Planned Parenthood and The Marseillaise: Aux Armes, Citoyens!

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To arms, citizens,
Form your battalions
Let’s march, let’s march
Let an impure blood
Soak our fields

This is the refrain of the Marseillaise, forever the battle-song of oppressed humanities. It was composed by Claude Rouget de Lisle in 1792 shortly before the French Revolution and popularized by a battalion of Marseille soldiers as they marched to Paris to help in overthrowing the aristocracy. It became France’s national anthem.

The song could very well have been sung by us, millions of women in our pussy hats, as we marched on January 21st in Washington, DC and in all of the major American cities.

We marched because the Trump administration is likely to interfere with the progress we have made: wages, medical care, domestic violence legislation, school lunches, and so much more.

We also marched because of the threat to that which has protected women’s health for a century:

Planned Parenthood.

It has helped us to plan our children so that as responsible mothers we could give birth to them whenever we could best care for them.

It is not that women ignored spacing and planning the children they bore before the birth control movement existed. To do so a hundred years ago many women, especially the poor, had to rely on shoddy and self-inflicted abortions. Many died in the process.

In 1916, Margaret Sanger, a nurse who had witnessed many such needless deaths, established a birth control clinic in Brownsville, Brooklyn. There she taught walk-ins who wanted to learn “how to stop the babies from coming” everything she had learned about reliable birth control methods in Holland. That country had such counseling centers before World War I.

The police closed Sanger’s clinic after a few days and she ended up in jail, where she rapidly befriended her fellow inmates. On March 6, 1917, Margaret Sanger’s prison sentence was up. As she recalled later in her autobiography:

Through the metal doors I stepped and the tingling air beat against my face. No other experience in my life has been like that. Gathered in front of me were my old friends who had frozen through the two hours waiting to celebrate ‘Margaret’s coming out party.’ They lifted their voices in the Marseillaise. Behind them at the upper windows were my new friends…and they too were singing. Something choked me. Something still chokes me whenever I hear that triumphant music and ringing words: ‘Ye sons of freedom wake to glory.’

After prison Margaret Sanger abandoned guerrilla tactics and fought for the right of women to access comprehensive birth control throughout the court. She succeeded, but access has always been a somewhat thorny issue. Only recently has it become part of most healthcare plans.

During his first week in office President Trump is targeting the free birth control provision of the Affordable Care Act. Just as shocking is the fact that he revived the ban on providing foreign aid to groups that provide abortion counseling. Are we going back to unwanted children and self-induced abortions?

We might very well. Anti-abortion, right-to-lifers marched in Washington less than a week after the Women’s March. Their placards defamed Planned Parenthood. They were addressed by Vice President Mike Pence. They are targeting Roe v. Wade, which is the ruling that for decades has given every woman the right to a legal, safe abortion. Women, hurry to the barricades!

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Farewell to a Gentler America

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We are about to say goodbye to a president who conquered the highest office in America even though his father was not only foreign-born, but also black. It was a rare achievement for a country so divided between liberals and conservatives, the desperate and the misinformed. It was good to know that during the past eight years, a loving family occupied the White House. Barack Obama was a rare politician: sincerely trying his best to keep us safe, content with his salary check, and in love with his wife. He valiantly struggled with the country’s thorny problems: immigration, healthcare, economic inequality, and climate change. None of these are easy to resolve or necessarily of America’s making, rather a byproduct of modern life—but America’s legendary kindness, generosity and resourcefulness could, and sometimes did under President Obama, alleviate their impact.

Personally I am most familiar with immigration. As readers of Branching know, as a child I was caught in one of the world’s previous refugee crises. I immigrated to the United States in 1946. It was the end of my Odyssey. In 1938 the Nazis had kicked my family out of Germany; the Belgians had sheltered us during the Holocaust, but would not grant us permanent residency nor permit us to become citizens. So it was lucky that we could move to New York. I came reluctantly. I viewed my future countrymen as “ugly Americans” who had more than the rest of the world and were arrogant about it. It took me some time to appreciate the fact that once I arrived I had equal rights and the possibility to have a pleasant, normal life.

Some of my realization of how unique the United States was in that respect came from the story of my young cousin Jorge. Born in the Czech Republic to German parents, he had legally arrived in Mexico at the tender age of three. When he was eighteen he still was a foreigner. When he wished to study abroad he could not apply for any of the many available scholarships because he was not a Mexican citizen. Jorge fell in between the cracks. The United States grants citizenship after five years or even sooner. My sister obtained a full scholarship to Yale four years after we arrived in the United States.

