Surviving Survival

After the end of the world
After death
I found myself in the midst of life
Creating myself
Building life

      Tadeuz Rozewicz, After the End of the World 

Surviving a tragedy only the beginning of a near-daunting struggle; in fact, the survival itself just may be the easiest part of the ordeal.

My mother, who survived the deaths of two siblings and a nephew, carried her burden to the grave, never really working through the emotions. She subjugated her feelings of inadequacy and guilt to the responsibilities of daughterhood, sisterhood and motherhood but remained ever damaged, always skittish.  The wounded look in her eyes shone brightly in her proudest, happiest moments.  I learned a lot about the process of perseverance and the danger of avoidance from her; I also learned to listen more acutely and to empathize. As a result, I was always attracted to survivors’ stories, compelled to explore and write about them.

 In 2003, my friend Belle married Maurice Cohen, a self-proclaimed Israeli spy and Mossad agent.  Maurice asked me to write his story, about his relationship to his brother Eli Cohen, Israel’s most famous spy, a Syrian Jew who had infiltrated the Syrian government and assumed the powerful position of Chief Advisor to the Minister of Defense, divining critical information and transmitting it to the Israeli government.

Credited with having gathered information that eventually saved Israel and facilitated the country’s victory in the 1967 War, Eli was, of course, caught. In May of 1965, he was hanged in Damascus in an execution that was televised all over the Middle East, leaving a devastated widow and three small children; Maurice was left holding a memory of concealment.  Before his brother was captured, Maurice had discerned the secret of his brother’s undercover identity but had told no one.  Maurice spent the rest of his life (he died in 2004) regretting his supposition that by failing to disclose what he knew he had somehow contributed to Eli’s death. (The article, published in Moment Magazine, is archived here on this blog.)

For years, Maurice carried what he believed to be his dirty little secret, the proof of what he perceived as his own cowardice.  When he and I began to write the story together he began to muster self-forgiveness, and as his burden lightened, he needed to tell more and more people.  When he died, we were about to embark on the writing of his book.

While Maurice and I collaborated long distance, I went to Cannes for Festival du Film, hoping to sell a screenplay.  While I was there, I became friends with Michel Shane, who had among his many credits that he was Executive Producer of the film version of Catch Me If You Can.  He and I talked about Maurice’s story often.  Like me, he came from a family that predisposed him to taking special interest in and a feeling deep empathy for survivors of cataclysmic events.  We could not have known then how his life would turn him into a survivor; he was a powerful cheerleader, a hearty advocate, and when Fencer Dan Alon was looking for a writer to chronicle his harrowing path to victory over despair, it was Michel who recommended me for the job.

Dan Alon was born in Israel in 1943, the son of survivors who had emigrated from Hungary and Austria to settle in Palestine.  His father had been a freedom fighter, and Israel’s partition in 1948 was as much a victory for the family as it was for the nation.  But in order to achieve that triumph, Dan’s father had had to forego his dreams of competing as a fencer in the Olympic Games.  The dream was passed on to Dan, along with the talent for swordplay.

In 1972, after years of preparation and sacrifice on his family’s part to get him there, Dan qualified for the Munich Games.  Alon, his coach and best friend Andrei Spitzer and one other fencer arrived in Munich a week before the games to spar with the German National team, an honor conferred on very few competitors.  When they checked in to the Olympic Village, Dan unwittingly saved his own life while Spitzer equally unwittingly sacrificed his by choosing their separate rooms.  When the Black September terrorists invaded the peace of the athletes’ compound, they overlooked the five men in the apartment Dan chose and went directly to the one Spitzer shared with the other coaches.

For thirty-four years, Dan was unable to talk about his experience.  He could not and would not quantify his pain.  He simply forged ahead, delving into the various activities that replaced fencing in his life.  Then, in 2004, chance and Stephen Spielberg took him to Oxford University, where, at a screening of Munich, Dan’s son had told the rabbi there that his father had survived the Massacre.  Like most people, the rabbi had not realized anyone had lived through it, and he immediately  invited Dan to Oxford to share his tale.  From that moment, Dan was encouraged to find a writer and record the journey for posterity, a process that has finally freed his soul and taught him how to breathe again. (

After a number of starts and stops, Dan and I finally published our book on May 24, 2012, and in the intervening years, Michel himself has become a survivor of the worst tragedy imaginable: the violent, sudden death of a child.

In April 2010, Michel’s youngest daughter Emily was blissfully returning home from school, when she was struck and killed by a suicidal driver.  The past two years have been hellish for Michel and his family, and some peace was finally affected in May of this year, when the driver was convicted of murder.  All along, Michel and his brave wife and two remaining daughters have carried on with grace.  They established the Emily Shane Foundation, which celebrates Emily’s optimism and commitment to kindness and joy ( by encouraging people, in Emily’s name, to make the world a better place one action at a time.  Emily’s loving, generous nature lives on on that website, dancing to the song that plays a hopefully plaintive tune, asking merely that we “do it with love.”

