A couple of months ago I happened to see a headline that widened my eyes. “71 Year Old Folk Singer Dies On Stage.” That’s a line that will get your attention, especially if—like me—you’re also a 71 year old folk singer who still spends about a hundred and twenty days on stage every year.
I read on.
On Saturday night, January 18, 2020, David Olney was in the middle of a song at the 30A Songwriters Festival in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida when he said, “I’m sorry,” closed his eyes and fell silent. Olney, who recorded twenty albums over his career and had some of his songs covered by, among others, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, didn’t drop his guitar, didn’t fall out of his chair, he just peacefully, gracefully, shuffled off this mortal coil.
It was a very close-call intimation of mortality. I thought about it a lot. For about three days. And then forgot.
Life went on. Until life—as we know it, anyway—stopped being normal, ceased seeming to be a nearly guaranteed inalienable right. Somewhere around late February, with the news about the coronavirus being especially dangerous to people over 70, I started thinking about mortality again—a lot. Three days later I was still thinking about it. I’m thinking about it still.
And I remembered my parents. My mother and father passed through a very dark period when life as they knew it very nearly completely stopped, when they were forced into isolation, quarantined from most of the people around them, when mortal danger was an all-enveloping, constant reality for them.
I’m talking of course, of the period of the Holocaust.
In October 1944 my mother Blanka, her older sister Anci, and their mother, my grandmother Karolina, were forced to move from the apartment they shared on the Buda side of Budapest, into the sealed off Jewish ghetto on the Pest side of the Danube river. On November 8, Karolina died of an unknown illness that culminated in internal bleeding, and on December 4, on my mother’s 26th birthday, she and Anci were shoved into cattle cars bound for German concentration camps. They spent most of the next five months in the infamous Ravensbruck camp for women. There, despite the brutal conditions, my mother clung fiercely to her routines. She washed daily with a rag and icy water, laundered one set of underwear and wore her only other set while the first ones dried. She brushed her hair and Anci’s frequently in a futile attempt to get rid of lice. She refused to allow herself to feel depressed or hopeless. When Anci would cry, “We’re going to die here. We’re never going back home.” my mother would stubbornly insist, “We’ll be all right. We’ll show them. We’re going to go home.”
I think also of my father.
In 1942, my father was conscripted into the munkaszolgálat, the work detail of the Hungarian Army attached to the German and Austrian armies fighting in Poland. Because he was, at the time, a rabbi, he at first served as chaplain to his fellow prisoners, but soon was forced to load and unload munitions, and help build roads and bridges along with all the men. But he clung to the traditions of his faith. He led daily prayer services and, miraculously, even managed to hang on to his tefillin, the ritual phylacteries that religious Jews wind on their left arm and wear on their head during morning prayers. When he was liberated by the Russians in late 1944, he walked and hitched rides for two weeks to get back to his home in Kunhegyes, Hungary.
What is happening in our world now is not comparable to the Holocaust. Nothing really is. But there are similarities and there may be some lessons we can learn from the survivors.
My physical reality today is far, far easier than what my parents had to endure, and the faith that my father clung to is not one that I now practice, though I do also have beliefs that nourish and support me daily.
But I’m certain that the actions and attitudes that enabled my parents to survive, and later thrive, might also help us now; taking care of ourselves by maintaining as many of our healthy daily routines as possible, helping to take care of each other, and keeping close whatever faith it is that sustains us.
In 1975, when I met Percy Danforth, the father of modern-day bones, I’d been playing folk music professionally with my twin brother, Laz, as the duo Gemini, for about two years. Like most good folkies of the day, we played guitars and sang. But around that time Laz also picked up violin, after having abandoned it in high school some years before, and we also both got interested in Irish music. Laz started learning the pennywhistle and I made a crude bodhran and we began playing jigs and reels in our shows. We were living in Ann Arbor and one night Laz saw Percy play the bones in Donald Hall’s play Bread and Roses. (Donald Hall was a renowned poet, playwright, essayist and critic, and from 2006 to 2007 was the fourteenth US Poet Laureate.) Laz told me about Percy very excitedly. “You won’t believe what he can do with just four little pieces of wood!” I was intrigued and called Percy and asked if he would teach me how to play. He generously said he would, but said he’d been getting a lot of requests lately. Would I organize a bones class for him at the Ark, Ann Arbor’s famed coffeehouse? I called Dave Siglin who, along with his wife Linda, were the co-founders of the Ark, and a couple of weeks later about twenty of us gathered in the Ark’s living room and Percy showed us the tap and roll, the basic rudiments of bones playing.
I was not a quick study—to put it generously. Now, forty-five years later, when I introduce the bones at our concerts or bones workshops, I show people what I looked and sounded like for the first few days I played the bones. I close my eyes, contort my face into a painful grimace and try to rattle the bones—silently—Marcel Marceau style. It’s not much of an exaggeration. I was so discouraged with my lack of progress following Percy’s bones workshop, that I put the bones away and forgot about them. But, in 1976 Laz and I were invited to play at the Fox Hollow Folk Festival in upstate New York. Percy was also invited to the Festival, to teach the bones. Laz and I drove from Ann Arbor in our ancient Ford Falcon, while Percy flew out. We met up at the Festival and I hung out with Percy while he taught the bones for much of each day of the weekend Festival, and Laz and I gave him rides to and from our accommodations to the Festival site. By the end of that weekend I was a semi-competent bones player.
