Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Stories of Resilience

Coincidence? Serendipity?

While lying in bed this a.m., as I was doing 11 years ago in a Phoenix hotel room on the morning of September 11, oblivious early on to the horror unfolding back east, I checked my iPhone and noticed an email from my cousin Herb, the chronicler of Forseter/Kletter family history and general information on Eastern European Jewry. His email came under the following subject title: A STORY WORTH WATCHING - WHEN YOU HAVE TIME - THIS IS A MUST SEE

Naturally I was curious, though cautioned by Herb that the accompanying video link was rather long but well worth the effort. “It shows,” said Herb, “the indomitable courage and greatness of our people in spite of adversity.”  

On a day when we remember the tragic loss of life at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania, and the ensuing two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is inspiring to view the accomplishments of Felix Zandman, a survivor of the Holocaust whose contributions to the way we live our lives today are mostly unknown. Almost every time you use a cell phone, travel in an airplane or ride a car, you are benefiting from the genius of Felix Zandman, one of only about 100 survivors of the 30,000 Jews who lived in Grodno, Poland, before the Nazis conquered his homeland. Zandman died a little over a year ago, but this one-hour film, produced in 2004, provides some background on his extraordinary 83 years of life and ultimate success: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BLEyAqhEzqI 

Perhaps because I was in Arizona, I find it hard, sometimes, to relate to the catastrophe of September 11. It was an attack on innocents and I don’t begrudge the families of the dead their continued anguish, their sense of loss, their bereavement. Yet, when I place in context the inhumanity that has befallen thousands, hundreds of thousands, even millions of others, in Cambodia, in Rwanda, throughout Europe during the Second World War, I find myself enthralled by the resilience of the human spirit, by stories such as Felix Zandman’s. I hope some of the orphaned or widowed of 9/11 are able to rise to the heights attained by Zandman.

Camp of Our Dreams: September 11 commemorates the 88th birthday of Yaakov Halpern, a native of Krakow, Poland, also a Holocaust survivor and another giant who overcame personal and collective evil. Among his numerous contributions to Jewish education and culture in the United States and Israel was his founding and leadership of Camp Columbia in Elizaville, NY, where I spent six summers during the 1960s, first as a camper, then a counselor. The camp closed in 1968 when Yaakov emigrated to Israel with his family. 

If you’ve never spent summers at a Jewish sleepaway camp, eight weeks back then, perhaps you’d have a hard time identifying with the immersive experience it could be. Jewish summer camps of that era impressed upon their campers and counselors a richness of heritage and culture that could not be replicated or duplicated, not in Hebrew schools or synagogue services. One need only look at Yaakov’s forearm to see tattooed numbers in blue ink to be reminded we as a people were barely two decades removed from bestiality beyond belief or reason. 

Yaakov and his wife Gilda created an environment where youth could frolic freely and dream about creating a better world. A bond was forged among those who spent summers there, probably no more unique than any fashioned by similar summer camps. It’s a bond enshrined in memory, so perhaps a bit of it is hyperbole. But it is very real to those who summered in the Catskills. 

About 12 years ago I accompanied my wife to a nurse practitioners’ meeting in Kingston, NY, in late spring. While she sat through her conference I ventured out to find the long-shuttered Camp Columbia, some 20 miles away. It took about 30 minutes to find Elizaville and then the real fun began, looking for the road leading to camp. 

I came across an old country store I recognized as the one on the road near the camp. I knew from instinct where the camp road should be. It no longer was rutted dirt. It was paved, with houses dotting its sides. 

About half a mile up it dead-ended. I got out of my car and started walking on a trail. This clearly was the way, but the trail was closed. I was close, not close enough to see the camp’s lower lake, but close. My choices were to proceed and find a camp that I had not seen in 30 years, a camp that probably had fallen into disrepair, a camp that I knew had been taken over by new owners who had filled in the pool, or to stop and reflect on what Camp Columbia looked like in my youth. 

Camp Columbia was not a beautiful camp. But it was the camp of my formative adult years, the camp I will always remember in the words of the alma mater Marty Kellman wrote to the music of Brahms, as “the camp of our dreams.” I turned around.