Bad Case Scenarios

Poking through my files, I recently came across the following notes. Dated December 21, 2014, well before names like T-Rump and Thunberg became known to people around the globe, this was how I contemplated things that  year on the Winter Solstice. A belated Merry Christmas to you.

  1. Sea level rise due to climate change creates economic and social havoc in coastal areas around the world, not least in major metropolitan areas on the US east and west coasts. Also affected are many countries like the UK and Japan, the well-being of which is intimately linked to the well-being of the US. These impacts begin to be felt within the next 20 – 25 years.
  2. The political and economic disenfranchisement of increasing numbers of Americans continues. The rate at which this has been occurring has been accelerating since the late 1970’s, with the post- Viet Nam war economic downturn, and has affected more and more sectors and regions with each recession and each military entanglement since: 1990’s dot-com bubble and Persian Gulf War, 9/11 and Iraq War, 2007 housing bubble and Great Recession. Erosion of post WWII middle class.
  3. Political polarization. Citizens United. Constitutional crisis. Legislative gridlock. Ideologically extreme judiciary. Concentration of political power among shrinking elite.
  4. Social polarization. Racial divide. Militarization of police. Growth of authoritarian tendencies with increasing potential for dictatorial concentration and deployment of power.
  5. Moral corrosion. Lack of consensus around basic issues: access to housing, food and healthcare; crime and punishment/extreme rate of incarceration; growing economic inequality
  6. Educational inadequacy. Increasing numbers of citizens unable to compete in global economy or participate meaningfully in civic life.
  7. Precedents: Empires in decline: Rome, pre-WWI powers: British, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, Ottoman empires.
  8. Technological advancements – impact on employment options for broad masses of people lacking pertinent skills. Globalization of economy. Competition from developing countries able to underbid developed economies, such as US.
  9. Food security issues. Impact of climate change on food production. Unsustainable agricultural practices (GMOs, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, antibiotic resistant bacteria…)
  10. Demise of the Baby Boom. Open question whether planet can support anything close to 7 billion, let alone 9-10 billion human beings, especially in context of climate change related destruction of food and energy supplies and habitat.

What Stress Do You Have in Your Life?

 – In homage to Greta Thunberg

It’s the evening of Saturday, October 6, 2012. I am lying in the Coronary Intensive Care unit at Yale New Haven Hospital, where I was airlifted from St. Francis Hospital in Hartford five days before. After suffering a near-fatal heart attack, I had spent the time traveling out in the Borderlands to the Beyond, oblivious to where I was and why. A few hours before, I had been extubated and brought back from the induced coma I was held in until the decision was made, I might finally be strong enough to make it on my own again this side of Paradise.

I don’t yet know much about how people who love me had kept a 24-7 vigil since I went down Monday morning. But I am deeply moved to find a couple of my stepdaughters, my brother and my nephew surrounding me when I return. Into the evening, several remain to keep me company. Though still pretty disoriented, I like being able to engage with them in small talk as they share bits and pieces of what went down while I was gone. I wouldn’t have guessed so many people loved me so much they would travel great distances, take time off work and make arrangements to cover their domestic obligations so they could keep watch over me all that time.

As we talk, Erin comes in to check my vitals and see what the bank of sixteen monitors watching over me has to say. We haven’t really connected yet, but I will soon learn that Erin belongs to the remarkable array of nurses who have been taking care of me since I landed on their roof. As she putters around me, I pay little attention. There is a pause in the conversation. Suddenly, she offers me what I have ever since called “the gift that keeps on giving.” “What stresses do you have in your life?” she asks. That’s all she says. As the months and years go by ever since she asked, I find more and more answers to her question.

Some of them are the obvious stresses that go with being an early twenty-first century middle-aged man living in a troubled city at a troubled time in history. Some of them come from my own personal history and my own not always healthy ways of dealing with the challenges of daily life. Each time I discover and flag one, I bow inwardly and say, “thank you, Erin.” Again, and again, I hear the call to look closely and see what I can practically do to relieve myself of the burdens.

But when this all went down, I was serving as the Executive Secretary of the Connecticut Energy Efficiency Board. I moved into that position after spending several years on the Connecticut Energy Advisory Board. Professionally, I had been called on to learn what there is to know about climate change and how our energy supply systems contribute to global warming. I had read countless reports issued by international and national bodies and by researchers in related fields from all over the world. I knew what the projected impacts would be, if we keep on keeping on with how we normally live our lives here and everywhere. I had become accustomed to picturing Manhattan. Florida and coastal cities and regions everywhere under water during the lifetimes of people already alive. Living with those images weighed heavy on me, especially knowing how few people really have a clue about what we’re facing.

