The Story of my Father and Zev

Last week we lost my father. It was both expected and unexpected: he had been in cognitive decline for a while, and he had trouble swallowing, and he didn’t exercise at all, and he had been getting thinner and weaker by the month. But he came from a family with a lot of longevity – his own mother had lived to be 98 and his own grandmother to 91 – and we figured that he could go on this way for a long time.

Since then I had been wrestling with this question, among others: should I write about this on my blog, or should I not. My blog is, after all, mostly about politics and religion. It’s not really a blog about personal stories. And yet, there is something in the narrative of my father’s life that is instructive, certainly from a historical perspective.

You see, my father was born in 1927 in Berlin. That is barely six years before Hitler’s Machtergreifung. When Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945, which effectively brought the European war to an end, my father was just a few month more than 18 years old. In effect, almost his entire conscious growing up had taken place under the Nazi regime.

And yet he emerged from this experience as a sane human being.

My father was very lucky in a number of respects. He came from a solid bourgeois family in Berlin. His own father was a family doctor and his mother a nurse.[1] The entire family – his father, his mother, and his only sister survived the war.[2] If he had been a few years older, my father would have been drafted into the regular army. As it was, when he was drafted into the paramilitary at age 16, and they sent him up to Denmark, which is where he surrendered to the allied troops.[3] Then, when he made his way back to Germany proper, he had the good fortune of being hired by an American businessman as a translator, because his English was so good. He managed to land a place to study in Frankfurt, and eventually got his PhD in Bonn in 1958. By that time he had married, had two sons, and his daughter was on her way.

Since he was 13 years old, my father knew that he wanted to be a physicist. I don’t know if this was a subconscious reaction to the messy world around him, but physics was the perfect antidote to the historical reality of the Nazi regime. In physics, laws are value-neutral. The law of gravity is neither good nor bad; it just is. The laws of thermodynamics are neither good nor bad; they just are. Physics is about an ordered universe, whose laws we simply have to discern. My father’s particular specialty was “high energy physics,” the branch of physics that studies the nature of the particles that constitute matter.  These are the scientists who split the atom into subatomic particles. The same scientists who recently discovered the ironically named “God particle”.

In any case, my father’s work led him to DESY, the Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron  and eventually to a residency at the Cambridge Electron Accelerator, a joint project of Harvard and MIT, begun in 1958, and which blew up in 1965. (It was small by today’s standards, but it turns out that it still packed a punch.)

It is here, at the Cambridge Electron Accelerator, that our story takes a strange turn. For it is here that my father met the man who would become his best friend and colleague, and who was such an unlikely candidate to become that friend. For the purposes of this article, let us call him “Zev.” This was a man, a few years younger than my father, who was born in Poland and survived the Kraków Ghetto before escaping to Israel. He should have been the least likely among all of my father’s colleagues to become his friend. Especially his best friend.

Yet become friends they did. And it was Zev who convinced my father to apply to become a Professor at the just forming Southeastern Massachusetts Technological Institute (which later became UMass Dartmouth).[4] This set the switch for our remaining in the United States, and is the reason that we are still here today. Thirty-two years later they both retired from the University on the same day.

It speaks to the character of both men that they were able to see past the stereotypes and encounter each other as real human beings. It especially speaks to Zev’s character. At the time that my father retired, and again after he died, Zev penned a letter to him regarding their friendship. What did these two men see in each other that allowed them to become friends almost immediately?

Zev pointed to several things in his letter. The first was my father’s honesty, which Zev asserted was not as much a matter of choice as it was simply in the “nature” of his being. Zev acknowledged that both of them were victims of the “abominable psychosis” that had enveloped Europe at the time. And he pointed to the peacefulness of my father’s personality, which allowed arguments not even to get started.

That last part was very interesting to me. My father was one of the most egoless, if not the most egoless person that I ever knew well. And yet, he knew next to nothing of Buddhism. Again, it was just in his nature. Maybe this was the characteristic that Zev recognized first.

It was from my father that I inherited his scientific rationalism. But he might also have been described as a pantheist, because he found the structure of the universe beautiful, and found beauty in all things natural. (It is from my mother that I’ve inherited my fierce atheism, but she might not even know that.)

In the end my father’s intellect deserted him. Not in the way of someone who has Alzheimer’s[5], but more in the way of a mild cognitive impairment. His short term memory was gone almost completely; his hearing became worse and worse, and made him check out more and more; his reading confined itself mostly to retreading books that he had already read. It was hard to know what was still penetrating in. He never talked about what he read, and took to sleeping more and more. He had a nice easy chair in which he could rest and look out the back door – one of those glass slider doors – and watch the birds at the bird feeder.

What is it about old men and birds?

On more than one occasion he had mentioned that he had lived a full life and was largely satisfied. It appeared he was essentially just waiting to die. There’s a famous Dylan Thomas poem entitled “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” whose opening stanza is:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

That was how my aunt Ingeborg, my mother’s sister approached her death. That is how my mother is likely to approach her death. That’s how I’m likely to approach my death. But my father took a gentle ride into his long slumber. On the evening he died, he was surrounded by my mother, and sister, and her daughter. He watched a little of the Boston Celtics, read a little something, and then wandered off to bed. My mother had nodded off on the couch herself and never said good night to him. By the time she arrived at his bedside, he was already breathing his last. He never regained consciousness.

