April, 2008 Archive

Columbia 68 and the World

Saturday, April 19th, 2008

Next Wednesday we leave for this event in New York. Participants are being asked to submit stories of their lives since the 1968 strike to a collection stored here (at “Stories 68-08.pdf”). This is what I sent.

In January, when we first received word of next week’s reunion, my wife Jan and I agreed to go. The topics and speakers promised a pooling of wisdom about how to relate to a world which had become worse than the one we confronted head on in 1968. It would also be a chance see old friends and enjoy April in New York.

A few weeks later I changed my mind. Lets look at our obligations and finances and see if this trip will really fit into our schedule of grandparenting, visits with far flung children, our niece’s wedding, a long planned bicycle tour, I argued. Having just declared her candidacy in an upcoming city council election, Jan conceded it might be too much. But what really had made me back out was reading the bios accumulating on the website. Among the participants in this conference, my credentials were severely lacking in moral clarity, consistent commitment and creative innovation. I didn’t want to have to apologize or to brag.

At a party celebrating the success of “Focus the Nation: Global Warming Solutions,” an all day teach-in drawing 4000 attendees at the traditionally conservative University where I teach, one of the student organizers said to me, “I hope some time in the future, this group will get together to celebrate what we did today, like you are doing at that Columbia reunion.” How to tell her I wasn’t going? When a friend wrote from Chicago of his plans to attend, even the disheartening sniping on the website couldn’t keep me from ordering tickets on Travelocity with Jan’s immediate approval.

This shilly-shally recalls foggy memories. In or out of the building? In, then out, then in again, until the bust.

In 1968, I was a first year Acting Assistant Professor of English, closer to students in age and outlook than to most faculty colleagues. I’d entered the Stanford PhD program in 1963 after graduating from Columbia as an undergraduate, joining the Peace Corps and getting kicked out after ten weeks of training for being “too intellectual” and having the “wrong attitude toward authority.” (more…)

Hannelore Reichmann 1922-2008

Sunday, April 13th, 2008

My aunt Hannelore died on January 21, almost three months ago. I keep telling myself that I will write about her or to her, to reach some kind of closure. Doing this with my father and mother upon their deaths in 1995 and 2005 allowed me to say goodbye and close the door. But Hanu has been weighing on my mind, and so has Gabi, her surviving sister, to whose living presence I feel I owe it. The delay has been largely due to lack of time—the pressures of teaching, visit to the family in Idaho, etc.—but now there’s no more excuse.

Other reasons made me start and stop, go frantic or lethargic, change plans. I felt a special connection with Hannelore because she was such a prolific writer, such a perspicuous observer, such an elegant stylist. Her love for books, expressed in her devotion to the family bookstores, could well have issued in her becoming a novelist or non-fiction writer, vocations I’ve always admired but never felt confident enough to pursue. She focused those talents on eliciting information about me and my family and then formulating her own stories about what was going on, often with great insight, sometimes comically off the mark. This connection led to extensive correspondance going back twenty years. Unearthing the file folders of thick letters she wrote and the word-processor and email files of my answers is an imposing task that I started last week, disappointed at first by the many holes in the record and then thankful that not more has survived for me to process.

Our connection was also influenced by circumstances of kinship. I had no brothers or sisters. Neither did my father. Hannelore was one of my mother’s step-sisters. She along with Gabi and brother Hans-Peter were my only aunts and uncles. With my maternal grandparents they emigrated to Brazil to escape the Holocaust while my parents went to New York. I had heard about them and seen pictures since earliest childhood, but had met only Gabi in person, during her visits to the States. Their many offspring are my only cousins. After my father’s death Jan and I took a trip to Sao Paulo in 1998. We felt deeply welcomed and at home in family gatherings. But that trip also revealed oceans of distance: cultural, linguistic and experiential.

In-person contact magnified Hannelore’s admirable eccentricities. We stayed in her house, squeezed between highrises in downtown Sao Paulo, filled with relics of Germany in the 1930’s. We witnessed her midnight rambles with neighborhood derelicts and her relationships with her live-in maid and son. She guided us through the business enterprises of her children and around the city-center.

Death at 86 is no cause for sorrow, and Hannelore had been in the hospital twice during the last few years. Recent business reverses may have been the coup de grace. Cousin Marcelo’s brief email described a good ending, at midnight, on the way upstairs:

Unfortunately, our dear and lovely ant Hannelore died yersterday, at 0:00. Renato called us and immediatly me and Rony runned to her house to give them a little confort cause de sadly situation.
Lastely, she was bad because her hart was weak.
Suddenly, in her home, when she was going to upstairs, her hart stooped and she died quietely. Dario and Renato were together. Hannelore died near her son’s

But I cried when Gabi told me the news on the phone in Jan’s office. And now I want her to keep talking.

5 April 2002

I am not at the office, stayed home for a fortnight because I fell and broke—once again—my even previously not too classical nose, … I also broke all my front teeth, but nowadays you can glue them, which I had done…Monday I will go back to the bookstore!

