History and sunlight

History and sunlight

It’s terrifying, being stuck here in the middle of history.

We’re really lucky, those of us who live in metropolitan New York; the barbarity of Hamas’s war on Gaza is an ocean and a continent away. Yes, we know people who’ve been hurt, maybe kidnapped, maybe murdered, but our sleep is not disturbed by actual missiles or terrorists with guns and bloodlust.

And although antisemitism stalks among us in ways that none of us born since World War II ended have known, we still are relatively safe here. (And no, that’s not meant as a taunt to fate. Please no.)

Probably one of the reasons that we Jews are so hated is that we just don’t go away. We are an anomalous people; throw unimaginable horrors at us, and enough of us remain that we can go on. The silly old joke about how Jews’ view of holidays is “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat” has some real truth to it. They keep trying, we — or at least some remnant of us — don’t die, and eventually we feast, at a table surrounded by family and filled with love.

But we have to get there first.

This week, the New York Times ran the obituary of a remarkable man. Guy Stern died at 101. He was a German refugee; his parents were able to send him out before the Nazis took over, and he landed with relatives in Saint Louis, but his parents and his sister and brother were stuck in Europe, and they all were murdered.

Mr. Stern graduated from high school, tried to enlist but was turned down because he wasn’t an American citizen, and then was drafted. He became a Ritchie Boy, and learned how to interrogate Germans and translate their answers, among many other things. “We were fighting an American war, and we were also fighting an intensely personal war,” he was quoted as saying in 2005. “We were in that war with every inch of our being.”

After the war he went to college, and then to graduate school. He had a long and illustrious career as an academic, was recognized as a hero, an inspiration, and a source of endless stories. He wrote a memoir and was featured in a documentary, “The Ritchie Boys.”

The most amazing story in the obituary goes this way:

“One of Mr. Stern’s strategies for forcing recalcitrant prisoners to cooperate was to pretend to be a fierce but erratic Soviet commissar named Krukow. He dressed in the appropriate regalia; spoke in a Russian accent (based on the voice of the Mad Russian, a character on the comedian Eddie Cantor’s radio show); kept a photograph of Stalin supposedly signed to Krukow nearby; and threatened to send the imprisoned Germans to Siberia.”

It’s the Eddie Cantor detail that’s the most delicious.

Mr. Stern’s life wasn’t all wonderful after the war ended. He was married three times — divorced once and widowed once; he left his third wife a widow. He had only one child, a son who died childless in 2006.

But oh what an amazing, resilient, extraordinary life. And what a Jewish life.

The winter solstice happened on Thursday night. The days will start getting longer this week. There still is great darkness in the world, both metaphorical and physical. How wonderful it would be if the sunlight that comes back slowly — Shabbat starts about 10 minutes or so later every week — would be mirrored in the light that seems absent from the world right now. Maybe it will come back more quickly than we imagine.

And whenever it does come back, Jews will be there to welcome it.


read more: