Munich Matters

When Dan Alon approached me to write the harrowing tale of his freakishly miraculous escape from the Munich Massacre, I was drawn to the tale for its depiction of the process of survival.  I had grown up in a family of traumatized escapees from disaster and holocaust, and none of them ever found the vehicle that could deliver them from their ghosts.  I was honored to offer my services to help build the transport for Dan’s journey.

At the time, I thought that my agenda would include an expression of compassion for the Palestinians.  I was emotionally conflicted about Israel.  While I understood the extreme importance of a Jewish homeland, I agreed with a close friend of mine, who used to joke that “They could ‘a’ just given us Miami.”

Frankly, Israel embarrassed me.  My grandfather had coerced my mother into abandoning her dream of making Aliyah (moving to Palestine) in 1939, and he often compared Zionists to all the other Europeans who had grabbed land from indigenous peoples around the world.  I believed that Israel should be forced to give back lands confiscated in the 1967 War, that Israel should take a more conciliatory stance.

 My point of view clouded my perception of the Munich Massacre.  Of course I never would have blamed the athletes for what happened, but I believed, like most Americans, that by disenfranchising the Palestinians and by discriminating against them, Israel was to blame by putting the athletes in harm’s way.

I was committed to sharing Dan’s as a cautionary tale — watch out, world because this could happen again, and watch out, individuals, you could survive, and then you will realize that living through the ordeal was the easy part of it all.  But I hadn’t considered the event’s other, more layered, implications.

That there is no excuse for what happened in Munich is self-evident.  A vile act of terrorism that usurped the sanctity of the Olympic arena and took eleven fathers, brothers, husbands, sons, nephews, cousins, friends from their loved ones cannot be justified or excused.  The athletes were non-combatants, and their deaths were pointless wastes of fine lives.

Eleven athletes killed at Furstenfeldbruck Airport on September 5,1972

The world clambered to give the terrorists the attention they sought.  The masked murderers of Black September became fixtures on nearly every television set in the world, and when all was said and done, they were hardly so much as chastised.  Until Mossad unleashed Operation Wrath of God, no real action was taken to so much as censure the perpetrators of the heinous violence; the Olympic Games themselves refused to skip a beat, carrying on as though nothing were amiss while half the hostages were strapped into helicopter seats and strafed with machine gun fire and the other half obliterated with an exploding grenade.

 The message was clear.  We may say the Olympics are on sacred ground.  We may pay lip service to the precept that the Games are separate from the world of politics, but Israeli journalist Yarin Kimor was right when he pointed out that “The minute you raise a flag, it’s all about politics.”  It was politically safer, more expedient for the IOC and world law enforcement agencies to just let this one go.  It was too highly charged an issue.  Take sides, and you rock the boat.  Instead, eleven athletes were sacrificed.  Nothing was really gained by the terrorists; the following year, perhaps spurred on by the Munich tragedy, the world — including the US, who had promised to defend its ally Israel — watched in silent complicity as Egypt and Syria attacked Israel on the highest, holiest day of their year. . . just as they had stood silently by in the 1930’s, when everyone knew what the Nazis were perpetrating against the Jewish people.  Once again, the nations of the world stood by in hushed complacency and did nothing to lend a hand.  In the peace negotiations that followed, however, the US took the role of “peacemaker” and threatened sanctions should the Israelis prove less than propitiatory.

The world seems to believe that Israel is expendable.  Few seem to remember that less than 3/4 of a century ago, six million Jews died because they were unwelcome in the diaspora.  There was no safe haven then.  Even France, the country that first afforded citizenship to the wandering Jew, turned them out or fed them to the ruthless Nazi killing machinery; the US, my own beloved country where so many believe Jews to be firmly ensconced, denied entry to millions, despite the absolute knowledge that such denial meant certain torture and death to the shunned minions.

And there was no safe haven for the others who fell, like domino pieces, when no force prevented forfeiture of the Jews.  Hatred swallowed up great numbers of Poles, gypsies, unmarried professional women, gays, physically and mentally challenged citizens, Catholic priests, et cetera ad infinitum.