I was also very lucky, in two important ways. I was able to practice and play the bones with live music very frequently. My brother, who has a rock steady sense of rhythm, was willing to let me learn on the job—at our rehearsals and on stage with him at our concerts. Laz even wrote two songs especially for me to play bones to, I Can Feel it in My Bones and Percy’s Song (which is largely comprised of Percy’s own description of how he learned to play the bones as a child) both of which we still often play in our concerts. Laz and I also formed a friendship and a musical collaboration with Percy. We often invited him to join us on stage for our Ann Arbor area shows, and so I got many additional opportunities to study and play with him. I picked up so much of Percy’s playing style and mannerisms that, many years later, when I met Jonathan Danforth – Percy’s grandson and RBS’s longtime web guru—Jonathan paid me the ultimate compliment when he said I looked just like Percy when I played.
(My brother also tried learning the bones at the same time that I started, and also didn’t get far at first. When I picked them back up at the Fox Hollow Folk Festival, Laz also tried again—with little success. Percy was very wise and kind. Noting my brother’s frustration, he told him, “Laz, no duo needs two bones players.” Laz took Percy’s counsel to heart and focused his attention on the more than half dozen other instruments he plays.)
In 1980, for Percy’s 80th birthday, I organized a concert/birthday party at the Ark. The musicians lineup, all people who Percy had played with, included my brother and I; harmonica wizard Peter Madcat Ruth; famed jazz scholar, pianist, and band leader Jim Dapogny; the renowned Grammy Award-winning composer William Bolcom; and Bolcom's wife, mezzo soprano Joan Morris. (Bolcom and Morris had invited Percy to join them at a number of concerts, including ones they gave at Alice Tully Hall in NYC and at the Royal Albert Hall in London.) The birthday party concert was a huge success, with performances by all of the musicians and Percy joining each of them.
Percy lived to the age of 92 and was still playing in concerts a half year before he died. A couple of weeks before Percy passed away, Laz and I played a concert at the senior citizens’ home where he and his wife, Fran lived. I had a chance to thank him publicly one last time for the huge gift he had given me when he taught me to play the bones.
One of the other gifts that came into my life as a result of my meeting Percy, was my friendship with Ray Schairer. Ray was a lifelong dairy farmer and woodworker who made all the bones that Percy sold to his thousands of students. Percy introduced Ray and his wife Jane to me sometime in the late 1970s and I stayed in touch with them over the years, buying bones from him and commissioning him to make several limberjacks and instrument cases. In 2002, I asked him to help me with another woodworking project. My eight-year-old daughter, Emily had been playing violin for about a year and I wanted to build a wooden music stand for her. Knowing I had neither the tools, nor the skill to do that, I asked Ray if he’d be willing to build one with me. He agreed, and that’s how began another of the most significant friendships of my life. Ray and I worked on the music stand together, and on my visits to his woodshop, he asked me to help him make bones. I happily did, and he in turn taught me his process for making the bones. Ray and I stayed friends for the remaining nine years of his life, making hundreds of bones together, and I also helped him publish his memoir, Barefoot Boy; A Year in the Life of a 1930s Farm Boy. Before he passed away in 2011, Ray gave me all his bones-making tools and I have continued to make bones to this day. (Although, in 2009, along with my good friend Lon vanGeloven, an engineer and manager at Ford, who has extensive machining and computer skills, we brought bones-making into the 21st century. We bought a small desktop CNC machine and have been using it ever since to cut bones from a variety of woods. But I still sand the bones with the same custom-built machine that Ray devised and used for thirty years before he gave it to me.)
I turned 71 in January of 2020, and I still play the bones in every one of my more-than-one-hundred yearly concerts. The bones have brought me enormous pleasure and satisfaction over the years. It is the instrument I play and improvise on most freely. It is the instrument with which our audiences, ranging from preschoolers to senior citizens, are the least familiar. I love introducing them to this ancient art. It is also the instrument that my brother and I use to tame our toughest audiences—middle school and high school age students. We’ve learned to always begin our shows for these audiences with the bones. They capture their attention in a way nothing else we know.
Besides my experiences playing with Percy, I’ve had many other wonderful bones-related highlights. Here are two of my favorites. In 2005, Laz and I played a family concert with the Grand Rapids Symphony. The Symphony’s principal percussionist is Bill Vits, longtime RBS member and another of Percy Danforth’s protégés. Bill learned to play the bones from Percy when he, Bill, was a student at the University of Michigan. Laz and I always include Laz’s song I Can Feel it in My Bones in our concerts with orchestras and I always take a bones solo on it. But for this concert, in addition to that song, I asked Bill if he’d be willing to do a bones duet with me. He agreed, and our impromptu, freewheeling bones jam was the highlight of the show. It may still be the only bones duet ever played in an orchestra concert.
In 2010, at the Wheatland Festival, (Michigan’s biggest folk festival) where I’ve often taught bones workshops, I was delighted to encounter a former bones student of mine. I’d met Gail Brayden, a cardiologist from Marquette, Michigan, when I played concerts and gave bones workshops in 2005, at Marquette’s annual FinnFest, at the invitation of RBS member, Randy Seppala. Gail learned the bones from me over the course of that weekend festival, and a year later, in May 2006, she won the all-Ireland bones championship; one of the things that I am most proud of in my long history with the bones.
