will take place at the Ted Rogers Hot Doc Theater.

 

Kipling’s The Power of The Dog

IMG_0464It is one month since my beloved cavalier King Charles, Brewster died.  He was almost thirteen years old, my friend, my companion, my protector, and a warm, loving link with my husband. 

Brewster came into my life when my husband was in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s.  He walked into the house, turned into the library, and climbed on my husband’s lap.  And right into both of our hearts. And some years later, when Alzheimer’s had a greater hold on my husband, and conversation was very limited, he would still remember to ask, “Where is my doggy?”

And his doggy was right beside him, along with the rest of the family, when Oscar died.

As I mourned, so did Brewster, sleeping on Oscar’s pillow, looking at me, questioning me, “Where is my master?”

In those months after Oscar’s death, I don’t think I would have gotten out of bed, had it not been for Brewster.  The temptation to just pull the sheets up over my head, give in to grief, and let the rest of the world go by was tremendous.  But I could not.  Brewster needed to be fed, Brewster needed to be walked, and Brewster liked and got attention.

He was a beautiful boy -in dog parlance his color was known as Ruby but it was more terra-cotta than that, with platinum streaks.  Women stopped to rub his ears, envious of his coloring.  Children adored him, and he them. Other dog owners asked about his breed.  He was clearly a Cavalier, but he was big for the breed, so confusion was understandable. Slowly, as Brewster pulled me into the world, I began to reconnect with it.  The grief remains, and always will, but it no longer paralyzes me.  Thanks to Brewster.

As he had spent a lot of time with my daughter’s two Labs, Luna and Clemmie, he preferred big dogs to little ones but like all of his breed, he recognized his cousins.  He had very nice dog manners, put up with puppies pawing him and nipping at his ears or climbing on him, with unlimited patience. The love of his life was Clemmie and although he had neither the equipment or the height to consummate that love, he never gave up trying.  And if there had been a cartoon balloon over Clemmie’s head, it would have said, “Men! What can you do about them.”

At home he liked scotch flavored ice cubes, and was a frustrated decorator. Wherever there were cushions, he was there, sorting them, examining them, throwing some on the floor, rearranging the rest to suit himself and then carefully circling himself down into a comfort zone on top of them. He had no interest  in toys, or balls, or games, or tricks. Brewster had decided that it was enough in life just to be.  A lesson all of us could use from time to time.

We were joined at the hip.  I organized my small social life around his needs.  No dog walkers for me – whatever the weather, I was up and out with him four times a day, and always home to give him his meals.  His favorite time of the day was the cocktail hour when I had my scotch and he had his bone stuffed with cheese and we sat together to look at television. What a vocal critic he was.

I miss him terribly and many friends, knowing what he meant to me have sent me notes and cards.  The Canadian actress, Nuala Fitzgerald Cowan, sent me a Rudyard Kipling poem that will resonate with all dog owners:

The Power of the Dog, Rudyard Kipling, 1865-1936

“There is sorrow enough in the natural way

From men and women to fill our day;

And when we are certain of sorrow in store,

Why do we always arrange for more?

Brothers and sisters, I bid you beware

Of giving your heart to a dog to tear. 

Buy a pup and your money will buy

Love unflinching that cannot lie –

Perfect passion and worship fed

By a kick in the ribs or a pat on the head.

Nevertheless it is hardly fair 

To risk your heart for a dog to tear. 

When the fourteen years which Nature permits

Are closing in asthma, or tumor, or fits

And the vet’s unspoken prescription runs

To lethal chambers or loaded guns

Then you will find – it’s your own affair 

But — you’ve given your heart to a dog to tear. 

When the body that lived at your single will,

With its whimper of welcome, is stilled (how still!).

When the spirit that answered your every mood

Is gone — wherever it goes — for good.

You will discover how much you care,

And will give your heart to a dog to tear. 

We’ve sorrow enough in the natural way

When it comes to burying Christian clay.

Our lives are not given, but only lent,

At compound interest of ten percent.

Though it is not always the case, I believe,

That the longer we’ve kept ’em, the more we do grieve:

For, when debts are payable, right or wrongs,

A short-time loan is as bad as a long —

So why in — Heaven — (before we are there)

Should we give our hearts to a dog to tear?”

Dear Brew: My heart is torn, but I can bear it because it was worth it, to love you and to be loved by you. Climb on OScar’s lap and wait for me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Dual Citizen’s Fourth of July

 

I have lived equal parts of my adult life in Canada and in The United States, and I have dual citizenship, Canadian and American.

Where is my heart? In both places.

But, the part of my heart that loves America hurts.  My bank of outrage is in overdraft. My vocabulary for the unspeakable is exhausted.

But still, the love is there.

Marriage took me twice to the United States: For three years, in the mid 50s, to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where my then husband was studying on a track scholarship. And then in 1980, i moved to Manhattan where I married a third generation New Yorker.

I did not want to live on the surface of that vibrant, cosmopolitan city, but to be engaged in its communities, to know more than Park and Fifth Avenues.  As so much of making lives better is dependent on public policy, I needed the right to  vote in the United States and, fortunately, I was able to become an American citizen without giving up my Canadian citizenship.