So,  despite my dopiness when Erin offers her life-changing question, I blurt out without hesitation “Climate Change!” and feel tears begin to stream down my cheeks. “I have children and grandchildren I love, and I can’t bear the thought of what may happen to them!” There’s silence in the room. My stepdaughters look kindly and lovingly at me. What’s to say? Right now, right here, getting me back on my feet and seeing me find my way back into a livable life, is burden enough. Later they will tell me how touched they felt by the feelings I showed when I answered Erin’s question. But in the moment, it leaves them speechless.

I often say of the heart attack that nearly killed me “it’s the best thing that ever happened to me.” I came out of it feeling reborn. I made major changes in my life. I backed away from the front lines of the campaigns to clean up our energy acts. I moved out of Hartford, where I had spent three decades trying to be a force for change in a very troubled place. I adopted a healthier lifestyle. I let go of many of the stressors that burdened my daily life. When new ones surface, I go at them with practices I cultivate through yoga and meditation. I do my best to live in more sustainable ways, admittedly with a guilty conscience when I burn up fossil fuels going about my business in the beautiful Litchfield Hills of northwestern Connecticut, where I now live.

Frequently, I have second-guessed that first response to Erin’s question. Self-care had never been a priority in my life, before the heart attack got my attention. I have felt a debt of gratitude to her for helping me focus on needs much closer in than trying to save the planet from the crazy habits we humans have taken to following in the last couple of centuries. Today, though, following the lead of an autistic teenager from Sweden, millions of young people around the planet are calling out their parents and their parents’ parents for not making changes we all know are needed, if they are to have livable lives just a few decades from now. Greta Thunberg comes from a country which will suffer greatly when sea levels in the Baltic rise. But you don’t have to be from Sweden to get her point. So, just for today, I will lay off second-guessing that first response some angel inspired me to offer, when I came so close to drowning once myself.

Addicted to Snake Oil

In a similar vein as my last go-around, here I find myself wondering if grown-ups are an endangered species in America. Not many sightings in recent years.

Okay, here’s what I mean by grown-up.

Genuinely mature (which should not be taken as a degraded euphemism for getting older) people who know that real life is replete with tough challenges, sorrows, disappointments, tragedies, and hard choices; and also with joys, loves, beauties, wonders, miracles, and glories in equal or greater measure.

These are people who do not expect somebody else magically to fix whatever is distressing them, as a two-year old having a tantrum expects it of a parent. These are people, who understand accountability is something that pertains to them as well as to others. These are people who understand that to achieve a higher good – say a better life for their children – sacrifices must be made. These are people who understand that adversity calls for them – not somebody else – to discover and display real courage, fortitude and endurance.

These are people who understand that radical individualism is a juvenile dream, that it really is not all about you, and that without the social, the collective, the community there is no life livable at all. These are people who know blame games are a waste of time and debilitating distraction, who do not think it’s somebody else’s fault – government’s, corporations’, unions’, welfare cheats’, bankers’, men’s, women’s, gays’, straights’, blacks’, whites’, Latinos’, Anglos’, the military’s, the city’s, the state’s, the schools’, teachers’, parents’, immigrants’, Iran’s, Russia’s, Al Qaeda’s, Israel’s, Palestinians’, China’s, Cuba’s, Democrats’, Republicans’, cops’, gangbangers’, Catholics’, Jews’, Mormons’, Pentecostals’, Muslims’, rednecks’, elitists’, Fox News’s, the liberal media’s, Northerners’, Southerners’, Socialists’, Tea Partiers’… as if magically getting rid of whoever the scapegoat of choice is would make it all better.

Grown-up people do exist. Look around carefully, and you’ll find some. But there’s an appalling dearth of them in public life – in elected office, in business, in labor unions, in trade organizations, in advocacy groups, in universities, in healthcare, in the media…

But the really sick part is that there’s a social contract that goes something like this – I make a fool of you by promising you the elixir of eternal life, when what I’m really offering is snake oil; and you agree to play the part of the fool and take on faith that this snake oil truly is the elixir of life… at least till the next snake oil salesman comes along, at which point you throw a tantrum about how what I sold you was actually snake oil.

So: It’s no news we’re addicted to oil. But the first problem is that we’re addicted to snake oil. It’s time to wake up and smell the coffee and get on with the business at hand, focusing directly on the parts of the solution we realize are ours. There are no daddies or mommies in the big bad sweet old world who are going to make us happy.

Simplicity’s Not So Simple

How common it is, in both public and private affairs, that people (present company included) want simple explanations and simple answers for whatever challenges life throws at us, personally or collectively. Basically, we have a very simple, linear sense of cause and effect we habitually default to, especially under stress. Around the world, public life these days provides ample illustrations, available 24-7 in every sort of media.