Where will they all go the next time they are so endangered?
 Forty years after Munich, the IOC continues to give tacit approval to the terror they allowed to happen.  Yet another Olympic Games will begin without the simple Moment of Silence the victims’ families have consistently sought.  The Arab nations call for the expulsion of Israel from the Games, and the IOC gives the same attention to that demand as they do to the request for the single minute of remembrance, a minute that says without words, “We are truly sorry.  What happened here was despicable, and we will never let another athlete on any team be treated this way under our watch again.”

Worse, the world looks on bemusedly when Australian swimmers post photos of themselves going to the Olympics carrying, of all things, machine guns.  Perhaps they are harmless idiots, these Aussies, but the message of the photo’s reception is that it’s okay to treat the massacre’s remaining family and friends as well as the athlete survivors with abject insensitivity.  The world shook its head and tsikatched at the boys, but there was no statement from the IOC that what they had done was intolerable, that no such behavior would be conscienced.

Munich Memoir: Dan Alon’s Untold Story of Survival is a first hand account of what it was like to be at the games when his friends, teammates, countrymen were taken and slain.  It reminds us how easily a tragedy can happen in a garden of peace and love.  It reminds us that we are all vulnerable, all candidates to stand one day as Dan did, in shoeless, shocked disbelief while people we care about are simply erased by others with a savage agenda.

It reminds us that we cannot ignore history.  It will not go away.  Let it be our teacher!

Skeptical Idealism

I once was a union maid. Singing along with my soul father Pete Seeger, I turned 13 in a world where the unions, which had little to do with my life, existed to make workers feel appreciated, keep their bellies full and protect their rights. I would have followed “Dad”  and Uncle Woody to the ends of the earth carrying placards, recruiting for the unions.

Practical experience, however, has taught me skepticism.

In 1988, I went to work as a teacher in the state of CT, rejoicing that unlike AZ, where I had earned my certification and where no unions represented teachers, CT offered membership in a local chapter of the National Education Association.  I served on the bargaining committee and was part of a team that won my district some important concessions.  Then, after twelve years of fighting the politics of bureaucracy vs the arts, after feeling castigated for my perceived iconoclasm, I decided it was time to leave the profession.

Had I been a true devotee of my union, I would have stayed on indefinitely.  I had tenure.  I didn’t have to fight, didn’t even have to work very hard anymore.  My contract, buoyed by my Union membership, would have allowed me to get away with almost anything short of criminal behavior without being fired.  I could have followed in the footsteps of so many teachers who had gone before me, sleeping through classes, disengaging further and further from education, sitting for hours in the teachers’ lounge complaining about my lot but doing nothing to change things,  safely and securely ensconced in my job.

Instead, I saw that I was becoming ineffective.  I was distracted by personal traumas and exhausted from the constant round of fundraising and fighting for auditorium time that constituted much of my life.  I couldn’t focus on the student writing I was supposed to be coaching, and I feared allowing my negativity to rub off on the kids.  Nothing is worse for education that an ineffectual teacher, so I left.

And that’s when I found out just what the union had really done for me.

Long before my time, in the 1950’s, the Connecticut Teachers Retirement System voted to opt out of Social Security, and in 1959, at the request of the Connecticut Education Association, the General Assembly of the State of Connecticut prohibited members of the Retirement System from holding any further referenda on the matter.  To this day, the ban on Social Security for teachers in the state of Connecticut remains in place.

Which works out great for those teachers who stay  – even those who stay too long — from youth to age.  Had I been able to max out with 37 years in the system, I could have had a pension that exceeded my working income, and I would have had lifelong healthcare benefits.  But I began teaching at 50; I was hardly going to make it to the end any way I sliced it.  Today, at 65, my social security looks like I didn’t work for twelve years, and I have no pension.  The union did a great job for the one group and totally screwed the others.

Basically, the union made it possible for me to keep my job forever.  But it failed to protect any alternatives to the ties that bound me to the system, as it failed to allow the system to realistically assess my worth.

No union can make a perfect system.  None should promise to do so.  The union I am affiliated with now made promises, got commitments from management but the enforcement of all the concessions is a huge task, and in our case, implementation forced whole segments of the work force to compromise their well-being and/or to sacrifice their jobs altogether.  For the most part, the union shakes a hefty stick and makes noise but falls short real advocacy.  Yesterday the union actually gave credence to a management censure of a colleague who is dressed too well.  He breaks no rules, he comports himself professionally, and he even wears the required uniform.  Yet the union allowed his time and theirs to be wasted over nonsense.

