Writer's Note: In shorter format, I have written about my friend Lydia before. This is a longer essay but merely a first draft to get the facts down. I will revise and rewrite many times over the next few months but I still wanted to share the beginning stages. If there are any writers out there, I'd love to workshop this with you.
On July 6th, 2016, groggily I boarded a 6AM flight from New York to Toronto. As I approached my window seat, picked purposely to facilitate an additional 90 minutes of sleep with my sweater balled up and propped against the window, I locked eyes with a petite, older woman sitting in the aisle seat of my row. I silently signaled I needed to climb over her to reach my seat and inwardly hoped she wouldn't want to converse much beyond a courteous "good morning." As she introduced herself ("Lydia, from Forest Hills, Queens") I inwardly gritted my teeth and bid my nap farewell. The next 90 minutes of conversation changed the course of my life.
Once our salutations faded, we began discussing politics, something I never shy away from addressing, although I've been cautioned many times of the American taboo around subjects such as religion, money and politics in mixed or unknown company. But this morning and this person seemed different.
In the summer of 2016, many of us who identify as Liberals and/or Democrats were blissfully ignorant of the nightmare to come on November 8, 2016. We frivolously discussed the antics of Donald J. Trump, punctuating our diatribes of incredulity with waving arms and gesticulating hands movements. We had no idea life would soon imitate farce. On that particular morning, Lydia, an atheist but culturally Jewish, with tears in her eyes, spoke about the recent Trump dog-whistle tweet featuring an image of Hillary Clinton ("Crooked Hillary') set against a background of money and a red 6-pointed star calling her out as the "most corrupt candidate ever!" This image originated from alt-right blogs and websites and a few hours after I met Lydia, Trump tweeted a Trumpian apology, which is to say he tweeted no apology whatsoever: "Dishonest media is trying their absolute best to depict a star in a tweet as the Star of David rather than a Sheriff's Star, or plain star!" This, from a father of an Orthodox Jewish daughter and a grandfather of three Orthodox Jewish grandchildren. We were ignorant of the political catastrophe ahead. Because of this tweet, in-between offers of coffee, water and airplane peanuts, Lydia began sharing her story - one I will never forget.
Born in 1930 in the Free City of Danzig, Lydia stressed how happy her life was in those early years; she was loved greatly by two caring parents and treasured her many close childhood friendships. She was the first person I met from the Free City of Danzig, or rather the first person I met who identified as a citizen of the Free City of Danzig and not as a citizen of Poland. Danzig was a city-state created in 1920 as a result of WWI and the Treaty of Versailles. The city-state was made up of many small villages and towns previously under mostly German rule. Although separate from the Germany and Poland, it was not an independent state and was under protection from the League of Nations with a customs union with Poland. As known, a post-World War I Europe was boiling with tensions between Germans and many other countries. However; until 1933, the citizens of the Free City of Danzig lived their lives like everyone else.
When Lydia was three years old the city's government was taken over by the local Nazi party. When she reached school age and began class she was ordered to wear a yellow patch, the mark of a Jew amongst the Nazis. Twice daily, the boys who studied at the Nazi school up the road from Lydia's home marched past, arms swathed in swastika bands, chanting the subhuman rhetoric of Hitler. One particular day some of those boys entered Lydia's home. They didn't need permission or consent - they were Nazis and Lydia's family were Jews. The boys ransacked the family home, "We want to see how the Jews live," they barked as they rifled through their most treasured possessions.
"But, the Germans were not all terrible and they weren't all Nazis," Lydia later told me. The village police man, although part of the German majority, was not a Nazi and threatened the boys with his dog, promising attack should they return. When the boys, undeterred, entered Lydia's home demanding again to see "how the Jews lived," the German man sicced his guard dog on one of the boys, who left the house missing a piece of his calf. The Nazi school boys continued marching past the house twice daily, but never entered those four walls again. Lydia continued her schooling until she was expelled, a fate of most Jewish students met. Lydia's mom homeschooled her, insistent she continue her education.