Through it all, a basic logic pervades public discourse across the board. It goes like this.

  1. X did Y, which resulted in Z.
  2. Z is terrible for me or ones I hold dear.
  3. Therefore X is to blame and must be eliminated as a player.
  4. Z must stop and be replaced by W.

Or:

  1. P is the reason I and people like me are in condition Q.
  2. Q is bad.
  3. Change P, and Q will go away.

At a deep level, most of us think like this when we feel pressured or upset, though we “know better” and recognize that in normal circumstances it sounds foolish to say it out loud. Thinking and talking like this are signs of infantile regression. But we revert to ideas of linear causality when we are frustrated, anxious or overwhelmed and slide back into dependency mode.

  • Mommy I hurt, make it stop!
  • Daddy, buy me this toy!
  • Nanny, feed me!
  • Sister K, leave me alone!

But what if Mommy doesn’t make the hurt stop, Daddy doesn’t buy me the toy, Nanny doesn’t feed me (what I want), or K won’t stop bothering me?

I have a tantrum, make lots of noise and maybe hit people, kick the cat, or throw some things around. Sound familiar?

Note: the simplicity of the logic applies, even when I really am hurt and need help, or I am hungry, or K is scaring me, and it is understandable why I want the demanded change.

The problem is: What looks simple, isn’t, once the complexity of Mommy’s and Daddy’s and Nanny’s and K’s own needs and circumstances are brought into view.

  • Right now, Mommy’s dealing with a crisis at work, and is stressed out because her father’s been hospitalized after a heart attack.
  • Daddy’s busy helping the neighbor fix the roof that last week’s storm tore apart, and besides he spent everything he has on paying bills for the month, and anyway he bought you a toy you wanted just last week.
  • Nanny’s already working overtime and besides you, she has a neighborhood full of children to feed today.
  • K is bothering you because Mommy and Daddy are busy and she’s feeling bored and neglected too.

Trick is, nothing in our day to day, practical lives is simple, not from the fundamental physical operations of the cosmos on down to the vicissitudes of the weather, the markets, interpersonal relationships, the interdependence of connected entities – bodies, cells, species, healthcare and educational institutions, the electric grid, the fossil fuels distribution system…

Complexity is the universal name of the game at every level, in every domain. We are all, always, entangled in networks, webs, tissues, ecologies way more complicated than we can get a handle on or make sense of moment by moment. Mostly, we just muddle along. Mostly, in fact, we do it pretty well most of the time. Dangers arise when we decide we’ve had enough of muddling and want some simple fixes. “Simple” interventions invariably have unintended consequences. “Individuality” is an illusion. One is always a part of.

Paradoxically, however, a different sort of impractical simplicity does become accessible through practices such as meditation, yoga, tai-chi, mindful breathing, working out, walking, praying, and so on. Such practices help us settle into the present state of our bodies, minds and spirits, especially in times of bewilderment and stress. As we experience them, these activities offer baselines to which we can return almost as often as we like (allowing for the other demands of daily life that may make it hard to make time). We suffer less when we do them regularly, especially when needed. Then we discover in deep and unfathomable ways that there are in fact a few simple truths, such as: All is One, truly. Interdependently is how it all happens. Life in its totality is miraculous. It is. It is amazing. It is mind-boggling. It can be difficult, challenging, annoying and heartbreaking, but there is no logic to it. It is simply (there’s that word) awesome. Beyond these few truths, though, we live and move and have our being within complex systems, following complex processes, always. This is given for every blasted situation we are faced with that we see as a problem needing a solution. Daddy, buy me this toy! And meanwhile, far too many children need someone to feed them because the P’s of the world don’t give a hoot.

Walking on the Moon

It’s the summer of 1969. Nineteen years old, I have just finished a year as an exchange student at Rugby, the British boarding school where the game was invented. I am riding a small motorcycle as I head off for the Continent to tour around before heading home to start college. After Brussels, The Hague and Amsterdam, the next stop is Vienna. Getting there means transiting across West Germany. Given the distance and the fact I am a complete novice about traveling in strange places alone, I decide to make the trip by train, while the motorbike comes along in the baggage car.

At the age of nineteen, I’m a novice about a lot of things. The year at Rugby just gave me more things to be confused about. History turned into something measured in thousands, instead of hundreds of years, as I’d been used to thinking in a homeland where the Revolutionary War happened a really long time ago and the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock a really really long time ago. Everywhere in the school there were panels listing the names of the old boys fallen in the two world wars. But I’d also learned about the Thirty Years War, that happened just as the Massachusetts Bay Colony was getting up and running. That was when something like a third of Germany’s inhabitants were wiped out by the armies crisscrossing the country. “The cockpit of Europe,” Mr. Hele, my history tutor had called it.

