Abortion Again! A Right, a Necessity, a Crime?

Around 1968, soon after it was founded, Population Connection—then called Zero Population Growth—called the members of its small New York group and asked them to counter a major march by the right-to-life forces, who were assembling in Central Park. My recollections of this long-ago event are vague, but I remember being shocked by the lack of warning, and our inadequate response. Rapidly I fabricated a home-made sign that read

AN UNWANTED CHILD IS A CARDINAL SIN 

and went to Central Park, where I joined a dozen or two of my pals. My sign did not last long. A cleric detached himself from the mass of anti-abortion marchers and ripped it up. The message clearly stung.

Everyone concerned knows the outcome of that particular fight. On January 22, 1973, almost exactly half a century ago, the Supreme Court of the United States affirmed the right of women to have an abortion. Then as now, those who do not want to avail themselves of this right can carry their child to term.

I came of age at a time when both abortion and contraception were forbidden topics for well-brought up girls. My mom provided a few facts, and my friend Elisabeth and I read the appropriate sections of my parents’ four-volume medical encyclopedia. Nevertheless, for a long time, I was incredibly naïve and ill-informed. I hid my lack of sophistication as well as I could. 

Doctors were not allowed to provided birth control to the unmarried. They were also forbidden to perform abortions, though some physicians bent the rules. When the time came for me to need reliable birth control, I stumbled, gauche and embarrassed, into the office of a willing doctor. My explanations of why I had made the appointment were ridiculous. I remember both the doctor’s and my relief when he finally discovered why I had come: “She wants a diaphragm [contraceptive pessary],” he informed his assistant in a loud voice. Then he fitted me.

My boyfriend, who was actually pacing outside the doctor’s office, and I continued to have sex, which now was safe, got married and, as planned, had kids four years later when he had a PhD and a respectable job. I have always envied those who did not have to go through such a charade. 

When I became a medical writer, I researched and wrote a book for young adults about humankind’s long and marvelous history of both conception and contraception. The search for a solution for those who had trouble conceiving, as well as the process of developing birth control, was long and arduous. Most women bore their children, wanted or otherwise, and I presume fell in love with what Germans call ein Maleurchen—a little misfortune. Mathilda, my own great-grandmother—the much beloved matriarch of my family—always recounted that she cried when told that she was expecting her third and fourth closely-spaced children. Her doctor consoled her, pointing out that she had “a loving husband who did not drink and stayed home at night,” and that they had “enough money to feed everyone.” For the poor and the unwed, accidentally conceiving a child was a catastrophe that often ended up in a deadly attempt at abortion. Abortions always were and are poor alternatives to successful birth control.

As I was researching Conception / Contraception: A New Look, fortuitously published the year Roe v. Wade was decided, I discovered Margaret Sanger, a nurse who during the 1910s cared for the women of New York’s Lower East Side. Many of them were suffering and dying from the consequences of illegal abortions. After watching a Mrs. Sachs die of septicemia, Sanger quit her palliative, often ineffective nursing and embraced birth control. (Sanger coined the term.)  She illegally imported pessaries from Holland. She taught poor women how to try to avoid unwanted pregnancies. She lobbied the legislature and fought Comstock, the postmaster general who confiscated mail that discussed contraception. She went to prison because she would not cease operating a clinic that distributed whatever birth control was available to poor women. This clinic was the beginning of Planned Parenthood. Sanger gave a $500 symbolic grant to three genius scientists, and they developed the birth control pill. It fulfilled a centuries-long dream. 

Today, girls and women can avoid pregnancy in a variety of ways, but abortion is still with us. Done in a clinic by experienced and expert staff, it is a necessary, safe part of our medical arsenal. Birth control, including abortions, is part of our modern lifestyle. Let us not go back to illegal abortion mills. As always, those with adequate means will have relatively safe abortions. It will again be the poor who will bear the brunt of killing Roe v. Wade.

A short century ago, Susan B. Anthony and her friends were jailed for demanding that American women be able to vote. No one would dare to take this self-evident right from us. Fifty years later, women demanded and won the right to decide when to become mothers. Nobody should tamper with that indelible right. Birthing healthy, happy children is humankind’s greatest gift, joy, and obligation. Having our babies when we can care for them to the best of our ability is our sacred right and duty. 

SUPPORT WOMEN’S FREEDOM TO CONTROL THEIR BODIES.

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Busman’s Holiday

Jacques-Louis Leblanc by Jean August Dominique Ingres (1823)

Two days before the official beginning of spring 2021, I decided to leave my lockdown quarters in Brooklyn Heights and visit my home away from home: the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I took a taxi and was shocked along the way by Manhattan’s many vacant stores. Finally I disembarked at my museum. I found the Met much the same as it’s always been—except now it was so empty. I was relieved and delighted to be back.

Actually, Covid-19 has not deprived me of art. Long before it started, I had embarked on writing Plunder and Survival, my book that deals with the after-effects of the war against art unleashed by Hitler. Artworks that originated in Europe and are now exhibited in U.S. museums are a special focus of the book. These include modern, especially German Expressionist, pictures as well as traditional art confiscated from eclectic collections.

Closed museums and libraries hampered progress. Nevertheless, thanks to a combination of my notes and technology, I became familiar with the victims, perpetrators, art dealers, politicians, profiteers, and rescuers who participated in this dark phase of art history. Returning to the Met, whose library had been one of my main sources, seemed like the conclusion of the nightmare of the past year—though I knew that this feeling was, as Churchill put it, at best “the beginning of the end.”

