No one can deny that Paris is filled with many joys. Paris is also the birthplace of existentialism for a reason. When it rains, is cold, crowded and cranky, Paris can suck delight away as quickly as it gave it over.
Tragic Paris in the Rain
Yesterday offered unseasonably cold day of rain. The weather offered a perfect, if unpleasant, context in which to spend the day with a Holocaust survivor visiting Drancy, France’s largest internment camp in a suburb just outside of Paris. She took me and a couple friend around the site, told us how the camp — now immigrant housing — held 100,000 mostly Jewish deportees while they awaited their trains to Auschwitz. She also talked about her regular post-war visits to the site to see if her mother was among the returning survivors. “For years, I thought she may have had amnesia and been living somewhere.” The government just labeled her mother as “disappeared.” Only in the 1990s was she able to acquire a death certificate.
Even though we did our best to bring some humor and levity to the day, the rain and tragedies of WWII loomed heavy. After the visit, I met a friend for an aperitif at the Paris-London brasserie where discussed the Greece’s looming debt crisis–the modern economic war in Europe.
When I learned that my 8pm dinner plans would take me on another two trains — I had already ridden several to reach the camp– and more traipsing through the cold rain I struggled to find the whimsical joy I had experienced during Paris’ fête de la musique that occurred the night before.
On the crammed metro, people looked tired, irritable and wet. I was just about to add my own fatigue and bedraggled state to the sorry looking lot when something shifted in me.
“No,” I thought “No, I’m going to find the joy. I’m going to find my happiness in this moment.”
So I closed my eyes and just focused on feeling happy and excited for no particular reason.
The sound of a crying infant lurched me out of my isolated zen moment. I looked at this adorable, cranky 1-year-old and decided that we would have a good time. My focus became cheering him up. I started making faces at him and then he at me. His mother, also tired and irritable at first tried to quell his every move. Once he started reaching out for me I told her he seemed to be kind of a flirt– a drageur. Then she laughed and softened too. She also began to play with her son instead of whacking his hand away from his face.
We all three started having a good time. He started trying to explain something in his not-yet-quite-a-language and I listened with attention, agreed with him and used hand motions to encourage further clarification.
Together we did not cheer up the whole metro we only the ride transformed for us. Instead of following what I affectionately named during my years in Paris, “the Paris Crank” (caused by cold, fatigue, crowded metros and a sour attitude) we chose joy.
Maybe I gained perspective from my research– no train ride could really be worse than those cattle cars to Poland. Even more simply, joy is more fun than being cranky. I was able to catch my mood and the child’s discontent early enough enjoy to turn our emotional train around. On the one hand, this was just 7 minutes on the other hand, life really is just an accumulation of moments, so why not make the best of each one?
In this photo is “Fluff” (Mary) Capua and my mother.
Fluff died last week and now that she’s gone I’m willing to share her. When she was alive, I almost wanted to keep her to myself.
That was a mistake though, because this woman ironically named “Fluff” had a love much bigger and fiercer than her little frame reveals in this photo. She had enough room to love us all.
She came into my life and my mom’s life at a very challenging time. She made me feel loved, perfect, and brilliant no matter how twisted I felt inside. Never once did I feel wrong for not living like everyone else. It didn’t matter that I lived in an apartment with a friend and not in a big house with lots of kids.
She was too busy giving and loving to judge. She gave in many old-timely ways.
She left us Italian food at our door, sent us cookies when we lived far away and has sent me birthday cards for over twenty years.
This year I received this birthday card a week after she lost consciousness.
Fluff wouldn’t let a little thing like death get in the way of your birthday.
My birthday this year landed on the same day as the terror attacks in Paris. It was a hard birthday. I spent the day checking on friends in France and holding my breath for the hostages.
All I wanted to do was have a cup of coffee and some soup with Fluff that day. I didn’t know she had already had a massive stroke.
She died in the best way. One stroke and then out. She lived right and died right. Rather than getting old in a way that required everyone to take care of her, she lived for taking care of others. She asked for so little and would flip over with glee when you had time for tea. I want to be like her. If I have the luxury to grow old, I want to be loving on everyone too. I know how good it felt to experience unconditional love.
April 10th, in the bustling student center of Grinnell College, over 100 students, faculty and staff gathered for a seder. A visiting faculty, I found a seat next to another visiting professor– Kostek Gerbert, a Polish journalist and Jewish activist well known for his war correspondence, most notably during the war in Yugoslavia.
