Monday, June 26, 2006

The Holocaust and me

Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum has identified and recorded the names of 3-million of the 6-million Jews killed by Germany and its collaborators in Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania more than a half-century ago.

The museum's web site on the Internet contains a hyperlink enabling a person to enter a family name to learn whether he or she can identify members of one's own family as a Holocaust victim.

I typed in the name Rajczyk, which I learned only in recent years is the Polish spelling of my family name, Reichek. The Anglicized spelling of the name was decided by U.S. immigration officials when my paternal grandfather, who did not know the Latin alphabet, arrived in this country at the turn of the last century.

I learned about the Polish spelling from a newly discovered second cousin, a Holocaust survivor and the grand-daughter of my grandfather's brother. Her maiden name was Golda Rajczyk. Her grandfather had remained in Poland after my grandfather's departure.

I was stunned to discover 139 people named Rajczyk on the Yad Vashem web site who are known to have perished in the Holocaust. All had lived in the region of Poland northeast of Warsaw where my father was born. I was familiar only with the name of Itzl Rajczyk, my father's first cousin. He had lived briefly in the U.S. with my grandparents shortly before World War I. Despite my grandfather's plea for him to remain in this country, he returned to Poland. He was Golda's father.

I was shocked to discover so many Holocaust victims bearing my family name. The name is uncommon, suggesting that most if not all the murdered Rajczyks listed were, if not direct relatives, members of a larger family clan.

After the decades of reading about the Holocaust and hearing details about the killing of 6-million Jews, I now have a more personal and direct connection to the genocide. Unlike other historic mass killings by one people of another ethnic group--the Turkish slaughter of Armenians, for example--the Holocaust was a structured and industrialized campaign to murder every Jew the Nazi Germans and their collaborators could put their hands on.

The aim was to exterminate an entire people. If my two sets of grandparents had not been wise or lucky enough to leave Poland and Belarus, I might have been one of the names on the Yad Vashem list.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

MEMOIR: The benefits of a family connection

It's no secret that family connections can be very useful for one's career and for other favors that life can offer. It's highly unlikely, for example, that Sen. Ted Kennedy and his son, Rep.Patrick Kennedy, would have had their meteoric political success at such very young ages had they not been the close relatives of tycoon Joe Kennedy, President John Kennedy, and Attorney-General Bobby Kennedy.

Similarly, it's hard to believe that George W. Bush would have been a successful baseball club owner, Texas governor, and President of the United States had he not been the son of a previous President, George H.W. Bush, and a grandson of Prescott Bush, a powerful Connecticut Senator.

In countless corporations, including public companies, nepotism is commonplace. It is not unusual for the sons or other close relatives of CEOs to assume leadership roles at very early ages. For instance, this was the case with the Watsons of IBM, the Bronfmans of Seagram's, the Fords of Ford Motor Co., and the McGraws of The McGraw-Hill Companies.

I was also once the beneficiary of a family connection, but at a very trivial level. It happened when I was about 11 or 12 years old, and my prize was exceedingly modest. It was based on the marriage of my Aunt Lilly, my mother's younger sister. Her new husband, my Uncle Ike, had a younger brother. The younger brother was married to a sister of the famous Warner brothers, owners of the Hollywood movie studio and a national chain of movie theaters.

My uncle's younger brother became the manager of the Warner Brothers theaters. I don't recall whether he managed the national chain or only the Metropolitan New York theaters. But his territory did include a theater near Webster Avenue and 172nd Street in the Bronx, which was within walking distance of my home. I don't remember the movie house's name.

Through the courtesy of my Uncle Ike's younger brother, I was given a free pass to the theater. The pass entitled me to bring a guest. The result was that I became an extremely popular member of my gang of neighorhood friends as I carefully distributed invitations for guys to go with me to the movies.

The invitations were highly prized, particularly during the hot summer months. The Webster Avenue theater was air-conditioned. Of course, this was in an era when air-conditioning equipment was a rarity. Moreover, the programs were long enough to provide almost a half a day's entertainment with double features, the newsreels, and cartoons or a cowboy serial.

I don't recall how many seasons I was given the movie house pass. But the experience underscored the importance of family connections for me.

A decade later, another potential opportunity arose to gain the benefit of a family connection. But I decided not to take advantage of this one. It was a far more convoluted connection than my remote family contact with the Warner brothers.

My maternal grandmother had two older brothers who arrived in the U.S. many years before she did. They became prosperous men's clothing manufacturers, and both died before I was born. The widow of one of the brothers remarried. Her new husband's son was the legendary Lester Markel, one of the nation's most influential newspapermen for nearly four decades before his retirement in 1964.

Markel, who died in 1977, was the creator and editor of the Sunday edition of the New York Times. He was responsible for making the Sunday paper, with all its innovative features, a unique national publication.

Markel was an ill-tempered man with a volatile personality that led to scores of colorful stories about him. According to one apocryphal tale, like Idi Amin, he stocked his refrigerator with the severed heads of his many enemies. In an actual incident, a reporter wrote him a resignation letter, stating: "Mr. Markel, you are a son of bitch, but I respect you."

When I was about to graduate from college with a journalism degree in the early spring of 1948, I began to look for a newspaper job. My family knew that my deceased great-uncle's widow had married Markel's father and had thus become Markel's step-mother.

An uncle of mine, unaware of Markel's stormy reputation, encouraged me to visit Markel and ask for a job. Even though my uncle kept bugging me to see Markel, I kindly rejected his advice.

