Preserving Family History Leads To Much Less than Six Degrees of Separation with President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Future Connecting With the Significant Past

TCM Greatest Classic“Six Degrees of Separation” a play and movie of our Boomer generation, written by American playwright John Guare, opened on Broadway in 1990, and was then nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play, according to Wikipedia. It just finished a run as a revival on Broadway in 2017.  According to the theme of the play, every person in the world is connected to every other person in the world, and separated by no more than six people.  The playwright was inspired in two ways (1) Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger, written in 1951, a classic must read for teenagers, and (2) a true story of a man who convinced a number of people that he was the son of actor Sidney Poitier, and proceeded to take advantage of them.  These two are also close to our Boomer generation as we all read Catcher in the Rye, and remember the skilled actor, Sidney Poitier.  I do not know if our grandchildren read Catcher in the Rye but we can buy our teenage grandchildren the book and read it with them.  See Amazon.

Sidney Poitier, is unknown to our grandchildren.  According to Wikipedia, so we can educate them:

“In 1964, Poitier became the first Bahamian and first African-American to win an Academy Award for Best Actor, for his role in Lilies of the Field. The significance of these achievements was bolstered in 1967, when he starred in three successful films, all of which dealt with issues involving race and race relations: To Sir, with Love; In the Heat of the Night; and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, making him the top box-office star of that year.  In 1999, the American Film Institute named Poitier among the Greatest Male Stars of classic Hollywood cinema, ranking 22nd on the list of 25.”

Now, we can introduce our grandchildren to classics of our generation.  We can watch Sidney Poitier’s movies with our grandchildren.  See Amazon.

The concept of “six degrees of separation” has also become something of an urban myth to our Boomer generation.  This Grandma would always think about connections to people unknown, and this Grandma and Grandpa would often discuss throughout our near half century history together the “who, how, where, why and when” of mutual connections to other persons, and how close we are in such connections to people who are friends of our friends or acquaintances of our acquaintances, and in government, entertainment, the arts, and in our personal history.  We always believed in “six degrees of separation,” where we picked a random person and connected ourselves to them through other people, in six steps, to see if we were closer than six persons away from another person.  Hypothetically, we even tried to see how many degrees of separation we had with the President of the United States!

Recently, Facebook, on its 12th birthday, researched whether “six degrees” of separation holds true with the advent and use of Facebook.  In their calculations, among their listed number of 1.59 billion people active on Facebook, each person is connected to every other person by an average of three and a half other people!  According to Facebook, “This is a significant reflection of how closely connected the world has become . . . When people connect, powerful things happen and lives are changed. . . .We see this on Facebook every day, whether it’s an exchange with an old friend that brings a smile to your face or a new connection that changes your life path, or even the world.”

How significant this press release from Facebook has just become for our family history.  So much of our family history has been lost due to the Holocaust, and murder of most of our family.  For our grandchildren, it is important for me to preserve oral history received from our parents and family members.

Recently, at a conference, this Grandma had a casual conversation with a well respected and dear former employer and friend about vacations and travel.  During that conversation, he told me he recently returned from a vacation to Europe with his friend, Susan Eisenhower.  I asked if this Susan Eisenhower was the granddaughter of Dwight D. Eisenhower, former President of the United States.  It was.  I told him that President Eisenhower was very important to our family history when he was a general, and told him what my parents had told me.  He asked me to send the story to him in an email that he could forward to Susan Eisenhower.  Here is what I wrote, hopefully so our grandchildren will someday read this blog post and pass the story on to their children and grandchildren:

“It is always a pleasure to see you and I am glad we had an opportunity to chat, and that I learned of your relationship with Susan Eisenhower.  Now I can pass along the General Eisenhower story my parents told me.  My parents were Holocaust survivors (father survivor of Treblinka uprising and Warsaw ghetto fighter; Mother survivor of five work camps of which we now know there were 42,000).  They ended up in a displaced persons camp in Stuttgart, Germany, after fighting their way across Poland and Germany with a Polish/Jewish partisan group which decided if they were liberated by the Russians they would have been killed anyway so they went west and wanted to be liberated by the Americans.  I was born in Stuttgart, Germany, and brought to the U.S. when I was six months old, arriving in May, 1947. 

My parents revered President Eisenhower.  They told me when they were in the displaced persons camp, trucks rolled in.  Trucks terrified the survivors.  They worried where they would be taken next.  Out of the trucks came Yiddish speaking American soldiers, who immediately calmed them down.   They were told that General Eisenhower had put together a battalion of Jewish American soldiers who spoke Yiddish to come to each displaced persons camp and see if any of the survivors had relatives in the U.S.  In the trucks were telephone books from all over America, arranged by General Eisenhower.  The soldier who helped my parents wrote a letter to his uncles in New York City that they were alive and my mother was pregnant.  Even more than that, my parents said that Eisenhower arranged for my father’s cousin, a soldier in the American army, to come visit them in the displaced persons camp.   We have a photograph of him with my parents in Stuttgart. Our cousin convinced them to come to America instead of going to Palestine to fight in the war of independence, especially since they had a child on the way.