Today, some 80 years later, we struggle to keep children shielded from the harshness of reality. We don't keep score at their sporting events so "everyone wins," we don't address political or social issues with them because "there will be time for that," along with all of the other bubble-wrap machinations constructed by adults who believe strongly in childhood being a safe zone of make-believe, artificial innocence. Lydia and millions of other Jewish children never had this privilege.
At that time (approximately 1937), less than 1% of the city-state's population was Russian and Lydia's father and grandfather were Russian citizens, an important distinction because it provided the family a modicum of protection against the Nazis. Sometime before 1939, the local members of the Nazi party came to seize the family home and Lydia's father hid the deed on his person. Once alone, her father ripped the deed into tiny pieces and ingested it rather than let the Nazis commandeer the house. When searched again, with fruitless results, the Nazi's imprissoned Lydia's father and grandfather. Had the men not been Soviet citizens, their stories would have ended with a deportation to a concentration camp and, most likely, imminent death. Instead, the Soviet government intervened and demanded their release, citing international agreements and the threat of action against local Nazi governments. Make no mistakes, the Soviet state cared nothing of the human rights violations; this was an ego match between Joseph Stalin and Adolph Hitler which trickled down to low-level civil servants.
Once the men were released it became clear the family had no choice but to flee their homeland. Lydia's grandfather applied for asylum in the Soviet Union and Lydia's parents applied for asylum in the United States via family who had already fled. Along with her father and mother, Lydia left the Free City of Danzig and went to Paris to wait out the United States paperwork. When it did arrive, the trio was forced to travel back to the Free City of Danzig to retrieve it which was around the time of the Danzig Crisis which preceded Germany invading Poland.
The family boarded a train to take them through the Polish corridor; possessions in hand, heart in mouth. At a stop in Germany, the three were pulled off the train. Lydia was placed on a platform bench while her mother and father were brought into a room to be searched and interrogated. Germans train timetables are precise and adherence to them, expected. The Station Master held a paddle; one side red, the other green. Lydia sat on the bench watching the people stream on and off the train until the platform was empty, her parents nowhere in sight. The Station Master kept his paddle on red and the passengers became agitated. For ten minutes, he held the red paddle until the German inspectors, agitated with the train's tardiness, released her parents and allowed them to continue on their journey.
"That," Lydia recalled, "was the second time a German saved our lives."
The family made it safely to their home, retrieved their papers and made their way to New York City which, to this day, despite our current administration, is a sanctuary city. Settled on the Upper West Side near Riverside Park with many other Jewish refugees, their home was filled with the sounds Lydia's father playing his beloved piano and Lydia, who played the French Horn. In 1945 the camps were liberated and Lydia grew excited to reunited with her aunts, uncles, cousins and her grandfather once again. She dreamed of them coming to New York and seeing streets filled with their newfound friends, fellow Jews but also African Americans and people of Dominican and Caribbean descent. They'd throw open the windows of the apartment on warm summer nights and listening to the chaotic street noises and hear the music flowing from everyone's apartments. The America-as-Cultural-Melting-Pot we learned of in school was Lydia's new reality.
Lydia's relatives would never walk the streets of the Upper West Side or hear the beats of other people's music or taste the loving meals prepared by a community of refugees with nothing in common but their newfound home. There was no one was left; her aunt had been liberated from a camp by the Soviets but died before medical help could save her. The rest perished in the camps.
"That day - I will never forget it - that day my parents told me they were all gone was the day I became an Atheist."
This story is Lydia's and it was told to me on the plane that day and over lunch on Easter Sunday, which was just another Sunday for both of us. When she asked why I agreed to meet for lunch on Easter Sunday, knowing I was baptized Catholic, I told her I identified as Agnostic. As she poured me a mug of ginger tea she smirked, "You know what I say about Agnostics? Shit or get off the fence."