 Surviving is horrific; carrying on, actively and emphatically participating in life afterward is beyond courageous.  Committing to life even when it begs to be rejected . . . that’s inspirational.

Mt. Baker

My life began here, well there,

on that sylvan floor below where my youth stretched out

in infinite languor, bathed in lingering half-light . . .
I stood here for the first time fifty years ago

and gazed downward, outward to the

layered folds of that Adirondack autumn,

anxiously hearing dreams call out from the peaks and the lakes and the rivers,

watching them open their arms to me, a  transplanted Massachusetts girl,

perched on a rockface fortress steep and mighty.
I see that waning October day so clearly, a day like today,

shimmering in the amber angles of a soon sinking sun.

I hear my uncle’s voice echo from a distant past, “Walk quickly, children.

“The sun’ll be gone soon.  We could be lost.”

He was, after all, from New York City and a bit melodramatic about the woods.

There was plenty light left for us to find our way.
The New Year and my 10th birthday

had slipped together into the widening autumn darkness.

I was poised for womanhood, the new new year’s new fruit,

a wonder, I, and wondrous. thankful that the leaves rotting beneath my feet

were dry, and  that my birthday sneakers were unsmudged.

I felt them yearn with me to move on,

to descend the slopes into the future  that beckoned in glistening

splendor, suspended in the clean crisp air.

Instead, I thrust my head toward the clouds and shouted

“I’m here, world.  Look at me.  I made it to the top.”
Well, I’m back again, and there it is,

The same sparkling valley,

Where dreams still breathe in the anxious

afternoon of yet another Adirondack Autumn.

I leap downward, into the woods; no need now to stop and crow.

I descend willingly.

I’ve only minutes left,

But in a minute there’s still time

And plenty of light.

A Mother’s Day Gift to My Children – Part X

Mom and I had grown apart as I aged.  While she adored my three kids and was thrilled that we had chosen to bring them up Jewish, she was as deeply engrossed in her career as I was in mothering.  My family and I had moved to Arizona in 1972 to be close to her, but when I moved back to my beloved East in 1987, I felt a kind of relief.  I would no longer have to face the daily disappointment, recognizing that the expected connection we had always had no longer seemed to be there.  We spoke on the phone several times a week, and we visited as often as we could, but for better and worse, it was never the same.

Just before she died in 1999, Mom asked me if she had done enough.

Charlotte with her younger sister Ruth (center) and Ruth’s husband Uncle Fred. The three were constant companions, especially after Herma’s death, and when Charlotte died suddenly in 1999, the loss was devastating to the last remaining sister.

She wasn’t ready to go — she shouldn’t have been; she was only 76, was still tutoring and teaching every day, still contributing to the world in her varied ways.  She had volunteered in Israel, the culmination of a childhood dream, and had traveled back to Zagreb among other places in Europe to revisit both halcyon and heinous days of her youth; she was an active participant in a life broadly lived.  All five of her grandchildren and six step-grands adored her, and her still-growing legions of former students continued to call and visit her regularly.  There was so much left to live for.  What else could I do but nod vigorously and reassure her, “You have, mom.  You’ve done plenty.”

No one could have done more.

A Woman of Valor

The cast of Tribes. From left, around the table: Mare Winninham (standing), Jeff Perry, Will Brill, Russell Harvard, Gayle Rankin (back to camera) and Susan Pourfar

After a performance of Nina Raine’s Tribes, directed by David Cromer (now playing at the Barrow Street Theater), the other night, I was in the lobby as a group of mostly women made a very big deal over Russell Harvard, the actor who played Billy.  He was great, don’t get me wrong.  But he wasn’t by any means the best in show.  That title belongs to Mare Winningham, playing his mother, a smolderingly constipated housewife eclipsed by the various shadows her family members cast.

Mare Winningham as Beth

It’s hard to play the kind of obstructed creativity that this mother is about to burst from, but Winningham embodies it.  There is no overt anger, no rage in her demeanor, just a seemingly congenial family person who seems to have everything she could want.  But in her eyes as she watches her family unravel in front of her, in her voice as she argues about the words in her detective novel or the decision to have company visit, in her tiny flitting fingers that are incapable of stillness, the combustion seems imminent.

Winningham’s Beth resonates for women of her generation (although Beth is a full decade older than the actress, which, by the way, seems like a very brave choice for an actor who competes with women who would kill to be able to play 50 again, and there’s no real going back).  Her husband Christopher (Jeff Perry), retired from active work, spends his days pontificating or studying.  Satisfied to lounge around while his faithful mate does the chores and keeps the family engine running, he is all too quick to upbraid his children, to demean his wife, to spout pronouncements of superiority wherever he can.  He is neither a good man nor a bad one, but his rages are dangerous, caustic, razing the stanchions of his wife’s and offspring’s self-esteem.