I wanted to write about this rare opportunity to chat for several hours with Kostek as part of a forthcoming “Never Eat Alone” series of posts.
Never Eat Alone
In 2005, Keith Ferrazzi came out with a business book called Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success One Relationship at a Time. Now in its second edition, the book talks about the power of relationships to get you where you want to go. The book sparked an idea in me. What would happen if I started to avoid eating alone? What kinds of incredible conversations might I have? The intention for me was not to win business contracts, but simply to see what I might have been missing out on during those solitary meals. A conversation with Kostek showed me just what I had been missing…
Hopefully, summer in Siberia”
When Jack, the psychology major sitting to my right, asked Kostek what he might be doing for the summer, Kostek replied,
“Hopefully, summer in Siberia.”
I said usually the words summer and hopefully are not near the word Siberia. Then he explained why,
“Of course, you know, everyone reads on the metro. This is not unusual. But in Siberia, they double read.”
He paused and said,
”You see, historically, all the great writers got sent to Siberia…they were exiled there. So they have a very rich culture of reading and writing!!”
I am so glad someone benefited from all those writers being sent away.
And, You Don’t Want to Miss Winter in Siberia Either
We could then understand why an activist/writer would want to be around a rich intellectual culture, but we could not understand why experiencing -50 in a Siberian winter was on his bucket list.
“My daughter explained that at negative 50, life leaves a trail. People warm the frozen air as they walk and then it re-freezes as they move forward, but in a different shape. The light then picks up the crystals and leaves a golden trail. I want to see this before I die.”
He also was told that at -50 anti-Semitism freezes. He has been told by locals that people cannot hate each other. At that temperature everyone relies on everyone else for survival.
“So, what you’re saying is that hate and conflict is a luxury?” I asked.
We paused, that gave us something to think about.
What World War II Heroes Have in Common
In between Seder prayers, the conversation continued with Jack and Kostek. Jack, now a second-year student, told us he was going to spend the summer learning how to operate an MRI machine studying the brains of young women who might be prone to social anxiety disorders. He was thrilled to be doing real research and in his hometown of Madison Wisconsin.
Somehow, probably due to the intercession of prayers, bitter herbs, and horseradish, we got from there to what wartime heroes had in common.
Kostek, an expert in World War II Poland, said he had spoken to many people who had saved Jews during the war. He noticed something so curious about what they had in common. He said, after the war, they were all over the place politically. Some of these people were on the far-right (many of them, in fact), some where on the far left, some where professors and others were uneducated peasants.
“Do you know what they all had in common?” he asked.
We shook our heads.
“They all did not believe that the problem was someone else’s business. They are the kind of people that cannot leave well enough alone. They make terrible co-workers,” he explained laughing a bit, “because they are always involved in everyone else’s business.”
He talked to people who knew people who took similar risks in the Bosnian war, the attribute was the same. The people who saved others at the risk of their own lives were nosy people who wouldn’t wait for others to fix things.
Astonishing. We have totally undervalued these folks! Or at least I have. In 2015, Psychology Today wrote an article on how to handle nosy people. But, I’m starting to think maybe we need more of them.
I suggested to Jack that maybe his future research could be studying the brains of people who do this. Maybe their brains are different. Maybe nosy people have a bigger this or a smaller that. He really liked that idea….lets see where young Jack lands.
As for never eating alone, I am so glad I spent the evening with Kostek and Jack. I won’t ever look at Siberia or nosy people the same way.
When I read Ray Oldenburg’s ethnography; The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of the Community, he seemed to be writing about a place already extinct.
I have lived in Paris, so I know the café culture there and have sought for years the “ideal” American cafe where people come together to exchange life updates as well as ideas. A cafe where people work on their projects while remembering that our borders are permeable. We are individual creatures operating in community. But we are community creatures that take on individual projects.
One of the Great Cafés!
Well, it turns out such a café does still exist. At least one remains. I am writing this blog from SAINTS REST: COFFEE HOUSE right in the heart of Grinnell, Iowa. This morning two moms have their kids running around looking for leftover Easter Eggs. In the corner, Jon, the anthropologist is chatting with Howard the emeritus religious studies professor who survived the Holocaust by spending two years in a potato cellar. One woman in a black polka dotted dressed seems to be preparing for an interview and others grab their coffee to go.
