The Holocaust through a child’s eyes

MichaelGruenbaum©DennisDarlingIn 1990, my husband and I visited Prague, including the old Jewish section – the synagogue, the cemetery, and the tiny adjacent museum displaying drawings done by Prague children during their imprisonment in Terezin, the Nazi concentration camp outside the Czech capital. The children signed the drawings, and scribbled their ages – nine or 10 years older than I at the time, but close enough to me to make a huge emotional impact.  “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

Michael Gruenbaum was one of those children. He was born in Prague in 1930. The Nazis killed his father who, it was later rumored, had been torn to death by dogs specifically trained for the purpose.  As a child, he didn’t know the details and was simply bewildered by his beloved father’s mysterious disappearance when Michael (Misha) was just 11 years old. In 1942, he, his older sister and his mother were herded up with other Jews and taken by rail to Terezin, which the Nazis called Theresienstadt.

The story, captured in his memoir “Somewhere There is Still a Sun,” is told not as an adult looking back but from his perspective as a child.  The simplicity of the telling heightens the impact of an already riveting story. Take, for example, his complaint from a distinctly innocent nine-year old that “in a moment they’ll be talking about Germany and Hitler and the Nazis, which is all any adult seems to talk about these days. So boring.” That was early in 1939. Later that year, when the Nazis deprived his father of his job, Misha was ecstatic because it opened up the possibility of weekday hikes together. The family was forcibly moved to a much smaller apartment in downtown Prague, which had been turned into a ghetto.

The boy would later have to turn in his violin because Jews were forbidden to have musical instruments. Schools were closed to Jews, and he would resort to picking up cigarette stubs to fashion new cigarettes he could sell on the street. Life in the ghetto became worse and worse, with the Nazis inciting the residents of Prague to ever-more violent acts of anti-Semitism. But it wasn’t until late in 1942 that Misha, his sister and mother were sent to Terezin,  where they were imprisoned for two and a half years.  Terezin was better than most concentration camps because the Nazis used it as a show camp, propaganda to dupe the International Red Cross that conditions were humane.  Activities even included plays, operas and concerts put on by the prisoners.

Misha lived in a bunkhouse with 40 boys.  It was a life of extreme hardship, hunger, filth, disease, terror, brutality and even friendship. Friendship with the nesharim, Hebrew for eagles, under the stern leadership of an older boy, Franta Maier, who made sure the nesharim boys kept themselves clean,  checked for bedbugs, cleaned the toilets, and participated in the “program,” (makeshift classes because school was forbidden.)  They even had a ragtag soccer team. The structure kept them alive. And so did Franta’s exhortations that “you are all brothers now.”  They would not let the Nazis separate them from their humanity. “Not their insults, not their edicts, not their camps. Our duty here is to survive, and survive as human beings.”

Some of the images are indelible. Misha having to retrieve a soccer ball on the other side of a fence, only to discover scores of sick and dying old people, lying on stained sheets or on the ground, emaciated and putrid. The smell is indescribable. The now-14-year old grabs the soccer ball and climbs back over the fence. The Red Cross had just concluded its inspection of the for-show parts of Terezin and never saw this small example of the Nazi’s crimes against humanity.

Young readers will be drawn to Misha as he and his friends fight for survival, growing in awareness of the worsening world around him, coming to understand that “people who stuff other people into train cars…don’t care about any of the things you’re supposed to care about.”  The transports to “the East” increase in frequency, with 5,000 prisoners  at a time being carried away, never to be heard from again.

In October, 1944, Mother, sister and Misha came perilously close to being transported, saved only because Misha’s mother’s work at Terezin included sewing teddy bears for an SS Officer’s family and friends.  Her immediate supervisor intervened in her behalf, and, at the last moment, the family was spared the trip to Auschwitz .  The reader can feel Misha’s heart pounding.   “I don’t think I ever understood what praying is. But I’m asking, begging for something. Please, don’t let them come and take us…. Please.”

In January, 1945 the tide of war is turning. Auschwitz is liberated.  A train arrives at Terezin from the opposite direction as the transports had gone. Now the trains were carrying still-living cadavers, dressed in dirty blue and white striped pajamas. Others started arriving on foot, from places with other strange names like Dachau, Mauthausen and Bergen-Belsen, bald and so emaciated that you couldn’t tell the men from the women.  What teeth they had left were rotting in their mouths.  The smell, thought Misha, reminded him of the summer their refrigerator broke down, the smell of rotting meat.