Madame Jacques-Louis Leblanc by Jean August Dominique Ingres (1823)

My expedition to the Met was solitary; I had come to commune with art. Except for two Klimts (see below) it was unstructured. I took the elevator to the second floor, planning to look at the Impressionists and early modern European art, but before I got there my attention was captured by the 19th century European painters—Eugene Delacroix, Jean François Millet, Théodore Géricault, Jean August Dominique Ingres, Jean Baptiste Camille Corot, and JMW Turner. As a group they were never my favorites; though I love some of their works dearly, I find their complexity and surfeit of emotions often overwhelming. During this visit, however, my antennae were tuned differently. The grandeur of Monsieur et Madame Jacques Louis Leblanc by Jean August Dominique Ingres from 1823 impressed me. The portraits managed to be majestic, calm and friendly. The couple wore black, but a carefully folded patterned shawl relieved the solemnity of the paintings. They are long-gone, but their likenesses survive with grace on the walls of a great museum. I learned that Edgar Degas, the painter of tutu-clad ballerinas, purchased the portraits at the Hôtel Druot auction house in Paris—an institute that plays an important role in my current project. The Met bought them from the Degas estate in 1918.

Hagar in the Wilderness by Jean Baptiste Camille Corot (1835)

Next I lingered in front of Jean Baptiste Camille Corot’s Hagar in the Wilderness, an enormous realistic landscape filled with rocks and leafy French trees, despite the fact that the painting is set in Iran. Looking at the peaceful site, I could not help thinking of that war-torn country. Two small figures—Hagar, Abraham’s concubine, and her son Ishmael—hover in the foreground while a helpful angel flies to their rescue. Turner’s Whalers, whose outlines are barely visible in a foggy impressionistic view, is a harbinger of things to come. It hangs next to a more traditional painting of his, Venice, from the Porch of Madonna della Salute. Rosa Bonheur’s The Horse Fair, an enormous canvas filled with rambunctious horses, was next. The rare woman painter created the work from 1852-55 while visiting the equine market, dressed as a man to deflect attention.

Within easy striking distance of the Rosa Bonheur, I came across the two Gustav Klimt paintings that were my day’s only professional obligation: the portraits of Serena Lederer and Mäda Primavesi. Looted art’s most iconic painting, Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, hangs at the Neue Galerie across the street from the Met. The Nazis looted all three paintings in Vienna. Adele’s restitution to her niece, retold in the box-office success The Lady in Gold, made headlines. By comparison, the restitution of the Met’s masterpieces was quiet.

Serena Pulitzer Lederer by Gustav Klimt (1912-1913)

Serena Lederer’s portrait predates Adele’s by a few years. It is a traditional image à la Sargent. Her cloud-like white gown is barely visible; her well-defined face, crowned by a mane of curly hair, dominates the canvas. Mäda’s image is more classically Klimt-like. Her dress is also white and diaphanous, but it is decorated with blossoms, some of which also appear throughout the painting. In spite of these romantic surroundings, the young girl’s stance is resolute, foretelling that as a grownup she will be able to fend for herself. Both pictures were restituted to Serena’s son, who survived in Switzerland. Eventually the two paintings ended up at the Met, a pair of turn-of-the-century witnesses to Plunder and Survival.

Mäda Primavesi by Gustav Klimt (1912-1913)

For me, beloved paintings are like old friends. After all this time I wanted to call on Hans Memling’s portraits of Tommaso and Maria Maddalena Portinari, so different from those Ingres painted of the Leblancs 350 years later.

In spite of a major rehanging, the Met’s early Dutch art can still be found near the top of the museum’s grand stairs. I encountered Maria with her hands demurely folded in front of her, her hair covered by tight cone-shaped headwear, and her remarkable necklace enclosing her flawless throat. She was still as lovely and innocent as when I saw her last. The painting is of a girl on the brink of womanhood and childbearing; a portrait of youth before innumerable children and caring for others wore her down. Years after I fell in love with her at the Met, I met her and her daughters at the Uffizi in Florence, where Hugo van der Goes painted her as part of the Portinari Altarpiece. She looked the same and wore the same clothes; the painter had obviously copied the earlier image.

Tommaso di Folco Portinari and Maria Portinari by Hans Memling (1470)

Before leaving, I lingered before one of the museum’s great views of Central Park. The image was framed as if it was a painting, and I admired still-bare trees, faded grass, and bright sunlight. A few walkers, encumbered by dogs and baby carriages, were savoring the awakening of the earth. It had been a great day. My soul was filled with beauty. Why, I wonder, is life often so hard? May all our futures be filled with more good days than bad. Amen.

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Vati

I had my father for a relatively short time: 24 minus 6 years. When he died suddenly, more than half a century ago, I was distracted by both the immense joy and relief of having recently met my life partner and the distressed atmosphere of my immigrant nuclear home. So I never mourned Vati properly. This year, perhaps because I am recently widowed, Dr. Hugo Bamberger has moved to the front of my consciousness. I owe him my sense of humor, my ability to work hard, my optimism, and my gratitude for what is rather than excessive regrets about losses and unfortunate developments. I don’t think I ever heard my father complain. I took it to heart the one time he chided me for not appreciating that I never was poor or hungry.