Still, in 1969 it’s just twenty-four years since the end of the war and since the world discovered the horrific atrocities Germans committed against people Adolf Hitler declared subhuman or a threat to civilization. I grew up knowing about those atrocities. Already in elementary school, I read in our local daily newspaper about the war crimes trials still going on. That the war ended with the division of Europe and Germany into two ideologically combative halves complicated things all the more. In junior high school, I watched John Kennedy boldly tell the world “Ich bin ein Berliner!” Bad Germans committed the crimes of the Third Reich. Good Germans in the western half of the great city of Berlin had the full backing of the Americans and British who won the war in the west. And besides, good Germans were taking a lead in establishing a new European order that would bring the continent’s long history of bitter and destructive internal conflicts to an end.

Adding to my confusion, going back to early childhood, what I first learned about German things left warm and positive feelings. Grimm’s fairy tales showed up early in elementary school readings. Music with German titles and German performers captured my attention when I had barely made it to kindergarten. I had not yet turned six, when my father set up in the living room the new hi-fi he built in his spare time in the basement. He christened it by putting on a recording of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, with Haydn’s Toy Symphony on the flip side. For a long time, I refused to go to bed if I did not hear the sounds of those strings wafting up the stairs from below. Eventually, I found out Dad had learned German in high school and college. He loved talking about it, singing it in the church choir and quoting snippets of German wisdom from writers like Goethe. Mozart, Handel, Haydn, Beethoven and Bach were household names. My favorite hymn in church was “Glorious things of Thee are spoken,” which I knew followed a melody by Haydn. I did not yet know that “Deutschland, Deutschland Über Alles” was sung to the same tune. Plus, Dad was a scientist and his interest in science rubbed off on me. It didn’t take long before I could cite the names of great German scientists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as if I knew something about them.

When I started boarding school at fifteen, I chose to learn German to fulfill the foreign language requirement. Once I knew the language well enough to read, I read with enthusiasm. Rainer Maria Rilke and Hermann Hesse laid claims to my soul. Reading Wolfgang Borchert, Heinrich Böll and Günther Grass writing about the Third Reich and the Second World War, set me wondering how ordinary Germans now felt about those grim times. So, boarding the train for Vienna, I contemplate the long haul with mixed curiosity and apprehension. I know enough to know how little I know. Uncertain about how Germans will respond to a young American masquerading as a Brit traveling alone. Besides, I wonder how my language skills will hold up.

At Rugby, I learned that wearing a jacket and decent trousers, even if without a tie, was the expected dress for a young man of a certain class out in public in those days. Blue jeans and t-shirts had not yet crossed the Atlantic. Anyway, I really don’t want to advertise the fact I am American. The downsides of that I also learned at Rugby. I board the train in Amsterdam and find a compartment with an empty seat by the window facing forward. I pull out a copy of Der Spiegel newsweekly I picked up in the Amsterdam train station and settle in with it to get a feel for the German take on current affairs on the ride. Shortly after crossing the border, a middle-aged German man takes the seat across from me. “Guten Tag,” he says. “Ein wunderschöner Tag zu reisen. Wo fahren Sie hin?” Awkwardly, I acknowledge his greeting in German and agree that it is a fine day for traveling. I tell him that I’m heading toward Vienna. Sensing my awkwardness, he asks where I am from. “Die Vereinigten Staaten,” I say. His face lights up, hearing that I am American. He compliments me on my German and wants to know more about what brings me here. I feel uncomfortable, struggling to hold up my end of the conversation. He leans forward, obviously eager to connect. It doesn’t take long, just long enough for him to be sure I can hold my own. After that, he can’t contain his excitement.

Neil Armstrong has just uttered his historic words “the Eagle has landed” and walked on the moon. He saw it broadcast live on TV, staying up until the middle of the night local time to see it happen. Startled to find out this is what has him so excited, I don’t know what to say. I nod and respond clumsily, “Wirklich?” “Really?” is the best I can do. I haven’t followed the daily news since I set out. I knew there was yet another Apollo mission out there, heading for the moon, but I didn’t know it had reached it, or that it had released its lander for the descent.

