Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Yom HaShoah: Remembering Shaya and Shaindl Schechet

by Efrem Sigel

Over the years I've attended my share of Yom HaShoah--Holocaust Remembrance Day-- commemorations, usually at our long-time synagogue in Pelham, NY. But the ceremony this past Sunday evening, in a different and novel setting, became personal for me in a way that was profoundly touching.

The commemorations are always predictable, the solemn lighting of six candles, one for each million Jews murdered by the Nazis, some recollections by a Holocaust survivor or family member, the singing of Hannah Senesch's famous poem, "Eli, Eli" (My God, My God), and at the end, the collective recitation of the kaddish.

This year instead of driving to Pelham I walked to a ceremony at the Brotherhood Synagogue in Gramercy Park, not far from where we now live. The service there was a collaborative effort by half a dozen area synagogues. Rabbis from the participating synagogues spoke briefly and a chorus composed of members of the congregations sang movingly.

I'm guessing there were about a hundred or so attendees--two or three children or teens, a few people in their 30s, but most of us in our 60s, 70s and 80s. I recognized faces from the neighborhood or from local synagogues, but most of the people were unknown to me. Thus I sat in lonely silence, listening to a survivor named Paul Brottman as he told how he, his brother, mother and sisters survived for two and a half years on the run, somehow evading the Germans and their collaborators who slaughtered tens of thousands of Ukrainian Jews between 1941 and 1944.

Though Paul and his family witnessed unspeakable atrocities, their story, at least, had a happy ending; all five of them survived, saved in the end by advancing Russian troops,

At the end of the remembrance ceremony, those in attendance were invited to form a line, step to the microphone on the bima and say the name or names of relatives killed in the Shoah. Twenty or thirty men and women lined up in single file and one by one they came forward, taking their turn to say aloud the names of grandparents or great grandparents, siblings, mothers and fathers, cousins, aunts and uncles, or simply, unknown relatives with unknowable names.

And after listening for a few minutes I got to my feet and joined the procession. Another five or six people followed me; we were the end of the line. My turn came to approach the microphone. And here, out of all the unknown (to me) relatives who died, I said the names of the two family members whose identity I know: Shaya Shechet, my grandmother Sonia's brother (my great uncle), and Shaindl Shechet, Sonia's sister (my great-aunt).

I know nothing of Shaya and Shaindl's lives, I don't know what they looked like, what their personalities were, whether Shaindl crocheted or sewed like my grandmother Sonia, or played the violin like Sonia's daughter, my aunt Dora; whether Shaya was quick with numbers and a strong chess player like Sonia's son, my father Ben. I don't know if they were business people or Torah scholars or doctors, engineers or teachers, whether they had one child or many, whether their lives were comfortable or precarious. All I know is that from 1939 on they fell into the abyss of slaughter, annihilation, and suffering that took the lives of 6 million European Jews.

It's many years since the deaths of my grandmother Sonia and grandfather Harry, my parents Ben and Dorothy, my aunt Dora and uncle Sam, but with pleasure I can readily summon their faces, hear their voices, remember their laughter, see them standing, sitting, relaxing, holding a violin or an oboe, hunched over a chess board, cooking, burying their noses in newspaper pages or books, scolding or praising us, the children and grandchildren.

I wish it were possible to have such memories of Shaya and Shaindl, to have some fragment-intimate, revealing, amusing, even scandalous--of them as flesh and blood. But though I know nothing personal about them, I know this: That they were born and lived, laughed and cried. That they perished as innocents in the great catastrophe, the great shame of mankind that we call the Shoah. And I know that finally, they are remembered.

Efrem Sigel, 4/29/14

Thursday, November 21, 2013


An email to me this week from the current President of the Harvard Crimson, asking for my recollections of November 22, 1963, brought back a torrent of memories.*

The 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy is this Friday, November 22; it happens to be the day before The Game, the Harvard-Yale classic. November 22, 1963 was also a Friday, and also the day before The Game, which that year was scheduled to be played at the Yale Bowl in New Haven. At the time I was associate managing editor of The Crimson and deeply involved in day to day coverage of events at the university and in the broader world.