But the ragged prisoners of Terezin, starving in their own right, brought water. They boiled and mashed potatoes so the newcomers had life-saving nutrients. It was then that Misha and others learned of the gas chambers.  Struggling to comprehend, they couldn’t even talk about it.

It would take weeks before the end of the war, and their return to Prague, which thankfully had not been bombed. Of the 80 boys who lived in Room 7 over the 2 1/2 years, just 11 survived.  They did better than Terezin as a whole, and Terezin couldn’t even compare to Auschwitz, for which so many thousands of Terezin prisoners were fatally destined.

The title of the book comes from a letter written by Michael’s mother just days after liberation from Terezin and captures that tiny sliver of optimism that defies everything she and her family had been through. It also resonates with the strength, determination and brotherhood of Misha’s small band, under Franta’s leadership.

Somewhere There is Still a Sun,”  written with writer Todd Hasak-Lowy, who helped Gruenbaum reconstruct his experiences, will be published later this month by Aladdin, a Simon and Schuster division for young readers, age 10-14. It evokes for me “The Diary of Ann Frank, which I read as a child.  Misha’s story spoke to the young person buried in all of us, and, as an adult, I could not put it down.

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What kind of animal would kill this lion for sport?

cecil 2Walter Palmer’s pleasure in life is apparently  hunting and killing large animals, legally or illegally. In the last few days, millions of people around the world have come to know that the American “sportsman” has slain Zimbabwe national treasure Cecil, a magnificent 13-year-old black-maned lion, whom tourists came from far and wide to see.

Palmer’s guides illegally strapped animal carcass on their vehicle  to lure Cecil outside the Hwange protected reserve, enabling the 55-year-old Bloomington, Minnesota dentist to hit Cecil with a bow and arrow, (also a violation of Zimbabwean regulation).  It took 40 hours of suffering till they tracked, shot and killed him.  This wasn’t about putting Cecil out of his misery; it  was presumably about getting a specimen to mount for the wall of the dentist’s den or entertainment center.  What kind of person does that sort of thing?

Someone who can ante up the $50,000 to pay his guides for the “sporting” trip. Someone who can claim with bald-faced indifference that he thought what he did was legal. Someone who in 2009 had run afoul of the law in the United States for illegally killing a bear and had been fined for his indulgent transgression.   I can’t say I feel bad that the good dentist has been forced to close down his dental practice because of what he did and the international outrage he has provoked.

According to the National Geographic, Africa’s lion population has been reduced from 200,000 to just 30,000 due to poaching,  destruction of habitat, conflict with farmers,  and desertification. Cecil wore a collar, put on him by Oxford University researchers  tracking him for data on lion conservation.   (It is also illegal to hunt a lion wearing a collar.) Despite (or perhaps because of) the declining lion population, this feline population understandably  attracts tourists to the country.  Zimbabwe, with its nominal regulation of trophy hunting, still enjoys the $20 million a year (3.2 percent of its tourism revenue) brought in.

Under the repressive leadership of President Robert Mugabe, (who ate baby elephant at his 91st birthday) Zimbabwe exacerbates this problem. For 35 years, his has been a government of rampant inflation, corruption, intimidation, cronyism and egregious human rights violations. Mugabe’s disastrous land management has impoverished Zimbabwe’s farmers, pitting them against hunters and driving some of them into poaching for their own survival.  As MinnPost reporter Mark Porubcansky observed, “Compared to many of the human residents of Zimbabwe, Cecil the lion had a pretty good life.”

Thursday the United Nations General Assembly called for global cooperation in curbing the poaching that has decimated world wildlife, from lions to the elephants and rhinos sought for their ivory tusks and horns. According to the NY Times’ Katie Rogers, President Obama reportedly discussed it in his visit to Kenya last week.  He is also seeking to introduce bans on commercial trade in ivory in U.S. treaties, including the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership. Under a 2013 executive order a tightening of the Endangered Species Act, The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has created some limited exceptions to its rules, including certain musical instruments (the tips of violin bows and piano keys, for example, and furniture pieces containing fewer than 200 grams of ivory, which are not deemed to have contributed to the current poaching crisis. Unlike Australia, the United States doesn’t ban imports of illegal bounty like Cecil’s head.

As the world was reacting to the good doctor’s savagery, rangers in Kenya’s Tsavo West National Park discovered the handiwork of poachers who had just killed a mother elephant and four children.  The elephant population is even more at risk than the lions. As reported by the Washington Post’s Kevin Sieff, their tusks were hacked off, torn out of their heads.   According to Sieff, poachers  killed more than 100,000 elephants between 2010 and 2012.  Illegal wildlife trade, he notes, accounts for between $7 billion and $10 billion a year.