His eagerness to tell me all about it startles me more than the event itself. He tries harder and harder to tell me more and more about it, making sure he’s getting through to me. I get what he’s telling me, though my reactions don’t show it clearly enough for him to be sure. For me, the big news is not the walk on the moon. It’s that for the first time I am having a conversation with a stranger at least three times my age in a language I never had to speak in real life before, despite three years of schooling and feeling pretty comfortable reading it. Besides, for a know-it-all kid my age, the walk wasn’t such a big deal. In fifth grade I listened over the school intercom system to Alan Shepard’s first space flight in a Mercury capsule broadcast live. Year by year the space program crossed one threshold after another. President Kennedy said we were going to the moon and so we went. What’s to get excited about? Yet the moment sticks. He can’t contain his excitement about the landing, while my mind keeps focusing on our differences in nationality, age and life experiences. The intensity of his excitement strikes me. He gets off the train a few stations further on.  Down deep, I know something special just happened. But it will take years to sort it out.

In 1973, I spend time in West Berlin polishing up my German language skills and working for a few months as a gardener for the British forces still occupying their quarter of the city. Despite having a supervisor who drank too much and when he did liked to say “things were better under Adolf,” with the Wall a constant presence, I tune in more to the weirdnesses of living where the Cold War divisions can be seen in the shape of concrete, barbed wire and watchtowers, than to how the commands for the planning and implementation of the Holocaust were issued by people who lived and worked right there in Berlin.

Five years later, I return to West Germany to do research at an archive for the poet Friedrich Hölderlin. The doctoral dissertation I have in the works concerns an epistolary novel he wrote in segments as the French Revolution unfolded.  I spend a year in Stuttgart forming close friendships. I meet Doris, who will become my first wife. I have long heartfelt conversations with her mother Ursula, my landlady Frau Bäuerle and others who lived through the Third Reich and the war. They are willing to talk, once they are sure I bring an open mind to our conversations. During my stay, the American TV series “Holocaust” is broadcast. Having visited Auschwitz and knowing the history portrayed only too well, when the series ran in the US the year before I reacted with disgust at what I perceived as the “Hollywoodization” of one of humanity’s darkest moments. Frau Heinrichs, the secretary in the University of Stuttgart’s Foreign Students Office, gives me a heads up the broadcasts are about to start. I have a warm relationship with her, going back to when I first arrived six months before. She helped me get my bearings and find a place to live. I sometimes stopped by her office to say hello when I had business in the building. When she tells me, I dismiss it. I share my opinion that it trivialized something I thought people in Germany already had a much deeper take on.

To my surprise, the broadcasts unleash long-suppressed conversations between the generations. Leading newspapers and magazines run cover stories about it. “Where were you when this was going on? What did you know? How could this happen?” my age peers suddenly begin asking their parents, determined to get answers, no longer willing to observe the postwar social contract that there are certain things we don’t talk about. In Germany, just like everywhere else in the western world, young people spent most of their time and energy in the ‘70s challenging the Establishment and the status quo. It startles me to discover they had not yet dug deeply into how on a human level their homeland became the launching pad for such horrors and how, when the war came back to Germany, the foundations for the Cold War division of Europe were laid.

I didn’t know that the Germany I’d become familiar with had gotten on with its life, dealing with the struggles of reconstruction, coping with being on the front lines of the Cold War, and working on European integration, by taking the hardest and bitterest topics off the table for polite discussion, even while the great authors, playwrights, historians and social theorists I read strove to discern the roots of the moral catastrophe. As an informed and sympathetic outsider, I watch from the sidelines as the nation gets on with a long-deferred search for the healing that comes with confessing the truth. Another ten years later, with my own life on the line, I will enter a Twelve-Step recovery program. There I will learn the practical lesson that deep healing requires frank acknowledgement of all that has gone wrong, for which I am accountable. One reclaims one’s humanity and sheds the curses of one’s legacy by owning up to them forthrightly.

Twenty-five more years down the road, I visit Europe again for the first time and meet young Germans who are the children of my peers’ generation. By then, Germany has not only reunified, it has established a “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe” in Berlin near the Brandenburg Gate and other Holocaust memorials across the country. There may be a recalcitrant minority who still believe Hitler had the right idea, but it is considered a hate crime to promote that view publicly. “Stolpersteine” – actual “stumbling blocks” – have been laid down in sidewalks at sites where Jewish people were hauled away. So, when I meet them, Millennials from Germany seem not to carry the same psychic burden their parents and grandparents struggled with. They have become citizens of the world, like the other young people I meet.

Returning in the memory of the moment in the train, finally I discover why the sheer intensity of that brief connection mattered more to me than either the light of the moon walk or the darkness of the war. In his enthusiasm, that excited old man who had so mystified me had stopped being German and became human. He had done what he most wanted when he joyfully shared with me in words I half understood the news of the lunar landing. He revealed to me that the landing was a much bigger deal than I, youthfully presumptuous, could allow. Humanity, not only America, had done a thing he, at my age, never thought possible. All the things that separated us he cast aside when he claimed our humanity in that moment by sharing it with me. Forty-five years down the road, at last I got it.

