Haunted by the Holocaust in the Hamptons
The second definition of the word haunted captures my reaction to the Holocaust:
2. preoccupied, as with an emotion, memory, or idea; obsessed: His haunted imagination gave him no peace.
This haunted state of mind was memorialized in 12 three ring binders of personal notes and related documents about the creation of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. I found those three binders in my home in East Hampton about 8 years ago. I decided to donate them to the Museum and the binders were transformed into 6 archival boxes which symbolized the Holocaust itself which was the murder of 6 million people. I was the only child of a Holocaust survivor on the original President’s Commission on the Holocaust formed during the Carter Administration, and the first U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. I was also the only person on both panels who kept such records. The Hamptons connection is the simple fact that I spent every summer since 1984 telecommuting and discovered that just being in this extraordinary atmosphere created a sense of life and reinforced my sense of purpose. It also reminded my how lucky I have been. The beauty of East Hampton gave me a balance that I needed after spending a good portion of my life participating in the creation of the US Holocaust Memorial.
The peace and solitude reminded me how lucky I was to be born after World War II. My father always said you can be one in a million lucky or one in a million unlucky. The fact that only one in ten of the Jewish community in Latvia survived was a further reminder of how even my existence was against the odds. After renting and organizing share houses for many summers, I was lucky enough to purchase my home in East Hampton out of a bankruptcy foreclosure.
In keeping with the haunted theme, I will never forget seeing the home and learning the story of how the home became part of a bankruptcy estate. It seems that the owner had misrepresented the existence of contracts between a Russian purchaser and a major public company to produce rubber products. The deal was exposed as a fraud so they seized the woman’s properties to sell and pay off the creditors. When I heard the story and saw the decor of the house I asked whether the previous owner was a survivor of the Holocaust. The answer was an unequivocal yes. You may ask how did I know. I realized that whoever pulled off this multi-million dollar fraud had to know a few languages. In addition, she didn’t have much respect for the law. I didn’t condone what she did but I didn’t totally condemn it either because if you come from a society that passed the Nuremberg laws that forbade you from sitting in a park, going to school, earning a living or ultimately to even exist, your respect for the law is understandably marginal at best. In any event her misfortune became my fortune.
I was inspired to use that opportunity to create an early attempt to do online marketing and sales of distressed real estate assets on the Bloomberg in 1986. My luck was also good enough to get a job at Salomon Brothers after law school in the mid-seventies. I didn’t have a MBA degree which was the usual pre-requisite for working in investment banking. Fortuitously Michael R. Bloomberg, the creator of the Bloomberg information and media enterprise, was one of the people I answered to and he gave me my first bonus. That was a ritual where they told you your bonus and gave you an evaluation. Once again luck came my way when he told me the right people liked me. I had a feeling about who those people were and I knew it was good. Just to be sure I asked Michael what that meant. He said it was good. So I think the serendipity of life produced positive results at an early stage of my life.
As I get older I realize that life is better if you have luck and faith. The ambiance of the Hamptons enhanced my faith. I am not that religious but I have a Jewish spirit. I felt like an outsider as a young boy growing up in New Jersey. I jokingly called the town Diaspora, New Jersey because it was arbitrary for the family to end up in northern New Jersey. The diaspora was the process by which Jews were spread all over the world usually to escape oppression though the centuries.
My father had relatives in New Jersey. They provided him with the necessary immigration affidavits to keep him in America when he visited the World’s Fair in 1939. That trip saved his life. He lost his mother and five brothers and sisters. We returned to Latvia in 1984 and 1993. My grandfather’s music store was still open on the main street in Riga, the capital city. We even talked our way into seeing the former residence of the family in a formidable apartment building near the store. The second trip to a city called Liepaja resulted in our regaining title to three apartment buildings. Those buildings were the ghetto during the Nazi occupation. The strangest moment was when we visited the harbor of Liepaja and saw the memorial to the victims of the Nazis who were murdered in that harbor and then thrown into the sea. My father believed that was where his older brother was killed. He said that I reminded him of that brother. Lo and behold the date of that event was my birthday just seven years before I entered this world. You could say it is mere coincidence but my sense of the potent combination of luck, serendipity and faith makes me believe it is more than that. Once again, life came back to the Hamptons when I went to the local pizzeria in East Hampton just 2 weeks ago and I ran into a professor who survived the Holocaust in one of those rooms in the building in Liepaja that my grandfather owned and the family lived in before they were confiscated by the Nazis and their Latvian collaborators. Life goes full circle and it helps to remind ourselves to have gratitude for the quality of our lives and how they are enhanced by being in the Hamptons.
Despite that lucky scenario, I would be only giving you half of the story if I didn’t explain that my mother survived the Holocaust and I survived her. Unfortunately the abuse that my mother suffered didn’t stop with her. She was increasingly hostile to me over the years and that made for some difficult problems. Family events became like a field of land mines. You never knew what would set her off and how bad the collateral damage would be. By having a seat at the table and being a witness to the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, I was able to channel that abuse into a positive force using bricks and mortar.
I remember lobbying from the Hamptons to get the appointment to the President’s Commission on the Holocaust. My home became a small museum with framed photographs of the meetings and other events surrounding the museum’s creation. I will never forget attending the first meeting of the Commission and Advisory Board. It was like a prayer meeting and group therapy session rolled into one. Everyone expressed their connection to the Holocaust and at the end of the day Elie Wiesel said he wasn’t sure what we accomplished, but we all said oy. I traveled on the fact finding mission in June of 1979 and I was finally behind the famed iron curtain I heard so much about in my youth. Poland was the site of many of the infamous concentration camps like Treblinka and Auschwitz. Once you see these sites of hell on earth you come to appreciate the joy of being free in America and the special boost of being in the Hamptons. The beauty of the views at Georgica Beach or the sunsets on Three Mile Harbor reminds you that there are counterbalances to the horrors of war and hatred. Life is made up of contradictions and sometimes we get knocked down but if you look at the horizons we are surrounded with in the Hamptons you might not find any answers but you’ll feel better just for trying.
Elie Wiesel once told me not everything in life is money. He was right.