To find today’s, I didn’t have to dig very deep into my vault of sermons not yet posted here. This one tells two remarkable stories. I’ll start with the prelude:
Many of you know that it was 19th Century Unitarian minister Theodore Parker who originated the phrase about the moral arc of the universe bending toward justice, a phrase used by Martin Luther King Jr. and by Barrack Obama. Both of them shortened it. Here’s the full quote, from a sermon Parker delivered in the 1850s:
I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.
The justice he most sought was the abolition of slavery. He didn’t know when he wrote those words that he would die in 1860 at the age of 49 and never get to see that justice in the United States. His words make clear that he knew how short our lives are and how limited our vision. Nevertheless, his senses and his faith told him the arc bends toward justice.
I’d like to suggest that truth is a prerequisite for justice, and that the arc bends toward truth, too. In my sermon today I’m going to tell you the stories of a few people who put their shoulders to the arc to bend it toward truth, people I’ve been privileged to meet or to learn about in the last couple of years. Their stories may seem very different, but you will see eventually how they all weave together.
You’ll meet some people who trusted fervently that the arc would inevitably bend toward truth and one who almost gave up. Trust, by the way, is the theme we’re turning to this month. Our co-minister Phyllis Hubbell will explore it more thoroughly next week, but in the meantime you’ll need to, uh, trust me to bring these disparate stories together at the end of my sermon.
Since I’ll be telling different stories, many of them intense, I’ll use a technique I’ve learned from some Buddhist dharma talks. When I ring this bell, it will be time to stop, breathe, and listen to the sweet sound of the bell until the sound fades away – to take a breathing break, to clear our heads, away from the intensity.
I’ll start with Joe Soll, who was born in 1939 in or around New York City. He’s not sure of the date or the place. He was adopted by a lawyer and the lawyer’s wife and grew up in Nyack, NY – told that his parents had been killed in an automobile accident. His adoptive parents later had a daughter and son the old-fashioned way.
Joe [shown in photo below] became a successful broadcast engineer, but he was deeply neurotic about having been adopted. In the words of the song we heard in the prelude, he felt less than whole. He hated to mention adoption or think about it. But one day in 1982, his adoption came up in conversation with his sister, who told him for the first time that the story of an automobile accident was a lie. In his early 40s, Joe went into a terrible spin with a fierce need to learn who his natural mother was.
He gave that arc a nudge toward truth, but he couldn’t move it very far because he eventually learned that his father had bought him from a sort of illegal baby broker named Bessie Bernard, who is now notorious in the adoption community. She had a 40-year career, punctuated by one jail sentence, a 40-year career of obtaining and selling babies, and obscuring their past.
What Joe did next reminds me of my old friend Jane Wilhelm, everyone’s favorite wise old woman. She had lived a life many would consider tragic, but she stayed positive. Someone once asked her how she avoided depression. She replied: “Whenever I’m feeling bad I go out and find someone worse off than I am, and I help that person.” Joe joined the adoption community, went back to school for an MSW, and became a psychotherapist specializing in what he calls adoption healing.
He has written two adoption healing books and is director and co-founder of Adoption Crossroads, an international, nonprofit organization consisting of more than 470 adoption agencies, mental health institutions and adoption search and support groups in eight countries, representing more than half a million individuals whose lives have been affected by adoption. Since 1989, Joe has organized and coordinated 10 international mental health conferences on adoption. He has been an expert witness in court about adoption-related issues and has lectured at adoption agencies, social work schools, mental health facilities and mental health conferences in the U.S. and Canada. And three times he walked from New York to Washington to support open adoption records.
But despite helping thousands to find their natural mothers, Joe at age 74 was in despair about ever finding his. He helped bend the arc for others but had almost given up on bending it for himself.
Moishe Kantorowitz was born in 1923 in a town called Shershov in what is now Belarus. The area was controlled at times by Poland and at times by Russia, but in the Jewish communities, or shtetls, they spoke Yiddish, learned Hebrew as their written language, and their identity was Jewish. My father had emigrated from Shershov about two years before Moishe was born, and my mother’s parents had emigrated from the same town about 20 years earlier, so Moishe was born into the town that all of my relatives came from.
My father, the youngest of his family, followed some of his siblings to the U.S., but he left a brother and a sister behind, and they of course would meet a terrible fate two decades later. But back in the 1920s, my father’s brother and sister – my uncle and aunt – married Moishe’s uncle and aunt. So Moishe and I were first cousins by marriage.
Moishe was 17 when the Nazis occupied Shershov in June 1941. He lived with his parents, an older sister and three younger siblings who for almost two years led a nomadic, hungry and horrific existence avoiding the Nazis and staying alive. Finally, though, in 1943, the time came when they knew the Nazis would be rounding them up the next day. They thought they were going to be marched out of town and shot, a fate they had seen so often. They didn’t know yet about the death camps.
The night before the Nazis were scheduled to come for them, Moishe’s mother, Esther-Beila, took him by the hand, out to the porch of the home they were staying in and sent him off. He was the only one of the family with a chance of escaping the ghetto and joining the resistance. Knowing that she and the rest of the family were about to die, she asked him to memorize the address of one of her two brothers living in the Bronx. “If, God willing, you survive,” she said, “go tell them how we lived and how we perished.” Then she couldn’t bring herself to hug him, but stood stoically and watched him go – the last they saw of each other.
Esther-Beila had no hope for justice that night, but she did her part to bend that arc toward truth. She hoped that Moishe would carry her truth beyond her grave. We’ll return to Moishe’s story, but first I’ll introduce another bender of the arc.