Somehow, in spite of much opposition, the people who governed America during much of its existence have managed to share America’s pie more equally. We not only grant citizenship, but also developed an imperfect safety net. We have social security, public schooling, affordable healthcare for many, maternity and paternity leave, school lunches, and much more. The system is flawed, but we cannot dismantle it without throwing the country into complete disarray.

I hope that the new administration will think long and carefully about what it does. A look at some of our neighbors indicates how quickly a country can tumble from prosperity to insolvency and chaos.

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2016: Christmas Cheer on Fifth Avenue

 

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It may be a hopeful sign that New York’s prime shopping boulevard is defying the political unrest that is settling on the world. The city’s big stores came up with an enchanting extravaganza of Christmas windows endowing Midtown Manhattan with a festive air. Tourists have not yet arrived for the holiday madness and the streets are manageable.

It is fitting that Branching’s editor Naomi and I started out with Tiffany’s, located on the ground floor of what has been called “White House North.” A whole platoon of New York City policemen guarded the entrance to Trump Tower. They efficiently shuffled us in front of the store’s diminutive boutique windows filled with Christmas trees hung with long pearl necklaces paired with stunning jewels. My favorite window consisted of a small crystal cityscape reminiscent of New York, fronted by a rolling sea and backed by continuous fireworks.

More police helped us cross Fifth Avenue and 57th Street. Bergdorf’s windows, called Destination Extraordinary, were as gigantic as the windows at Tiffany’s were small. My favorite was a parasol-bearing woman balancing in high heels on a rope strung across a pond filled with fish and alligators. In another window, an equally fashionable creature caught butterflies amidst gigantic praying mantises and other insects. We also loved the jungle with orangutans and a woman valiantly riding a relative of a llama.

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Lord and Taylor, in a marked change from its usual Old New York windows displayed an Enchanted Forest. We loved the den of foxes hibernating below frolicking raccoons, while a moose and its young lazily patrolled the forest. A sleepy giant brown bear filled an entire window. The dozen mice that surrounded him or her did not perturb the animal. I loved the mama owl that protectively wrapped and unwrapped her wings around her three chicks. The bird’s mascaraed lashes were an advertisement for the store’s cosmetic department.

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Saks Fifth Avenue’s Land of 1000 Delights featured Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and paid tribute to the holiday’s penchant for sweet treats. Clara and her Nutcracker/prince battled and vanquished the mouse king. I loved the sugar plum fairy in her tulle gown and the two giant golden cups of chocolate overflowing with whipped cream. Saks’ block-long façade displayed a magic light show. To see it, one must cross over to Rockefeller Center’s Channel Gardens, from where one also has a good view of the Center’s traditional Christmas tree.

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Time to go home unless you want to stop by and pick up a strand of “pearls” at a makeshift Christmas market—in case Tiffany’s prices stopped you from getting the real stuff. The market is located on a vacant lot near 45th Street that will soon, no doubt, anchor another tower.

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Olga and Serge Blumenfeld: Lifelong Friends

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Photo courtesy of Carole Blumenfeld

I met Olga almost seventy years ago in Dr. Bodansky’s clinical laboratory at the Sloan Kettering Institute for Cancer Research (SKI) in New York City. During the first four years of our friendship, we spent our entire working week together. In between laboratory experiments we had plenty of time to talk about our past, present and future. Olga and I had much in common. She had been born in Poland, I in Germany. With our parents we fled the anti-Semitism of our native countries and grew up in Belgium. After the Germans invaded Belgium, Olga’s family managed to leave for the United States via one of the last boats to depart from Western Europe.

One day aboard ship Olga heard someone whistle Mozart’s A Little Night Music. She whistled back and soon met Serge Blumenfeld, a medical student and the drop-dead handsome nephew of Chaim Weizmann, the future president of Israel. Olga thought theirs was only a shipboard romance, but Serge called her soon after they both settled in New York.

Serge’s path was rather smooth. He was admitted to New York University Medical School and specialized in internal medicine. A dozen or so years later he opened a private practice in Tarrytown, NY. For years he also took care of the health of the Tarrytown police force.

Olga’s family had a harder time. Her father, David Opochinsky, an engineer, worked nights at a dairy. Her mother stitched gloves in a sewing factory. Olga went to City College. She married Serge in 1944 and earned a master’s in biochemistry while he was doing his military service in Colorado. Then they returned to New York: Serge to complete his medical training and Olga to work as a research assistant at SKI. In 1951, Olga went back to school—a brave decision for a woman during the early 1950s. She earned a doctorate in biochemistry at NYU, took a job at Rockefeller University and after many years became a professor at Albert Einstein Medical College. There, she did groundbreaking work on the surface of red blood cells. In 1999, with the technical help of Dr. Santosh Patnaik, she developed the Blood Group Antigen Gene Mutation Database, which would make blood transfusions safe in selected cases. In 2002, the American Association of Blood Banks (AABB) awarded her a major prize. She continued to curate her database to the end of her life.

It was her roles as a daughter, wife, mother—their son Philip was born in 1952—grandmother and friend that were the glue of Olga’s life. She always was modest and retiring. She always claimed that she could not cook; yet she served delicious food. Serge, a connoisseur, saw to the wine, and looked after Vicky, Lexie, Tiffany, Angelika, Serafina and other good-natured golden retrievers. Friends always filled their magic house in the Sleepy Hollow section of Tarrytown. Everyone admired Olga and Serge.

I too loved visiting. “Make it comfortable,” Serge had said to Olga when they bought the house some fifty years ago. She did, though it also was elegant, reflecting their European roots. There was a magnificent old chandelier the Blumenfelds had dragged from France, and formal French furniture in the living room, but most often we sat on an enclosed terrace protruding into the garden, drinking wine Serge had imported from his native France, the dogs lolling at our feet. Another small glassed-in terrace served as Olga’s office, the only token of her professional activity.

She and I talked endlessly of the past, people we had known, experiences we had shared. I have an amazing memory for small details, and often remember things about people they have forgotten themselves. Olga and I reminisced about the times when we bought Philip’s layette or my wedding dress on our lunch breaks. A project of mine required my using the Rockefeller Archives in Pocantico Hills, and for awhile I bunked at the Blumenfelds’, recapturing some of the closeness of our days at SKI. Before I got up, Olga would prepare a breakfast that included grapefruit, croissants and the New York Times.

In 2014 Olga gave a joint party for Serge’s 95th birthday and their 70th anniversary party. Olga thanked each one of her thirty or so guests for having shared their lives. It was almost a farewell. Very slowly, almost imperceptibly, Serge’s mind had clouded over, though he remained a gentleman to the end. Six months after the party he stopped talking and took to his bed. Olga, by then herself plagued by various ills but assisted by health aides and her housekeeper Pat, cared for him until the end of September 2016. Then Serge left us. Two weeks later Olga had more stomach pain than usual. Philip took her to the emergency room at Phelps Memorial Hospital. Three weeks later, she too closed her eyes. It was as if she had willed herself to live as long as she was needed.

I miss her terribly. Every few days I remember that I have not talked to her in awhile. Each time something good or bad happens to me I think that I must tell Olga. I wish that I could.

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Max Beckmann at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Self Portrait in Blue Jacket (1950), by Max Beckmann. (Saint Louis Art Museum)

“Thank God this painting is in New York,” Sabine Rewald kept repeating as she led a flock of reporters through the magnificent exhibition of Max Beckmann paintings that she had curated for the New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Given the fact that Max Beckmann’s paintings were declared degenerate by the Nazis in 1933 and therefore in great danger of being destroyed, Rewald’s remarks were not parochial. The Met’s current exhibit celebrates Beckmann’s end of life residency in New York City. The exhibition runs from October 19, 2016 – February 20, 2017.

Most works in the exhibit were either painted during the artist’s two-year-long New York residency and/or are owned by the city’s collectors and museums. New York was not the only American city to embrace Beckmann. The Saint Louis Museum of Art owns the largest collection of Max Beckmann paintings in the world.

In 1933, Beckmann was at the height of his career and many critics considered him Germany’s most significant painter of the twentieth century. The Nationalgalerie in Berlin devoted an entire gallery to his paintings, subsequently dismantled by the Nazis. The Bark, part of the current exhibit, entered the German museum in 1927. Because it was judged degenerate, Beckmann exchanged it for two more traditional works in 1933. These lasted in the Berlin museum until 1937. A U.S. collector bought The Bark in 1946. The image consists of a towering group of six individuals crowded in a sailboat. Quappi Beckmann, his beloved second wife who is drying herself after a swim, heads the group.

Beckmann painted a great number of self-portraits. During the first part of 1950 he painted Self-Portrait in Blue Jacket, which features him puffing on his ubiquitous cigarettes, his hand in his pocket, his jacket and shirt fitting his frame loosely. The Met featured the new work in an exhibit called “American Painting Today 1950,” a title that indicated that the museum considered Beckmann an American artist. On the morning of December 27, two weeks after the opening, Beckmann set out from his apartment on the Upper West Side to see the painting. He suffered a fatal heart attack before reaching the museum.

