“You can really learn something about a person when he’s put into circumstances in which civilized values place his own identity, even his very being, in jeopardy… I often think: How would a friend with whom you’ve drunk a lot of vodka and had a lot of fun respond when one morning you plant yourself on his doorstep and say, ‘Hide me. I’m being chased by the Nazis.'” ~Roman Polanski
Polanski’s mother died at Auschwitz, his father barely survived imprisonment at Mauthausen–Gusen concentration camp. Polanski himself survived by assuming a new name and hiding with a Catholic family for the duration of the war.
This was not just an idle contemplation for him.
I worked with a man named Charlie years ago in Houston. I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten his last name. When we met he was nearing retirement age.
He was one of the very first Americans into Berlin at the close of World War II. He told me there were dead bodies everywhere; soldiers, civilians, dogs, horses, mules. The health threat was imminent, and there was no time for formalities. It was his job to drag the corpses, humans and animal, and toss them into the basements of bombed out buildings. Bulldozers would push rubble on top of them.
He was 18.
It was almost fifty years after those events when he told them to me. He didn’t tear up exactly, but his eyes became distant and vacant, like he was looking at something far off, near the horizon; the thousand-yard stare.
He wanted to move up in the chemical company we both worked for, but he didn’t have the cut-throat mentality that environment demanded. He was compassionate. He was empathetic. He was kind. They used him up and tossed him aside.
He contracted cancer and took early retirement, and died not long after. His stories went with him.
Too many people remember the victory parades. Too many people remember the arrogant posturing of generals MacArthur and Patton. Too many people remember the glory and the riches that followed.
Not enough people remember Charlie.
In her autobiography On Reflection, actress Helen Hayes recounts an incident from her childhood between theater producer Charles Frohman and actor John Drew Jr.:
I saw Mr. Drew angry with Mr. Frohman only once, from a great distance and with good reason. The producer cabled that he was returning from a European business trip.
“Stay there,” John Drew wired back. “Don’t come back now. It’s dangerous.”
“I’m on my way on the next boat,” Charles Frohman answered.
The star was ablaze with anger. “If the Huns sink you, I’ll never forgive you,” he cabled Mr. Frohman.
The Germans torpedoed the Lusitania, and our good friend was drowned. There are no words to describe John Drew’s shock. His flippant wire would haunt him forever.
Charles Frohmans last words, before being swept away by a giant wave, were a paraphrase from his play Peter Pan: “Why fear death? It is the most beautiful adventure that life gives us.”
I’m reading Jacob Riis autobiography and came to a part where he mentioned knowing Hans Christian Anderson. I was amazed- then I remembered that when he wrote this book in 1901 he was already an old man, recounting a story from his youth. It’s written in such an easy, conversational style that I lost track of the centuries:
Speaking of Hans Christian Andersen, we boys loved him as a matter of course; for had he not told us all the beautiful stories that made the whole background of our lives? They do that yet with me, more than you would think. The little Christmas tree and the hare that made it weep by jumping over it because it was so small, belong to the things that come to stay with you always. I hear of people nowadays who think it is not proper to tell children fairy-stories. I am sorry for those children. I wonder what they will give them instead. Algebra, perhaps. Nice lot of counting machines we shall have running the century that is to come! But though we loved Andersen, we were not above playing our pranks upon him when occasion offered. In those days Copenhagen was girt about with great earthen walls, and there were beautiful walks up there under the old lindens. On moonlight nights when the smell of violets was in the air, we would sometimes meet the poet there, walking alone. Then we would string out irreverently in Indian file and walk up, cap in hand, one after another, to salute him with a deeply respectful “Good evening, Herr Professor!” That was his title. His kind face would beam with delight, and our proffered fists would be buried in the very biggest hand, it seemed to us, that mortal ever owned,–Andersen had very large hands and feet,–and we would go away gleefully chuckling and withal secretly ashamed of ourselves. He was in such evident delight at our homage.
The Making of an American— and all of Jacob Riis’ other books– are in the public domain and may be downloaded from Project Gutenberg, HERE. Hans Christian Anderson’s parable of the Christmas Fir is online HERE.
Photographer Jacob A. Riis published his autobiography, The Making of an American, in 1901. He died 13 years later in 1914, and a eulogy written by Theodore Roosevelt was included as an introduction when the book was republished in 1924.
I think this says a lot about both men:
It is difficult for me to write of Jacob Riis only from the public standpoint. He was one of my truest and closest friends. I have ever prized the fact that once, in speaking of me, he said, “Since I met him he has been my brother.” I have not only admired and respected him beyond measure, but I have loved him dearly, and I mourn him as if he were one of my own family.
But this has little to do with what I wish to say. Jacob Riis was one of those men who by his writings contributed most to raising the standard of unselfishness, of disinterestedness¹, of sane and kindly good citizenship, in this country. But in addition to this he was one of the few great writers for clean and decent living and for upright conduct who was also a great doer. He never wrote sentences which he did not in good faith try to act whenever he could find the opportunity for action. He was emphatically a “doer of the word,” and not either a mere hearer or a mere preacher. Moreover, he was one of those good men whose goodness was free from least taint of priggishness or self-righteousness. He had a white soul; but he had the keenest sympathy for his brethren who stumbled and fell. He had the most flaming intensity of passion for righteousness, but he also had kindliness and a most humorously human way of looking at life and a sense of companionship with his fellows. He did not come to this country until he was almost a young man; but if I were asked to name a fellow man who came nearest to being the ideal American citizen, I should name Jacob Riis.
~From The Outlook, June 6, 1914
Jacob Riis’ books are in the public domain and may be downloaded freely from Project Gutenberg, HERE.
¹Today we we would use the word “impartiality.”
An excerpt from America’s Part in the World War by Richard J. Beamish, ©1919:
A name blazoned in letters of gold will live forever in American History: CHȂTEAU-THIERRY. Around it will cluster records of immortal valor, deeds of heroism that will to the end of time shed luster upon the American soldiers who there checked the tide of tyranny when it was at its flood.
Except that the battle has been forgotten, it didn’t live forever. All of those young men, on both sides, suffered and died and it didn’t make any difference at all, except their families missed them and they never got to grow old and enjoy families of their own.
Which, somewhat unexpectedly, leads to this poignant song by Motörhead:
Full lyrics HERE.
One of the books I’m reading currently is America’s Part in the World War by Richard J. Beamish, ©1919. Here’s a brief excerpt:
How the flower of America’s youth, answering the call to battle, sprang to the support of the colors; how America’s army of democracy was raised almost overnight, trained in an incredibly short period of time and made ready for the front line trenches in the battle for civilization, is a story that will go down through the ages as a monument for all time to the patriotism of America’s young manhood.
It’s sort of a bittersweet thing to read.
One of the things I enjoy about it has nothing to do with the subject matter. If you’ve ever read an interview with Tiny Tim, you know he talked like that all the time. It’s a pity he wasn’t born a half a century earlier- he would have been one of the cool kids. The style is entertaining.
But the facts are staggering. The disruption to lives, the death and human suffering were immense. Colorful words and flags can’t conceal the awful tragedy of it all.
And always in the background is the sad side that the author wouldn’t have known in 1919: he truly believed that good had triumphed over evil, that the world was now safe and free, and the story was ended.
He had know way to know it was only the prologue.