Monday, December 9, 2013

The Necklace

The passing of President Nelson Mandela has me pondering the legacy of one of the greatest men of all time and my personal hero.
 A few years before Mandela was released from prison, I traveled through Africa.  In Cape Town, I met a white nurse who ran medical clinics in the shanty town of Khayelitsha.  Despite racist taunts from others, the nurse had chosen to help ease the pain and suffering of black South Africans who had been segregated into a sprawling city of corrugated iron and tarpaulin roofed shacks - a place most of her white neighbors had never even dared to drive by. In the townships, mothers and children who visited her clinic learned to look into her heart to see the goodness there, instead of fearing the color of her skin.  On the day I joined her, fear stuck in my throat along with dust as we were enveloped in a swirling dirt cloud from an oncoming armored government vehicle.  As we unloaded her supplies my fear quickly dissipated when women carrying babies on their hips and backs hurried up the path to the clinic to greet her.
When I decided to travel solo through South Africa, I was warned by white people that ‘the blacks’ would necklace me with a burning tire. On the contrary; whenever I picked up African women who were hitchhiking with bundles piled on their heads, we’d travel together through the Drakensberg Mountains and African hinterlands into their towns and villages where my rental car was often swarmed by hundreds of children. I was welcomed into dirt-floored homes to drink and eat as if I were a long lost member of the family.  Whenever I left a village, I was a white speck of dust among the sea of dark faces waving me goodbye and the only necklace around my neck was a thin gold chain given to me by my parents.
The people I met had every reason to take revenge on a white face given the violence and hatred that had been imposed on them, but they showed me only kindness and thankfulness for the rare encounter.  Little did they know, it was their laughter and courage that touched my heart.
As a business leader, I was inspired to follow some of Mr. Mandela’s leadership principles, but it was his ability to make peace with his enemy that truly astounded me. His principle of reconciliation without bitterness has allowed the South African nation to evolve beyond hatred and has influenced how we think about justice and new beginnings.  In an interview with the New York Times in 2007, Mr Mandela was asked how he was able to keep his hatred in check given his barbarous treatment. His answer -  Hating clouds the mind. It gets in the way of strategy. Leaders cannot afford to hate.  

Sisters Serafia Adela Rosolinska (left)
& Kornelia Jankowska (bottom) -
 Righteous of Nations.
Nelson Mandela’s legacy for our world seems particularly poignant in the light of a notification that I received not long ago from Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to Jewish victims of the Holocaust.  In line with the core goal of Yad Vashem to recognize those who risked much to save Jews,  “Righteous of Nations” medals will be awarded posthumously to people who saved my mother and sheltered members of my family during the German Occupation of Poland.  Two Righteous of Nations awards will go to Catholic sisters who cared for my mother and a third to Mrs. Maria KaczyƄska, the brave woman who risked her life to take my mother, a small Jewish child, into her home where some months later my grandmother Irena was shot by the gestapo. A fourth award is pending for Mr. Talikowski, who smuggled food and money into the Warsaw Ghetto to my family and helped my mother escape during the period of the deportations to Treblinka.
 Were it not for these brave souls who dared to resist, I would not be writing this blog post. It is not only my mother and brothers and sister who owe our lives to them, but all of us for whom they have set a high bar. I like to think that courage like theirs is the kind that President Mandela asked us to emulate.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Love thy neighbor

Robi Damelin, left, lost her son David, 27, when he was killed by a Palestinian sniper. Bushra Awad, right, lost her son Mahmoud, 17, when he was shot by Israeli soldiers.
Robi Damelin, left, lost her son David, 27, when he was killed by a Palestinian sniper. Bushra Awad, right, lost her son Mahmoud, 17, when he was shot by Israeli soldiers. - Rina Castelnuovo, New York Times

Sitting on our deck in the heat of the New England summer,  I listen to  the flute-like song of a Wood Thrush. Our small corner of heaven is far from conflict in Syria, the chaos in Egypt  or attacks in Darfur. Today I lunch on freshly baked bread and my favorite "Yarra Valley Dairy" marinated feta cheese from Australia, luxuriating in peace that I and most of us take for granted. 
Just a few months ago we watched  first responders and bystanders run toward  victims of the Boston marathon bombings to help, seconds after the blast, without a thought for their own safety. How many of us wondered if we had the courage to do the same? While savoring my cheese today, I read an article in the New York Times illustrating another type of bravery - a willingness to listen to the narrative of an 'enemy'. Astonishing photographs of bereaved Palestinian and Israeli 'victims of violence show them hugging, contemplating and comforting each other as they share the pain of their losses. 
"They say it is critical to learn the other side’s narrative, because the only hope for ending the bloody struggle is through empathy and reconciliation," reports the journalist  Rina Castelnuovo.
 "In sharing the pain of bereavement, many have bonded and work closely together. Reconciliation with the enemy has become the purpose of their lives in the name of their dead."
Not all of us have to deal with such loss, but we all live in  neighborhoods and cities where we come  in contact with people we don't always like, who have different views from us.  If these Israeli's and Palestinians are trying to overcome a future of violence through understanding each other (not necessarily forgiving or forgetting), cannot we be open and find something in common with our not-so-scary-neighbor: republican, democrat, Jew, Muslim, atheist or immigrant?

