As part of my never eat alone series, this blog describes what happened Monday morning when emeritus religious studies professor, inter-faith dialogue specialist and Holocaust witness, Harold Kasimow came over to me in the café. We shared a morning coffee and some great conversation. Harold launched into his excitement about his new article in the Huffington Post about the importance of "servant leadership" in today's social and political climate. In the article he talks about the importance of speaking up, as Martin Luther King Jr. encouraged us to do:
"His core message was that we must talk to each other and be fully present to each other. “[To] stand alone or live alone in the world today,” King said, “is sleeping through a revolution.”"
King's message and Kasimow's message are aligned with the purpose of this never eat alone series. I wish to inspire people to talk to each other, both the upend the alienation that brings anxiety and depression as well as to strengthen the links which strengthen our communities, nation and world.
Harold and I chatted about his article and then he told me a bit about his Holocaust story . Harold spent a few of his early years hidden in a cellar. He did not know what light was when he first saw it. His father built a tunnel so he could slip out for food: mostly bread and water.
"That's why I'm so short," he told me. In his early years he barely age, "All of the Kasimows are really tall. Except me!"
The Long-Tail of Holocaust Survivorship
For many years, Harold did not think of himself as a survivor until his sister wrote a book about his family's experience.
"But it was really about 50 years later that it started affecting me," he explained.
Harold was a professor of religious studies at Grinnell College starting in 1972. I met a man who took Harold's class back in the 1980s and said,
"It was incredible, Harold taught this whole class about Jews in Poland during the war and never once mentioned that he was one of those Jews."
This is not uncommon. In the 80 interviews I conducted with Holocaust survivors for my forthcoming book on the contemporary U.S.-based conflict over role of the French National Railways (SNCF) in the Holocaust, I discovered that many lived decades before what happened really hit them.
"Of course I was a mess before then, but it was at about 50-60 years when it really started to affect me...dreams, memories. And I started telling my story. But it was really hard. I started to have dreams. "
He then stopped telling his story for sometime.
"It was just to difficult," he explained.
"I have started again. Now that Elie Wiesel and many of the others are gone, I feel an obligation."
Like many witnesses of the Holocaust I have met, Harold doesn't concern himself only with the horrors of the Holocaust. He focuses on contemporary challenges; he spends much of his time working on interfaith dialogue, When I asked him if this work was influenced by his early experience he said,
"Yes, but I didn't realize it for many years."
I asked whether he was ever involved in the lawsuits, trials against former Nazis or restitution. He said he has never received any money. He thinks he made too much money today and was therefore disqualified. Do certain compensation programs limit based on your income? How could that be? How could an apology be dependent upon your current well-being?
That's like having an old boyfriend not apologize because you're now happily married. One has nothing to do with the other. I seemed more bothered by it than Harold. He moved quickly to discussing the relatively new compensation program which offers 2500 Euros to anyone who survived. He filled out the paperwork, but there is some discrepancy between his story and their official story,
"How am I supposed to remember exactly where we were? How are we supposed to have records of this?"
His comment echoes the frustrations of many survivors of the Holocaust -- some of the few survivors of mass atrocity who are even eligible for compensation. Most of the world's genocide survivors have received nothing -- and likely never will.
For more about Harold's story, please see Defying Darkness . Stay tuned for his new book on Pope Francis!
Another great meal shared!
The Never Eat Alone Series
In 2005, Keith Ferrazzi came out with a business book called Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success One Relationship at a Time. Now in its second edition, Ferrazzi discusses importance of relationships for professional advancement.
The book sparked an idea!
What would happen if I started to avoid eating alone?
What kinds of incredible conversations might I have?
The purpose of this series is to record these rich conversations and inspire others to eat with others. See where these conversations take you. I would love to hear your stories, so please add them in the comments below!
When I read Ray Oldenburg's ethnography; The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of the Community, he seemed to be writing about a place already extinct.
I have lived in Paris, so I know the café culture there and have sought for years the "ideal" American cafe where people come together to exchange life updates as well as ideas. A cafe where people work on their projects while remembering that our borders are permeable. We are individual creatures operating in community. But we are community creatures that take on individual projects.
One of the Great Cafés!
Well, it turns out such a café does still exist. At least one remains. I am writing this blog from SAINTS REST: COFFEE HOUSE right in the heart of Grinnell, Iowa. This morning two moms have their kids running around looking for leftover Easter Eggs. In the corner, Jon, the anthropologist is chatting with Howard the emeritus religious studies professor who survived the Holocaust by spending two years in a potato cellar. One woman in a black polka dotted dressed seems to be preparing for an interview and others grab their coffee to go.
"Sarah, do you want the awning down," Sam, the owner, just called to me.
She had noticed the sun beating on my back. Abbey, roughly aged four, just bumped her knee during her café hunt for Easter eggs. Once she finished with the awning, Sam came over to kiss the boo-boo.
That's just Monday morning. You should see this place on the weekends. The above photo is of Sam, the owner. She came and had a coffee with me outside yesterday. That's how she knows my name. She said bought the café just a few years ago and hopes when she sells it in 20 years someone else wants to keep the spirit alive.
"I'm never sure whether to stay open on Easter, " she explained, "but the students tend to come out when the weather is warm like this."
But people came by after church, Grinnell College students struggled to finish assignments due Monday as I made my way through book three of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels.
As wonderful as yesterday was, last weekend may have even been more extraordinary. Rabbi Rob, the school's Rabbi who helps run the spirituality and social justice center would not let me sit alone reading. He wanted to introduce me to some of the incredible people sitting all around me.