My daughter, Emily, is now twenty-five and a fabulous singer and violinist. (Totally objective evaluation from an enormously proud dad.) She’s been playing concerts with me, with my brother and me, and with many others, since she was eight years old. And she’s on her way to becoming a terrific bones player. The beat goes on!
On January 27, 1945, the Russian Red Army troops liberated Auschwitz, the infamous Nazi concentration camp where, along with more than a million other people, eleven of my blood relatives—my paternal grandparents, two aunts, two half-brothers, one half-sister, their mother, (my father’s first wife and three children) two cousins, and an untold number of more distant relatives—were gassed and turned into ashes. (My uncle, my father’s only brother, was killed in Budapest, most likely shot on the banks of the Danube, his body carried away by the river. This was the preferred technique of the Hungarian Nyilas, which they used on approximately 20,000 other Jews. My aunt, one of my father’s younger sisters, died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen.) My father was not taken to Auschwitz with his family; two years earlier he’d been forced into the Munkaszolgalat, the work details attached to the Hungarian, and later Austrian armies, to toil as a forced laborer for the Nazis. He did not learn of his family’s fate till he returned to Hungary in late 1944.
My father always observed their Yahrzeit, their death anniversary, on Sivan 22, the date on the Jewish calendar that their transport arrived in Auschwitz; the presumption being that they, like most who were taken there, were gassed almost immediately. (Because the Jewish calendar is lunar, Sivan 22 does not fall on the same date every year on the Gregorian calendar. In 1944, it fell on June 13.) I too remember my relatives on Sivan 22, but especially on January 27, the day Auschwitz was liberated. The Yahrzeit date is for mourning all who were taken, the liberation anniversary is for reflecting on their lives, and how they continue to live in, and affect mine.
My father was a very fine singer, a cantor who led services in synagogues both small and large, humble and ornate, almost his entire life. I have been a musician for most of my adult life as well, and I certainly owe a huge nature-nurture debt to my father for that. But my grandfather Shaya may have been the one who began that family tradition, who originated the inheritance I received from my father.
My grandfather, Sandor, was born in Kozepapsa, a small village on the banks of the Tisza River in Hungary. Everyone called him Shaya, short for his and my Hebrew name, Yishayahu, Isaiah. As a young man he periodically hiked upriver into the Carpathian Mountains, cut down trees, tied them together into enormous rafts and rode them downstream, sleeping on the rafts as they floated back to his village. Once there he cut up the trees to supply firewood for the community bathhouse. While floating down the river, he’d compose nigunim, ecstatic wordless melodies Hasidic Jews sing and dance to in worship. He and his family used to sing those nigunim at their Sabbath meals.
I’ve heated my house with wood for many years. I often think of Shaya as I cut, split and stack our firewood.
I also think of my grandmother Rozsa. Mother of eleven, she was pregnant with her last child when her firstborn was expecting her first. By 1944 she was grandmother of seven—only two survived Auschwitz. One of them, a cousin of mine now nearing ninety, still mists up as she recalls Rozsa’s “big apron,” how the grandkids could always count on her to protect them from the consequences of any mischief they got into. Though with almost no formal education, she was so good at arithmetic that Shaya counted on her to check his math when he returned from his trips as a peddler. My father recalls how his parents sat at a table, Shaya adding up his figures with pencil and paper, Rozsa sitting across from him, reading the numbers upside down, doing the math in her head. She always finished first and, if their totals did not agree, invariably it was hers that were correct. I too have always loved and been good at math, especially mental computation.
I know even fewer and similarly tiny details about the lives of all those in my family who were murdered by the Nazis. I share that sad poverty with countless others. So much was lost by so many. But January 27 reminds me that those people lived — and that they continue to live on in me.
My cousin, who was fourteen when she was taken to Auschwitz, remembers the heinous Dr. Mengele pointing her and her older sister to the right, and the rest of her family to the left. Now, 75 years later, she mercifully recollects relatively little of her time in Auschwitz, but she does remember that moment of separation. She recalls not knowing or understanding for several days what it meant. “We never got to say, ‘I love you’ or ‘goodbye.’”
She, and all of us who remember them, are still trying to do that.
Near the end of his opening statement at the House impeachment inquiry, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman said, “When my father was 47 years old, he left behind his entire life and the only home he had ever known to start over in the United States so that his three sons could have better, safer lives.”
I can say nearly the exact same thing about my father. When he was 47 years old my father also left behind his entire life and the only home he had ever known to start over. Lt. Col. Vindman’s family left the Soviet Union, our family left Hungary in the wake of the Soviet Union’s brutal response to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. Lt. Col. Vindman’s father moved his family directly to the United States. My parents also attempted to emigrate with their sons—my brother and me—directly to the United States from Hungary, but US immigration quotas prevented that, so our family moved to Israel, and two-and-a-half years later managed to come to the US.
