My mother would have been 101 this Thursday. She died 24 years ago of a rare and virulent form of thyroid cancer that took her life in four months. I have often thought, in recent years, that I’m grateful she was spared our current domestic and global turmoil. She and her parents escaped Nazi Germany in 1936 and made a good life here in the U.S., and she died, albeit too soon, in peace.
I’ve been thinking of her as I prepare to meet our younger daughter in Asheville, N.C., on my mother’s birthday. We’re getting together for a weekend conference about Black Mountain College, which was a small, experimental college centered on the study and practice of the arts, run as an earnest democracy by students and faculty. Mom loved her years there, a place of deep self-discovery. She focused on psychology rather than the arts, though she was a dedicated member of the theater stage crew, and she also helped to build part of the campus. I know this, because I have all of her correspondence with my grandparents from her college years.
Rereading this huge treasure trove, I came across her letter from December 7, 1941, the day that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. I share part of this with you because it resonated for me so deeply after the horrific events in Israel this past weekend. For some context, in the months leading up to Pearl Harbor, she had been commenting on everyone’s concerns that war was inevitable, as her male classmates, one by one, were already enlisting.
Here is what my mother wrote. She was 19 years old:
It seems so funny to be writing a letter today, after all that has happened. The day started out like any other Sunday around here. I had most of my studying done, and was feeling very good. Around 10:30 I went up to Paul’s to give back a book I had borrowed. Roman came up later on, and the three of us had a swell time just talking about Paul’s work. The manuscript of his new book had just come from the publisher’s for correction, and we helped him with that. By 3:00 o’clock Roman and I went to the study building, because he wanted to work on his new room. As we were going through the hall Bob B came up to us and asked us whether we had heard any news. Upon our question as to what kind of news, he told us that Japan had declared war on the U.S. Both of us felt at once relieve that it finally had happened, and yet puzzled that it was Japan who did the attacking. Paul, to whom we brought the news, said it was the beginning of the end of Hitler, when the latter had to resort to Japan’s attacking the U.S. in order to stop whatever little help we have been able to give Russia.
We went back to the lodge after that little illumination, feeling very depressed and gloomy about the whole affair. Everybody was in that depressed mood, because we realized that this war was finally destroying whatever there was left of the world as we knew it, and the effect it would have on the future of the college and ourselves. It was after dinner that Lies K. and I got together in the lobby to discuss what was really happening to us, and most of all what the positive values were that might still be in the world. After a rather lengthy searching we came to the following conclusions: After all it does do us not much good to ask why we exist or what we live for, or what the purpose of life may be. We realize that there is no God, but that there is a lot of beauty in the world. We do not believe in the nobility of man, but we do know that men have written great literature, thought many thoughts, thoughts about the question of life and death, that they have composed great and beautiful music and art. We do not believe in any utopia which will make everybody happy because of some political system, but we do realize that all people are in the long run depended upon one another for the bare fact of living. What then are the values that remain for us to hand on to our children, values that will be true even in the changed world after the war and the struggle that is still coming to us and to them? Every human being has a right to food, shelter and clothing. Every human being has a right to affection and happiness (even though that is relative), and to the security arising from self-confidence and the relations with other people. The right to breathe fresh air, to enjoy a sunrise or a sunset, or a moonlight night, the self-realization that comes out of a love relation between two people; the right to enjoy music, literature, and art; the right to think and worship, the right to learn—all are the birthright of every human being. Those are the positive items which we are going to teach our children, and those are the things to see ourselves through the struggle ahead of us.
I am not sure whether we or the next or even the immediately following generations will achieve a state of existence in which those rights will be put into practice, as a matter of fact I seriously doubt it. However, as long as they remain present in the minds of people there is a hope left for their eventual realization.
With those ideals in mind we are willing to make the sacrifice of our life, of fighting a war, of eventually marrying and having children, if we are not killed in the process of the war. I think that I am able to face whatever is coming now with a comparative peace of mind, even though I am aware that my friends may be killed, that I may be killed, and that it will be “tough going” for the rest of my life. Another thing, no matter how hard the going may be, I shall always try to see the brighter side of happenings and get all the genuine happiness out of life that there is to gather. . . .
While Mom’s worldview evolved from that grim manifesto, rejecting atheism for an agnostic spirituality, she remained an optimist, despite all the disruptions that she endured. Even in her last days, she confronted death with great calm and courage. May her memory be for a blessing—and for an inspiration in these dark days.