With all the books that have been published about JFK--a staggering 40,000, says the New York Times--many of which have debunked or at least tarnished the notion of his brief Presidency as something unique and exceptional, it is difficult to recreate the sense of exhilaration that accompanied his election in November 1960. My classmates and I entered Harvard that fall in the midst of the campaign, many of us were for Kennedy and by the time the votes were counted on election night we felt that something transformative had occurred. All we knew was the promise; the lessons and judgment of history were far in the future, unknowable, scarcely conceivable.

The Crimson editors decided to put out an Extra that day 50 years ago. Bruce Paisner, managing editor, was in charge of Crimson coverage of the assassination. Always cool and focused under pressure, he did an amazing job. In those days we still set type on an old-fashioned hot-metal linotype machine and did the printing on an ancient flat-bed press in the basement of the Crimson on Quincy St. Nevertheless, we had the Extra off press by the end of the afternoon, delivering by hand all over campus, including to Harvard Hall and University Hall. I personally brought a copy to the office of the Dean of Faculty, Franklin Ford, and can still remember the emotion on the face of this self-contained and soft-spoken scholar, his eyes reddened from weeping.

I recall that Bruce and I and others were in the newsroom in early afternoon when the first calls about shots in Dallas came in, from students on campus who'd heard the news on the radio and wanted us to confirm. Within a half hour we were at work on the Extra. We rented a TV and set it up in the newsroom. This was decades before the Internet, so we were depending on the TV networks and our clanky AP teletype machine, our one link to the world of (almost) real-time news. Bruce quickly handed out the assignments; mine was to man the desk, edit copy and make sure everything was as concise and accurate as the immense time pressure and the many gaps in information allowed.

Beyond the obvious Harvard connection of a U.S. President who was an alumnus and an Overseer of the University, and who had brought many Cambridge luminaries (McGeorge Bundy, John Kenneth Galbraith, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and others) to the White House and to Washington, there was the immediate matter of The Game, scheduled for the next day. I believe some of the Harvard House-Yale College football games were already in progress that Friday when the news was confirmed; some may have been cancelled in midgame. Within hours The Game itself was cancelled.

Without the task at hand, of reporting, editing and putting out the Extra, many of us would have dissolved into tears but we kept it together because this was by far the most important story we would ever handle on the Crimson, and one of the most important the Crimson has covered in its long history. No one alive that day will ever forget it, and especially not those of us on the Crimson who had the special responsibility of recording history.—Efrem Sigel, November 21, 2013

*By the time this appears, some of these recollections may be in the current issue of the Crimson.

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Let's Get the Facts Straight About Israel's Actions in Gaza

An article by Ethan Bronner on March 20 in the NY Times alleging wanton killing of civilians by Israeli soldiers in Gaza was as upsetting to me as it must have been to many other readers. Had these allegations been true, they would have been a terrible stain on the honor of Israeli soldiers and of the Israel Defense Forces.

But they are not true. The March 20 article did not quote a single soldier claiming to be a witness to or participant in such murders. Indeed, the article was a fourth-hand report: it was based on an article in Ha'aretz, which in turn was based on a document written by Dany Zamir, which in turn quoted soldiers who had served in Gaza--but who had not witnessed the incidents in question.

Over the past four days, articles in Ma'ariv (in Hebrew) and the Jerusalem Post (in English) have reported on the results of an IDF investigation of the two specific claims cited in the March 20 article. And those claims are false.