“Sarah, do you want the awning down,” Sam, the owner, just called to me.
She had noticed the sun beating on my back. Abbey, roughly aged four, just bumped her knee during her café hunt for Easter eggs. Once she finished with the awning, Sam came over to kiss the boo-boo.
That’s just Monday morning. You should see this place on the weekends. The above photo is of Sam, the owner. She came and had a coffee with me outside yesterday. That’s how she knows my name. She said bought the café just a few years ago and hopes when she sells it in 20 years someone else wants to keep the spirit alive.
“I’m never sure whether to stay open on Easter, ” she explained, “but the students tend to come out when the weather is warm like this.”
But people came by after church, Grinnell College students struggled to finish assignments due Monday as I made my way through book three of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels.
As wonderful as yesterday was, last weekend may have even been more extraordinary. Rabbi Rob, the school’s Rabbi who helps run the spirituality and social justice center would not let me sit alone reading. He wanted to introduce me to some of the incredible people sitting all around me.
This included Kesho Scott, a professor in the sociology department who used to be a black panther and had heard Martin Luther King speak. She is internationally recognized for her human rights and other workshops designed to shorten the divide between people, mostly by helping them unlearn racism. (A perfect person to meet before I start leading similar classes at the University of Baltimore this fall.) Students and faculty came up to her all afternoon wanting to bounce ideas off her or tell her their latest accomplishments.
She never graded her 16 student papers.
It’s not only intellectuals who stop into Saints Rest. The café draws locals who pull up in large trucks. Sam, herself is from Louisiana, and gives the place a southern feel. A large apple pie was at the counter at 7am this morning. You know, just in case you had a hankering. She taught me about “ham balls” a southern meal that she and her family make all the time.
Saints Rest is intellectual and social justice oriented while leaving space for the Iowans who come by for a cup of joe in the morning.
All Great Places Have Conflict
The café is an intersection of multiple worlds and sometimes those worlds collide A Grinnell student told me just after I left last Sunday, he had a run-in with a local man. The student was having an animated conversation with a friend in which he was using numerous curse words. A local man told him stop speaking with such a fowl mouth. The student believed the criticism also had to do with the fact that he was gay. Though, I’m not sure how the man would have known that.
Somehow the police became involved. A little drama to keep the streets alive, I guess. Where there are people there is conflict.
All in all, I have to say Saints Rest Coffee House is magic. Anyone who lives in our around suburban sprawl knows how rare these places are. Usually you find cafés in U.S. cities inhabited by young folks without kids. But at Saints Rest, you find a place for ages 1-100. And as compared to most city cafés people seem to talk to each other, at least more often.
Thanks, Sam for making residents of Grinnell Iowa think this way of life is normal and thanks for letting me know the American café is not dead. I’ll have to tell Ray.
As part of my never eat alone series, this blog describes what happened Monday morning when emeritus religious studies professor, inter-faith dialogue specialist and Holocaust witness, Harold Kasimow came over to me in the café. We shared a morning coffee and some great conversation. Harold launched into his excitement about his new article in the Huffington Post about the importance of “servant leadership” in today’s social and political climate. In the article he talks about the importance of speaking up, as Martin Luther King Jr. encouraged us to do:
“His core message was that we must talk to each other and be fully present to each other. “[To] stand alone or live alone in the world today,” King said, “is sleeping through a revolution.””
King’s message and Kasimow’s message are aligned with the purpose of this never eat alone series. I wish to inspire people to talk to each other, both the upend the alienation that brings anxiety and depression as well as to strengthen the links which strengthen our communities, nation and world.
Harold and I chatted about his article and then he told me a bit about his Holocaust story . Harold spent a few of his early years hidden in a cellar. He did not know what light was when he first saw it. His father built a tunnel so he could slip out for food: mostly bread and water.
“That’s why I’m so short,” he told me. In his early years he barely age, “All of the Kasimows are really tall. Except me!”
The Long-Tail of Holocaust Survivorship
For many years, Harold did not think of himself as a survivor until his sister wrote a book about his family’s experience.
“But it was really about 50 years later that it started affecting me,” he explained.
Harold was a professor of religious studies at Grinnell College starting in 1972. I met a man who took Harold’s class back in the 1980s and said,
“It was incredible, Harold taught this whole class about Jews in Poland during the war and never once mentioned that he was one of those Jews.”