Hugo was a busy man. He got up hours before my mother, tending to his small chemical factory. We lived in a big Victorian house located in a suburb of Hanover, Germany. Anna, our cook, prepared the meals. After my fastidious father had washed, shaved and donned his meticulous clothes, he woke me and carried me downstairs to our imposing dining room. I kept him company while he drank his coffee and ate a soft-boiled egg and hard roll slathered with butter and jam.

His return at six was heralded by his loud whistle. Often my mom was still attending to her own interests, and it was me who responded to his shout of, “Sue, I am home.” We spent another tête-à-tête, weather permitting, on our terrace facing Hanover’s surviving native woods. My father and I bonded. Far from preparing me to be a typical stay-at-home wife, the time we spent together inspired me to hope for professional exploration and adventure. I wanted to be like my dad, leading a fun-filled life out in the world.

Both he and my mother had badly wanted a son and heir and were disappointed when I showed up. Vati, however, soon declared that I was the “most beautiful infant in the world.” Nevertheless, I was aware of my parents’ regrets and felt that I had to take the place of my unfortunately nonexistent brother. I became a tomboy, very good at getting things done. By the time I was a young teen my mother said, “When something is difficult we send Sue.” When I was five or so, I decided to study chemistry so that I could take over Vati’s business.

Women loved my father and he unfortunately responded. I believe that at one point my parents, like some of their friends, opted for an open marriage. The arrangement misfired. My mom, whose explanations about sex were always gauche and mystifying, once explained to me that: “Vati was not much of a family man but a ‘lover’ (amant) who preferred to gift a woman sexy undergarments rather than sensible pajamas!!!” It was a peculiar way to state that your husband liked to play around.

One of the biggest treats of my childhood was to visit Vati at work. Somebody walked me to our local railway station and entrusted me to the care of the conductor. I bordered the train to Lehrte, the site of the factory. I lunched with my father. Then, knowing when to disappear, I spent the afternoon visiting “my friends”: secretaries who let me use their typewriters, the lab technician who “turned water into blood,” and the factory worker who monitored the growth of pure chemical crystals in large vats. Everyone treated me like visiting royalty. Thereafter I repaired to a large garden attached to the factory where Vati grew mounds of fruit and vegetables. I had my own patch of radishes. I climbed a safe tree and read Winnie the Pooh and other favorites over and over again. Hanover seemed to lack public libraries. I received five or six books on gift-giving holidays and they had to last me the year. Fortunately the Greek hero tales and Arabian Nights were very long. I am convinced that these solitary afternoons taught me to enjoy my own company—a very useful skill for a future hidden child, not to mention Covid-19 lockdowns. Our Jewishness and the fact that we were discriminated against was a much-neglected topic. As with the wishy-washy conversations about sex, information was lacking; frank discussions and righteous indignation would have been useful.

The first job I did for my father was to brew his afternoon coffee. I ground the carefully chosen beans, slowly dripped the boiling water through a Melitta filter and served the concoction. My father was as choosy about his food and tableware as he was about his clothes. I still treasure his blue and gold Fürstenberg cup and coffee pot. And Father was a real gourmand. Around Christmas time he ordered smoked goose breast and Westphalian ham. Fat white asparagus marked spring; new potatoes, simply served with butter, signified fall.

These idyllic times did not last. Vati and I had our clashes about table matters, Latin grammar, pronunciation, and how to address people correctly with all their titles. Hitler came to power and my poor parents had to find us a safe haven. Much later I learned that each had kept a small suitcase packed in case of unexpected arrest by the Gestapo. The 50-plus-year-old Dr. Bamberger lost his factory and wondered how he would make a living. We moved to Belgium. Two years after we got there, the Nazis followed us. Before they overran Brussels, the Belgian police arrested Vati because we were German enemy aliens. They shipped him to a French detention camp where dysentery, cold, and famine reigned. He managed to reach the United States in 1941; we remained hidden in Brussels and arrived in America in 1946.

I was anxious meeting Vati after an absence of six years. He had worried himself to death while his little family was threatened with extinction in Europe. Instead of the vigorous, attractive man I remembered, an elder suffering from severe arteriosclerosis met our boat. I was afraid that he would be bald. His hair was okay, but the dentures that replaced his familiar, crooked teeth shocked me beyond belief.

For six years my glamorous, spoiled, much younger mother had managed life on her own, shepherding my sister and me through the Holocaust. She was no longer used to receiving a weekly household allowance and accepting restrictions from a spouse. She also had discovered that back in Germany my father had had a long-term affair with his secretary. Moreover, the two had corresponded ever since and now he supplied Miss B. with food and nylons. I never understood why, since my parents must have had a sort of arrangement regarding marital fidelity, my mom considered this transgression so serious. Meanwhile, my disoriented maternal grandmother had joined us in New York, and life in our small house in Forest Hills was stressful. My sister and I felt very responsible for our parents’ relationship. We were all miserable, though Mom and Dad told us not to worry. They assured us that when they were alone with each other they “did quite well.”

As planned, I studied chemistry, and for a while I worked as a laboratory technician at Chemo Puro, the small factory Vati had founded in Long Island City. Like the bigger enterprise in Germany, it manufactured extra pure chemicals for the pharmaceutical industry. We had not, or not yet, recaptured our closeness, though he was overjoyed that his future son-in-law was a chemist.

