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. (http://munichmemoir.daptd.com/)

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 (http://www.emilyshane.org/) 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.

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2 thoughts on “Surviving Survival

  1. Thank you Carla. I only wish you success and joy. Emily was murdered when she left a friends house to come meet me, she was walking to the cross walk when this man who was having bad day took her away. Her spirit, her joy has touched many and will continue because as long as we keep her memory alive her spirit will bring joy to all those who are touched by it.
    Our foundation is working on helping children in middle school who have processing issues. We offer them one on one tutoring all they have to do is “pass it forward” for every lesson they receive. Thereby keeping Emily’s generous spirit alive and showing kids how easy it is to be kind and strong.
    We are all survivors of one kind or another, its called life…
    Again thanks for the kind words and I hope everyone reads your book…an overnight success
    Together Love Spreads
    Emily’s Dad, Michel

    • Thanks, Michel. You are so right about life, but there are some whose gift to the rest of us is the reminder that even the worst of tragedies don’t have to leave us cynical, disconnected. We all need to remember we can honor our grief by sharing love and passing it forward.

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