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Self Portrait with Horn (1938), by Max Beckmann. (Neue Galerie New York)

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston owns Beckman’s best known Self-Portrait in a Tuxedo (not in the Met’s exhibit). The almost as famous Self-Portrait with Horn, in which the painter seems to listen intently to his beloved instrument, is on view because it belongs to the Neue Galerie in New York. It too is a moving rendering of the painter as observed by himself.

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Family Picture (1920), by Max Beckmann. (Museum of Modern Art)

Both Beckmann and his horn appear in a 1920 Family Picture. The portrait also depicts his first wife Minna—viewed from behind, completing her toilette—her mother, sister, and Peter Beckmann, the artist’s son. Candles, a newspaper, a small dog and other typical Beckmann paraphernalia complete the picture. It is an amusing work, reflecting on the disorganized nature of many family get-togethers. As Sabine Rewald points out in her fascinating catalog, J.B. Neumann, Beckmann’s dealer, included Family Portrait in the artist’s first New York solo show in 1927. Abby Rockefeller bought it at the suggestion of Alfred Barr and it now belongs to MoMA.

I was particularly moved by The Old Actress. The severity of her white hair is balanced by a loose wisp; an enormous nose and closed eyes reflect the dignity of old age. The unknown woman wears an elegant but simple black dress relieved by white cuffs and a lace blouse. Her typically large Beckmann hands clutch a cat. The primary colors—the yellow background, the red upholstery of the chair, the black and white of the dress—enhance the drama of the silent figure. Abby Rockefeller also bought this painting in 1930.

MoMA’s Departure triptych also made the show. It was painted in Frankfurt and Berlin during the late 1930s. Ever since, the meaning of its strange imagery—king and queen, oarsman, torturers and tortured—has escaped scrutiny. By declaring that it was scenery for King Lear, Beckmann managed to take Departure with him to Holland, where he spent the war years. It arrived in New York in 1938 at the gallery of Curt Valentin. Alfred Barr bought it for MoMA in 1942 even though, when approached, Beckmann refused to provide him with an explanation of what it meant and wrote Valentin a letter:

“Remove the painting or return it to me, dear Valentin…It can speak only to people who, consciously or unconsciously, carry within themselves the same metaphysical code…Departure. Yes, departure from the deceptive appearances of life toward essential things…” (Letter from Beckmann to Curt Valentin, quoted by Sabine Rewald in Max Beckmann in New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2016)

There is something very German about many of these paintings that touched me profoundly and rekindled the feeling I had for my German childhood books and scary Grimm fairytales. It so happens that Beckmann’s (1884-1950) and my father’s (1887-1949) lives overlapped almost completely. When they were young both served in the medical corps of the German army during World War I. Beckmann had a nervous breakdown; my dad fared better. The Nazis destroyed their existence in Germany when they were middle-aged, but in spite of their age they rebuilt it abroad, before dying of heart attacks in New York in their sixties. Both were honest to a fault, as evidenced in The Old Actress, and seem to have possessed that special brand of German satirical humor, as demonstrated in Family Picture.

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Maine 2016: Almost Farewell

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This morning I am sad. I just kissed Naomi—Branching’s editor—farewell. She was here visiting for a week at our small “camp” on Echo Lake. We did all the traditional summer things: a hike up Penobscot, popovers and Jordan Pond, dinner at the Rogue Café, MDI ice cream on Firehouse Hill, a lobster roll at Beal’s, a movie at Reel Pizza and lots of home-cooked food made with Beech Hill Farm produce.

When my husband Ernest and I bought the small camp in 1968 we certainly did not know that it would shape our summers, as well as those of our children and eventually those of our grandchildren. It has. Naomi and her twin Ana celebrated their first August birthdays here in 1988. They have been here part of most summers since. During their first decade we always made two birthday cakes encrusted with supermarket frosting and candy. Sean joined them when they were four. He remembered that during one of his annual visits we successfully bid for his first camera at a Southwest Harbor Library blind auction. Down the road it resulted in his majoring in film at USC. (He currently works as a film editor in New York.) As they grew up the grandchildren attended MDI’s unusual day camps, Naomi choosing Camp Beech Cliff, Ana and Sean selecting the College of the Atlantic’s Field Studies. Maine became part of my grandchildren’s roots, and now they bring their partners so that they can witness an essential phase of their growing up process. So far the partners have enthusiastically taken to the Pine Tree State.