Pawel’s Way

Three days into the visit, I begin to have a feel for the blend of personalities in the group. Members of a Polish farmers’ organization, they have come to visit Denmark. The program calls for a mix of sightseeing at the obvious sites in and around Copenhagen – Strøget, the main shopping street reserved for pedestrians, the National Museum, Tivoli Gardens, and the like. Along with visits to working farms in the vicinity, there’s a tour of Elsinore castle just up the road as one of the highlights. As much a vacation getaway as an educational opportunity for people seldom permitted to travel out from behind the Iron Curtain, the tour presents some special challenges for us on the staff at Krogerup Højskole. Hosting Polish guests for a week is a novelty. On our end, we organized the list of local activities for what, on the Polish end, is officially framed as an educational undertaking. But the plentiful supplies of duty-free vodka and straight grain alcohol unpacked and brought out the first night make plain our visitors’ intent to party hard between the scheduled outings. We know as well as they do that among them are minders from the secret police, traveling incognito to keep an eye on them. That fact appears not to slow them down any.

Having sampled Polish hospitality during a study visit with a group from Krogerup six months before, seeing our guests shift into party mode once the day’s official activities were over did not surprise me much. I welcomed the offer of a job for the summer, when Krogerup set aside its own educational programming and rented itself out as a comfortable and convenient location for meetings, retreats, conferences and tour groups, like this one from Poland. For this, my job was to facilitate communications between the guests and our own staff, many of whom did not speak English as well as I spoke Danish. I accompanied our guests on their sightseeing tours and farm visits. So there I was, an American undergraduate student wrapping up a year abroad study program in Denmark, serving as a tour guide and interpreter in a country and city I barely knew myself.

From the time they arrive, I am in face to face contact with all sixty-some participants in the tour group. Few of them speak English at all. Mostly, I rely on Magda, their English-speaking interpreter. Magda studies English at the university in Warsaw. Through necessity, she and I bond quickly when we have to interpret between Polish and Danish farmers via English about details of agricultural operations neither of us truly understand. Together we delight in exchanging questions and answers mystifying to us and seeing the faces on both ends of the conversation brighten, signaling the messages got through. When it becomes party-time, Magda goes off duty and my communications with group members depends on snippets of the English, German and French I have to offer, underpinned by a lot of body language, facial expressions and gestures, and lubricated by substantial amounts of alcohol. At twenty-one, I know just enough about myself and alcohol to know that when I feel the buzz, I need to stop. Cross that point, and all bets are off. No knowing then where things might go, what trouble I might get into and how I’d handle it. Given that I had a job to do and a fair sense of my own limitations, I do my best to keep a clear head.

By the third night, I’ve seen almost all the members of the group in action. Pawel got my attention early on. Outgoing and engaging around me, Pawel seems more curious and more determined to get the full educational benefit the tour programs had to offer. He appears to be an independent spirit, with no obvious bonds to others in the group. He holds back when the partying gets underway. As the evening progresses, I start fearing I am getting flat out drunk. I decide to extract myself and go to bed. When I get up to move in that direction, Pawel comes over to me. He wants to talk to me privately. That idea poses some challenges. I speak Danish well, German reasonably well, and French in a pinch. Pawel speaks Polish, Russian, and bits and pieces of German, French and English. His determination, though, ensures I get his message, so I walk out of the hall with him.

Faced with his insistence, I suggest we walk down to the harbor, about twenty minutes away. With my mental faculties already impaired, I don’t have it in me to refuse his request, but a twenty minute walk might at least help me clear my head. Still, whatever he thinks so important that we need to talk about it right now arouses my curiosity. Denmark lies far enough north that nights in August never get completely dark. But at the late hour Pawel and I make our way down to the harbor, the roads we walk are barely visible except when cars drive by. Halfway there, we reach the streetlights marking the road down to the harbor from the Strandvej that runs up the coast from Copenhagen to Elsinore. It takes Pawel a while to get around to the business at hand. I learn that he lives in a small town in southern Poland, not far from Krakow. Not a farmer himself, he works as a bureaucrat for the Ministry of Agriculture. I guess he is in his late thirties. He has a wife and two children. He doesn’t like the Russians having the last say in whatever goes down. As he fills me in on the details of his life, both of us working hard to cross the language barriers, I keep wondering what great urgency made him want to get me off alone so late in the evening.