The details are contained in the following letter that I have sent to Bill Keller, Executive Editor of the Times, and to Clark Hoyt, the Public Editor (ombudsman). In the event that I do not receive a satisfactory response, I will be in touch with both of them by phone and will let everyone know the result. In the meantime, I urge everyone to check the facts yourself by reading the articles in question, and any other sources of information that are based on verifiable eye witness accounts and on documents--and not on hearsay and rumor. And I urge you to communicate your conclusions widely to friends and acquaintances, and to write or call the Times and other media, notably NPR and the Washington Post, asking politely but insistently that they correct their errors.

I specifically did not write a Letter to the Editor, intended for publication, because I have no desire to criticize Ethan Bronner in public. My concern is simply to do whatever I can to see that these terrible errors are corrected promptly, fully and prominently in the Times.

The text of my letter to the Times follows:

March 25, 2009

Mr. Bill Keller, Executive Editor, and Mr. Clark Hoyt, Public Editor
The New York Times

This letter is a heartfelt plea that the Times immediately research and then publish an article correcting the misstatements, untruths and unfounded allegations contained in its March 20 front-page article on the conduct of Israeli soldiers in Israel’s Gaza operations.

That article, by Ethan Bronner, gave prominent display to charges that Israeli soldiers killed civilians without provocation in the Gaza fighting. No eyewitnesses to these alleged atrocities were named in the article, nor, apparently, were they interviewed by the Times. Instead, this fourth-hand report cited: an article in Ha’aretz, which cited a conference report published by one Dany Zamir (a vociferous IDF critic who was once jailed for refusing to serve in the West Bank), which in turn cited conversations with soldiers who served in the Gaza operation at a colloquium organized by Zamir at Zamir’s Rabin Pre-Military Academy.

The Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv on March 22 reported on detailed Israel Defense Forces investigations of these allegations. The soldiers who discussed the alleged atrocities now admit that their charges were based entirely on hearsay, not first-hand observation. The IDF officers in charge of the investigation have concluded that the alleged atrocities never took place.

The investigation quotes a marksman accused of firing on and killing a Palestinian woman and her two daughters as saying he saw the women and her daughters in a forbidden area, he fired warning shots (not in their direction), he was immediately confronted by his commander demanding to know, “Why did you fire at them?” and he responded, “I explained that I did not fire at them, I fired warning shots.” The woman and her daughters were not harmed.

The Ma’ariv article, in Hebrew, appears at the following web address:


The translation of the conversation between the soldier and commander is mine; however, the Times can easily arrange for its own authoritative translation.

A similar newspaper account of the IDF findings appears in today’s Jerusalem Post (March 25) and can be found at the following web address:


The Jerusalem Post article quotes IDF sources as saying that soldiers who heard the commander’s angry questioning of the marksman assumed he had indeed fired at the civilians, and a totally false rumor spread from there.

A second alleged incident in which soldiers killed another unarmed woman has also been found to be completely untrue, according to the IDF investigation as reported in both papers.

If the New York Times can produce Israeli soldiers who witnessed or perpetrated any alleged atrocities in Gaza first-hand, and can discover any corroborating testimony or evidence supporting their allegations, now would be the time to do so. If not, you owe your readers, and the Israel Defense Forces, a prominent correction and apology, as well as an explanation of how such fourth-hand reports found their way into the newspaper of record.

I know Ethan Bronner to be an intelligent, conscientious and principled journalist. In this case, however, he wrote an article that turned out to be false, and that has done tremendous damage to the truth, as well as to the honor of individual Israeli soldiers and the Israel Defense Forces. I’m sure both the Times and Mr. Bronner will want to correct the record promptly and fully, and in a location as prominent as that accorded to the original article.

I respectfully suggest that time is of the essence and that the New York Times must act immediately to remedy what was done. I look forward to receiving a personal response at your earliest possible convenience.

Efrem Sigel

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

This Republic of Suffering

This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War
By Drew Gilpin Faust

This Republic of Suffering is a very different Civil War book. I'm used to Civil War books that tell the story of battles, campaigns and leaders. This is a book about how an entire society, North and South, dealt with the most pervasive aspect of the war: its indiscriminate slaughter. Six hundred thousand people died in the Civil War, 2% of the population, by far the bloodiest war ever fought by Americans.