Three-and-a-half years after we were reunited as a family, just as things were getting better at home, my father died. He was 62 years old. We all were devastated. His funeral was one of my life’s worst experiences.

I think that Vati was content with his life. His little family survived and grew new roots. He provided for us under difficult circumstances and he loved America. I deeply regret that he did not meet his four grandchildren, evenly divided between boys and girls or read the dedication of my 1115-page-long Nurses’ Drug Handbook published by Wiley in 1976. It is dedicated to: “The memory of Dr. Hugo Bamberger, and to Margaret Bamberger.”

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The Evaluation of Judge Amy Coney Barrett

Amy Coney Barrett in 2018 (Photo by Rachel Malehorn / CC BY 3.0)

Congress is in the process of evaluating the suitability of Amy Coney Barrett to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States. In reality her potential appointment is a very realistic threat to the hard-won legal right of women to terminate unwanted or unsafe pregnancies.

I am no lawyer, but it seems to me that people with strong personal beliefs rooted in their religion should not decide an issue that affect the entire population of the United States. Though it is the role of females to bear the young, the well-being of our children is the responsibility of both sexes.

I know that having an abortion is a serious, emotional undertaking, but children that are not wanted, or cannot be cared for, or women who perish from or are harmed by unsafe abortion, are a much greater peril. Let me once more state the obvious: the decision to have an abortion in the United States is voluntary.

Abortions or attempts at abortions were probably common among prehistoric people. They are discussed in a Chinese medical text written 4,600 years ago, and in the Ebers Papyrus written in 1550 BCE. Home remedies, often consisting of physical intervention, like the use of shoe-hooks, coat hangers or knitting needles, or the use of poisons like turpentine, were more common in recent times.

Margaret Sanger, a nurse who could no longer stand to take care of poor women who died of self-inflicted abortions, initiated the fight for birth control in the United States about a century ago. At the time, Anthony Comstock, a US postal inspector bent on upholding Victorian morality, managed to prevent Sanger from mailing pamphlet discussing birth control.

Sanger was convinced that unwanted pregnancies exacerbated the challenges already faced by economically struggling families, and she advocated for planned parenthood. She organized clinics and ended up in prison. She was a persuasive writer and once, tongue-in-cheek, imagined that the unborn could evaluate their future parents, as employers interview potential chambermaids, chauffeurs or gardeners. In her article she fantasized a scene of children asking their future fathers about their health and income; their mothers about their nerves, their knowledge about childcare, and their cooking skills; and both of them about their plans of bringing them up. Most insistently the child wanted to know how many children they had already.

“Eight.”
“How much are you earning?
“Ten dollars a week.”
“And living in two rooms, you say? No thank you. Next please.”

The children would certainly have expressed disapproval at being schlepped MASK-LESS to a party at the White House in support of their mother’s application to be elected to the Supreme Court, all that at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Getting back to Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court: The subject of a woman’s right to abortion has been thrashed out repeatedly. The landmark decision of Roe v. Wade should not be tampered with. The selection of a judge determined to overturn it should not be rushed through Congress. Modern times have changed the birth process. Doctors fertilize eggs in Petri dishes and sometimes implant these embryos in surrogate mothers, perform in-utero fetal surgery and carry out all kinds of unprecedented procedures that often resulted in miraculous babies and overjoyed parents. Given this monkeying with nature, terminating a pregnancy for whatever reason—and it rarely is an impulsive decision—is a minor issue.

On the flip-side, we can no longer leave the birth of children to the whims of nature. In large part the many problems of the earth—hunger, poverty, climate change—are caused by humanity’s joyful population growth and its ability to exploit the fruits of the earth. Having children today takes careful planning. As Margaret Sanger imagined in her child-interviewer scene, it takes love, emotional strength, a safe home, and confidence in the future. Nobody should be forced to be a parent, and women who regret being pregnant, for whatever reason, should be able to undo it.

Judge Barrett may truly believe that life starts at conception and she is entitled to her beliefs. Until 1867 the Catholic Church itself equated the beginning of life with quickening, the time at which a mother feels the child moving. But I am also wondering whether I can trust Amy Coney Barrett’s judgment and backbone—both crucial qualities for any person serving on the Supreme Court. At her nomination party she not only exposed herself and her children to infection by COVID-19, but kowtowed to the President of United States, whose actions she is to evaluate on the Court, and openly defied the recommendations of this country’s health authorities in fighting this scourge.

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Ernest Moshe Loebl, 1923-2020

papa10

I met my husband in the library of Columbia University’s Chemistry Department soon after he arrived from Israel in 1947. I asked Siegi Lichtblau, a fellow graduate student, to help me with a seminar that I was to present. He introduced me to Ernest, a newly arrived genius from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, saying that he would be better able to assist me. Ernest’s excited explanations of the finer points of my problem were way above my head. But strangely, I kept thinking: “This man needs a wife like me.” Wisely I kept these intrusive thoughts to myself, and for almost two years we were both busy with other romantic entanglements. Then we simultaneously broke up with our beloveds. I was in the awkward position of needing a partner to paddle my canoe on a 1949 Fourth of July outing, organized by my cousin Claude.