When we reach the small fishing harbor, I share a bit of local lore that always moves me when I go down there. During the Second World War, when Denmark was under German occupation, the Danish Resistance organized the transfer of Danish Jews to Sweden, rescuing large numbers of them from a deportation order issued by the Nazi authorities. The harbor at Humlebæk served as one of the points of departure. Local fishermen provided the transport. Pawel seems impressed. Finally, though, he turns to his own business with me. He wants to stay in Denmark. He does not intend to return to Poland when the tour wraps up in another three days. He wants me to help him.

This news sobers me up in a flash. “For this game, I’m in over my head,” goes through my mind. I’m a twenty-one year old American student, with less than a year’s learning about the language and the country under my belt. What do I know about arranging defections? I barely understood what his story was, his reasons for asking, and I have no clue regarding Danish legalities about allowing a visitor from behind the Iron Curtain to remain in the country as a refugee after coming in on a tourist visa. Besides, he seems like a responsible guy. I wonder what his plans are for his family back in Poland, if he succeeds in pulling this off. I ask him, and he tells me he intends to get them out too. Getting himself admitted will be the first step.

The one useful piece of information I have to offer concerns an organization in Copenhagen that I know about: Dansk Flygtlingshjælp – Danish Refugee Assistance. I agree to look up the phone number and the location of their offices when we get back. So after midnight, using the key to the school office I had been issued, I go in, find the number and address in the phone book, write them down on a piece of paper, and hand it to Pawel. I tell him how to get to the local train station, where trains to Copenhagen pass through at least hourly, depending on time of day. “Good luck, I guess. I truly hope you know what you are doing,” I think to myself.

In the morning, I let the headmaster and other leading staff members know what has gone down. Understandably, they are not amused. They want to keep a good working relationship with the Polish farmers’ organization. Facilitating a defection would not bode well for the future of the partnership. For the next three days, Pawel’s activities command our attention. Sure enough, one afternoon he disappears, then returns again in time for dinner. Otherwise, he continues to take part in programmed activities. But he seems to separate himself even more from the rest of the group than he had before his late night conversation with me. We have our suspicions about who the undercover minders might be, but we see no signs that they are onto him.  On the last day, I get Pawel alone and ask him if he’s been to Copenhagen to visit the refugee assistance organization. He says he has, but won’t go into details. I pass the information along to my supervisors.

The next morning, our visitors board their buses for the ride down to Ystad at the southern tip of Sweden. From there, they will catch the ferry to Świnoujście, the home harbor back in Poland. To my surprise, Pawel gets on the bus. I wonder if he’s had second thoughts. My supervisors wonder too, looking at me curiously as if I might know something I hadn’t told them. According to plan, we join them on the buses for the trip down to Ystad, where we will say our last farewells. Pawel sits by himself in the back, while I sit up front behind the driver.

The trip takes two hours. They pass uneventfully. Before noon, we pull into the ferry terminal under an overcast sky. The schedule calls for the ferry to depart at one, so there is time to kill. While we mill around on the platform where trains arrive and depart, we have time to say our goodbyes face to face and take a few snapshots. Pawel keeps his distance, off by himself. Suddenly, shortly before it’s time to board the buses that will go onto the ferry docked in the harbor slip, Pawel comes up to me to shake my hand. In an instant, Jacek pops out of the crowd. Early on, I’d wondered about Jacek. He seemed a little too ready to connect, without any particular topics to talk about. He had made it onto my list of prospective undercover minders, though I could not have given concrete reasons why. He snaps some pictures of the two of us together, with a strange grin on his face, and then backs away.  Immediately, I figure the deal is done. If I ever have in mind to return to Poland on my own, it’s a safe bet there will be a file with my name on it in the headquarters of the secret police with a notation: “Watch out for this one.”

It’s time to board the ferry.  I stand with the headmaster and the other staff who have made to trip down. Along with the rest of his group, Pawel boards the last bus in the line. We look at each other, surprised and wondering. The bus pulls up onto the ramp. As it hits the ferry’s deck, the rear hatch pops open and Pawel leaps out. He hightails it down the platform and disappears into the station without a glance in our direction, while we watch, speechless and shaken. Back at Krogerup, Pawel’s escapade becomes a prime topic of conversation. We can’t imagine what comes next. How would he make it from Ystad to Copenhagen? What would he do when he got there? Western currencies are hard to come by in the east. How will he pay for things? Three weeks later, one of the kitchen staff goes into Copenhagen to run some errands. She returns with news. Walking down Strøget, she saw Pawel striding along, like a man on a mission. We have no answers to our questions. But no matter, Pawel is on his way.

What He Remembers

We knew we had a choice. After all, we were students at Krogerup Højskole. Known among Danish folk high schools for its open-minded interest in public affairs, students and faculty came from across the political spectrum. At Krogerup, we practiced letting our different positions coexist and interact, without disguising them.