This included Kesho Scott, a professor in the sociology department who used to be a black panther and had heard Martin Luther King speak. She is internationally recognized for her human rights and other workshops designed to shorten the divide between people, mostly by helping them unlearn racism. (A perfect person to meet before I start leading similar classes at the University of Baltimore this fall.) Students and faculty came up to her all afternoon wanting to bounce ideas off her or tell her their latest accomplishments.
She never graded her 16 student papers.
It's not only intellectuals who stop into Saints Rest. The café draws locals who pull up in large trucks. Sam, herself is from Louisiana, and gives the place a southern feel. A large apple pie was at the counter at 7am this morning. You know, just in case you had a hankering. She taught me about "ham balls" a southern meal that she and her family make all the time.
Saints Rest is intellectual and social justice oriented while leaving space for the Iowans who come by for a cup of joe in the morning.
All Great Places Have Conflict
The café is an intersection of multiple worlds and sometimes those worlds collide A Grinnell student told me just after I left last Sunday, he had a run-in with a local man. The student was having an animated conversation with a friend in which he was using numerous curse words. A local man told him stop speaking with such a fowl mouth. The student believed the criticism also had to do with the fact that he was gay. Though, I'm not sure how the man would have known that.
Somehow the police became involved. A little drama to keep the streets alive, I guess. Where there are people there is conflict.
All in all, I have to say Saints Rest Coffee House is magic. Anyone who lives in our around suburban sprawl knows how rare these places are. Usually you find cafés in U.S. cities inhabited by young folks without kids. But at Saints Rest, you find a place for ages 1-100. And as compared to most city cafés people seem to talk to each other, at least more often.
Thanks, Sam for making residents of Grinnell Iowa think this way of life is normal and thanks for letting me know the American café is not dead. I'll have to tell Ray.
April 10th, in the bustling student center of Grinnell College, over 100 students, faculty and staff gathered for a seder. A visiting faculty, I found a seat next to another visiting professor-- Kostek Gerbert, a Polish journalist and Jewish activist well known for his war correspondence, most notably during the war in Yugoslavia.
I wanted to write about this rare opportunity to chat for several hours with Kostek as part of a forthcoming "Never Eat Alone" series of posts.
Never Eat Alone
In 2005, Keith Ferrazzi came out with a business book called Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success One Relationship at a Time. Now in its second edition, the book talks about the power of relationships to get you where you want to go. The book sparked an idea in me. What would happen if I started to avoid eating alone? What kinds of incredible conversations might I have? The intention for me was not to win business contracts, but simply to see what I might have been missing out on during those solitary meals. A conversation with Kostek showed me just what I had been missing...
Hopefully, summer in Siberia"
When Jack, the psychology major sitting to my right, asked Kostek what he might be doing for the summer, Kostek replied,
"Hopefully, summer in Siberia."
I said usually the words summer and hopefully are not near the word Siberia. Then he explained why,
"Of course, you know, everyone reads on the metro. This is not unusual. But in Siberia, they double read."
He paused and said,
"You see, historically, all the great writers got sent to Siberia...they were exiled there. So they have a very rich culture of reading and writing!!"
I am so glad someone benefited from all those writers being sent away.
And, You Don't Want to Miss Winter in Siberia Either
We could then understand why an activist/writer would want to be around a rich intellectual culture, but we could not understand why experiencing -50 in a Siberian winter was on his bucket list.
"My daughter explained that at negative 50, life leaves a trail. People warm the frozen air as they walk and then it re-freezes as they move forward, but in a different shape. The light then picks up the crystals and leaves a golden trail. I want to see this before I die."
He also was told that at -50 anti-Semitism freezes. He has been told by locals that people cannot hate each other. At that temperature everyone relies on everyone else for survival.
"So, what you're saying is that hate and conflict is a luxury?" I asked.
We paused, that gave us something to think about.
What World War II Heroes Have in Common
In between Seder prayers, the conversation continued with Jack and Kostek. Jack, now a second-year student, told us he was going to spend the summer learning how to operate an MRI machine studying the brains of young women who might be prone to social anxiety disorders. He was thrilled to be doing real research and in his hometown of Madison Wisconsin.
Somehow, probably due to the intercession of prayers, bitter herbs, and horseradish, we got from there to what wartime heroes had in common.
Kostek, an expert in World War II Poland, said he had spoken to many people who had saved Jews during the war. He noticed something so curious about what they had in common. He said, after the war, they were all over the place politically. Some of these people were on the far-right (many of them, in fact), some where on the far left, some where professors and others were uneducated peasants.
"Do you know what they all had in common?" he asked.
We shook our heads.
"They all did not believe that the problem was someone else's business. They are the kind of people that cannot leave well enough alone. They make terrible co-workers," he explained laughing a bit, "because they are always involved in everyone else's business."
He talked to people who knew people who took similar risks in the Bosnian war, the attribute was the same. The people who saved others at the risk of their own lives were nosy people who wouldn't wait for others to fix things.
Astonishing. We have totally undervalued these folks! Or at least I have. In 2015, Psychology Today wrote an article on how to handle nosy people. But, I'm starting to think maybe we need more of them.
I suggested to Jack that maybe his future research could be studying the brains of people who do this. Maybe their brains are different. Maybe nosy people have a bigger this or a smaller that. He really liked that idea....lets see where young Jack lands.
As for never eating alone, I am so glad I spent the evening with Kostek and Jack. I won't ever look at Siberia or nosy people the same way.
Sarah Federman, PhD
Enjoy these short blogs and videos designed to bring you a little cheer.
My other blog Language of Conflict addresses the importance of word choice and narration in conflict.
Finish and Flourish supports writers struggling to complete projects.