At first glance it would seem that, apart from that one scrap of similar background, Lt. Col. Vindman and I have little in common. A burly, decorated career Army officer who works in the West Wing of the White House is not easily mistaken for a slim (charitably described) folk musician who performs primarily for children and families. But it turns out there is more than just our common history that connects us. Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and I share the same name; my given name, Sandor, is the abbreviated Hungarian version of Alexander. We are both Jewish, we both have an identical twin brother, and we each work with our brothers. (Both of us are older than our brothers, he by nine minutes, me by twelve. At his public hearing Lt. Col. Vindman teased about the “lifetime of wisdom” those extra nine minutes have given him. I too pull rank when I can, rarely letting my brother forget that I am the ‘older brother’ and, using Lt. Col. Vindman’s calculation, I figure I’ve accumulated a lifetime-and-a-quarter’s worth of wisdom in my twelve-minute head start.) Lt. Col. Vindman and I each speak three languages—in his case Russian, Ukrainian and, as he joked, “A little bit of English”; in my case Hungarian, Hebrew, and I too will admit to a little bit of English.
But these parallels between Lt. Col. Vindman and myself, while interesting—to me at least—are not what struck me most forcibly as I watched his testimony. What made me lean in to the screen and watch increasingly misty eyed, was when he addressed his father who was not in the room, “Do not worry, I will be fine for telling the truth.” It reminded me of a similar conversation I’d had with my father about thirty years ago. I’d written an article in which I mentioned something I’d heard both my parents recount from their own experiences during the period of the Holocaust; that in many ways the Nyilas, the Hungarian Nazis, were worse than the German Nazis. When my father saw the article he said, “Be careful.” I was puzzled and asked why. Why should I worry about speaking out against people who had been in power in faraway Hungary fifty years ago? My father replied that there were still people in Hungary who sympathized with the Nyilas. I countered with words very similar to these of Lt. Col. Vindman’s,: “This is America. Here, right matters!” My father was not reassured by my words. Having grown up in a country that not infrequently threatened and attacked Jews, that often violently repressed any opposition to its government, having barely survived the Holocaust, having lost his first wife and three children in Auschwitz, fifty years after all these events, even in America, he was still worried about his son.
Lt. Col. Vindman’s father also may not have been reassured by his son’s remarks, and perhaps rightly so. Even before his public testimony, Lt. Col. Vindman was being verbally attacked by some and, following his public testimony, the US Army began considering what measures might be necessary to protect him, his brother, and their families.
Lt. Col. Vindman and I share one resonance with Marie Yovanovitch and Dr. Fiona Hill. All of us are immigrants. Dr. Hill briefly mentioned in her opening statement that her “Very distinctive working-class accent” would have, in the England of the 1980s and 1990s, “impeded my professional advancement.” Given the virulently anti-Semitic attitudes and policies in the former Soviet Union and in Hungary, the fact that Lieutenant Colonel Vindman and I were born Jewish would certainly have impeded our professional advancement—at the very least—had our families stayed in our respective birth countries.
And yet, I can fully agree with Dr. Hill’s claim that her background “Has never set me back in America.” Sadly, alarmingly, that appears to be changing in our country lately, as anti-Semitic, racist and xenophobic attitudes seem to be on the rise.
Lt. Col. Vindman said that this December will mark forty years since his family moved to the US. For me, this Thanksgiving weekend will mark sixty years since my family arrived in the US.
Lt. Col. Vindman said, “I am grateful for my father’s brave act of hope 40 years ago and for the privilege of being an American citizen and public servant, where I can live free of fear for my and my family’s safety.” I too am immensely grateful for my parents’ brave act of hope, for the privilege of being an American citizen, and for the opportunity to do work that I love. And yes, to live where I—and I hope Lt. Col. Vindman and his family—can live free of fear. Lt. Col. Vindman’s words bear repeating: “This is America. Here, right matters!”
In the last few weeks, leading up to the 7th anniversary of Helen’s death, I’ve come across three Japanese phrases whose symbolism resonates for me with this time. The first expression — saku-taku-no-ki — is in Jane Yolen’s book, Take Joy.
the special sound a mother hen makes tapping on an egg with her beak.
the sound a chick makes tapping from within.
the moment the tappings come together.
the instant a chick pecking on the inside and a mother pecking on the outside reach the same spot. The egg cracks open. New life emerges.
Yolen is writing about creativity — how inner and outer promptings come together to birth a story — but I feel it also referring to those vivid moments when the living and the dead continue to relate to one another.
A few days after reading this phrase, I met a neighbor on my morning walk, and saw some Japanese writing on her t-shirt. I asked her what it meant and she said, “Ichi-go ichi-e. Once in a lifetime.” I went home and looked it up on Wikipedia. “Literally ‘one time, one meeting’ — a cultural concept of treasuring the unrepeatable nature of a moment — the term has also been translated as ‘for this time only.’ It reminds people to cherish any gathering that they may take part in, citing the fact that any moment in life cannot be repeated; even when the same group of people get together in the same place again, a particular gathering will never be replicated, and thus each moment is always a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The concept is most commonly associated with Japanese tea ceremonies.”
A little further digging deepened the meaning, suggesting the term ichigo is rooted in Buddhist philosophy and is understood as “from one’s birth to death.”
The third phrase — kaze no denwa — and the story behind it, is one that many of you may know from a public radio segment, but I just came across it totally by accident the day after the encounter with my neighbor. Kaze no denwa means “wind phone” and refers to an unconnected rotary phone in an isolated phone booth on a hillside overlooking the Pacific Ocean in the town of Otsuchi. Originally set up by a resident named Itaru Sasaki in 2010 as a way for him to reflect on his cousin’s death and somehow maintain a connection to him, the phone booth became a pilgrimage site for people to grieve the loss of loved ones after the earthquake and tsunami of 2011, which devastated Otsuchi and other coastal towns in Japan.
