page 2

Coronavirus Musings and Memories, Chapter 2

by Sandor Slomovits
April 7, 2020

Passover starts tomorrow night. It is in some ways a perfect holiday for the present moment, because it looks back on very hard times and celebrates that today is better. And while we’re nowhere near being able to see the coronavirus crisis as ancient history, the story of Passover can remind us that we’ve come through some very tough times before and survived.

There is a famous question asked during the seder, Passover’s celebratory meal: “How is this night different from all other nights?” It is customarily asked by the youngest child present, and the adults answer with the stories of the horrendous trials our ancestors endured, and of their—and thereby our—eventual salvation. This year, for children and adults, there are many more questions—and uncertain answers—than perhaps ever before in most of our lifetimes.

The seder ends with the words, “Next year in Jerusalem.” The meaning of that phrase is, for many of us, not literal, but instead expresses a powerful longing, and a call to action, to work for a more just and peaceful earth for all people and for all living beings. This year it can also serve as a fervent wish and hope that next year at this time, we will be able to celebrate the seder, and all manner of other joyous occasions, in the company of our friends and families.

My wish for all of you is that this plague pass over your home—over all our homes—and that soon we will be able to again celebrate together.

Of course, it was bound to happen, and sadly, sooner rather than later. And now it has. Someone I know has succumbed to the coronavirus. A good friend’s father died on April first. I met him once a couple of years ago when he came here to visit my friend. We shared a meal and some conversation. He was in his late eighties, very fit, very active, very full of life right up to his final illness. My friend will miss him enormously, and I will remember him for more than merely being my “index case” (the term scientists use, instead of the catchier, but faintly blame-placing expression, “patient zero”). I fear my personal list of coronavirus victims will grow.

For many years now, I have regularly played music in senior communities. I know the faces, if not the names, of many, many very elderly people in those places. I wonder and worry about how many of them will still be alive when this is all over, how many might have lived longer if not for this virus. And, of course, as I am all-too-frequently reminded by my own brain’s press releases to myself, “Ain’t no guarantees you won’t make somebody else’s list, buddy.”

One of the saddest aspects of all these deaths is that people are dying alone, away from their loved ones. I’m certain doctors and nurses have, and will continue to do their best to comfort the dying, but to die without people you love near you, to not be able to say mutual goodbyes… I know it happens all the time, but I fear it is, and will be happening far more often now.

I remember a story my mother told me of her mother, the grandmother I never met. In October 1944 my mother, Blanka, her older sister, Anci and their mother, Karolina, were forced to move into one of the crowded csillagos hazak, houses with six-sided stars on them in the Jewish ghetto of Budapest. Karolina became ill soon after and was hospitalized. My mother never learned a diagnosis. New laws created by the Hungarian Nazi party, the Nyilas, mandated that all Jews wear yellow stars on their clothing, and made it illegal and highly dangerous to venture outside the ghetto. Still, my mother and her sister repeatedly sneaked to their mother’s bedside during her final illness, removing their yellow stars and pretending to be nurses going to work. Since my mother’s blood type matched her mother’s, she was able to give blood for transfusions. But the transfusions could not save Karolina. She died alone on November 8th. Her daughters dared not go to her funeral. Attending the burial in the Jewish cemetery outside the ghetto, would have meant immediate arrest and deportation. My mother was not able to visit her mother’s gravesite until seven months later, after she had endured deportation and several months in the Ravensbruck concentration camp. When she finally got back to Budapest on July 7, 1945, she went to the Chevra Kadisha, the Jewish burial society, and with their help found her mother’s grave. Karolina had been buried in a remote corner of the Jewish cemetery because no one from the family had been there to pay for the funeral costs.

A couple of weeks ago I remembered a scene from the movie, The African Queen, and ever since, I have not been able to get it out of my mind. I only saw the movie once, about forty years ago, and I’ve forgotten nearly everything about it. That one scene is my only vivid recollection, and I think it resurfaced now because it’s saying something that feels relevant to me now.