There is no panacea.  No union can promise universal satisfaction any more than any politician can.  I don’t blame the unions.  I blame myself.  I expect too much.  Employers will exploit workers every chance they get, and workers will take advantage of any opportunity to bilk the employer.  It’s the way of the world.  Why do I keep hoping there is any protection from it?

Oh well.  It don’t scare me.  I’m sticking to the union . . . but I’m also lookin’ out for numbah one.  Know w’ad I mean?

Catch a Flying Star.

Mary Martin as Peter Pan with Wendy (Kathleen Nolan), Michael (Joseph Stafford) and John (Robert Harrington), 1954

I was 7 when my mother took me to a friend’s house to watch the first telecast of Peter Pan starring Mary Martin.  While I loved Peter, I saw myself in Wendy(Kathleen Nolan), my more accomplished self, stuck in responsibilities, too pragmatic and obedient to just crow.  Jumping up and down with excitement, I watched her take off on her first flight, and I think that was the first time I remember crying for joy.  Wendy was saved.  No matter what, she’d never again be trapped in that holding pattern where a young lady is not allowed to be a child but isn’t yet respected as an adult.  From now on, when adults yelled at her, Wendy could escape, return to the joyous memory of flying.

Which made me wonder about Wendy’s mother.  Would she, like my mother, be impatient with the frivolity of childhood?  When Wendy was in her room writing about Peter, would her mother shame her into emerging from her cocoon to look after siblings?  Would Wendy’s mother be angry when Wendy slept too late after a night of fantasy-induced insomnia?  I concluded that Wendy’s mother must be far too enlightened for any of that.  No doubt, Wendy’s mom had had a spectacular childhood, and, as a result, took pleasure from her daughter’s fancies.  In short, Wendy’s mother was my ideal mom.  Every year, I’d watch Mary Martin fly away, leaving Wendy and Nana, and I wasn’t the least bit sad.  Because I just knew that Wendy was happily where she belonged.

How gratifying that Rick Elice has envisioned the perfect childhood for my imaginary mother.  His Molly (Celia Keenan-Bolger), the heroine of Peter and the Star Catcher, who will be Wendy’s mother someday, is strong and brave and smart and competitive and obnoxiously self-assured; she leads the boys into their life of perpetual childhood, a life she has even designed for them.  She facilitates Peter’s epiphany that allows him to meet himself and laughs in the face of Captain Black Stache (Christian Borle) as she thwarts his evil and sets him up as the favorite prey for the omnipresent croc.  In short, Wendy’s mother Molly is exactly the kind of girl I wanted to believe my mother should have been because she was who I wished I were.

Boy (Adam Chanler-Berat) and Molly (Celia Keenan-Bolger)

Wendy isn’t the kind of girl who’ll grow up to be a man-hating feminist.  Nor will she ever want to be one of the guys.  She is proud of her femininity and then reveals that she is also unafraid to be soft and vulnerable. Celia Keenan-Bolger captures her brilliantly, her perfect voice and demeanor cloaking the girl (or is she really older than we think?) in vari-colored nuances that make her starkly real while still a figment of our collective imagination.

Smee (Kevin Del Aguila) and Stache (Christian Borle)

 Wendy is not alone onstage.  She is surrounded by a brilliant company, swinging from role to role never dropping even a shadow of the thread.  Christian Borle could not be more enchanting as the company man and the dastardly Captain Stache. He chews up the scenery in a frolicking frenzy of masterful comic acting and then, to prove his true command of the craft, he revels in a line that pokes fun at himself for doing so — vowing that no croc is going to devour scenery while he’s onstage!

Peter and the Star Catcher Company

There’s no one who’s not terrific here.  Adam Chanler-Berat as Boy, Arnie Burton as Mrs. Bumbrake, and  Kevin Del Aguila as Smee may seem salient, but the whole ensemble deserves equal credit for bringing this romp to full-boar life.

 Peter and the Star Catcher misses not one single beat in this production, now playing at the Brooks Atkinson Theater (  Directors Roger Rees and Alex Timbers have found just the right pace, exactly the best staging, have chosen precisely the best creative team, and there isn’t so much as a single hiccup of error.