As the 7th anniversary of Helen’s death has been approaching, these three Japanese phrases have been spiraling and linking with each other in my awareness. I can’t say I’ve figured out what they mean in relationship to my remembering Helen, but for now it’s enough for me to know that somehow love continues to find ways to keep us connected.
I know—it’s been weeks since the World Cup final and since the ugly words Twittered at four Congresswomen—and much has happened in that time that’s been newsworthy. But I still find myself thinking about these two events.
I watched the final match of the World Cup and was thrilled and very moved when the US women won. For days after, I found myself choking back tears every time I thought or talked about the match or heard of it on the news. (I am tearing up even as I’m writing.) This was all very surprising to me. Although I was born in soccer-crazy Hungary, I never played the game. For that matter, I can’t remember ever seeing a live match or watching one on TV. I am ignorant of all but the most basic rules and terms of the sport. Of course, in the weeks before the game I did hear about the little Twitter tantrum from the White House following Megan Rapinoe’s refusal to visit, and also about the much more serious issue of women soccer players being paid less than their male counterparts.
Since I don’t normally follow the sport, both of these issues gave me a sense of the human dramas that were the backdrop for the championship match, but they still didn’t explain my reactions. What was going on? Was I remembering my father, who loved the game and played it often as a young man, albeit long before I was born? Probably not; none of my memories of my father feature a soccer ball. Was I thinking of my daughter who, though ten years younger than Rapinoe, is the same age as many of the players on the US team? I suppose; but my daughter never played the game, and I haven’t ever felt frustrated aspirations or expectations of her becoming a soccer star.
It took me days to begin to understand why I felt the way I did. What I eventually came to was that the women on that team made me feel proud to be an American—and not only, or even primarily, because of their spectacular achievement. For the first time since November 2016—after all the xenophobic, racist, misogynist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic words, images and actions that have emanated from the White House and from other leaders and some rank-and-file Americans—here were a group of women who for a brief period had become the face of America. For a few news cycles the world didn’t only see an America where children are cruelly separated from their parents, where people who are seeking refuge are locked in cages; they didn’t hear the leader of the free world vilify and threaten immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. Instead, all of us got to see America’s daughters playing a game with stunning skill and joyous abandon; got to see America’s daughters excelling, at their best; got to see the results of countless hours and years of intense effort and immense dedication. It was one of the best things we’ve shown the world in a while.
So, it was disheartening, though hardly surprising, when a week after the US Women’s World Cup victory, it was back to the same old, same old—and then some. Hate-filled words were again directed at asylum seekers, and a particularly cruel new policy was announced, making it nearly impossible to apply for asylum in the US. And soon it wasn’t only Megan Rapinoe who was being attacked via Twitter, but four Congresswomen, nicknamed “the Squad;” Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Like Ilhan Omar, I too am an immigrant, and a citizen. My family came to the US in late 1959 when I was ten years old. We had left our native Hungary soon after the 1956 Revolution. My parents were both Holocaust concentration camp survivors; the Revolution and its aftermath reminded them too much of their experiences during the second World War. They didn’t feel safe staying in their homeland. They tried to come here, but US immigration quotas did not permit that. (The Immigration Act of 1924, inspired in large part by the racist eugenics movement, specifically targeted Jews and Hungarians, among many other national and ethnic groups, and severely restricted the number of people from each of those groups who could emigrate here.) We moved to Israel for a few years before we were finally allowed to come to the United States.
No one, in the sixty years that I’ve lived in this country, has ever told me to “go back where you came from.” Until now.
My brother and I are musicians. Although that’s been our work for our entire adult lives, it was only a little over twenty years ago that we began playing concerts with orchestras for children and families. I wrote a song especially for those shows. I designed ”The Orchestra is Here to Play” to introduce the instruments and musicians of an orchestra in a playful, child-friendly way. At the high point of the song, I wrote of the conductor, “he’s the one who knows the score.” My daughter was three years old when we began playing these shows, and, over the course of the next few years she saw us play many of them. In 2000, we performed with the Phoenix Ensemble, a terrific orchestra whose conductor was a very talented young woman named Annunziata Tomaro. It was the first time we’d worked with a female conductor. Naturally, I changed the line in the song to, “she’s the one who knows the score.” A few days after the concert, I caught my daughter, then six years old, standing in front of the full-length mirror in my office—the one I use to track my posture while I practice. She was conducting an imaginary orchestra and singing “And then there’s the conductor, she’s the one who knows the score.” It was the first time I’d ever heard her sing that song. I was thrilled to hear her put a lot of oomph into “she’s.” Clearly, she was inspired by seeing someone who looked like her.
In the song, “Children Will Listen” Stephen Sondheim wrote, “Careful the things you say/Children will listen. Careful the things you do/Children will see and learn. Children may not obey, but children will listen/Children will look to you for which way to turn/To learn what to be.” Later in the song he adds, “Tamper with what is true/and children will turn/If just to be free.”
The women on the US team, and the women of “the Squad,” have and will inspire young girls—and, I’m hoping, young boys too—and will serve as models “for which way to turn, to learn what to be.” Sadly though, these women—and many more women and men like them—are not the only ones who “children will look to.” But if those others “Tamper with what is true, children will turn, if just to be free.” And if we are fortunate, when our children see and hear those other people, our “children may not obey.”