I won’t review the plot, but those of you who have seen it know that partway through the movie, Charlie, Humphrey Bogart’s character, is pulling his boat through mud and thick vegetation that’s choking the shallow river they’re navigating. At one point he climbs back aboard and discovers to his horror that he’s covered in leeches, a universally dreadful, but for him an apparently particularly personal nightmare. After he and Rose, Katharine Hepburn’s character, frantically pull all the leeches off him, it becomes obvious—without them saying a word—that he must get back in the river and keep towing the boat if they are to survive. Rose is simply not strong enough. It’s the look on Bogart’s face when that realization dawns that’s been haunting me.

I’ve seen that expression a number of times recently, or think I have; on the face of the man who brought out and loaded into my car the groceries I’d ordered and paid for online—while I stood six feet away. I’ve imagined seeing the same expression on the face of the woman who has continued to deliver our mail, and on the face of the pharmacist who filled my prescription and slid it out to me through the drive-up window. These people, and countless others, are doing their jobs and more, to keep our world functioning, and even to further reduce the risk for some of us.

I don’t remember the expression on Katharine Hepburn’s face when Bogart decides to get back in the river, or even if the film recorded it, but I know that I have felt uneasy during each of my interactions with the people who helped me. And that leaving them a little bit of money, as I have, (tip seems a completely inaccurate and inappropriate word) does little to ease my mind. I understood that my being a septuagenarian puts me in a higher risk group than the younger people who have helped me. Still, it was only lukewarm comfort knowing that the virus is likely to be less dangerous to them than to me.

I tried to understand what I was feeling. Of course, guilt immediately came to mind. (I am Jewish, after all.) And that’s as far as I got till I talked about it with my therapist, who pointed out that the word guilt implies blame. Is it my fault that some people’s jobs are essential and hazardous while mine is neither? No. Did I feel I deserved better treatment than they? Definitely not.

We agreed that another word was required. But what?

Perhaps, I later thought, what’s needed is one of those long German words, like schadenfreude, for which there is no one-word equivalent in English. Come to think of it, what I have felt is in some ways the opposite of schadenfreude. So, what is the antonym of schadenfreude? Google says, “fremdscham, or the ‘vicarious embarrassment syndrome’. People who have this syndrome tend to feel embarrassment for someone else's misfortune.”

OK. That was getting closer… but then Google also adds, “It’s particularly difficult for them to witness embarrassing moments, which may explain why some people hate cringe comedies such as Curb Your Enthusiasm or The Office.”

No. That misses the mark.

Some permutation of survivor’s guilt is involved too – though the jury is still way out on that one.

I found a post by a man named Shubham Thakur, who wrote, “Compassion can be considered as an opposite of schadenfreude. It means deep awareness of the suffering of another, coupled with the wish to relieve it. Empathy and kindness can also be counted as opposite to schadenfreude.”

Those are all better, but still seem to miss an active component. What does one do to show compassion, empathy and kindness?

I remind myself that staying at home as much as possible, and following social distance guidelines and wearing a mask when I’m out in the world, are meaningful contributions to the general welfare; that my donating to organizations that support medical personnel, that provide food for the less fortunate among us, to my favorite causes... There is no shortage of need. Epictetus’ two-thousand-year-old words still speak to me. “You are not some disinterested bystander. Exert yourself.”

And always, always, I offer sincere, heartfelt thanks. As Shakespeare wrote in Twelfth Night, “I can no other answer make but thanks and thanks, and ever thanks.”

Coronavirus Musings and Memories

by Sandor Slomovits
March 31, 2020

Lately I’ve had more time to think than usual—especially when I wake in the middle of nights and can’t fall back asleep. In those long dark hours, among the fears and worries, memories have surfaced that I’ve not had reason to recall for many years—memories that seem surprisingly relevant, and even comforting, today.

This one is possibly my very first memory. I can’t think of one that is older. When I was about two or three years old I contracted scarlet fever. This was in 1951-52 and the standard practice in those days, at least in my native Budapest, was either to quarantine whole families or, as happened in my case, if complications developed, individuals were quarantined in hospitals.