It was a peaceful way to go. And it’s a good thing, a silver lining as it were, that he went before her. Because she can live without him; he could not have lived without her.

My father never spoke out loud about his emotions. Not to me, and not, I think, to anyone except maybe my mother. (And that’s only a maybe.) I knew he had them, because once, many years ago, at a performance of Beethoven’s Third Symphony (the “Eroica”) at Tanglewood, I caught him sitting there with tears streaming down his cheeks.[6]

What was that music bringing up for him? I don’t know, because I never had the courage to ask him. And I didn’t want to intrude on what was essentially a private moment in a public space. But here he was, a man who had lived through a world gone mad in his youth, and had survived completely intact. You never would have known from meeting him what he must have gone through.

People deal with shame in different ways. It was hard enough for me to process my feelings about being a 2nd generation German.[7] But my father was 1st generation. He was there when it all went down. I never asked him how he processed his feelings of shame, but I think I know part of the answer: he retreated into the world of science, the venue where laws are value neutral and things just make sense.

Zev acknowledged as much in his final letter to my father when he wrote that in “admiring the simplicity of the laws of nature” they were “perhaps hiding from the complexity of human interactions.” Oh yes, I think they were.

And this finally brings me back to the intersection with this blog. Because I want people to know, if they don’t know already, that I don’t begrudge them the comfort that their religion brings to them. I don’t begrudge them the comfort, or the joy, or the inspiration that they get from their beliefs. What I object to is when their beliefs undermine their ability to engage in critical thinking. When it leads them to conclusions  for which there is actually no rational basis. This is what I object to. And object to strenuously.

When it comes to the ability to engage in rational thinking, we could learn a lot from my father and his friend Zev. And about letting go. And about rising above

[1] My father’s father was, in fact, the family doctor for my mother’s family, which is how they first became acquainted.

[2] My grandfather would end up in the East German border town of Harbke, where he would eventually die before German reunification.

[3] My father never consciously had to kill a man, although he was part of an anti-aircraft defense.

[4] SMTI was formed out of the joinder of the old New Bedford Textile School and the Bradford Durfee Textile School in Fall River. SMTI became Southeastern Massachusetts University in 1969 and then the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth in 1991.  It’s also the same school where Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was a student when he and his brother perpetrated the Patriot’s Day bombing in 2013 at the Boston Marathon.

[5] The best description of Alzheimer’s that I’ve ever heard is that it’s not about being unable to find your car keys even though they’re in your pants. It’s about looking at your car keys and being unable to remember what they do.

[6] The Eroica had lost some of its cachet for a while because it was Hitler’s favorite Beethoven symphony.

[7] One of the fascinating things that a lot of people don’t know is that the children of Nazis and the children of Holocaust survivors have a lot of parallel experiences in their growing up.

About a1skeptic

A disturbed citizen and skeptic. I should stop reading the newspaper. Or watching TV. I should turn off NPR and disconnect from the Internet. We’d all be better off.
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6 Responses to The Story of my Father and Zev

  1. Condolences for your loss. It’s apparent that you’ve taken the best of what your father offered and taught, and applied it to your own life in an honest way.

  2. Bonnie says:

    I agree that the friendship between your father and Zev says much about their character, but I think it says as much about your father’s character as it does about Zev’s; I didn’t know your father for that long, but it was clear from the beginning that he was a kind, sweet, welcoming, good soul. Zev had to see that, too, or he’d never have gone out of his way. Relationships take two (at minimum), and those two men are made of the kind of exceptional stuff that we don’t see often enough.

  3. Some people are forced to live an undercover life in plain sight just to survive. They are forced to look like something that they are not.
    During the Armenian Genocide, my wife’s uncle Moosh, a very young boy at the time, fell from a dock into the Mediterranean Sea. He came from a farming community with nowhere to learn how to swim. A young man in his 20’s dove in and saved Moosh’s life. That man was a Turkish soldier in uniform whose job was supposed to be eliminating boys and men.
    Governments and religions don’t always define the person. Good people like your father and Zev define themselves.

  4. Lisa says:

    I loved reading this blog about your father Jurgen. And what’s the point in caring about politics or religion if you don’t acknowledge your personal story. I really think it’s the foundation of everything else. Rational science is fabulous, and only half of what it is to be human.

  5. This was beautifully written and I’m so glad I read it. I’m very sorry for the loss of your father.
    I recently returned from a trip to France. At Notre Dame de Lorette, there is a WW1 monument called the Ring of Remembrance. It is a huge metal ring on which are engraved over half a million names – both Allied and German soldiers killed in WW1 in the area. They are listed alphabetically and without reference to rank or nationality. Germans next to Brits next to French, etc. The point, I think, is not to consider who was “right” or who was “wrong” in WW1, but simply the fact that the world lost a huge generation of young men on both sides. My husband and I talked about imagining what the world would have been like if all those people had lived. The word “Peace” in all different languages is inscribed on the entrance to the Ring. Reading about your father made me think of that monument. Thank you for sharing your (and his) story.

  6. Pingback: Donald Trump keeps arguing with his own scientists about when a coronavirus vaccine will be ready | A (or One) Skeptic

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