This is not uncommon. In the 80 interviews I conducted with Holocaust survivors for my forthcoming book on the contemporary U.S.-based conflict over role of the French National Railways (SNCF) in the Holocaust, I discovered that many lived decades before what happened really hit them.
“Of course I was a mess before then, but it was at about 50-60 years when it really started to affect me…dreams, memories. And I started telling my story. But it was really hard. I started to have dreams. ”
He then stopped telling his story for sometime.
“It was just to difficult,” he explained.
“I have started again. Now that Elie Wiesel and many of the others are gone, I feel an obligation.”
Like many witnesses of the Holocaust I have met, Harold doesn’t concern himself only with the horrors of the Holocaust. He focuses on contemporary challenges; he spends much of his time working on interfaith dialogue, When I asked him if this work was influenced by his early experience he said,
“Yes, but I didn’t realize it for many years.”
I asked whether he was ever involved in the lawsuits, trials against former Nazis or restitution. He said he has never received any money. He thinks he made too much money today and was therefore disqualified. Do certain compensation programs limit based on your income? How could that be? How could an apology be dependent upon your current well-being?
That’s like having an old boyfriend not apologize because you’re now happily married. One has nothing to do with the other. I seemed more bothered by it than Harold. He moved quickly to discussing the relatively new compensation program which offers 2500 Euros to anyone who survived. He filled out the paperwork, but there is some discrepancy between his story and their official story,
“How am I supposed to remember exactly where we were? How are we supposed to have records of this?”
His comment echoes the frustrations of many survivors of the Holocaust — some of the few survivors of mass atrocity who are even eligible for compensation. Most of the world’s genocide survivors have received nothing — and likely never will.
For more about Harold’s story, please see Defying Darkness . Stay tuned for his new book on Pope Francis!
Another great meal shared!
The Never Eat Alone Series
In 2005, Keith Ferrazzi came out with a business book called Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success One Relationship at a Time. Now in its second edition, Ferrazzi discusses importance of relationships for professional advancement.
The book sparked an idea!
What would happen if I started to avoid eating alone?
What kinds of incredible conversations might I have?
The purpose of this series is to record these rich conversations and inspire others to eat with others. See where these conversations take you. I would love to hear your stories, so please add them in the comments below!
Today, I leave for my three week journey sponsored by Amtrak. Thanks to the Amtrak Residency, I’ll live aboard Amtrak while editing my forthcoming book about the role of the French National Railways (SNCF) in the Holocaust and the conflict that continues in the U.S. today over that role.
Today, the SNCF bids for contracts in the USA, but has trouble winning a few because some folks feel the company has not made sufficient amends of the Holocaust.
My book will not be a polemic for or against the SNCF, but rather a thoughtful presentation of the various involved parties and their perspectives. Readers think through questions of corporate accountability in the aftermath of violence
What’s Happening with the Book?
During this trip, I will edit my book manuscript. It’s fitting that I start in Washington D.C. where a big fight occurred over whether the SNCF would be allowed to construct the new Purple Line before paying survivors.Then, I stop in Chicago, where the conflict continues because of a class action lawsuit launched there.After Chicago, I’m off to California where legislation and protests made it hard for the SNCF to advance in high-speed rail bids. I’ll spend a couple days in Stanford’s Hoover archives looking at the documents that sparked the lawsuit (I’ll write about those when I get them)
After Death, Go West!
The residency could not come at a better time. After the death of my father and cousin earlier this year, I’ve struggled to find my way back into stories about the Holocaust.
What better place to think about trains than on a train! Thanks, Amtrak!
Thanks also to you all for your interest in the forthcoming book which is based on 120 interviews, 80 with survivors conducted in France and in the United States.
The survivors will soon leave us. The book honors them as experts (not just victims) by including their wide-ranging opinions as well as those offered by the SNCF, the Jewish leadership, ambassadors, lawyers, and legislators.</p class>
When the conflict rolls into your state, you’ll have a handle on the past, understand what the SNCF has done to make amends, and have thought through the intricacies.
It’s not for me alone to say what – if anything- should happen next. The issues belong to us all and extend far beyond the SNCF. Corporate Accountability issues abound. That’s why Grinnell College brought me to campus in April to teach a course on the Role of Market Actors in Mass Atrocity.
These conflict rests in your hands…
Please stay in touch and let me know your thoughts opinions.