I was very glad to read that Scott Warren is free—for now anyway. (Warren, a volunteer with the Arizona organization No More Deaths, faced up to twenty years in federal prison for allegedly providing humanitarian aid to two people attempting to cross into the US from Mexico.) Earlier this month his trial resulted in a hung jury, but authorities may still decide to retry him.
I admire Warren for several reasons. He behaved with genuine humanity in a situation where many others have been “simply following orders,” and some have even gone way below and beyond the call of duty, doing their jobs with malicious and unnecessary cruelty. (Some members of the Border Patrol were videoed pouring water out of jugs that volunteers with organizations like No More Deaths had placed in the Arizona desert to try to prevent people from dying of thirst.)
But the actions of Warren, and others like him, also resonated because they reminded me of stories my parents told of people who, risking their own lives, helped save some of their relatives during the Holocaust. There was the woman who, years before, had worked as a cleaning woman for my mother’s family, and hid my mother’s sister in her own apartment in Budapest during the Nazi occupation, thereby saving her from being deported to Ravensbrück—the way my mother was. And there were the two Hungarian policemen, brothers, who had fallen in love with two of my father’s sisters and hid and protected them, and even went to the deportation train stations to try to find and rescue some of their relatives.
Whenever governments or despots have created unjust laws, there have been courageous people who have resisted, thwarted them, and acted with compassion toward the human beings targeted by those laws—often at terrible cost to themselves. This June we’ve observed the anniversaries of several of these kinds of events—Tiananmen Square, D-Day, American women winning the right to vote, and Stonewall—and we’ve also heard about the recent protests in Hong Kong, Sudan and Honduras. All these, and the remarkable struggles and victories of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and others—and even Scott Warren’s comparatively small, though heartwarming acts of compassion—exemplify a bittersweet truth; the price of liberty is often even more than just eternal vigilance.
On the evening of July 21, 1969, my father and I were walking home from synagogue after evening prayers. The previous day our family had watched TV together as astronaut Neil Armstrong uttered his famous words, “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.
Now I pointed up at the faint crescent moon in the still light sky and said to my father, “Isn’t it amazing to think that there was a man walking around up there?”
My father didn’t even look up. Staring intently ahead, he said with conviction, “There were no people up there.”
I was flabbergasted.
“What do you mean there were no people up there,” I exclaimed with some heat. “We just saw it on TV!”
Taking little note of my outburst, my father went on in a condescending tone.
“They faked those scenes in some desert.”
(To be fair, my father was by no means alone in believing the various conspiracy theories that began circulating even before Apollo 11 blasted off from Cape Canaveral. Various polls have found that up to 20% of Americans believed that the moon missions were faked.)
Before I could begin to argue against the preposterousness of this theory, he added, “They can’t be on the moon. It says in the Psalms, “’The heavens are for God, but the earth he gave to mankind.”’
Well, that was that. There was no arguing with my father on matters of God, dogma and religion. I was then 20 years old, he was 58. He was a cantor and had studied the texts of Judaism all his life. He could always pull rank. We walked the rest of the way home in an angry silence.
Fifty years ago, there were many other things about which my father and I could not talk. In particular, we never talked about his life before I was born. It was my mother who told me, when I was about sixteen, that she was my father’s second wife. That his first wife and three young children, as well as his parents, three sisters, his only brother, and countless other relatives and friends were all murdered in Auschwitz. That he’d been in a work lager in Poland for much of the war and had almost starved to death. It was silently understood in our family that no one mentioned these things in front of my father.
It took me many years to begin to understand the effect of that tragedy, those enormous losses, and especially of that silence, on my father’s life and on mine. Eventually, gradually, my father and I did begin talking — even about his slaughtered family. And I started to see how, and why, he might have taken such an absolutist stance about the moon landing, and about all other matters pertaining to religion. I began to consider the possibility that, having lost almost everything, including nearly his own life, my father might have felt it essential to cling so literally to his faith, almost the only thing that remained of the life he led before the Holocaust. That perhaps it was this faith that allowed him to start over and reconstruct his life, and even might have helped him give me a solid foundation for starting mine.
In 1999, just before the 30th anniversary of the moon landing, I again asked my father about it. Wanting to protect his dignity, I did not remind him of what he had said 30 years before.
“Did you know,” he asked, “that they changed the Kiddush Levana after the moon landing?” (The Kiddush Levana is a prayer thanking God for the gift of the moon.) I said, no, I had not heard that. He continued. “In that prayer, we say to the moon, ‘Just as I leap toward you but cannot touch you, so may my enemies be unable to touch me harmfully.’ Well, they had to change that once people actually ‘touched’ the moon.”
I found it fascinating that my nearly 90-year-old father had come to tacitly accept the reality of the moon landing and had even found a way to bring it into concordance with his faith.
After talking with him, I asked several rabbis about the prayer and they all said that it has not been changed. One of them, though, did remember much discussion at the time of the moon landing about whether an alteration was necessary.
(Now that I am older, and have my own “senior moments,” I can readily see how my father might have confused hearing about discussions of a possible change, with an actual change.)
I never told my father what the rabbis said. The Kiddush Levana has not changed—it was enough for me to know that he and I had.
