Beauty, Courage, and Hitler’s Business Card
[I delivered this story at a community meeting on 11.14.17]
On November 6, 1997 — exactly 20 years, to the day, before I spent a misty gray morning knocking on doors and hanging signs all over Ward 3 for a Salem City Council candidate — I drove up to Massachusetts from my hometown in Maryland to move in with my great uncle, Gregor Shelkan.
Born in 1909, Uncle Grisha was 88 when I arrived. I was 23, and just back from a glorious year teaching in Prague. It became evident almost immediately that the difference between the two chapters of my life could be most succinctly captured by my drinking vessel of choice in each place: in Prague, it was the tall, streamlined Pilsner Urquell glass with its proud and graceful simplicity, delivered and efficiently refilled by hurried, no-nonsense Czech waiters who tracked your beer consumption with hatch marks on a white slip of paper at the end of the table. In Newton it was a chipped and faded mug, into which I “brewed” (to use the term very loosely) endless cups of Instant Folgers. The mug bore the not-entirely-reassuring observation: “The first 75 years are the hardest.”
With 52 difficult years apparently still ahead of me, I’d moved into my great uncle’s stately home on a quiet, tree-lined street in Newton (a block he shared with seven Nobel prizewinners, he was always quick to remind everyone) to write his story, a project for which I had absolutely no qualifications whatsoever, other than my family’s confidence in my writing ability and a general reputation for being a sympathetic and observant listener. As I made my way up north with a car full of clothes and high-minded books, I felt that youthful mixture of complete unpreparedness and optimistic “I’ll figure it out-ness” that can be particularly acute in those of us who have recently emerged from that comfortable adventure in ideas known as college. I knew it would be hard, but it would be hard in an important, satisfying, character-building way.
After I unpacked the contents of my car into his two daughters’ shared teenage, yellow, time-capsule of a room, Uncle Grisha encouraged me to take a look around and get my bearings before we sat down to lunch. The living room, I discovered, was particularly tasteful and ordered, and suggested an elegant and cultured life: a Steinway piano, a beautiful Persian rug, large-scale oil paintings. As I looked around, envisioning nights listening to opera on the record player with my uncle and days spent writing thoughtful and insightful commentary in the antique high-back chair near the window, something caught my eye. In a mahogany glass-paneled china cabinet perfectly arranged with Limoges, Waterford, sterling silver baby spoons and Lladro figurines was a piece of scrap paper that seemed out of place, flimsy and disposable, like a receipt or a note. I walked over to the cabinet for a better look, realizing as I approached that it was a standard issue business card and wondering how it had fallen so haphazardly into the cabinet. But then I was close enough to read it, and the name leapt off the card, black letters on an ivory background that grabbed my heart as though they had been inscribed on the fingernails of a living bear claw: Adolf Hitler. It was Adolf Hitler’s business card. At that moment I think it struck me in some wordless, cellular way that Hitler was actually a person who gave out business cards and not simply an outsized character of near-mythological evil, and that realization made both life and this biographical project somehow infinitely more complex. In that moment, so soon after arriving in Newton, I think I knew that I was incapable of truly understanding that which I had been tasked to competently represent, and I felt almost debilitated with inadequacy.
My Uncle Grisha had been a student at the Vienna Conservatory and an opera singer both in Bern, Switzerland and his native Latvia, and married an internationally renowned violinist named Sarah. In 1941, he was brought first to the ghetto and then imprisoned as a slave laborer in the Latvian and then Polish concentration camps. He lost 22 members of his family and his wife to the camps, and was only able to survive five years of indescribable horror because all survivors, as he put it, did so “because of a good Jew or a good Nazi.” His “good Nazi” was a German man named Mr. Danziger, who would scream abuses at him while he worked so as not to draw attention and then whisper, “There’s bread for you in the corner”, and who devised a special water jug with a hidden compartment for soup.
Uncle Grisha and I spent days and weeks discussing his life in preparation for the book, although the nights I heard him screaming in his sleep stand out more vividly in my memory than many of those daytime conversations, which often and understandably focused more upon his postwar accomplishments than on the specifics of his experience in the camps. At some point, the truth of both my living room intuition on that first day and a growing sense of isolation and loneliness became unavoidable to me, and I had to admit — both to myself and my family — that I wasn’t going to be able to see the project through to completion. I ultimately returned to Maryland with only a journal of notes and one cassette recording of an interview with Grisha for which I have no player.
But lately, in this uniquely unnerving American moment, I’ve been thinking a lot about Uncle Grisha, his story and the sheer fact of his voice, which he used for all of his years as a testament to life itself and all he held dear. Throughout that second, American life and family — here he is, the first non-celebrity to appear in an unforgettable, heart-exploding episode of the iconic “This is Your Life” (if you can’t watch the entire episode, definitely watch the last ten minutes) — Uncle Grisha never stopped singing; for himself, as a voice therapist and healer for others, and for the Jewish community in which he became a renowned cantor, or Jewish liturgical singer. Waking up from unfathomable nightmares each night, his every day — and the singing that characterized them — was a bold, courageous, fundamentally life-affirming repudiation of everything that was represented by that cold, bare business card in his credenza.
I think there is a fundamental tendency to want to take something enormous and wrangle it into a shape, a story. That’s what I’m trying, with great difficulty, even to do here. But I think Grisha’s story, and the movie trailer I am about to show (for a film I’m hoping our group will screen in February), are a call to something greater than a work produced and a tangible outcome. They are a call to beauty and courage, and a call to living out loud from the greatest parts of ourselves. Compared with these unspeakable horrors, we are still living in a comfortable moment for which courage — but not nearly as much courage as you’ll see here — is nevertheless demanded. I think it’s the courage not only to speak, but the courage to commit to the highest possibilities inherent in the human experience and to work towards our goals with a deep appreciation of beauty, wherever it is to be found, that is OUR true — and lifelong — project.
WATCH MOVIE TRAILER (3 minutes — it’s worth it!): Defiant Requiem
- If we were gathering in person, as we did when this story was first told, I’d take a few minutes to build a sense of community by having everyone to turn to someone they haven’t yet met and ask them: can you describe a specific memory from your life in which courage played a role? If you were screening a film of your own personal story, is there a moment (even a seemingly ordinary one) that stands out as beautiful? Since we are temporarily prohibited from such gatherings, I encourage you, today, to call a friend or loved one and, in the course of that conversation, ask one (or both!) of those questions. Such inquiries — elevating the conversation beyond “wow, this quarantining stuff is crazy” — might even feel awkward, and therefore require courage right there. But we all have stories, and so many of us are both waiting to be asked and too shy to move into such territory. If ever there was one, now seems to be the time. ❤️