In a series of chapters most of whose names consist of just a single word—Dying, Killing, Burying, Naming, Believing and Doubting, Numbering—Faust examines death from every point of view: the soldiers who fought and died, the families that mourned them, their fellow comrades who struggled to bury them, the civic and religious leaders, writers, poets and ordinary citizens who sought to make sense of the war and its awful toll.

Throughout the book it is the voices of ordinary citizens that we hear, mostly through their letters or diaries, and already in a chapter or two we are already aware of the trauma that this war inflicted on everyone. It changed the way war was waged; it changed the way the army and the society treated the memory those who had fallen. One of the scandalous aspects of the war was how many dead soldiers could not be identified or counted or buried properly. After the war ended the army and the society at large undertook an enormous effort to rebury and identify them. This led to a permanent change in the way the U.S. military operated; identifying the dead and protecting and preserving their remains became a core value of military service. Honoring the memory of those dead, through holidays like Memorial Day, was a lasting legacy of the Civil War.

This is a work of immense scholarship, precise and eloquent prose, and lasting impact.

(For information about my new novel and my other writing, see www.efremsigel.com)

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

We Are the Ones Who Never Missed a Payment


an Open Letter to the Administration, Congress, federal and state officials, financial services executives and others

by Efrem Sigel

We are the ones who never missed a mortgage payment.

We lived within our salaries and saved part of what we earned, no matter how modest our take-home pay.

We used credit cards sparingly and always paid what we owed on time without incurring interest and penalties.

Although we often got three offers for new credit cards on the same day from the same bank, we kept the number of cards to a minimum. Never did we sign up for a new card so we could borrow money to pay the balance on another..

We resisted the blandishments of banks flooding us with offers for home equity loans so we could add a room, pay for a wedding, take a cruise. We paid for our vacations out of what we had, or we didn’t go. We knew it was foolhardy to borrow against our houses for normal household expenses.

We started IRAs or contributed to 401Ks and funded them year after year so we wouldn’t have to depend on Social Security for our retirement. Lacking guaranteed pensions from public or private employers, we provided for ourselves. That was the lesson we got from our parents, who lived through the Depression and never forget it. Neither did we.

If we were fortunate enough to see our incomes rise, we paid taxes at ever increasing rates,. Some of us started businesses and worked seven days a week, creating jobs for others and in the process, lifting our own standard of living.

Now we are watching the fruits of a lifetime of savings and effort melt away day by day because of the breathtaking incompetence and shameless, immoral behavior of others:

Like commercial bankers who forget the basic lesson of lending money: be as certain as you can that the borrowers can pay you back.

Like investment bankers who bundled and sold asset-based securities knowing they were junk—or even worse, not knowing.

Like successive Congresses and Administrations that provided easy credit, mandated that banks make loans to less credit-worthy borrowers, allowed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to take on ever-riskier mortgages with little or no oversight, stuffed the federal budget full of pet projects that cost tens of billions, and used our taxes for subsidies to whatever interest group was well organized and made the most noise—sugar growers or the ethanol lobby or defense contractors building weapons systems that never worked or oil and gas companies earning record profits.

As for us, we have suffered losses, household by household, that are mounting into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, devastating retirement plans, current income and our financial and emotional stability. Some of us will lose jobs not because of our own failings, but because of the failings of those in responsibility in both the public and private sectors.

And of course, no one is offering to bail us out.

Trillions in federal aid are going not to us, wage earners, taxpayers and savers, but to whose who failed: banks and insurance companies whose executives led them into insolvency, borrowers who signed mortgages they couldn’t pay, and no doubt soon, auto makers who couldn’t make cars that people want.

Not only have we already paid a crushing price in terms of the destruction of our savings, but who do you think will pay the tax bill for all of this aid when the final reckoning comes due?

