Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Value of an Open Mind

It was 1953 when a Fulbright scholarship took me from war-devastated Europe to Smith College. I had landed in Paradise. Until I graduated, my smile never vanished. The joy of learning, of open discussions, and of discovering a world poles apart from mine was truly exhilarating.

I had grown up under Hitler when asking questions was strictly forbidden.  You said the compulsory “Heil Hitler” and kept silent, because informers were everywhere. A word that wasn’t the Party line or a joke could land you in jail if not worse. Conversation had died, for we all knew that the walls have ears. Even your best friend could be an informer. When people are starving, the promise of extra food stamps for denouncing others was a temptation that not everyone could resist.

How refreshing to come to Smith College. A student’s questions were encouraged. We invited members of the faculty to join us for dinner and had marvelously heated discussions with our French Professor while living in French House. He usually prevailed for his French was much better than ours!

With mounting curiosity I read the article in the Wall Street Journal that protesters at my beloved alma mater caused an accomplished woman luminary to withdraw her acceptance to give the commencement address.

Christine LaGarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, might have conveyed a wealth of knowledge to the students. Countries in dire need and on the verge of starvation come to the IMF for help, their last resort. In turn, the IMF imposes a stern program to cut back on spending, to tighten their belts and pay back their debts.

Apparently 477 students and some members of the faculty had signed the online objection because, according to the Wall Street Journal, listening to her would mean that we are supporting the IMF and thus going directly against Smith's values to stand in unity with equality for all women, regardless of race, ethnicity or class.

A curious thought. Why refuse to listen to an extraordinarily capable woman? Why deny her the courtesy to speak and other students the chance of hearing her? They might have learned about the hardships of less privileged countries and their struggles to cope and survive. I am sadly reminded of my early youth when only the viewpoint of the person in command was permitted.

After all, what is the purpose of education? Isn’t it to learn about the boundless diversity and variety that life has to offer? As Malcolm Forbes stated: The purpose of education is not to fill an empty mind with facts and figures, but to create an open mind receptive to new knowledge and ideas. The Old Bard puts it most elegantly: Man, proud man, dressed in a little brief authority, most ignorant of what he is most assured.

The students’ protest at Smith College was obviously not directed at Ms. LaGarde, a highly accomplished woman with a long and successful track record whom Forbes considers the 7th most powerful woman in the world. Their objection was to the IMF, a powerful organization, but not perfect; few are. But then, why object to hearing Ms. LaGarde? It might have contributed to a better understanding of the problem and possibly encouraged rethinking the guidelines of the IMF.

It is a grand privilege to have the right to express our views, but we cannot deny this right to others. As I know from bitter experience, the path to tyranny is a slippery slope that begins with intolerance.

Until next time,


Saturday, May 10, 2014

Annexation, continued

It was twelve hours ago that we had entered dreaded No-Mans Land that separated the Communist East from our goal, Democratic West Germany. After that rainy night the air was murky, but in the first light of dawn we could notice a road ahead. Was it the West? We hurried forward to look for a road marker. There was one! It was the very same we had passed twelve hours earlier.

Stunned beyond words we stood rooted to the ground, when out of the mist a bicyclist emerged. We should have run. But we could not stir. We stood as if turned to stone.

The man bicycled closer. We could see his gun, probably a border guard. I was sure he'd shoot us, but I was too tired to care. He kept coming closer. Then stopped. Father reached into his pocket and handed him something while explaining our predicament.

“Go this way and that … ” we heard him say. “You’ll come to a large meadow with a creek. You’ll have to cross both. On the far side begins the American sector. The soldiers guarding the area have orders to shoot. So run fast. Good luck.”

It was full daylight when we reached that meadow, a vast, forbidding place. We stared at its vastness. There, at the other side, we saw our goal, the Western sector of Germany, the free world. We could see it clearly, but we were too exhausted to feel its promise; it had been a long night. We stared at the meadow, then at Father, and for an instance I perceived a hopeful, encouraging flicker of a smile and a tiny nod. It signaled go.

We ran with pounding hearts. We ran for our lives. We dared all to reach freedom.

Until next time,


Adapted from The Madman & His Mistress

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Annexation, continued

One of my readers expressed keen interest in knowing how we escaped from Communist East Germany, a memory I had deeply buried for fifty years, being too painful to remember: 

We had managed to return to our home in the city. It was bombed but still partially inhabitable.

From behind the curtains my little brother was waiting for the all-important water truck, which occasionally brought water to the city that lay in ruins. A merciless tide of soldiers roamed the streets. How will it all end, I wondered. When will we die?

“Father is coming,” my brother whispered.  “He’s in a great hurry.”

Swift steps came flying up the stairs, two at a time, and Father’s panic-stricken face appeared in the door.

“Get in the car! Hide in the back seats,” he called hoarsely.

Seconds later, Mother threw a dark blanket over our heads to keep us out of sight—soldiers stopped all cars with women or children.

Within a minute or two we had left home never to see it again.