I asked Ernest and he accepted. It was his introduction to America’s beautiful outdoors. He loved the spectacular Adirondacks and their deserted waterways. He loved the untamed forests, the cool water of the lakes and streams we traversed, the challenge of canoe portages and the art of cooking over a wood fire. We talked a lot. We were remarkably compatible, so much so that six weeks later we embarked on a longer, more intimate camping trip, also led by cousin Claude. It took us to the wilds of Canada, including Montreal and the province of Quebec, and we ended up hiking solo in the Adirondacks.

During that adventure I learned a lot about Ernest’s Viennese childhood, his father’s medical practice, his love of the opera, his wrenching experience during the Nazi annexation of Austria 1938, his family’s escape to Israel, and his deep devotion to that struggling British Mandate. There, as a freshman at the Hebrew University, he became a member of the budding underground Haganah, which was to defend the new Jewish homeland if and when it was born. That dream ran in his family. A historical photograph records a meeting of Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, and a group of young men that included Ernest’s father, in Vienna around 1900.

Ernest’s Haganah training did come in handy. He won my heart when, on that long-ago camping trip, he hit a bullseye in a shooting competition with an obnoxious fellow camper. I was also impressed by his vast, eclectic knowledge. Who else knew that SPQR, engraved on many classical-inspired buildings, stood for “the Senate and the People of Rome”? And I loved his unfailing “BS” detector, combined with his deep concern for humanity. When we returned from that summer vacation we knew that we were meant to spend our lives together.

Most long lives have their ups and downs. Ernest’s parents had a hard time settling in Israel. Their income was meager. A teenage Ernest helped by tutoring math and picking oranges. He studied chemistry and was a top student. In 1947 he came “temporarily” to the United States, married, and stayed. After he obtained his PhD he started teaching at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, which was a truly glorious school during the infancy of the plastic age. In addition to Ernest’s satisfying work and salary, the institution supplied us with a brilliant, fun group of lifelong friends, augmented by the artistic ones we met in our longtime home on Riverside Drive. Ernest and I were blessed with our children Judy and David, who provided us with joy. Alone and together we explored the world. Fifty-two years ago we bought a lakeside cottage in Maine, which so amply nourished our love of the outdoors. The Granite State became another place to call home. After the horror of the Holocaust, I still wondered how life could be so normal. Tragedy, however, was around the corner. In 1993 we lost our son to AIDS. Fortunately David lived long enough to get to know Judy’s children: Ana, Naomi, and Sean. Ernest’s relationship with each of them was deeply satisfying.

Until the very end Ernest kept up many of his interests. For decades he read aloud for Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D), now known as Learning Ally. After he retired he went there three times a week, tackling double sessions. He was one of their top readers, skilled at reading obscure languages and translating intricate equations into words. He was deeply interested in music, especially opera, and an avid newshound. He did not derive much pleasure from the latter and acutely suffered with all the world’s terrible happenings.

On March 15th, 2020, we celebrated our 70th wedding anniversary. It was the last evening before the city ordered the closure of its restaurants. Ernest was already ailing. His heart and kidneys were giving out. Over the past couple months, in a world terrified by COVID-19, I took care of him with the help of our daughter, Judy, and Wendy, our housekeeper. He passed away peacefully and reluctantly on June 19th.

We hope to have a celebration of Ernest’s life in the fall.

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Lockdown 1942, Lockdown 2020

mercy of strangers cover

For me, the current lockdown is a vivid reminder of the two years I spent as a “hidden child” in Belgium during World War II. Actually, I was neither a child nor confined to my quarters like that other, very famous hidden child, Anne Frank. I was a teen, hidden “in plain sight.” Still, in those years, the biggest burden turned out to be loneliness.

As readers of this blog know, my German-Jewish family fled to Belgium in 1938. Two years later, the Nazis invaded the country in which we had taken refuge, bringing with them their intent to exterminate all the Jews. In 1942, the local authorities sent a letter instructing my nuclear family to report to a “work” camp in Malines, where my mother, my 12-year-old sister, and I would help the Third Reich achieve its glorious destiny. My mother fortunately declared, in her native German, “We won’t do that.”

Unlike Anne Frank’s family, we separated. I spent most of the next two years working as a mother’s helper with four different families who were kind enough to shelter me. I owe them my life. Many things about that experience were difficult, but the hardest by far was the social isolation. Within a matter of hours I lost my family, my friends, my school, my plans for the future. Worse, I lost my identity. I could not reveal my real self to those around me. For their benefit I had to invent believable stories about my past and present. Why, for instance, did I rarely leave the house on my day off or go out dancing?

Actually, then as now, no one had locked me inside the house. But Brussels’ streets were patrolled by a legendary German agent named Adler who was excellent at identifying and arresting “hidden” Jews, and my mother was wisely cautious. She was chagrined when I ventured out unnecessarily. When she discovered that I had disregarded her instructions, she yelled and cried, declaring, “War is not a piece of cake.”

I felt my life slipping by. Would I be an old maid?  I had never been kissed, gone on a date, been drunk or stayed up all night. I read voraciously, identifying with the characters in French romans-fleuves—multi-volume novels centering on the lives, loves, and deaths of fascinating characters experiencing world war.  I identified with their victories and defeats. I fell madly in love with a married man named Emile, the brother of my boss and a member of the Belgian resistance. Emile hardly noticed me, but in my fertile fantasy world he asked me to join the resistance. The Gestapo arrested us. We were tortured, condemned to death and made love the night before we were executed. How delicious! The real Emile perished a few weeks before Belgium’s liberation.