We carried our tea to the dining room table where we ate a lunch of open face turkey sandwiches on toast, deviled eggs, hummus, salmon spread and grapes. I had attempted to bring dessert but my brownies baked unevenly, so instead I brought an offering of dried lavender for her apartment. After lunch we snacked on black and white cookies and biscotti, both of us in possession of serious sweet tooths.
Once we finished, we sat on the living room couch and talked some more. She asked me to describe my family and my job and asked what what a typical work day was like. She asked what I thought the root of my depression was and what I do to quiet my mind. She showed me family albums that began with her life in New York. She showed me pictures of the love of her life, Yuri, who passed three years before. In every single picture their arms were intertwined. She showed my pictures of her son, Andrew, who passed 10 months ago at the age of 60. Her eyes crinkles at the corners when she spoke of both men but she never cried. She recalled the heartbreak she felt when Yuri died and stories of her son Andrew who had brought her back to life; checking in on her daily and taking her to the opera or to the movies.
At one point during the day I turned to look Lydia in the eye and I saw the face of a young girl; eyes that had seen the ugliest side of humanity. I asked her how she went on after the war, "You just go on. That's all."
As I gathered my things, I confessed to Lydia I purposely signed off all of our email correspondence with my full name and phone number in case she wanted to Google me before inviting me to her home. She gave me a confused look - it was an act that never occurred to her. I thought of my own parents, almost 75 years old. I would never allow them to invite stranger to their home without conducting a thorough check into their background and I told Lydia this.
She threw her head back and laughed, "I was only confused why a young girl like you wanted to be friends with an old lady like me! I told my daughter, 'We got along like two houses on fire but I can't understand why she's interested in an old lady.'"
"Mom, you may be 87 but you don't act like you're 87. You have to remember that!" her daughter told her explained. And, she's right. Lydia is so much more than a kind, older lady I met on a plane. Lydia is someone who holds so much history in her brain and soul and has lived her life with intelligence and grace and mercy. She lived through change and regression many times over and her resilience is a beacon in today's world of hatred and intolerance.
I could have sat on her couch forever.
As some of you know, shortly after the 2016 election I received an email from Lydia which I shared with my contacts on Facebook. I will share it again. I think it shows the pain she carries, one that may be deeply buried but is reignited when we fail to recognize the mistakes of our past. For now, I leave you with that.
I was up until 4:15 and am totally destroyed. You have to understand that for me the USA was haven, this country saved me from the gas chambers of Europe. I was only 8, but I remember clearly the voice of Hitler talking about making Germany "judenfrei"--free of the jews. This is exactly what I heard from Trump and his followers about the latinos who had come here illegally. Let's deport all 11 million of them. The overt racism after Obama's election has now become a landmark of the unemployed, uneducated angry white males, many of whom live in the rural areas. In Pine Bush I saw only Trump sign [sic] and my Clinton sign was stolen on the second day I put it up.
My very intelligent husband used to quote Vladimir Lenin, who spoke about the masses as "useful idiots". Well, Trump learned that lesson well and that was exactly what he did. They have to be so ignorant to believe that a millionaire who is intent on lowering taxes for the one percent and for the corporations is going to help them. He never told the masses how he would bring their jobs back. He is the worst exporter of jobs as he buys everything from steel to clothing to his furniture for his hotels abroad--nothing is made in the USA. Again--the masses functioned for him as useful idiots and we lost our country in the process.
I asked our daughter to find out whether she can get her brother over to Canada in a few years when he retires. I hopefully will not live much longer, but I do worry about him and youngsters like you who will lose Medicare, Social Security and who knows what other rights the Supreme Court will take away. Not my country anymore.
Let me regain my equilibrium and I shall write you. Do you have a phone and then we could make a date?
Best regards and sorry about the tone of this e-mail, but I am beyond despondent and totally hopeless.