Sunday, January 31, 2010

A Chain of One-Person Events

I don’t usually engage in the practice of blowing my own horn. These blog postings from my life are mostly casual musings and remembrances, points of poignancy, interest, sometimes humor, that hopefully evoke in you similar memories and feelings from your earlier days.

But an Op-Ed piece in Friday’s NY Times, titled “Out of Auschwitz” (, stirred me to recall one of my most cherished accomplishments—I prevented the new Giants-Jets Meadowlands football stadium from being named after the company that insured Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps.

Two summers ago my family traveled to Central Europe, visiting Vienna, Budapest, Krakow and Prague. In Krakow, we hired a local guide, a young man who, by coincidence, had grown up in the village of Oświęcim, the Polish name for Auschwitz, some 30 miles outside the main city.

There are two parts to the concentration camp. Auschwitz I sits on the site of a former military base. Its buildings are mostly brick. But as sturdy as its structures were, Auschwitz I did not provide the Nazis with sufficient scope to expeditiously carry out their mass murders. So they built Auschwitz II, also known as Birkenau. Jews and other undesirables were contained in wooden barracks. Beyond the far end of a long train depot, the Nazis built gas chambers and crematoria.

On a hot, sunny, late July afternoon as we walked in an open field towards the memorial near the ruins of the killing machines, we came across a small pool of water. I asked our guide what purpose it served. Holocaust deniers would tell you, he replied, that these and others like it were swimming pools the prisoners enjoyed, as if Auschwitz were just a little rougher than a regular summer camp. In truth, the water pools were part of a fire response system mandated by the camp’s insurance carrier because of the extensive wooden buildings. He identified the insurer as Allianz. I was incredulous, but given German fascination with efficiency, not too surprised they would go to the extreme of insuring their extermination property.

Fast forward one month, to Labor Day. On the back page of SportsMonday in The Times I read a short marketing article by Richard Sandomir that the Giants and Jets were close to signing a naming rights deal with a German “financial services company,” Allianz.

Whoa! I raced to the computer, checked it was indeed the same Allianz (on its Web site Allianz acknowledges its Nazi links), and sent off letters to The Times, the Giants and the Jets, informing them that far from being just a “financial services company,” Allianz had been the Nazi insurance company. “Surely the Giants and Jets,” I wrote in part, “in their ignoble pursuit of every last marketing dollar, do not need to affront their fans, many of whom lost family in the Holocaust, by placing the Allianz name on their stadium.”

Not a word back. The Times says it won’t print a letter to the editor without first contacting the writer, so I was caught off-guard the following Sunday, September 7, when awakened by a caller saying he agreed with my letter. I rushed downstairs to find the paper but could not locate the letter in the Week in Review section. The caller, a Scarsdale doctor, said it was in the Sports section. There it was, under the headline, “Checkered History of Allianz.” A few friends called to congratulate me on getting published, but I was not prepared for the next chapter of the story.

Three days later, Sandomir followed up with a long article, titled “Naming Rights and Historical Wrongs” ( and another one the next day ( Talk radio picked up the story, as did other newspapers. One tabloid ran a drawing of the new stadium topped with a swastika. By Friday, pressure had grown intense enough for the naming rights bid to be abandoned.

Near the beginning of this piece I wrote I prevented the Allianz naming rights plan. In truth, two others played important roles, as well. First, the unknown editor who chose to print my letter to the editor. Second, Richard Sandomir, who, mutual friends have told me, learned of Allianz’s past from my letter and pursued the story. Of course, thousands more sent in their denouncements once the story became mainstream news.

Aside from stopping what would have been an affront to decency, my Allianz story demonstrates that one person can make a difference, can start a chain of one-person events that builds on the enlightenment of those before, to right, or prevent, a wrong.

Auschwitz was liberated 65 years ago, on January 27. Let’s never forget to speak out and act so that it is always remembered and never allowed to happen again. To any people. Anywhere.