Director David Cromer

These are people who have lost the art of hearing.  They are, as Director David Cromer said in an interview, “All funny, smart, loving good people who still screw everything up.”  Billy, the youngest child, is deaf, but his disability is only partly the result of his lack of physically hearing, and the others are the ones who are most handicapped.  Deafness, insists Billy’s girlfriend Ruth (Gayle Rankin), herself in the process of losing her hearing, is a handicap, despite what political correctness would have us believe, and every member of this family is profoundly deaf.  Every member except Beth perhaps.

Daniel’s (Will Brill) ability to hear is failing as the voices in his head increasingly drown out those of his sister, brother and parents; he is a failing academic floundering for ballast.  Sylvia (Susan Pourfar), the sister, an aspiring opera star, can only hear what pertains to herself, what negates or supports her growing self-doubt.  Christopher hears only what he wants to hear, and he is so enamored of his own voice, that that is what he prefers to listen to most of the time.  For Beth, the crux of her life has been engaging with these bright, complex people, and it is suddenly clear to her that engagement was perhaps superficial, that none of them has ever really let the others in.

Beth is trapped in a whirlpool, and her great sense of humor, her ability to compartmentalize aspects of their life, her resilience are fraying all at once.  Suddenly the great achievement of her young adulthood, her crowning accomplishment — that Billy need not sign because he is so adept at lip reading and making sense of spoken language in English and in French — has been rejected.  Billy wants to be more deaf, to sign and to eschew the hearing world.  Daniel and Sylvia, who resent Billy as much as they love him — and Daniel needs him — cannot seem to find their own source of sustenance.  They look to Beth to save them, but she, now suddenly groping for a buoy of her own, has nothing left to offer.

Christopher (Jeff Perry) looks on while Daniel (Russell Harvard) explains his feeling of isolation

In each moment, Winningham’s small frame bends a bit more, walks a little less deliberately, seems a bit more fragile.  It’s subtle, but it’s there. She has nurtured this brood, this childishly demanding spouse and their eclectic offspring, and she is swirling in what feels like failure.  The only one who has any strength at all is Billy, and he has found himself by rejecting her gift.  The rest of them are stuck, mired in their choler, their resentments for things they feel they should have had but never did.   The cacophony of their self-pity inures them to all but the whirr of their encroaching panic.

Beth needs silence so that she can find the true sound of her own voice, but as anyone who knows deafness will tell you, there is no silence in the land of the deaf.  There is persistent, inescapable noise that shatters all peace.  And Beth’s notes are left muffled by the growing din.

But truly giving and never resentful, Winningham infuses a last burst energy at the end of the play, just after the lights come up for the curtain call.  Still in character, Winninham, nearly drained by what has transpired,  wraps herself around Daniel, whose last moment has emotionally destroyed both the actor and his alter self, and she holds him for a moment while he recharges himself with her love.

Now playing at the
27 Barrow Street, NY, NY 10014
Box Office 212-868-4444

Playwright Nina Raine

A Mother’s Day Gift to My Children – Part IX

In 1970, another tragedy fueled another uprooting.

Only four years after relocating to Scottsdale, AZ, and finding a sudden surge of interest in his art, Herma’s husband died suddenly the day after Thanksgiving.  “It’s time,” Mama declared, “for a rapprochement! ”  She bullied Alfred into moving them across the country, to a house less than a five-minute walk from Herma’s.  Four of the kids were still in school — the youngest, in fact –was still in middle school, but she was undeterred.  Once she had moved, her mother and father followed, and soon thereafter her younger sister Ruth with husband Fred as well.  The family reunited and began life anew.  Yet again.

If Charlotte and her sisters had been paid by the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, they could not have been more effervescent spokeswomen for the state. None of them had any desire ever to return to the gentle greenness of the east coast; they were delighted with the dry warm winters, the fragrant springs, even the blistering summers.  Visiting Connecticut in the ’90’s, Mom declared, “I feel so closed in.  I can’t see the sky.  Too many trees!”  Arizona suited her. “When Hitler threatened us, I begged my father to let me go to Israel with B’Nai B’rith, but he insisted I come to America with the rest of them.  This is my consolation prize,” she would exclaim, reveling in an Arizona sunset.  “This is Heaven!”

Herma, right, and Charlotte in 1975 with my firstborn – Both adored their grandchildren.

Then, in 1974, her world threatened to unravel once more.  Both Ruth and Herma were diagnosed with cancer, and Herma died in 1979.  This time Charlotte had polished her armor.  After her beloved Herma left her, she very quickly absorbed the loss and buried herself in her professional development.

After a rough start — in a middle school where the principal was put off by her accent — Charlotte found work in Scottsdale and taught not only Biology but Special Education as well, for the next 25 years; after she died in 1999, the school auditorium was full to bursting with students, teachers, alums, who came to say farewell to a most beloved, greatly revered teacher and friend.