After our trip to Israel last year, and to Yad Vashem which had been redone since I had been there fifty years ago, I realized that President Eisenhower saved my life too.  In Yad Vashem, there was a video of survivors in displaced persons camps with their babies.  I kept looking for my parents and myself.  I learned there and in the Palmach Museum, that survivors who could shoot a gun and fight (my parents) were smuggled into Palestine quickly, their babies taken to kibbutzim, and sent to fight immediately.  What I learned was that many of those survivors’ babies became orphans.  The Israeli command spoke Hebrew, the European survivors spoke Yiddish, and in numbers greater than Israelis fighting, they were killed because they could not follow the commands.  Even after contact with the uncles in New York, my parents were going to Palestine to fight.  After looking at documents I have received from the Holocaust Museum, after our cousin in the American army came to see my parents,”Palestine” is crossed out as destination, and “America” is written in by my parents, on their papers. General Eisenhower kept me from the probability of being an orphan.

Whenever President Eisenhower was on the news, my parents had tears in their eyes.  He changed their lives. 

He changed mine too.  I was able to fulfill a lifelong dream to be a member of the judiciary and give back to America.  When I was ten, my father learned the Constitution with me and said why we were safe in America was because of the independence of the judiciary, and being a judge was the highest calling anyone could have.  I said I wanted to be a judge.  He said in American I would have that opportunity.  I just retired from twenty years on the bench, serving the citizens of the state of Florida and serving America, as a proud naturalized citizen.  The U.S. Holocaust Museum has a division of law, justice and society which teaches judges and lawyers around the U.S. how the German judges failed the world because they failed to hold Nazi laws unconstitutional; they might have prevented the Holocaust.* In 1956, my father knew this as a survivor of that horror.  I honor President Eisenhower as they did.

Thank you for listening and sharing this with Susan Eisenhower, his granddaughter.  As a grandmother myself, I know how important family history is.  President Eisenhower is part of my family’s history. I will pass it along to my grandchildren.”

In writing this email, I also hoped I could pass along to a grandchild a personal story of how her grandfather, publicly a hero to many millions, was a significant special hero to one family.

What I did not realize was that, although I told the story to Grandpa and he had heard me repeat the story often over the years, he never knew that the framed photograph in our library of an American soldier and my parents in 1946 related to that story.  He did not realize that the American soldier in the photograph was the cousin from the story.

What I did not realize was that, although I told the story to Grandpa and he had heard me repeat the story often over the years, I had never told this story to our oldest daughter.  When I told our daughter the “one degree of separation” to President Eisenhower’s granddaughter, that I was able repeat this story to President Eisenhower’s granddaughter that showed the humanity of such an important person in our American history, and the impact on our family, she said I had never told her that story.  She, too, never knew that the framed photograph in our library of an American soldier and my parents in 1946 related to that story.

One of the main purposes of this blog has been to preserve whatever family history I can for our future generations.  Even with conscious intent, I have been remiss in telling our own children, the parents of our grandchildren, our family history!  I think that it may be the difference between the level of emotional trauma between my parents and me, that I was exposed to too much of their personal history when I was too young, and I tried to protect my children from hearing the stories too soon to protect them.   Our children were one generation removed, however, and insulated from the daily barrage of screams in the day and night, when I was a baby, toddler and preschooler, and I forget that.  As they became adults, I forgot that I had never told them details of their grandparents’ experiences surviving the Holocaust.  I always feared that their grandparents told our children too much too soon too.  I do not want to make the same mistake and not share their great grandparents’ history with our grandchildren, so here is this post.

Because of a chance connection from my past to my future, this month I am participating in a program will be honoring the veterans that Legal Aid serves through Mission United in Broward County, Florida.  Susan Eisenhower will be the keynote speaker.  The program is a tribute to Dwight D. Eisenhower.  The theme will be about honor and civil service and dignity that her Grandfather brought to the military and the White House. It turns out that I, a baby born as a stateless person to Holocaust survivors, am only one degree of separation from the most significant President of the United States in our family history.

This post is intended not only to preserve family history but to preserve American history by honoring a brilliant and caring leader of the free world at a time where humanity was in upheaval.  Share President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s history with this Wikipedia biography.  Dwight D. Eisenhower was a most special human being, one with a keen sense of history, making sure that videos were taken of liberation of concentration camps so deniers could not deny the horror, and one with a sense of personal humanity, to help those few survivors have a future.  His memory should remain alive among a new generation, and generations to come.  There are few such special human beings in this world, and may his being and actions be a model of humanity for our grandchildren and the future generations of our family.

Please pass along this story to your grandchildren too.  And, this “one degree of separation” shows that we may not have shared our own family histories with our own families.  Please do not think you have shared family history, rituals and traditions.  It is never too late to start.  I find it easier to put these in writing than speak of them.  Even after being seventy years old, lumps still come to my throat, and tears still come to my eyes.  But, here it is.

And it took this “one degree of separation” to bring that realization to me that I must share more.  Yes, our oldest grandson is fourteen and I asked his parents if I could begin to share.  Sometimes it is just easier to start with a happy story with

 

Joy,

 

Mema

 

* “Law, Justice, and the Holocaust,” the booklet created by the U.S Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., is available on line. It includes a chronology of the exclusionary laws and what happened in Germany. You can find the comprehensive booklet and more information at this link.

 

 

 

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