During that heady,, exciting time in the United States, I met a wide range of people who knew how to use their power – from Brooke Astor, who used the power of money, to the grandmothers in the Bronx who used the power of love to get rid of the drug dealers on their block. I dined with intellectuals like Arthur Schlesinger and Ted Sorenson, Bill Buckley and Osborne Elliott.  Sitting on the periphery of my husband’s foundations’ projects in criminal justice and housing, along with my board service on the Ciizens Committee for New York, i met individuals whose lives were dedicated to making a difference.  I had a wide experience in the USA. We lived in Manhattan, spent months in Maine, found an oasis on Long Island.  As Ontario’s Agent General, I met business leaders as well as artists, journalists, and government officials in Atlanta, Boston, chicago, and Dallas, and met the Governors of many states.

Back home, when I met someone who said they were anti-American, I could with justification ask them, “Which American?” so varied is the country, and its people.

Now, for myself, I can answer, “Which American?”  Donald Trump.

Donald Trump represents everything I abhor in a human being.  Do not let anyone tell you that he is a New Yorker – he is the antithesis of everything that makes someone a New Yorker.  Manhattan did not accept him socially, and it did not vote for him.  Nor did I. Fortunately, everyone I know did vote in the last presidential election and none of them voted for Trump  My stomach churns at the thought of those who did not vote,  who let their dislike of Hilary override what was at stake.

So, back in Canada now, a widow, choosing to end my days where they began, will I join in a boycott of American products to stick my finger in Trump’s eye? Yes.

Will I continue to visit my daughter and grandson in Maine as well as friends in New York? Yes.

Will I renounce my American citizenship?  No.  Because that would be giving in, giving up hope that concerned citizens can take the government and the culture back.  I believe they can, and that they will.

I have beside me The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America. Peter Jennings, who like me was a Torontonian living in Manhattan, always carried a copy of it in his pocket.

“We hold these truths to be self evident: that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness–That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among men,  deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governedthat whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government….”

The Mueller report is coming, hopefully in time to affect a Supreme Court Nomination.

And November is coming.

 

Rebranding old age: The Finials

Old age needs a public relations specialist. It’s time to rebrand, to market this part of life as just that — a natural phase– to be celebrated rather than feared,  as a time of privilege rather than something  to endure, a time worthy of respect, and even honor.

That is coming, because the baby boomers are on their way, in waves.   And,  just as many of them have gone through their adult life accompanied by trainers, life coaches,  self-help books and therapists, they are approaching old age with a coterie of academic and professional specialists with programs to offset every part the aging process. Let us hope they come up with a new name.  The generation before mine told us in no uncertain terms what society could do with “the golden years”.  I find “senior” as precious as “junior”, and don’t want to be either.  Perhaps we will be known as the finials.

In the meantime, my generation is already here and we would like a little respect please. We lived through an amazing century and our accomplishments in those years, from creating an airplane to fly through the clouds to storing all our information in the cloud, are the foundation of the future. We have been though wars, the depression, the sexual and the technological revolutions: We have experience and wisdom to share.

Who are we? We’re you, with the added on value of more birthdays. Like you, we are not a monolithic group. There is no unilateral “We” in old age. We are the medically frail and the strong; the curious and the bored; the strivers and the contented ones.  Some of us are on scooters, walkers or in wheelchairs; others are tap-dancing and stretching on yoga mats. One in  three of us over the age of 80 is in a stage of dementia. One of the other two is caring for that one.

Many of us are “downsizing”, choosing assisted living,  moving in with our children.  Depending on the ability to function independently, some will go to a nursing home.  Too  many are homeless, lost to society and too often, abandoned by it.

We are as individual now, as we were in our younger days. The bullies are still bullies, the rude are still rude, the bossy are still bossy, the caregivers are still giving.   Only, in some cases, more so.  Some want to live beyond a hundred, others are content to accept whatever fate offers, opting for no more tests or intrusive procedures. We are not curiosities, specimens to be designated as “cute” or “amazing”, because we can walk, talk, dance, think, fall in love, have sex.  We are in our old age, not our infancy.

Each oI us will decide when we are willing to embrace the label “old”.  Something will trigger that — a loss, health, weariness.  For me, it was the number, 85, with the sharp realization that time is now truly finite.  If there are things I want to do, say, write, amends to make, I had better get on with it.

I see this last stage of my life  as the true coming of age.  Forget the bar and bat- mitvahs, sweet sixteen, the years of getting the vote, the right to buy alcohol, being eligible for military service or any of the landmark birthdays.  This — old age — is maturity.  It is a marriage of aches and pains, loss  and heartaches with  possibilities, a true sense of the meaning of time, and, perhaps above all, an  understanding of who we truly are, beyond the many labels we have worn throughout our lives.

Who are we?  Cherish us, for we are you, in a not so far off future.

Joan Sutton Straus’ book, The Alzheimer’s Diary, one woman’s experience from caregiver to widow, is available at your favorite on-line book store.  All profits from the sale of the book go to The Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation.