That’s right: We will.


Thursday, October 23, 2008

Yom Kippur and "The Day the Market Crashed"

Six years ago a short story appeared in a little magazine called The Iconoclast. Its title: “The Day the Market Crashed.” It takes place in a synagogue on Yom Kippur, and while the market is indeed falling off a cliff on that day, the story is about a more personal but no less wrenching crisis that involves the family of a synagogue member.

As I sat in synagogue on Yom Kippur two weeks ago, against the backdrop of economic distress, heartache and panic, I couldn’t help but think of that story. On the Day of Atonement, we confess our sins and plead for God’s mercy. We recognize that worldly possessions and accomplishments mean little. And we acknowledge that life and death are not in our hands. Like a shepherd examining his flock, the liturgy proclaims, God will examine the soul of each person who passes before him, deciding who will live and who will die, who will be afflicted and who will be comfortable, who will be enriched and who impoverished.

Ordinarily, Yom Kippur is just about my favorite day of the year, the only day when I come close to shutting off the world around me. The fast is not an ordeal for me, neither are the long hours in synagogue. And the palpable sense of community that builds throughout the day and reaches an emotional climax in the Ne’ilah prayers never fails to move and inspire me.

And yet, like the people in “The Day the Market Crashed,” this year I could not block all thoughts about everyday life—the life of homes, jobs, money and obligations. And I’m guessing I was not alone. When the normal gives way to the unprecedented, it is natural to become obsessed. It’s the mind’s way of dealing with danger, perhaps a throwback to a time when danger was life-threatening, and obsession a key to survival.

Still,even in a time of tumult, Yom Kippur did not lose its special power. Yes, other thoughts intruded, but in the end it was the long interludes of reflection and the sense of belonging that prevailed. It was nourishing to share the day with friends and family, to give smiles and get hugs, to hear laughter as we tried to cope with loss. It made the solemn work of repentance and renewal not only bearable but urgently necessary.

When I wrote “The Day the Market Crashed” I had in mind that life often brings comedy in tandem with tragedy. Rereading it the other day gave me a chuckle or two. Perhaps it will do the same for you. If you are interested, you can find the story by going to www.efremsigel.com and following the link to “other works” on the home page.

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Friday, September 26, 2008

L'Shana Tova, for a year of peace

L'shana tova, for a good year

We say it every year at this time. We wish each other L'shana tova, the greeting for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. It means not happy new year, but a good year. And often we add our specific wishes: for a year of health and peace, of family connections and shared times. Never have I heard anyone say, "a year of a 15% gain in the Dow" or "a year in which you get the promotion you deserve" or "a year in which your litigation practice (or consulting business or real estate ventures) prospers. "

Because Jewish tradition regards these days as the birthday of the world, we are aware of our ability to start anew: To wipe the slate clean, to make amends, ask forgiveness and get ourselves right with our families, friends, acquaintances, even those with whom we have disputes or differences.

And to do that, we have to listen. Perhaps that is one of the lessons that we take from the Torah verse that we read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Abraham accedes to Sarah's demand to send Hagar and Ishmael away. He gives them food and water but these provisions run out, and mother and son wander in the wilderness, dying of thirst. And then we read, "Vayishma Elohim et kol ha na'ar": And God heard the cry of the boy. He opens Hagar's eyes to the location of a well, and she and Ishmael are saved.

In a perverse way, the tumultuous events of the past month are, like the blowing of the shofar, a warning to listen for the sounds of distress, to listen to the children, the elderly, the sick, the troubled. The more political and economic turmoil around us, the more we see clearly what's important: those around us, those whom we love, cherish and worry over, those in our immediate community and those in our wider community. Whatever the electoral outcome in November, whatever the state of the markets, the banks, the employment and home sales numbers, I'm imagining this is what many of us have in our hearts and on our lips when we say, L'shana tova.