My husband and I saw our first elephant in the wild on photographic safari in that same Tsavo West National Park in 1984. Their power and majesty, the intimacy of their family groupings, are indelibly etched in our minds.  So, too, the magnificent lions we saw in the Serengeti.

Zimbabwe’s government is seeking the extradition of Cecil’s slayer,  Walter Palmer, and the United States government is weighing how to respond to that request. The dentist is nowhere to be found. He has “gone underground,” possibly feeling endangered by the anger his actions have provoked. (Maybe he has shifted habitats to his winter place in Marco Island, Florida.) Perhaps he has learned a little something about what an animal feels like to be hunted.

One can  hope that the worldwide outcry about Cecil’s slaying will help generate sustained action on wildlife destruction and focus attention on the government of Zimbabwe, which crafts rules to protect animals but brutalizes its biped population. Those who are placing teddy bears and stuffed lions in a memorial to Cecil in the doorway to the River Bluff Dental Clinic in Bloomington should also feel more than a modicum of concern for the people of Zimbabwe.

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Walsh stands tall: now how about Boston 2030?

photo Boston Globe

photo Boston Globe

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, who has long seemed in thrall to the Boston 2024 Olympic bid, said at a press conference this morning that he refuses “to mortgage the future of the city away.” He added, “I will not sign a document that puts one penny of taxpayers’ money on the line for Olympics cost overruns,”  according to The Boston Business Journal.  According to other news reports, the U.S. Olympic Committee has been pressuring the Mayor to sign on to the requirement that the city backstop Olympic cost overruns, and to do so immediately. Walsh refused to be pressured.

Good for him. (Governor Charlie Baker has pledged to withhold his opinion until the results of an independent analysis are made public next month.   Walsh’s opposition, he said, was based only on financial considerations, not the event itself.  He was quoted as saying that he thinks “the opposition for the most part is about 10 people on Twitter,” and, of course, he’s wrong about that.  But at least his bottom line was clear. “This is about the taxpayers of Boston and what I have to do as mayor.”

Some analysts are predicting that this stance by the Mayor will be the death knell of the current Olympics bid.  If so, here’s a modest proposal.

Boston 2024, including some of the metropolitan area’s most powerful business leaders,  has routinely pitched bringing the 2024 summer Olympics here on the basis of what it can do to help the infrastructure,  create jobs and housing, and meet other community needs.  But they have been putting the cart before the horse, prioritizing Olympics-centered improvements before the city has a comprehensive strategic plan.

If Boston 2024 boosters are really serious about a long-term vision and strategy for greater Boston, why not join forces with Mayor Walsh in his nascent Boston 2030 planning?  If this wasn’t just marketing palaver, they could put their resources (including their unspent budget) and talent together with others in the city (including the No Boston Olympic supporters) to develop and implement a smart and integrated plan to upgrade housing, roads and bridges, public transit, education, creating jobs and more so that greater Boston can express its aspirations in a practical and achievable blueprint that can transform the city and meet the needs of all its people.  That would be a gold-medal-winning performance.

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Fox Olympics debate more heat than light

olympics debate 1A serious debate over the bid to bring the 2024 Olympics to Boston was a good idea.  What took place Thursday night wasn’t. Promising a no-rules, informal format, the two moderators (the Boston Globe’s Sasha Pfeiffer and Fox 25’s Maria Stephanos) let the Boston 2024 supporters run roughshod over the opponents and the moderators themselves.  Five years ago, Boston 2024 chairman Steve Pagliuca (whose bid involvement predated the 2.0 reboot) ran for the U.S. Senate and lost, but he filibustered the one-hour debate, flogging his talking points, in the style of famous filibustering Senators Strom Thurmond or William Proxmire in their prime.

Aided by his sidekick Daniel Doctoroff of the U.S. Olympics Committee (a pivotal player in New York City’s failed attempt to get the Olympics) who exuded a Gotham-knows-best supercilious condescension, they nearly ran out the clock.

Every legitimate criticism raised by No Boston Olympics head Chris Dempsey (a former colleague of Pagliuca at Bain) was dismissed by Pagliuca as “hyperbolic.”  Smith College Professor Andrew Zimbalist, one of the most knowledgeable experts on Olympics finances, was repeatedly drowned out, not only by Pagliuca and Daniel Doctoroff of the U.S. Olympics Committee, but even occasionally by the moderators themselves.  And, when they finally got to substantive discussion of numbers, it was all cross-talk.  Dan Shaughnessy put it best: It was like listening to a debate on the science of Deflategate.