This July 20th will be the 50th anniversary of that first moon landing. My father has been gone for twelve years now, but I still regularly reflect on what he endured, how he persevered, and on his legacy in my life.
The Story of the St. Louis: 80 Years Ago and Today
by Sandor Slomovits
May 31, 2019
A friend of mine recently sailed from Key West to Havana and back, taking third place in the Conch Republic Cup. (The race, with the intention of promoting “Cultural Exchange Through Sport” has been going, on and off since 1996.) Over breakfast after he returned, my friend told me about his trip and we looked at pictures and videos on his laptop. We talked of the occasionally rough weather, complete with thunderstorms and “boiling seas” that they’d briefly encountered one morning while sailing the 90 mile stretch of sea between Cuba and the US. Inevitably, the subject of refugees and rafts came up. My friend’s 26-foot Hunter was the smallest boat in the race, and some of his fellow sailors marveled that he and his crew of four made the trip in a boat so small. We recalled reading about the flimsy rafts—much smaller, much less seaworthy than my friend’s boat—in which Cubans fleeing conditions under Castro—used to make the same journey. As we talked, a more than fifty-year old memory suddenly surfaced in my mind.
While still in high school, I’d come home one day and mentioned to my parents that we’d been learning about President Franklin Roosevelt in our American history class. My mother frowned darkly and said, with some heat, “He didn’t let in that ship.” I had no idea what she was talking about, or why she was so angry. Turns out she was talking about the St. Louis.
The St. Louis was a German ocean liner that, on May 13, 1939 left from Hamburg, bound for Havana, with 937 passengers on board, largely Jews fleeing Nazi Germany. Most had applied for US visas and planned to stay in Cuba only until they could enter the US. But by the time the St. Louis arrived in Havana’s harbor Cuban authorities had had a change of heart and would not allow the passengers to disembark. Forced to sail on, the ship passed within sight of Miami; some passengers cabled President Roosevelt, pleading for refuge. He never responded. The ship eventually sailed back to Europe where the refugees were taken in by England, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Over 250 of them died in German occupied lands during the Holocaust.
The saga of the St. Louis attracted a great deal of international media attention at the time, and my mother had followed the news in her native Budapest, where she herself was already beginning to feel effects of the anti-Semitic hatreds of pre-war Hungary, and would soon experience the full horrors of the Holocaust in the Ravensbruck concentration camp in Germany. More than twenty-five years later, when I brought up President Roosevelt’s name, she still remembered.
Neither my high school American history textbook, nor my teacher had mentioned the St. Louis. Likewise, I’m fairly certain that my curriculum probably also whitewashed or left out entirely many other shameful acts in our country’s history, including some of FDR’s other failings. Besides neglecting the story of the St. Louis, that history book almost certainly failed to mention Japanese internment camps, the racial exclusion policies that were aspects of the New Deal, and the relatively minor, but telling fact that FDR never invited Jesse Owens, the undisputed star of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, to the White House; all facts I learned only years later, and only because I majored in history in college.
I know every president has occasionally needed to—and has—made distasteful, ethically questionable, even painful and immoral political compromises for the sake of a perceived “greater good.” My sense is that, despite his serious failures, FDR, who led our nation through arguably one of the most difficult periods of our history, did far more good than harm.
I also know that our country’s current immigration policies need thoughtful review and updating. The St. Louis carried 937 passengers, a not insignificant number of human beings, but nevertheless far fewer than the number affected, and undoubtedly traumatized, by family separation and the other recent and current immigration control policies of Trump and his administration.
It’s utterly inconceivable to me that any future history book will praise Trump as we now mostly acclaim FDR. But even if it turns out that there’s no justice, and historians hence will view Trump the way we now regard FDR, there will be countless mothers—like my mother, who never forgot what FDR did—who will remember Trump, and will not allow their children to forget.
When you live with someone for nearly 42 years, you may think with some justification that you know them pretty well. And when they die, and seven years go by, you may think with some justification that you can’t get to know them any better — after all, they’re gone and you can’t interact with them anymore; they can’t tell you more about themselves; you’ve looked through much of what she left behind; and friends and relatives have told the stories they have.
But, of course, knowing someone does not mean knowing every detail of their life, especially of the part of it that happened before the two of you met.
Let me begin to weave together two seemingly unconnected strands. In September of 2011, a little less than a year before Helen died, she was invited to a reunion of women from all over the country who, in their youth had attended Quinibeck, a summer camp for girls on Lake Fairlee in Ely, Vermont. It was considered one of the very best camps in the country. The camp had opened in 1911 and this was its 100th Birthday Celebration, to recognize the impact it had on the lives of thousands of young girls. Helen was one of them; she attended the camp for four summers in the late 1950’s and early 60’s.
Here is the other strand. A few years ago, someone I had met in Pennsylvania many years before, on one of my concert tours, moved to Ann Arbor and we became re-acquainted. She had not known Helen, but a few months ago, while looking through childhood memorabilia, she came across Helen’s name in a booklet about the 100th Birthday Celebration of Quinibeck. Helen had been one of the former campers who had been found through the internet when the celebration was conceived. Though she was not able to go to the reunion, Helen did contribute a letter about the impact the Qinibeck camp experience had had on her life. Here is part of what she wrote, which was quoted in the booklet.