Mostly I was very busy taking care of my charges and helping in the house. By the time I went to bed I was exhausted, but a persistent nightmare woke me often: a boatman rowed me to an island peopled by living skeletons that tried to grab me with their spidery fingers. How could I have had such an accurate vision of Nazi death camps?

My most difficult stint was with a Dutch family. My official cover was that I was their upscale niece, looking for a suitable husband. I hated my idle days filled with dusting my hosts’ 96 knick-knacks, reading stacks of women’s magazines, knitting with scavenged wool to please my “aunt” and playing solitaire. It was at this house, however, that I began to keep a diary, which decades later formed the backbone of At The Mercy of Strangers: Growing Up on the Edge of the Holocaust. Somewhere in its entries, amidst the passionate declarations of my love for Emile and realistic descriptions of the terrible times, I wrote, “I hope that my children will never have to live through anything like this.” Even then, I must have believed that I would survive the circumstances and go on to have a future. I don’t look back on these years with horror. Somehow I learned to be my own best friend, to enjoy my own company, and to trust myself and others.

The current lockdown occasioned by this new catastrophe is different. I am old now, and I hate having yet to go through another major disaster. Death has already robbed me of many of those I loved. The Internet, iPhones, FaceTime and Zoom lessen social isolation. As during World War II, some virtual strangers turn out to be extremely helpful: offering to shop, bringing me masks and home-baked goods. Reading and writing again provide solace. I write every day and fervently hope to finish Plunder and Survival, a book about the fate of fine art during World War II. For my protection, my three beloved grandchildren keep their distance. They do not have to deal with Nazis and gas chambers, but fate is full of nasty surprises.

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Donald Trump Is “Making America Beautiful Again”

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(Photo by Gage Skidmore)

On February 10, 2020, I came across a small headline in The New York Times proclaiming that Donald Trump is making “America beautiful again.” It was paired with an image of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAH&C), whose golden hue has added luster to our nation’s Washington Mall since 2013. The building is a three-part corona enclosed in a lace-like skin woven from 3,600 filigree panels reminiscent of the iron grills built by enslaved African Americans in South Carolina and Louisiana. The structure, designed by David Adjaye, has received numerous endorsements and prizes.

Further reading proved that the President had not actually insulted this museum, but was protesting the look of other edifices built with federal funds. As a consequence of his distaste, Trump plans to introduce an executive order requiring that federal buildings adhere to Greek and Roman architectural designs. This executive order would interfere with the freedom of architectural development, one of the major arts, and would cost the General Service Administration more than fifty million dollars.

It so happens that for more years than I would like to admit, I have been working on a book that examines the consequences of Hitler’s war on art.

On May 10, 1933, fewer than four months after they had assumed power in Germany, the Nazis issued a short manifesto that would dominate their culture and philosophy during the next twelve years, and whose consequences still rock the art world today. The five points of the manifesto deal with the removal, shaming, and eventual destruction of so-called Bolshevik works of art, as well as the dismissal of museum directors who had spent public money on their acquisition.

The Nazis also decreed that no boxlike buildings should be built.

This was a particular criticism of the German Bauhaus, a design school whose ideas were greatly influential in the 20th century. By now the institution’s International style dominates the look of most “downtowns” the world over.

The Nazis abhorred modern art. Eventually they would ransack their museums and torch thousands of artworks by then-contemporary artists whose work is now venerated everywhere.

Like Hitler, Trump apparently favors columns and soft arches to innovative design. Per se, I do not object to classic architecture—some of my favorite buildings are updated Classicism—nor do I love every modern building; but Trump’s directive smacks of dictatorship, as do some of his other actions and pronouncements.

As a still-free society, we must be vigilant about the encroachment on our rights; we must insist that avant-garde art and self-expression can flourish in America. As Martin Niemoller, a German Lutheran pastor, put it so perfectly:

First they came for the Communists,
And I did not speak out because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
And I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
And I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Catholics,
And I did not speak out because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me. By that time
no one was left to speak up.

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Raising a Gay Child Before Stonewall

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I regret to say that I barely remember the riots at Stonewall, the bar in Greenwich Village where on June 26, 1969, a group of gay patrons successfully resisted harassment by the New York City police. The event would play such an important role in my life. David, my son, was thirteen then. Since he was very young, my husband thought that he might be gay—then a major issue. 

When he was three, David wanted to wear dresses. He hid his short blond hair under a scarf and insisted on being called Mary. My friend Mickey, a professional dancer, was horrified and advised me to seek psychiatric help for David. After discussing the matter with a number of trusted professionals and friends, I contacted the Jewish Board of Guardians, a highly respected social agency in New York. After a thorough investigation, Dr. Z, a psychiatrist, saw David four times a week. In addition, Dr. Z saw my husband on a weekly basis. Nobody among the many lay-people and professionals my husband and I consulted told us that we were doing a good job bringing him up and should relax and enjoy our child. 

Prejudice is a terrible thing. As David’s mother I felt dreadfully isolated. He was a particularly charming, good-looking child, yet most often when I mentioned his gender non-conformity, people’s faces fell. It was as if he was suffering from a dreadful disease. It is a credit to David and me that through his short life—he died of AIDS at 37—we preserved the deep love we shared. At the time many parents rejected their gay children. 