This could have been an opportunity to narrow the issues and help viewers sort out conflicting claims. For example, Pagliuca and Doctoroff kept insisting that the last three Olympics in the United States ran a surplus.  Dempsey and Zimbalist said that, since 1980, summer Olympics have had average cost overruns of 3 1/2 times original estimates. There are explanations for each position, which could have been reconciled. Instead, the whole data food fight recalled nothing less than the phrase popularized by Mark Twain, noting that “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”

If the proponents’ goal was time control, they won this round.  If it was to paint an irresistible bandwagon we should all want to jump on, they failed. Many unanswered questions remain. The day after the debate, Boston 2024 released its original bid, complete with material it had previously redacted. It raised still more questions about what was Mayor Marty Walsh thinking when he initially signed on with few, if any qualifications?

Fortunately, Governor Charlie Baker says he won’t take a position on the Olympics until next month when he sees the report of The Brattle Group, consultants he hired to provide an independent review.

Of particular consequence was the point raised by No Boston Olympics: Why was it okay for New York to put a cap on taxpayer liabilities for expenses, but not Boston? If Boston 2024 is so certain that its numbers are correct, and if its sketchily described insurance policies will really work, and the International Olympics Committee is truly committed to a more modest approach to hosting games, why should it not fight to get the IOC to drop its requirement that host government cover any shortfall?

Pagliuca says there’s no such thing as zero risk. He’s correct, but right now the risk seems to be off the chart in the other direction.

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Sal DiMasi doesn’t deserve death sentence

dimasiFormer Massachusetts House Speaker Sal DiMasi used his office to enrich himself to the tune of $65,000, securing a state contract for Cognos, which paid him on a monthly basis for his efforts. The third House Speaker in a row to be found guilty of crimes related to  office, DiMasi was convicted on seven out of nine corruption charges and sentenced to federal prison for eight years.  There is no doubt that prison was appropriate, though one could argue that eight years was excessive. But, as first reported by attorney Harvey Silverglate two 1/2 years ago in the Boston Phoenix, that eight years could well be a death sentence, one which we should all be protesting.

Federal Judge Mark Wolf, mindful that DiMasi at the time had a heart condition and his wife, Debbie,  was being treated for breast cancer, recommended to the Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBP) that DiMasi serve his sentence in Ayer, Mass. Instead, he was shipped off to Kentucky. WGBH’s Jim Braude and Margery Eagan have provided a platform recently to Debbie DiMasi to explain the subsequent horrors to which her husband has been subjected in his nearly four years of incarceration.

When DiMasi discovered lumps in his neck, he asked repeatedly for medical attention. That took months to happen and still longer to get treatment for his now-confirmed malignancy.   In the meanwhile, the cancer metastasized to Stage IV tongue and lymph node cancer. Never a heavy man to begin with, he has lost 60 pounds and reportedly continues to deteriorate.  There is reason to believe that the Feds delayed giving him medical attention, shuttling him from one inaccessible prison to another, in order to wring testimony from him that might lead to other convictions.

Former Phoenix editor Peter Kadzis wrote persuasively in an editorial that the Bureau of Prison’s treatment of DiMasi was “far worse than waterboarding.”

So what should happen now? President Obama recently commuted the sentences of 46 non-violent drug offenders.  He said he did it because “America is a nation of second chances,” because their sentences (20 years to life) “didn’t fit the crime,” and they have behaved well while incarcerated. If DiMasi isn’t a case for commutation, the feds could move for “compassionate release,” for prisoners who have terminal illnesses and are not a threat to society.  For those who insist on believing there’s a reason to keep DiMasi behind bars (for longer than any other official corruption case in state history), at a minimum the Bureau of Prisons should move him to a facility in Massachusetts (the prison in Ayer, for example, which Judge Wolf recommended four years ago.)

There was a time when Sal DiMasi was the good guy. The story of his rise from a child in a cold water flat in the North End to an attorney, state rep and eventually to become the first Italian-American Speaker of the House was the American success story.  And he put his political skills to good use, fighting proposals to overturn gay marriage, thwarting the ill-considered push for casinos, and playing a pivotal role in developing the nation’s first universal health care law, the model for the Affordable Care Act.  Given that accomplishment, more than one observer has noted the irony of the Bureau of Prison’s denying him adequate health care and perhaps bringing him closer to death.