…we are having big trouble with the house. You remember it is a double-house, now my neighbor has Alzheimers and cant practice medicine any more, his wife has Alzheimers too, they share a nurse, and the son, a building engineer, has sold the half to be torn down and incorporated with two more lots for a big building. We share one roof and separation wall. They want us to sell too and are trying to force us because we are afraid for the structure of our house. As a matter of fact legally they cant do it, but nobody cares much about the laws here…that was the reason I fell, because I was so worried. They are already tearing down the other two houses they bought, with a crew of unqualifiedmen, with axes, without the necessary license.

July 5 2002

Yesterday the Bookfair ended. I am getting a bit too old for these events, but love them. Ruy got an honorable mention for a book on Physics he publishes at an Oscarlike ceremony. We had a beautiful stand, a monument to Ernesto. I am very grateful that the children continue his life’s work…

Ruy managed to get a court order to postpone the demolition of our town house. Mario is a friend of the owner of the foremost civil engineering firm, who declared it unsafe for our house if the other half is torn down. A nice young lady judge had the demolition stopped by a summons served…eventually they are going to succeed…Of course, his is a crook and of course he waited for Ruy to leave for a US Bookfair on Tuesday to try on Friday to tear down the house court order and all, and of course Ruy had foreseen that intention and sent his bodyguards to stand in the path.

March 16 2005 (Upon the death of her older stepsister—my mother)

She was so happy and so proud of her family and I wish I could visualize her when she was her own self because her last years were very sad, since she was present only physically and not with her admirable mind. Very often that is the tribute people have to pay for still being around. I hope this wont happen to me, even more so because I would be financially a heavy burden on the family…She had a very special marriage, a lasting love-affair with adorable Henry. I don’t know whether you ever knew how the marriage happened: Henry was a promising executive in her best friend’s father’s department store, Tiefenthal and Halle. Lotte Tiefenthal set out on a trip to visit family and entrusted her so-to-say fiancée Henry to Lise’s care and guard so no no one would conquer him for herself. Of course he succumbed to Lise’s charm and beauty and…she kept him for herself. Lotte Tiefenthal would have liked to murder her when she returned, but emigrated also to the States, got married…and stayed friends. As opposed to Gaby and me, Lise had a new boyfriend and marriage candidate every month and kept our father busy chasing them away, but he was very happy with her final choice, Henry. Even during that restricted and morally hypocritical period , he helped her in finding a job there so they could be together. They did have an exceptionally happy marriage, though she was moody and he quite a tyrant in his charming way. I am really happy you followed their example, even though in the beginning, in those troubled years, you partially had a hard time. Janet went with you through thick and thin until you finally were “allowed” to resume your disrupted career. And like they did, you enjoy each other’s company.

August 8 2006 (accompanying a newspaper clipping)

Yes that’s poor old little me at the meeting in one more attempt to get the “camelos” (Peddlers) out of the once beautiful new town center. Nobody goes to town any more. One of our past mayors, Erundine, brought thousands of them downtown, where they destroyed the asphalt, ruined shops, including ours, bankrupted all our department stores, cook and sell Yakisoba, produce in plain view, thousands of pirate CDs and DVDs, use the streets as public toilets, steal, assault. Cheating at cards, now and then one kills another, generally by knife. They are dirty, illiterate, uncultured and nobody manages to get them out because they are really a front. Everybody at the meeting had one minute to speak. I told them that I had observed them for years. They never sold anything, had no wrapping paper, no small change. I never saw anybody choose, buy, pay, and most of all, they are not worried about it. That means what? I made my point, the are there to peddle DRUGS! Of course I didn’t say that or I would be dead.

August 15 2006

Here is something to amuse you, photos of the celebration of 70 years of Ernesto’s beloved bookstore. Considering the situation we were not going to do anything. But at the last minute Ruy changed his mind, improvising. We decided to have a very modest celebration at one of Ernesto’s favorite Italian restaurants. Knowing Ruy, you wont believe it: due to the “special circumstances, everybody paid for himself, we all shared a few dishes, nobody even mentioned desert, except of course for Yago. And would you believe it, we had a wonderful time. I had taken Ernestos picture along. In front of it I placed an orchid all the employees together had given to me…It was really a mark in my life and I want to share it with you. On August 1 I completed 66 years in the firm. Sylvia is eligible for pension next year. If I live until then, I will have a sixty year old daughter.

When to stop? Hanu, Hannelore, Hannylorie. These are short excerpts of but a few of the letters I saved, and the dozens that disappeared. These are paltry samples of pictures you sent, I and Jan took, and my parents preserved in boxes of albums sitting in the garage. And I met you only once. How much of you is left to the sister, children, grandchildren, extended family, co-workers and neighbors with whom you spent your days? How much less than we long for, how much more than we can relinquish?