As a Jewish child growing up in Nazi Germany, I was used to being discriminated against. I could dismiss those who were frankly rejecting, but was actually more hurt by the half-sympathetic people who felt sorry for me being Jewish. They invited me to celebrate their birthdays before or after the “real” event, and didn’t brave coming to mine. All my life I regretted speaking with the accent that prompting strangers to ask, “Where are you from?” I have been cautious in selecting friends, and treasure the intimacy with those who make the grade. I was sad that my son too had to exert caution in his dealings with the world at large.

Both David and I got to enjoy “gay liberation.” There were always parents, especially mothers, who stood by their gay children. In 1989, twenty years after the Stonewall riots, I went with David to watch San Francisco’s Pride parade. After he died, I joined my gay granddaughter in the festivities that blossom at the end of June around the now-historic Stonewall Inn in New York. This year, I happened to be in Greenwich Village the week before the event, and noted that police vans were already festooned with rainbow flags!

Discrimination is far from gone, but matters have progressed. Last weekend I ate at La Bergamote, a New York City bakery. A male couple with two children—a toddler and an infant—sat at the next table, enjoying the establishment’s excellent fare.

Given the fickleness of history I wonder how long tolerance will last. Both gays and Jews have seen acceptance alternate with extreme discrimination.

Vive la liberté!

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My Guardian Angel

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I have a guardian angel. I think he is male, though you could not tell by looking at him. He has golden wings and wears a plain white gown. He does not concern himself with politics or other important things, but every so often he rescues me in the most amazing way.

During World War II, the Nazis occupied Belgium. Two years later they decided to send Jews, including me, then a seventeen-year-old teen, to concentration camps. My family decided to hide instead. I was forced to leave my beloved high school and work as a mother’s helper.

When the Germans finally left Brussels two years later, I was much too old to return to high school. I took advantage of a special law that allowed war victims to enroll in institutions of higher education even if they had not graduated from high school. The deal was that they had to pass a high school equivalency exam after their first year in college. I passed my first year at the Institut Meurice Chimie with flying colors, even though I hardly knew any math. In fact, the only thing I remembered of high-school math was Pythagorean’s theorem governing right-angle triangles. During my equivalency exam the professor invited me to pull a math question out of a bag. It asked me to prove the famous Pythagorean theorem. I passed the exam, which entitled me to continue my education at grade level.

*

In 1959, long before cell phones, I drove with my five-year-old daughter Judy, her friend Elissa, and my three-year-old son David to Manhattan’s Fort Tryon Park. We were in the middle lane of the old West Side Highway, surrounded by fast-moving traffic. Suddenly my vintage Ford stopped. What was I to do? If I stayed in the car, chances were that I would be hit, but how could I leave with my brood of three! Suddenly a car pulled up in front of us. Four men spilled out. They were auto mechanics on a lunchtime spin and soon we were on our way.

*

My fridge broke down two days before we were to leave for a lengthy trip. In exchange for luxurious accommodations in Brooklyn Heights, our friend Michael was to dog-sit for Sasha, our little Dachshund. I rushed to a store to buy a new fridge, armed with the measurements of the space to accommodate it. “You are lucky; I have a bargain for you,” the salesman said. “It is bigger than your old model, but it will fit.”

The next day the fridge was delivered. After its doors were unhinged, it fit into the apartment house’s small elevator. It managed to pass through the entrance of the apartment, but got stuck in front of the kitchen passage. After watching the deliverymen unsuccessfully maneuver the fridge for one hour, I panicked. I ran through the apartment building in search of help. I heard workmen banging away in Apartment 3A. I pleaded. The two guys followed me upstairs. After evaluating the situation they removed the frame of the wooden doorway of the entrance to the kitchen. One of my two new friends was an expert mover. He directed the deliverymen on how to maneuver the fridge into place. Angles and inches mattered, but it fit. The doors were reattached and the shelves put in. The doorframe was hammered back into place. A bucket of white painted materialized from nowhere, and another twenty minutes later everything looked pristine.

I figured that the emergency rescue would cost me hundreds of dollars, but the workmen told me that there was no charge. I guess they were perhaps being paid by my co-op or that the bill would come later. It never did, and my dog-sitter enjoyed a carefree vacation.

That was twenty years ago. I beseech my guardian angel that my refrigerator will outlast me.

*

Decades ago I wrote: Conception/Contraception: A New Look, which McGraw-Hill published in 1975. It explains humanity’s long quest to unravel the marvels of reproduction.

One stumbling block to the understanding of the exquisitely timed, hormone-controlled process was that nobody could find the mammalian egg. During the seventeenth century, England’s William Harvey, the discoverer of blood circulation, joined the search by examining the uterus of England’s royal deer. A picture of his experiments hung in Columbia University’s old medical library, where I did much of the research for this book. Harvey failed to find the minuscule egg, even though it is the biggest cell in the body. It was only in 1827 that Karl Ernst von Baer, a, Eastern-European scientist experimenting with dogs, finally discovered the mammalian egg. It took another 150 years, and the discovery of hormones, to nail down the details of conception, gestation, and birth. Inevitably the understanding led to the discovery of effective methods of birth control, a technique people had been searching for since antiquity.

The writing of the book was done, and now I had the pleasure of finding illustrations. One night I woke up with a start. I had vividly dreamt of a faded picture of William Harvey examining the uterus of a doe in the company of England’s King Charles I. The picture hung in the medical library of Columbia University; I had completely forgotten about it. The next morning I phoned Columbia and asked the librarian about it. He said that he never noticed it, but agreed to check. He returned to the phone excited. Yes, to his surprise and mine, the picture was there. I included it in the book.