State reps, members of the Congressional delegation and other public officials seem to have been silent on the cause of moving DiMasi back to Massachusetts.  It appears that no one wants to be seen in the corner of a fellow politician found guilty of corruption. It seems unlikely, however, that an act of mercy at this point would be confused as guilt by association. If they don’t speak out now, they’ll owe him an apology when he is finally released, having served his term.  But that would be 2018, and it may well be too late.

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Donald Trump is a jerk

photo Washington Post

photo Washington Post

When John F. Kennedy was asked how he became a hero in World War II, he said, “It was involuntary. They sank my boat.” But it wasn’t the Japanese sinking  of PT 109 that made JFK a hero; it was what he did to save his men after the sinking. The inimitable GOP buffoon candidate Donald Trump said of John McCain, “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured.”  Most of us have heard the continued fallout from that asinine remark.

McCain was a hero not because his plane was shot down over enemy territory but for how he comported himself afterward. He endured five years of unimaginable torture as a prisoner of war,  and refused his captors’ offer of an early release because he would not leave behind his squad of fellow prisoners. McCain suffers resulting physical limitations to this day. Donald Trump spared himself the possibility of that kind of nightmare by getting repeated student deferments and also getting a medical deferment due to a bone spur on his foot. I’m not aware that he ever volunteered for any other form of national service.

Finally some of the Donald’s fellow Republican Presidential candidates, many of whom had been cravenly silent when, with a broad brush,  he damned Mexican immigrants as drug dealers and rapists, saw their opening.  These GOP pols, of course, had taken a walk when 2004 Presidential candidate John Kerry’s war record was swift-boated. Now they are aligning themselves with veterans, saying Trump is insulting their service and that he simply is not qualified to be President.  Shockingly perhaps, the Christian conservative crowd to whom he was speaking in Iowa applauded Trump’s remarks about McCain, though apparently they didn’t like his answers about God and forgiveness, taking communion, and his conduct during three marriages.

Trump is a godsend for the Democrats and those who are not interested in serious debate on the issues.  It’s not just that Hillary Clinton has a candidate whose hair draws more comments than her own hairstyle.  It’s that Trump’s high standing in the polls looks very bad for the GOP in a way that could help the Democrats to victory.  The Republican National Committee surely recognizes the problem he presents and has moved to distance itself from his most recent remarks.

And, if later on Trump were to decide to run as an independent, appealing to the angry, the disaffected, the haters of all stripes, that could also drain enough votes from the eventual Republican nominee to guarantee a Democratic win.

That said, his inclusion next month in the Fox debate among the poll-determined top ten GOP contenders would be a ratings winner for the network.  I’ll be watching; won’t you?

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Lesson for Bush in Dukakis

Jeb Bush head shotJeb Bush put his foot in it last week when explaining his aspirations for improving the economy.  His assertion that “people need to work longer hours” continues to prompt outrage. Even looking at it in context doesn’t help much – “My aspiration for the country and I believe we can achieve it, is 4 percent growth as far as the eye can see. Which means we have to be a lot more productive, workforce participation has to rise from its all-time modern lows. It means that people need to work longer hours.”  Jeb Bush could have avoided all the ensuing brouhaha by embracing Mike Dukakis’ slogan when he was running against Jeb’s father for President in 1988: “good jobs at good wages.”

As it was, the former Florida governor had to backtrack and explain that, with nearly seven million people limited to part-time, they’re really struggling and deserve an opportunity to work more hours. But the damage was done. Red meat to the Democrats. Even Hillary Clinton, who has done her best not to engage in policy questions, was quick to weigh in, charting the stagnation of wages over time despite increases in productivity. Democrats and even some of Bush’s Republican opponents joined the effort to link Bush’s remark with Mitt Romney’s 47 percent remark, dismissing nearly half the population as parasites who freeload their way through life.

Paul Krugman calls this “the laziness dogma,” and he says that Bush is merely representative of his party, which ideologically blames individuals for an unwillingness to step up to the plate and assume responsibility for their livelihood.  I’d like to think that Jeb Bush is more moderate than his fellow partisans and give him the benefit of the doubt that this incident was a huge verbal blunder, tin ear and all that. I’d like to assume he knows that well-paying blue collar jobs have gone away, that struggling parents are holding down two or three jobs to make ends meet, that companies are transforming what once were fulltime jobs with benefits to part-time jobs without. I’d also like to see concrete plans from candidates on both sides of the aisle for strengthening the economy, generating fulltime jobs with upward opportunity, paying more than bare sustenance wages, providing affordable medical coverage, and, in short, expanding rather than shrinking the middle class.   For now, sadly, that seems too much to ask.

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