She’s Karen Perlstein Kaplan. Her day job is clinical lecturer in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas. One of the hobbies she pursues avidly is genealogy. Since long before data bases like ancestry.com made it a lot easier, she has been working to learn more and more about her extended family and her ancestors. A diligent researcher, she describes herself as like a dog with a bone when it comes to gaining knowledge about her family’s past.
After my sister died in late 2010 and I became the last living member of my nuclear family of origin, I started a family tree on ancestry.com. I did it for my children and nieces and nephews and their children – just to make a record of what I knew. Since all of my family came from a shtetl that was wiped out by the Nazis, I didn’t expect to learn much new about my past. I was very wrong.
A signature on a document and the family name Pinsky led Karen to my family tree on ancestry.com and she sent me a message. She didn’t know much about the Pinsky side of her family. It was the name of her maternal grandfather, and it was the name on both branches of my family tree. (Belarus and our neighbors in West Virginia have a few things in common, but that’s another story.) Karen and I both did some more digging and emailing back and forth and eventually figured out that the grandfather she knew as Solomon, who died in 1953, was the uncle I knew by his Yiddish nickname of Alter. He was my father’s brother.
So Karen and I kept at it – seeing what else we could learn. Our research into what my parents called the Old Country led to the story of Moishe Kantorowitz. His mother nudged him out of the family nest in an effort to keep him alive to preserve their memory. His family was rounded up on schedule, packed into freight cars, and gassed at Auschwitz. Moishe managed to hide from the roundup just for one more day, and then he too was packed into a freight car and transported to Auschwitz. He never made it to the resistance. But because of his age and vigor, when he got to Auschwitz he was put to work instead of being killed immediately.
The work, the starvation, and the beatings were brutal, and several times over the next two years Moishe came close to death, but he managed to live through five concentration camps and several death marches. When the war ended, Moishe weighed 80 pounds, but he was alive.
One of the very few Jewish survivors from Shershov, he made his way to Canada, where he married, had three children and five grandchildren. Before Moishe died in 2008 at the age of 85, he wrote down everything he could remember not only about his own ordeal but about everyone from Shershov. And he had a phenomenal memory for detail. He called his book My Mother’s Bequest. It’s a PDF file of 671 pages, available for free to anyone who wants to learn what happened to their relatives in Shershov. He did what Esther-Beila had asked him to do and much more. He told the story for his uncles and also for everyone else who wanted to know about their own lost relatives. [That’s him, wearing glasses, in the photo at right, surrounded by his family in Toronto.]
My newfound cousin Karen found that book for us – a gift from Moishe, our relative by marriage whom we never met. He gave us details of the lives and brutal deaths of the uncles and aunts and cousins we never thought we’d know anything about. In the words of the Hebrew song sung on Passover, dayenu, that would have been enough. But there is much more to come.
For about $100, ancestry.com will analyze your DNA. They send you a report with your ethnic makeup and matches to the screen names of others in ancestry.com’s gigantic data base. Over time, you get hundreds and hundreds of matches. They say things like: “Fourth cousin with a 73% probability.” A fourth cousin is someone with whom you share a great-great-great-grandfather, so most of the matches are not very interesting.
When Karen and I got our DNA results back, we each showed up on the other’s results as a first or second cousin with a 99% probability. We had scientific confirmation of what we had concluded from our research. But we each had exactly one other person showing up in the same category – first or second cousin with a 99% probability. That was Joe Soll, the man who at 74 had all but given up after a 30-year effort to learn about his natural mother.
Using the few details that Joe was able to provide, Karen and I came up with a most likely candidate to have been Joe’s mother. Ruthie was my first cousin, although she was old enough to be my mother. For reasons that would make this sermon far too long to enumerate, she and I had a deep bond, and I loved her like a big sister. In 1939, when Joe was born, Ruthie was 22 or 23, unmarried, and living with her mother and little sister in a crowded apartment in Queens, NY, in the closing years of the Great Depression.
Ruthie would get married about five years later, and she and her husband had one son, Bobby, who was profoundly mentally ill, but I remember one conversation with her that left me with the impression that there might have been another child in her past. Ruth died in 1987 at the age of 70.
Six weeks ago, I took a long weekend in New York State to meet Joe and spend time with him, and to visit Bobby at the Rockland Psychiatric Center. By a glorious stroke of luck, I was there to celebrate with Joe when he got final confirmation that Ruthie was indeed his mother. And I realized the bittersweet truth that there’s no one living who knows more about Ruthie than I do. So I could tell him about the wonderful person I knew his mother to be.
After 30 years of frustration and after helping thousands of others, Joe finally learned about his mother and for the first time met some blood relatives. He has been ecstatic ever since, and every night sends a good-night email to his newfound cousins. Joe and I have found many parallels in our lives, as though we are long-lost brothers. I am almost as ecstatic as he is.
I’ll close with one short anecdote. I knew that Joe wanted an artifact from his mother – something that was hers, something she had touched. Those closest to Ruth who might have had something of hers are no longer among the living. I am not a saver. I don’t like keeping stuff. But my mother was a saver, and when she died in 1990 most of her things went to my sister, who was a saver. So in 2010 I inherited a box of stuff that belonged to me. When I returned from my weekend with Joe, I went looking in that box.
I found the gift card that Ruthie gave me on my bar mitzvah day, May 2, 1959. I was able to give Joe something his mother had held and signed almost 55 years ago. You may see in that the hand of God … or the guidance of Ruthie … or the work of Fate … or the Force being with us … or a lucky coincidence. But in the context of Joe’s whole story, and of Moishe’s, and of Esther-Beila’s, it becomes clear that the Moral Arc of the Universe bends toward truth, bends toward justice, and bends toward compassion.
Copyright 2015 Mel Harkrader Pine