*

Recently a number of unfortunate events beset my life. I wondered whether my guardian angel had quit. Last December, on an extremely cold day, I took a taxi to the Frick Library in Manhattan. I am still writing books! I left my mismatched gloves in the taxi. On my return trip I was nursing my cold hands as I was sitting on the crosstown bus. I looked up. A departing passenger had dropped a perfect pair of black suede gloves!

Thank you, Guardian Angel. I need you for as long as I live.

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Three Family Bar Mitzvahs

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David at his bar mitzvah in 1969.

To the memory of David Loebl (1956-1993) on his 63rd birthday and the 50th anniversary of his bar mitzvah.

I was eight years old when my mother and I attended the bar mitzvah of my cousin Ernst
Wertheimer (later Worth). During this Jewish coming-of-age ceremony, thirteen-year-old
boys and girls are called to the Torah. They read a portion of the text, interpret it and
present a speech. In addition to reading, celebrants also make and complete a pledge to perform a significant good deed for the community. A joyous party is usually twinned with the religious service.

The event took place took place in Frankfurt, Germany, in January 1933. It was within days of Hitler’s rise to power, a move in which his goal was to effectively extinguish the life of Germany’s two-thousand-year-old Jewish community.

I forget the religious portion of my cousin’s bar mitzvah, but I remember the party, a
dinner for about 50 held in my Aunt Erna’s gargantuan apartment. I wore a smocked
yellow silk dress and felt as if it were my societal debut. And in fact, I actually had a starring role: I recited a long poem, composed by my mother and dedicated to her favorite nephew.

Erna had seated the oldest next to the youngest, so I occupied a place of honor next to my
great-grandmother Mathilde Mayer. I danced with my cousin Ernst, and declared to anyone willing to listen that we had become engaged and were to marry when we grew up. I don’t think that I ever again was as high in my life as I was then. Then, in the midst of my euphoria, somebody decided it was time for me to go to bed! I refused, insisting that I would only do so if Ernst and his sister Edith would also retire. Surprisingly they humored me. I am still ashamed of having been such a brat and wonder at the idiocy of sending me to bed.

*

Most of my family escaped Germany during the following years and settled in England
and America. I met another Ernest and did marry him. We had a daughter and a son. One day when he was about eleven, David informed me that I “had better get ready for his bar mitzvah.” The request was a pleasant surprise.

Ernest Loebl and I enrolled David in the appropriate classes at the Hebrew Tabernacle in
Washington Heights. Like me, Rabbi Robert Lehman and Cantor Ehrenberg, who studied with David, were transplanted German Jews, familiar with our background. As was usually the case with his studying, David had to be urged to work on his Torah and Haftorah portions, but when March 15, 1969—our wedding anniversary—came around, he was beaming and ready. Some of the same people who had been at my cousin Ernst’s bar mitzvah attended David’s. Among them: my mother, my sister, my great-aunt Selma, my mom’s cousin Martin and his wife Anne (the latter had been a new couple in 1933).

We held David’s party at home. Unlike my aunt Erna, I included my son’s friends—a
noisy bunch of 20 or so. When I looked at my potential guest list it numbered close to a
hundred. Even our grand old apartment on Riverside Drive, with its 16-by-22 foot living
room, would not hold them! Fortunately I managed to borrow a neighbor’s large apartment for David’s friends. I took off a week from work, cooked and organized. David’s food requests included his favorite: stuffed cabbage. I told him that I could not make stuffed cabbage for a hundred people. But then of course, I changed my mind. I made oodles of cabbage rolls, froze them, and stored them in the borrowed apartment. Suddenly, as all the guests were seated, stuffing themselves with salmon and roast beef, I remembered that I had forgotten to serve the stuffed cabbage! When I fetched them a couple of weeks later they had defrosted during an electric blackout and were spoiled!
David’s bar mitzvah was the biggest and most glamorous party I ever threw. I cherish its memory.

*

Frankfurt’s glittering Jewish world has long vanished, but somehow our smallish family
has survived. On a cold Saturday in February we gathered to celebrate Noah Cooper, my
second cousin twice removed, who was old enough to be called to the Torah at the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue. By now I was the matriarch of the Mayer clan. The world
had changed in so many ways. A woman, Molly Kane, was the officiating Rabbi. Services, too, were more relaxed, but the ancient words and melodies shrunk the decades.

Like my David, Noah enjoyed the entire ceremony. His readings of the Torah and Haftorah portions were flawless and his speech very sophisticated. In addition to friends
and regular congregants of the temple, the audience included about a dozen of Mathilde’s and her husband Isaac Mayer’s descendants. To me, Noah seemed so much younger than my cousin Ernst or my son had been. Today we forget that way back when the Jewish traditions were established, a thirteen-year old was about to go to work.

Noah’s party was child-centered. He and his parents had spent months choosing the music for dancing, the videos and the delicious foods. I had a good time visiting with
family and friends, happy to still be around celebrating another generation. Just within
the last month, Tori, Noah’s aunt, gave birth to another one of Mathilde’s great-great-
great-grand daughters. May the world itself come to its senses, so that its children can
continue to thrive.

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