Unlike my uncle, I knew of Markel's hot-tempered reputation. It was common knowledge in New York City newspaper circles that he was an extremely difficult man to deal with. I tried to imagine myself going into his office to apply for a job, claiming as a credential the fact that my grandmother's former sister-in-law had become his new step-mother.

I have always considered myself a courageous person. But the scary prospect of confronting the formidable Mr. Markel on that basis destroyed any notion of capitalizing on this piddling family connection.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Hypocrisy in Iraq

The Republican-led Congress is about to introduce a resolution stating that the war in Iraq is "the critical part of the global war on terrorism." The statement echoes the claim that the Bush Administration makes to justify the U.S. presence in Iraq.

As I have been arguing in this blog, this claim is classic hypocricy. Only after the Bush Administration decided to invade Iraq in 2003, did that country become a "critical part of the global war on terrorism." Until the invasion, there was no proof that Iraq's maniacal ruler, Saddam Hussein, was exporting terrorism. To remain in power, he was too busy terrorizing his domestic enemies and the country's oppressed Shiite population.

Indeed, Iraq, a secular nation, was then a bulwark against Iran, a Shiite theocracy that was the Iraqi Sunni rulers' traditional enemy. The Iranians were busily promoting terrorism in countries ranging from Lebanon to Argentina. In Argentina, evidence has shown that Iran was behind the bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, in which more than 200 people were killed.

In Lebanon, the Iranian-supported Hezballah was responsible for the death of more than 200 U.S. marines who were in the country to halt a civil war between Muslims and Christians. The Hezballah has also been conducting terrorist action on Israel's northern border ever since the Israelis withdrew from southern Lebanon.

In short, the invasion of Iraq created a critical new front in the war against Islamist global terrorism where there wasn't one before 2003. The result is that Iraq has replaced Afghanistan as a primary training ground for radical Islamic terrorists. As recent terrorist attacks in London, Madrid, and elsewhere have demonstrated, these new jihadists have actually committed or have been inspired by the Iraqi insurgents to bring their violent operations to new neighborhoods.

So far, the victor in the war in Iraq has been Iran. With the Iraqi Shiites now dominating the new Iraqi regime, Iran is already wielding influence it did not enjoy before. While the new regime's main leaders talk as if they are pro-American, recent battles between rival Shiite militias show that there are signficant blocs of anti-American Shiites who want the U.S. forces to get out.

I also think we should get out. So does Pennsylvania's Congressman John Murtha, a former Marine colonel, and other military experts who now believe the Iraq invasion was a tragic mistake.

Iraq now has a government and an American-trained army and police force. Unfortunately, both appear to be riddled with personnel from the sectarian militias, making a mockery of the question of whether the country can defend itself. Defend itself against whom?

No foreign enemy threatens Iraq. Instead, a civil war seems to be shaping up in which the rival militias would be battling each other. Playing referee in such an event is not the kind of role that the U.S. should assume while conducting a global war against terrorism. It is not a cause worthy of the killing of still more American troops.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

The legacy of George W. Bush

Most American Presidents are identified with landmark events that occurred or policies that were adopted during their administrations. For example, Franklin D. Roosevelt is historically linked to the New Deal and World War II, Harry S. Truman to the Marshall Plan and the start of the cold war, and Lyndon Johnson to the war on poverty, civil rights, and Vietnam.

George W. Bush will be remembered for sheer incompetency in office. It is inconceivable, for instance, that he cut taxes (benefiting only the very wealthy) while Federal expenditures are soaring because of an unnecessary war. Generations to come will be burdened by the need to pay the costs.

I believe that Bush's Presidency has been the worst of this or any other era. My argument is not based on ideological differences (which I do have with Mr. Bush), but primarily on the issue of competent performance. Who would have expected this from the first White House occupant to boast a Harvard MBA degree in management?

When you consider that Bill Clinton was impeached simply for lying under oath about an adultrous episode (and what man would not have lied about such matters?), it would be far more reasonable that Bush be impeached for seriously damaging both the state of the union and America's world reputation.

He is responsible for wasting an inherited budget surplus, creating the nation's record debt, loading the leadership of regulatory agencies with political hacks, hurting working-class interests, disregarding environmental concerns, showing a contempt for intellect, foolishly trying to impose democracy on medieval societies, alienating foreign allies, and--worst of all--going unnecessarily into war in Iraq after manipulating CIA intelligence. Meanwhile, ironically, he was largely re-elected for alleged leadership in the war on terrorism.

The fact is that the invasion of Iraq has critically set us back in the fight against terrorism. The invasion of Afghanistan, however, was fully justified. That country's Taliban regime had provided a home for the Al-Qaeda terrorists that attacked the U.S. on 9/11. Unfortunately, after having been soundly defeated, the Taliban is now regaining strength and is once more a serious threat.

The Taliban has been able to come back because U.S. forces have been distracted from Afghanistan by the unnecessary invasion of Iraq, where our presence there has created new centers of terrorism and brought sheer chaos to the local society. The reasons for the Iraq invasion--the allegations that Iraqi weapons of mass destruction presented an imminent threat and that there was an Iraqi link to Al Qaeda and 9/11--have proven to be false.

In the face of the crisis facing the nation, Bush and his Congressional supporters seem more concerned with such marginal issues as a ban on gay marriage and flag-burning than with far more formidable social and economic problems.

Where is Al Gore--or even John Kerry--when we need them? As David Remnick, editor-in-chief of The New Yorker, recently wrote: "... it is close to inconceivable that the country and the world would not be in far better shape had Gore been allowed to assume the office that a plurality of voters wished him to have. One could imagine him as an intelligent and decent President, capable of making serious decisions and explaining them in the language of a confident adult. Imagining that alternative history is hard to bear..."

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