The memory is of something that happened sometime after I was quarantined in a hospital room. I was not allowed out and my parents and brother were not allowed in. I remember standing by the room’s window and the three of them waving to me from the other side. They had brought me a toy fire truck to ease the pain of separation, and a nurse brought it in to me. I raised the firetruck above my head and shouted, “Are you coming in?” When they sadly shook their heads from side to side, I slammed the truck to the floor as hard as I could, breaking it.

Fortunately, these days I’m finding it much easier to understand and accept the need for the current shelter-in-place orders. I wish the same for all of us. I also like to think I’ve mastered my temper a little bit better since that time. I wish that too for all of us.

I was seven years old when the Hungarian Revolution began on October 23, 1956 and lasted for a little over two weeks. It was dangerous to be outside as guerilla fighting erupted in the streets of Budapest when Russian soldiers attempted to put down the Revolution. Our family lived in the heart of the city, in a typical European style three-story apartment building that surrounded a courtyard. My brother and I, along with all the kids in the building, replicated the real conflicts that raged outside with mock battles of our own in the courtyard and along the interior balconies of the building. When we chose sides for our skirmishes, no one wanted to be the Russian soldiers, or the hated Hungarian secret police. Then, a citywide curfew was imposed. No one was allowed outside. In those pre-refrigerator days, my mother was used to shopping nearly every day for fresh food at nearby markets. After a few days of the curfew, our small ice box was running low on meat, fresh fruits and vegetables.

One of my father’s sisters also lived in Budapest. Her husband, our uncle Ervin, was a born and bred rebel, an outlaw, a maverick. He always carried himself with a nonconformist bravado; rules and restrictions were for others, not for him. In post WWII Communist Hungary, where entrepreneurs were nearly non-existent, he owned an electronics repair shop. In a country where private automobiles and even motorcycles were rare and mostly owned by wealthy government officials, he had both and, using his thorough familiarity with all the ins and outs of the flourishing black-market economy, managed to always find petrol for each. (Both my brother and I still remember thrilling rides in the sidecar of his motorcycle, especially when he took sharp turns at exhilarating speeds that made us glad our parents weren’t along.) Through his black-market contacts, he also found ways to acquire everything from chocolate to ladies’ nylons, all extremely rare commodities in 1950s Hungary. No curfew or Revolution was going to change his modus operandi. He somehow got hold of a Russian Army uniform, likely stolen off the body of a dead soldier, and rode his motorcycle through the city at night, avoiding checkpoints by learning their locations through his shortwave radio contacts, and brought food to us and other members of his family. He only knew a handful of Russian words and surely would have been immediately shot, had he been caught.

If he were alive today, Ervin would undoubtedly be one of the people selflessly delivering food and medicine to family, neighbors and friends, and would also know how to find hand sanitizer, masks, and yes, even toilet paper!

Early this morning I went to Arbor Farms Market to shop for groceries. I wore glasses, a red bandana, outlaw style, underneath a dust mask like the kind I use in my shop when I sand wood. I wore gloves and sanitized my cart with alcohol cleaner the store provided. I carefully avoided coming closer than six feet to anyone in the store till I got to the checkout line. The young woman who rang up my purchases wore gloves and helped me bag my groceries. I got choked up as I thanked her and walked out of the store. Ever since this crisis began, I’ve frequently thought with enormous gratitude of the many, many people today who are taking far greater risks than I need to in order to serve and help others.

Intimations of Mortality

by Sandor Slomovits
March 18, 2020

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.

45 Years of Rattlin' the Bones!

by Sandor Slomovits
February 3, 2020

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!

75th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz

by Sandor Slomovits
January 27, 2020

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.

“Here, right matters!”

by Sandor Slomovits
November 28, 2019

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!”

The 7th Anniversary and Three Japanese Phrases

by Laszlo Slomovits
July 29, 2019

(Click to enlarge)

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.

The Women’s World Cup Champions and the Squad

by Sandor Slomovits
August 1, 2019

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.”

Anniversaries of Resistance

by Sandor Slomovits
July 1, 2019

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.

50th Anniversary of the Moon Landing

by Sandor Slomovits
July 1, 2019

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.