A mile or two before we reached the train station, we ran out of gasoline. We abandoned the car and continued on foot, Mother and my little brother walked a dozen steps ahead, Father and me behind as if we were strangers.

The streets were deserted. Ruins everywhere. They rose into the gloomy sky like eerie phantoms. Some buildings were sheared off as with a razor blade, baring the bowels of the deserted apartments. Pictures still dangled from the walls. Unmade beds gave revealed that someone had slept there before a shell blasted off the other half of the room. A boot balanced precariously on a ledge.  Here and there in the rubble yellow covers hid unburied bodies, an official precaution to warn the living of typhoid. Somewhere a dog wailed, forsaken, hungry and scared.

At last, the station came into view, but our hope was short-lived. The platform was packed with hundreds of other pitiful refugees and fugitives, some sleeping, some crying, most of them numb with misery — waiting. No one knew if trains were still running. It was rumored that the tracks had been blown up. Hitler had given Albert Speer, his architect and minister, instructions known as the Scorch-the-earth directives to destroy everything or burn it to the ground. Nothing was to fall into enemy hands.

Had Speer carried out his orders? It would mean no more trains.

No one knew.

We settled on the gray asphalt near the tracks and remained there all day and all night in mind-numbing wretchedness. By early morning, a rumbling sound brought life into the crowd.

A train! Feverish panic gripped the crowd. To get on that train became a matter of life and death.

“Hold on to our hand or to our clothing. Do NOT let go!” Father warned us. “Your life depends on it.”

It did. The crowd stampeded like cattle to get on that train. When the train pulled out, an angry mob remained behind.

At the next stop, Russian soldiers got on the train. The air was tense, stuffy and hot. For days, few passengers, if any, had bathed. Tempers were on edge, but stifled by fear. A pocket watch chimed three o'clock. It was Father's.

"Gimme," a Russian standing nearby demanded eagerly and held out his hand.

Father looked aghast. "It belonged to my grandfather," he pleaded. The watch was an heirloom and a symbol of a civilized world. It was a link to his past—the only remainder.

Yet the Russian wanted no sentimental argument; he wanted the watch. He whipped out his pistol, shoved it into Father's ribs and shouted:

"You gimme! You come with me!"

Deadly silence gripped the compartment. The Russian poked Father harder to get him moving. No one stirred, except Mother. She gently took her husband’s watch, and with a conciliatory smile and a few Russian words handed it to the soldier. She showed him how it worked and what it could do.

The Russian was pleased to hear his mother tongue and delighted with this exquisite toy, and forgot about Father’s arrest.

The tense train ride came to an end in the small border town of Falkenstein. In the distance, we surmised our destination—the American sector of Germany. It lay beyond a five-mile wide, off-limit zone, called No Man’s Land.  Trespassers were shot or captured in No Man’s Land.

Father found a guide who was willing to take us across the border. But at the appointed hour when we came to his door, the guide refused to go.

“Impossible to cross tonight,” he explained. “Three people shot and several captured.”

But we had no choice. We could not return home, nor could we stay in the border town. We had no place to hide, no food to eat, no place to stay. With or without a guide, we had to risk it. The guide drew a map and gave us a bowl of soup that we ate with gratitude. Then, on that rainy September night, we set out to reach freedom.

Around six o’clock that evening we crossed the road that took us into No Man’s Land. The street marker read 153. Gently rolling woods and meadows lay to either side. We walked this way and that, getting wetter and wetter. Uphill and downhill. Trees everywhere. Soon total darkness. Then mist and more rain. We walked and walked.

Every crackling branch or rustling leaf made our hearts pound faster. We stood rooted to the ground, when we heard sounds of heavy boots approaching. Chills shot down my spine. It was pitch dark, impossible to see. We didn’t dare to breathe. The sound came closer, then grew fainter, then disappeared. We changed direction. Hours passed. Where were we?

Suddenly shots rang through the still air; there was shouting and muffled screaming. My brother and I sank to the ground, frightened and exhausted. Would we be next?

“Let’s end it now,” Mother pleaded with Father. To be captured seemed inescapable now. The very thought of it must have been agony to her. It would mean death or separation, rape or torture, Russian work camps or Siberia. Death, Sweet Solace, must have flashed through her mind. Once we were captured, that chance would not come again.

"We have shoelaces and belts," Mother whispered, "and plenty of trees.

Yet Father would not hear of it, nor would we children.

Mother’s words had renewed our tenacity to live. We recoiled from the idea of hanging from a tree. We were young and optimistic. The idea of capture had no meaning to us. We wanted to live. We were back on our feet and doggedly trudged on, hour after hour.

Daylight was approaching. Ahead in the dense mist we saw a road. We hurried forward. There! A few steps to the left was a road marker. It had to be the West!

We gazed at the number. It left us speechless. It read 153, the very same marker we had passed twelve hours earlier.

To be continued next week,


A true story, adapted from The Madman & His Mistress