“I remember the big ferns and the quiet coolness of the woods, and I remember diving off the high platform into the beautiful cool lake. The feeling of having been nourished deeply by being at Quinibeck for those four years is still with me.”
She had signed the letter with her maiden name included — Helen Forslund Slomovits. My friend saw that name and figured quite correctly that there couldn’t be too many Helen Slomovitses who were not related to me! And though she didn’t remember Helen from the camp, she asked her older sister, who did remember Helen. And, in fact remembered Helen’s mother Betty, who had been a counselor at the camp, as well as the cellist in the resident piano-violin-cello trio that played classical music for the campers on a regular basis throughout the summer. In fact, that was the only way Helen’s mother — recently divorced and trying to make ends meet on an elementary school teacher’s salary — could afford to have Helen go to Quinibeck.
Over the years, Helen had told me some stories about this camp, and how much she still treasured her time there. But I didn’t really have a sense of how formative that time was for her. As I looked at the Quinibeck booklet, filled with pictures (I wondered about some small faces in group shots — could that have been Helen?) and vivid descriptions of the daily activities, I started to see how much of what she became had its beginning and development there.
I remembered how, in telling me about the camp, she had attributed her deep love of nature to the beauty of the surroundings and the varied outdoor experiences that were a daily part of camp life. At Quinibeck is where she became a strong hiker and swimmer, a good sailor, as well as expert at handling a canoe. This is where she was given professional instruction in horseback riding, tennis and archery — and where she gained the confidence that comes from working at and learning difficult skills. This was also where the foundation was laid for her love of music — both listening and playing — as well as her gifts and life-long interest in a wide range of arts and crafts.
There was one story that came to symbolize the preciousness of that time for her. I still remember the glow in her eyes when she related it. Dramatics was one of the camp activities, and each summer the campers put on plays, including creating the costumes, props and sets, and even contributing to the writing of the scripts. One summer one of the plays was Peter Pan, and Helen was chosen for the lead role. The counselors rigged up and operated a harness - pulley contraption above the stage, and several times during the production, Helen, as Peter Pan got to fly across the stage. That sensation of flying became a metaphor for Helen about how she wanted to live her life.
Perhaps most significantly, Quinibeck was where her spirituality became linked with her reverence for nature — an interweaving that stayed with her all her life, and the way she gave fullest expression to this yearning to fly, in everything she did.
When our son Daniel was a few years old, Helen told him the Peter Pan story. Though Daniel liked the flying image Helen vividly created, there was another camp story she told that became most requested at bedtime.
At Quinibeck, the girls stayed in small cabins, and at night these filled with mosquitoes. One summer, the girls in Helen’s cabin devised a plan whereby one of them would be bait and lie unmoving in the dark, (the other girls presumably continuing to swat the ones that landed on them) and then, when the “bait girl” heard a mosquito nearby, she’d give a signal, and another girl, who had been standing by the light switch, turned it on, a frenzy of mosquito swatting would ensue, and they’d all go back to sleep. The only problem was that by the time they’d rid the cabin of one batch of mosquitoes in this manner, one of the girls needed to go to the bathroom, letting in a fresh new batch of mosquitoes, and the whole process needed to be repeated!
This story, complete with wild, mosquito-swatting motions through Helen’s long hair, was hugely exciting for Daniel — and served as a very poor lullabye!
Looking through that Quinibeck booklet I felt I got to know Helen on a level I’d never known before. So many things that I loved and valued in her began and were nurtured at that camp. In a way, seeing the pictures and reading the detailed descriptions of camp life at Quinibeck was like being at an archeological site and discovering a lost civilization — and thereby reclaiming at least part of its beauty and wisdom.
In each of the seven year since Helen died, I’ve done a concert in her memory and donated the proceeds to two organizations that were meaningful to her. I’ll be doing such a concert again this month on Saturday, May 11th. One of the causes the concert will benefit is Alpha House, an emergency shelter in Ann Arbor for children and their families experiencing homelessness. I still remember the time Helen had me pull over so she could talk to a young mother standing with her daughter by a highway exit ramp. She gave them some money and referred them to Alpha House which they hadn’t known about. Helen was heart-broken at seeing a mother and child in such dire straits; it brought back her own anxiety as a child, when her newly-divorced mother, though not in danger of being homeless, was nevertheless, in difficult circumstances.
The concert will also benefit a scholarship fund Daniel and I established in Helen’s name at the Friends Lake Community, a nature preserve in Chelsea. Helen loved this beautiful, serene place, and it was here that she introduced Daniel to the joys, both physical and spiritual, of being in nature. The scholarship fund is intended to pay the membership dues for underprivileged families with young children, so they can enjoy swimming, hiking, canoeing, as well as learning how to take care of our natural environment.
After reading about Quinibeck, I realized on a deeper level why those causes were so important to Helen. Her own experience as a child, of being cared for and taught in a lovely setting in nature was one of the main foundations on which she was able to build the rest of her life. I now more fully understand how she wanted to make that opportunity available to all children.
In the last seven years I’ve looked through so many photographs, journals and other writings Helen left behind, and talked with relatives and friends. On some level I’d stopped expecting to learn something very new. Thank you to my friend for noticing Helen’s name, and thank you Helen for contributing to that Quinibeck booklet, and thereby coming back to me in this unexpected, lovely way, seven years later.