Folk high schools sprang up in the middle of the nineteenth century, when Denmark became a constitutional monarchy and feudal serfs suddenly became entitled to vote. Created to prepare the newly endowed citizens to take part in civic life, most schools put down their roots in the countryside where those serfs for generations had worked the land, away from the larger towns. Krogerup was a latecomer on the scene. Founded in 1946, in the aftermath of the Second World War, it sits in Humlebæk just up the coast from Copenhagen, where the nation’s main business is done. Set up with the mission to promote democratic values lost in the turmoil of the preceding years, Krogerup has as its motto: “The Word is Free.” Its unusual nonpartisan political edginess made others in the traditionally-minded folk high school movement in fact nervous. More of a student radical than a hippy, I felt at home there, unlike at any other school or college I’d so far attended.

So, with a deeply rooted commitment to tolerance underlying the collective values we shared, before departing for Poland we knew we were free to skip this one place once we got there. We were heading for Krakow, one of Poland’s grand medieval cities, which by some miracle had survived the waves of warring armies that for centuries had crisscrossed the country. The planned itinerary would take us to see the showcase factory town Nova Huta, the pleasant resort Zakopane high in the Tatra Mountains, the Wieliczka Salt Mine with its underground cathedral carved out of salt, among other historic and scenic sites in the surrounding countryside. But, for those who were willing, the tour would also take us to Auschwitz, the place where the Nazi death machine with heart-rending efficiency achieved its greatest results, inscribing it into the darkest annals of human history. The faculty members organizing the trip made it plain that saying, “No thanks, I’ll take a pass on that,” would not be questioned or challenged. The screening of “Shoah” in advance provided fair warning, if we somehow had made it to adulthood in 1972 without knowing what the name Germans gave to the small country town Poles call Oswiecim referred to, a place where incomparable human evil had been perpetrated within the memory of many people still alive.

Sooner than most peers, I tuned in young to the atrocities Nazi Germany had committed against Europe’s Jews. As an eleven-year old, I followed the trial and execution of Adolf Eichmann in Israel. I’d seen the photographs – the gas chambers, the crematoria, the heaps of corpses and skeletal survivors, the platforms at Birkenau where the freight trains offloaded their doomed cargo. I’d seen the rows of countless pictures, ordinary headshots like you’d find on any photo ID or passport, of the countless victims. I knew about the electrified fences. I knew about the gateway with the obscene declaration “Arbeit Macht Frei” – “Labor Liberates.” With a twenty-one year-old’s innate bravado underpinning my reflections, I imagined I could handle it.

The same boundless curiosity that still impels me to learn whatever I can about all sorts of abstruse topics drove me, partly. Partly, deep caring and compassion drove me. I wanted to bear witness and pay my respects. Deeper down, my own suffering from bullying not many years before had left me with feelings of solidarity with all who suffer. That suffering left me with an emotional coat of armor it would take decades to shed. Now, though, it helped foster the belief I could handle this. So, I did not duck away or say, “No thank you, not for me.” When the bus pulled up by the hotel just off the main square in Krakow, I climbed aboard, along with most of the rest of our company of curious souls, come down to Poland on a study trip.

An hour’s ride out into the surrounding countryside, we pull into Oswiecim and continue out to the site where the deeds were done. The tour begins. We pass through the fencing and see the infamous gate. We go around on foot, visit the gas chambers and crematoria. I add to my store of knowledge. I had not known the site was originally a Polish army garrison. The museum displays fill up building after building from the old barracks. I had not known the Nazis had perfected the technology for mass extermination on truckloads of Soviet prisoners of war. Here, on the other side of the Iron Curtain, the guides underscore this point for their visitors from the West.

We meander down through endless hallways, see the cells used for solitary confinement too small to move around in. My curiosity and my armor hold up, seeing the expected horrors, like the lampshades made from human skin and soap made from human fat. We keep going, learning more details to fill out our understanding of what went down and how it was done. Quietly, I salute myself for my steady and receptive endurance, surprised actually to see myself holding up so well.

Cross another courtyard, see the wall where uncooperative prisoners were lined up and shot. Check. Got it. And then yet another building, still bravely numb. Into another hallway. There it is, a display case the size of a room, chock full of children’s shoes. That is all. Children’s shoes. Enough to fill a room. That is all. Head bows. Lungs lock up. Tear ducts clamp shut. Enough, no more, please no more. I have to go. Now. Please, no more. I can’t. I’m done. I’m done, already, I’m done. Please. Now.

Decades down the road, ask him what he remembers. He remembers a room full of children’s shoes.