I cannot claim any Maine childhood memories, but I feel very rooted here. In June when I enter my summer camp, I hear it mumble: “About time that you came back. You may have had a hard time while you were gone, but I’ll make it all better.” And it invariably does. The lake out front glistens; out back, the enormous treetops gyrate. Helpful hands have seen to it that the pump springs to life, that there is wood for the fireplace and that the Internet is able to remind me of the misery of the rest of the world. I glory in the present and also delve into the past. Once a year I sift through a drawer filled with old photographs: babies bathed in the kitchen sink, weddings, lady slippers that used to surround the house and mysteriously disappeared, profusions of fuchsias eternally blooming in clay pots, dogs that gladdened our hearts, decades of my own self. Was I really that young?

Summer homes quite naturally acquire cast-offs. How did the monogrammed dishtowel my great-aunt used in Nuremberg, Germany over a hundred years ago end up in my Maine kitchen? Why does the olive-wood bowl my mother brought back from Italy clutter up the living room closet? Other mementos arrived more deliberately. One bedroom sports the flag my mother sewed for a sandcastle my nuclear family occupied on the Baltic Sea in Germany in 1932. Its emblems are my sister’s and my favorite toys. The little teddy bear and duck make quite a statement. Most of our neighbors on that long-forgotten beach flew Hitler’s swastika!

It is almost time for me to close my summer home. So many of my friends have already joined the blue yonder; will I be well enough to come back? The country will choose a new president; will he or she be responsible enough to maintain a fragile peace and protect our threatened environment? I wish my little camp farewell. This time I reassure it: “Don’t worry; you’ll be alright. I’ll be back. If not, I made sure that my children and grandchildren will take care of you.”

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Refugee, But Not Forever

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Belgian refugees fleeing the advancing German army, May 1940.

The other evening, after a satisfying dinner, I was lazily surfing the net when I came across a photo of a beach filled with Syrian refugees running across the sand, trying to climb aboard a rickety ship. Suddenly my heart started to beat faster, and my brain shifted back to 1940, when my mom, my younger sister and I spent restless nights in the dunes along Belgium’s coast. From our makeshift campsite we could see the border posts of our promised land: FRANCE. It had taken us three days to traverse the 90 or so miles that separated Brussels, our adopted home, from the Belgian-French border, but now we were not able to cross, even though we were German Jews trying to save our lives. We did not possess the correct documents. Belgian citizens had green identity cards, and foreigners like us had white ones with red stripes. For three days running we tried unsuccessfully to sneak by the guards. In the end, our repeated failures did not matter: the German troops were advancing and would vanquish both Belgium and France within days.

While in the dunes we bonded with other refugee families, which was a great comfort—especially for my mother, alone with two underage daughters. As a group, we finally gave up and returned to La Panne, a nearby Belgian summer resort. We rented a small house and managed to find enough food to make dinner. It felt good to wash, to use a real toilet, to stretch out in a bed. The respite was brief. The shelling began at 2 AM and did not let up until the next morning. The fifteen of us assembled in the house’s cellar. I sat on top of a pile of coal, Harry S. clutched his wife, my sister had her head in our mom’s lap, and Kurt S. pressed his head against the wall, continuously moaning, “Oh my god, oh my god.” At 5 AM an eerie orange light filled the cellar. The house next door had caught fire. Would it be safer for us to stay or to face the bombs, we wondered.

We did stay, and emerged when the shelling was over. The German soldiers strutted around the small town, offering chocolate bars to the distressed citizens. The upstairs of the little house was in shambles. Every window was shattered. A piece of shrapnel lay on my pillow, and glass shards had ravaged the upholstery.

Unbeknownst to us, the British had managed to evacuate their army from Dunkirk, a small nearby seaport. The saved soldiers formed the nucleus of the mighty armada that would start to liberate Europe in 1944, four years later.

As a group we decided to return from the Belgian coast to Brussels. At first we walked, sheltering at night with various farmers. I’ll never forget the cattle killed by shells or shrapnel, their stiff legs pointing up to heaven. Occasionally, when the sights became too grim, Gus, our leader, told his daughter and me to look straight ahead. In time we reached our non-violated homes in Brussels, thankful to once more feel sheltered. Two years later, we had to leave and hide. But once again our luck held, and we survived. (For more on this story, see At the Mercy of Strangers: Growing Up on the Edge of the Holocaust.)

Being a refugee, a migrant, or an undocumented immigrant is hazardous. One may drown in the process, end up in an extermination camp, or face a lifetime of struggling to survive on difficult, low-paying work. But there is also is a fair chance of landing on one’s feet and ending up with a satisfying, “normal” existence.

Another two years after emerging from hiding, I had to migrate once more. I arrived in New York in May 1946. Again I had to learn a new language and get used to the mores of another country, but my migrations had ceased. It took another few years for me to stop feeling like a refugee. Even though I was already a young adult, this country has allowed me to belong. For better or for worse I am an American. I am grateful, and I hope that I paid my dues.

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