Which brings it all back to Rick Elice.  The best character in this play is The Play itself.  Pure theatrics at their most basically theatrical.  No pyrotechnics, no high gloss effects, jut flawless actors capable of endowing pieces of string with more life than a wilderness of monkeys.  Peppered with allusions to everything you’ve ever seen (or read) and loved before but rife with originality, this is a play that asks the audience to play along, to suspend disbelief in the suspension of disbelief and then gently forces us to believe long before Peter asks us to clap and prove it.

In the end, empowered by our own delight, we leave theater knowing that the vagaries of our lives and its multiple responsibilities will hereafter be mitigated by this memory of flying.

The Sisters Over Sixty Series – Part I: Anna Thea Bogdanovich

My mother and her sisters, having lived in the shadow of their brother — and then their brother’s death — all their lives should have known better.  Shaped by the attitudes and norms with which they were raised, they doted on their sons; while they loved and even (perhaps secretly) admired their daughters, they did not reveal to their girls the kind of support and encouragement they lavished on their sons.  My female cousins, my sisters and I, especially those of us who followed creative paths, were left to grope our way to self-actualization, which is not a bad thing.  We turned out to be resilient, strong and iconoclastic.  We became, in the aggregate, very like our mothers, only more so.  The kind of women I want my daughters and granddaughters to become at heart.

By the time my cousin Anna Thea Bogdanovich was born, her now-famous brother Peter was thirteen and only a few years short of establishing himself in his career in the dramatic arts, the family’s resources having already been allocated to his professional training. He had himself been born on the heels of tragedy and loss, and he was for his parents and grandparents the beacon that recalled them to life.

Peter is an amazing talent who cast a giant shadow, but Anna Thea has found her own well self-illuminated niche as a singer-songwriter and crafter of screenplays.  She curates The Bogdanovich Collection, her father’s vast legacy of paintings, sketches, drawings — the art that dominated his life — and works as a script consultant at Colleen Camp Productions in Hollywood.

Anna Thea Bogdanovich has had a varied career.  She had a long stint as Development Consultant at TMC Entertainment, and her musical documentary Earth Tribe LA was nominated for an Emmy Award.  But Anna’s proudest achievement is a project she embarked on only recently, one that continues to evolve and to take on a life of its own.  

Anna Thea Bogdanovich conceived, founded and directs World Beat Media to produce “film, music and multimedia projects that inspire good will and understanding across cultures.” She has dedicated her work to the goal of” achieving a global epiphany of our shared humanity and interconnectedness with all life.”

One of Anna’s first productions with World Beat Media was Freedom’s Land, a music video that celebrates, in singer Willie Nelson’s words, “the everyday rituals and practices of peaceful people” and is featured on the singer’s Peace Research website ( with words of high praise. 

World Beat Media is in preproduction on the new Earth Tribe LA 2012, which will feature multicultural singers and musicians of all ages in a pop/worldbeat song and music video. The World Beat Media website ( is under re-construction, and Anna is in the process of developing a YouTube channel, which she hopes to launch in 2013, and which will be “dedicated to individual and collective peace, healing and transformation through the arts and new media, and will include original cross-collaborative multimedia projects using media technology.” The channel will also be used to generate programs that will raise money for various children’s

Anna Thea Bogdanovich is a woman who has forged her own path.  It’s not been paved, and navigating will take some effort, but she will prevail.  After all, Anna Thea Bogdanovich is her own bright torch!

To preview and buy Freedom’s Land song or music video on iTunes

Sister Artist

Adriana and her brothers Rene (left) and John in 2012

Adriana Gandolfi, my sweet younger cousin, never made it to old age.  She died last July, leaving behind a gap in the universe, where her great heart dwelled, and a book of her poetry Canti del anima.  She wrote in Italian and in English, and her poems, like her life, were all about giving herself to love. . . love of family, love of self, love of the universe, love of life.  We all miss her.  Every day.

I never thought I’d ever feel
the great fragility
of crystal glass and autumn leaves
all dried and filigreed
The color is transparent rust
The smell a little musty
It tastes like wine too old to drink
and sounds quietly shrill

The strength imbuing all with life
Ebbs and flows – stops and goes
Begins to fade, then disappears
We hang still by a thread.

So of all this mortal matter
where is the part that lasts?
May it be within the space
that we cannot see
where the very substance lies
that gives us all our breath?

Oh, fragile mind and fragile will
Abandon all you have
and give yourself up to the space
that lives forever now.

                                  Adriana Gandolfi