Social isolation and loneliness in seniors

A special note to my Canadian readers.  Steve Paikin who is one of the best journalists working today, hosts the TVO program The Agenda.  Tomorrow night, Tuesday, April 3, at 8 and 11, the program will tackle what can be done to prevent social isolation and loneliness in seniors.  As this is a topic that interests me, I will be tuned in and if you are approaching the last third or your life, or worrying about your parents, I suggest that you do too.  Some think we are in an epidemic of loneliness.  In the UK, the government has appointed a Minister of Loneliness.  How much government can or should do, will be part of The Agenda tomorrow night.

Old Age: The Myths

A few months ago,  I turned  85. That makes me an old lady.

Hearing that, there are those who will question my calling myself a lady.  Almost all will rush to contradict me, to tell me that I am not old.  So adamant will the latter be, one might think I was confessing to a terrible disease.

To their assurances that I am not old, I can only respond, “Nonsense, if I am not old at 85, when will I be?”

I relish admitting my age because I do not think that the word ‘old’ is a pejorative.  I have earned the years and except for the blight of those anguished  times when a child struggled with terrible disease, there are none I would give up.  Yes, old age has its baggage — but so did youth and middle age.  The downsides of aging are well-known, everyone recognizes them.  But along with the aches and pains, financial worries and loneliness that may come with age, there also comes a very special kind of freedom.

So, before you send the bromides, all designed to deny the reality of old age,  let’s deal with them.

Some will tell me that I am only as old as I feel.  True, but that was true also at sixteen when, with a little Kleenex in my bra, I could convince myself that I looked 18.  At forty,  I had days when, depending on what I had imbibed the night before,  I felt like Methuselah, others when I was as frisky as a teenager. The difference is that the day an 85-year-old feels as frisky as a teenager is the day he or she will fall and break a hip. At 85, one approaches friskiness with caution.

Get young friends, some say, as if that is an inoculation against aging. . Think about how silly that is.  At 85, what choice is there?  I am almost always the oldest person in the room.  My young friends are invaluable when I have computer or iPhone problems, and they do keep me in touch with their world.,  The latter, however, is a mixed  blessing – their world can send me into despair: For them, and for what I believe they are missing.

They cannot. however, replace the old friends, the ones who knew us long ago, who observed our development, witnessed the events that shaped us.  Losing them is one of the most difficult parts of aging.  With each death, we lose a part of ourselves. Old friends are the link between us and both our personal history and the history of the world we knew. They remember the depression, World War 2, the fifties and the tumultuous decades that followed.  They remember when there was no television, when families bought ice from a truck, when telegrams were delivered to the door. The young have little interest in anything that happened before the internet, and if it isn’t on Google, it doesn’t exist.  I recently told a forty-year old that a building looked as though it had come through the blitz – he had no idea what the blitz was.  Without our peers,  we are unmoored, disconnected from our own reality. .

Others will insist that 85 is the new 75. To which I say, “Nonsense.  I have been 75, and 85 is very different, if not physically, psychologically.”

Which brings me to the other bromide, that 85 is just a number.  Yes, but what a number!  This one comes with flashing lights, pay attention, pay attention, pay attention. At 85, one cannot escape the realization that there is  more life behind you than there is  in front of you. That perhaps is what Philip Roth meant we he referred to 85 as “dark old age”.

I am not for a moment suggesting that the old have a monopoly on death.  We all know young people who have left this earth far too early.  But the young go to bed  believing in their immortality.  The aged tend to go to sleep each night wondering “Will this will be the night, will they wake up the next morning?”  At 85, one lives with the quiet acceptance of the inevitability of death.

We would all like to go easily, in full stride, painlessly.  But there is no menu, we do not choose.  Keeping ourselves healthy and strong makes us feel good but, in the end, we have no control over the way we die.The toned and fit may go before the indolent and slothful   Death keeps its own counsel. It creeps us slowly, or lashes out suddenly, It  arrives in a cloud of morphine, or as sedately as Shakespearean sleep, it announces itself through disease; it mocks our years at the gym. It gives us time to prepare, or it leaves our families with mountains of mess to sort. So, prepare.

I am from a generation whose mothers told us to wear clean underwear because we might be in an accident.  At 85, I  hesitate to leave dishes in the sink before I leave the house. What would my children think if they found my nest a mess?

Above all, in Philip Roth’s dark old age, you find yourself living life both forward and backward, examining self, pondering how to make the remaining days meaningful.  The author, Ward Just, might well have been thinking of this old lady when he wrote these words in his book, A Dangerous Friend:

“It is always necessary to look forward and backward at the same time.  Only in that way can we preserve our identities and live truthfully.  You know the end of things  as well as I do. We cannot pretend not to know them or deny that they exist.When we relate events from the past we know the results and must acknowledge them, whether or not they bring us understanding, or consultation, or shame.:

In th next blog: Rebranding Old Age. 

Joan Sutton Straus’ book, The Alzheimer’s Diary, from Caregiver to Widow, is available at your favorite on-line bookstore.