See the NYT article and more photos here>>
Jamil Al-Qassas, left, lost his brother, Nasser, 14, who was shot by Israeli soldiers. Boaz Kitain’s son, an Israeli soldier, was killed during his army service  - Photo: Rina Castelnuovo 

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Looking Forward

Yesterday was the 70th anniversary of my Grandmother's murder.  Seventy years is a lifetime for many, and my own mother just passed that milestone.  Late last year she was able to visit the place my grandmother was initially buried , at the bottom of a garden in an outer suburb of Warsaw. Today, a large rock marks that place.  It was moved there a decade ago, by Iwona, the granddaughter of the woman who hid my mother and her family in her home, until they were discovered.  Next to the rock, trees whisper their secrets to the few who know what happened here.

The rock no longer symbolizes only death.  To us, it's a new beginning.
Iwona and her family light candles and pray for my grandmother and the two other women who were also killed.  They visit my grandmother's newer burial place at a cemetery nearby.
 Their family has a history of sheltering and helping Jews and others in need.  Today in Poland, where around 95% of the population self-identify as Catholic, there is a new awakening and awareness  - a recognition of the loss of  rich Jewish heritage, and, attempts to bring it back .    Jewish festivals in Krakow, Warsaw and throughout Poland, allow new generations to partake and remember.   A group of dedicated young people in Otwock  and other towns created  Jewish History trails, so that locals have knowledge of the legacy of their town. Last month the Museum of the History of Polish Jews opened in Warsaw.

An engraver is preparing a plaque for the stone at the bottom of the garden.  He said to me on the phone, "My wife  discovered that the Jewish tradition is to place stones on a grave."
"Yes," I told him.  "Stones do not die and last forever."
"Then we shall place stones there in memory of your grandmother and a terrible time in history."

Yes, surveys continue to show that there is still antisemitism in Europe, but  there is also progress. I know my Grandfather would prefer to embrace the progress  - he often impressed on me the role of non-Jewish  Poles in saving his life and many others. Although I never met her, I like to think that my Grandmother would have thought the same.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Declaring Dignity

Yesterday I attended a remembrance ceremony in my town to mark Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Days of Remembrance. One of the few times I heard the haunting Kaddish prayer for the departed was the first time I visited a Synagogue, for a Yom Hashoah event in Caulfield, Melbourne, more than fifteen years ago.
 Each year now,  there are fewer survivors left to share their horrific but often inspirational stories.  When they are all gone, the responsibility will lie with my generation.  The responsibility of learning from the past to create a better future.
Yesterday I heard a story of resilience from an assimilated Polish Jew who at eighteen was flung into the mayhem of war, hid on false papers, survived and escaped from Auschwitz-Birkenau, was re-interned then sent to Mauthausen, where he was eventually liberated. He went back to Poland/Ukraine to find his parents only to discover they had been killed, then he fled to the American Occupation Zone.  In 1950 he emigrated to the US where he built a successful life as a dentist, husband and father. He also served in the military to honor the country and soldiers who liberated him from the camps.

I looked around at the 150 or so young and old faces in the audience as the event's Chairman read out a "Declaration of Dignity", by Dr. Donna Hicks (Associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University).   It was a  solemn  reminder that anyone of us has the capacity to make a difference by preventing hatred, if  we go about our daily lives actively practicing this 'declaration' toward others:

We are all worthy of:
. . . having our identity accepted, no matter who we are
. . . recognition of our unique qualities and ways of life
. . . acknowledgement—to be seen, heard, and responded to
. . . belonging and feeling included
. . . freedom and independence and a life of hope and possibility
. . . being safe and secure
. . . being treated in a fair and evenhanded way
. . . being given the benefit of the doubt
. . . being understood
. . . an apology when someone does us harm  

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

A winter of content

Nearly a year has passed since this journey took flight
New skills learned, old ones shelved, for a time.
Unfathomable twists and turns unravel
A knotted mess on the floor 
Slowly stitched together by many hands
Knitting a patchwork of memory, truth and enlightenment.

Three years ago I created a list of all the things I wanted to achieve in my lifetime and pinned it to an inspiration board near my desk.  It stared at me, guilting me into executing plans.   Some goals have been crossed out - done!  New ones have been added.
Can you embrace your life over the past year?  Did you place a tick next to something on your dream list?
Does something need to change?

Do it now - you only have one life to live.