Several years ago I had a chance meeting with a Jewish Rabbi by the name of Morton Kohn. Rabbi Kohn was more than twice my age. The difference in our years did not proportionately distinguish how vast his wisdom towered over my own. Through the ensuing years, a deep friendship was created and grew between this Auschwitz survivor and me, the one he eventually would call grandson.
Rabbi Morton Kohn, my adopted grandfather, passed on to a better place in 2005. I am not sure if there was a person who was as wise as he was or knew how to love the way he did by taking action. Teaching the most difficult of all human qualities – to be able to forgive and love openly – his sparkling eyes and warm smile continue to touch the lives of so many.
He was born the son of a Hungarian farmer. Life for young Marty was filled with the niceties common to those farmers who owned land in Hungary during the 1920’s and early 1930’s. As an adolescent and later as a teenager, life on the farm was essentially uneventful. Then Hitler’s campaign to control Europe began – Hungary was invaded – and as was the case for millions of innocent persons – Marty and his family’s life changed forever.
Eventually the troops came, led by the SS. Corralling all those who were not part of Hitler’s vision, the SS shackled all the Kohns and herded them into a cattle rail-car. The nightmarish frigid journey to the Auschwitz’s death camp had just begun.
Till this day I wonder how it was possible for these chained prisoners, treated with less dignity than farm animals, to sustain their spirit of what lay ahead for them while in the rail-cars. My grandfather once told me that when he and over 60 of his family members were rounded up, cuffed on both hands and feet, and directed "into the Death-Transporters, there were miracles of the heart that flourished inside what appeared to be darkness."
In those trains, rising above the foreboding uncertainty of man at our worst, were the singing voices of hope, rejoicing in God’s will: trusting their faith.
It was due to his experience in the horrendous rail cars that my grandfather eventually became a Cantor. It is easy for me to envision him faithfully singing to God. During the significant amount of time my grandfather and I would spend together, he would often sing. I think he took particular joy in doing so, especially when I would least expect him to. My grandfather was a joyful man - and one way he expressed his joy was through song.
In retrospect, it was his teachings that made me also realize that in order to be an understanding Catholic, I would have to understand Christianity's roots in Judaism.
After believing that all his family members were murdered in Auschwitz, Marty was able to escape the death camp under the guise of being a watch-maker. Fleeing into the Auschwitz Forest, where he lived primarily in man-made underground bunkers while the Nazi’s sought him and a small band of other escapees, my grandfather and his band of six made life in that forest very difficult for the Nazi army.
They were seven men hell-bent at destroying the German’s ammunition repositories and rail tracks that cut through the forest. And they were very good at what they did. For nearly eleven months the SS searched for my grandfather and his six companions. For eleven months, they caused great havoc and destruction to the German army. When Hitler decided to invade Russia, a great many of the supply lines ran through the area that these seven men were holding up. Many of Hitler’s supplies did not reach the Russian front. Part of the reason was due to the their efforts. If Hitler was able to successfully occupy Russia, the world we live in today surely would be a different place.
The stories my grandfather shared with me were always filled with sadness, yet, always, there was a sense of resiliency in his voice. Never once did I ever hear him share of the glory of war. Conversely, he always talked about respecting all life and how important it was that mankind get it right and learn how to care openly about one another. His words "we must learn to celebrate our differences" have always stayed with me.
Many years had passed from his days in the forest when we met. I was preparing to have my first book published when I was introduced to Marty, a brilliant printer who had manufactured millions of books. Over time, our friendship grew very close. Perhaps I had added a youthful touch to his life, for which he enjoyed. What I received back could never be fully described: lessons on the beauty of life and teachings that have enabled me to enjoy the wonderment of my own life.
I look fondly at the time we spent watching movies together, especially John Wayne films. And our long talks about faith, or about baseball, and about fatherhood. The subjects varied with every discussion. But they were always intriguing. Besides the many conversations that we had shared, there was another bond we delighted in: eating! My grandfather and I had a penchant for food . . . so we ate a great many good meals together - mostly at Kosher restaurants - which are remarkably good in New York - with a full array of cuisine, especially Italian. One of the restaurants we frequented, oddly, was a German pub in New York's East Village.
Wolfe’s was Marty’s choice. It was always interesting to see the facial expressions inside the pub when we went there together. But everyone was always respectful and friendly. I remember one day a young man approached Marty and told him he did not expect to see a Rabbi in the pub. Marty’s reply: "My friend, I was in Auschwitz. I lost my family there. So I come here as a way to show I forgive what happened."
The young fellow put his arm on my grandfather’s shoulder and told him he was a very wise and special person. His words were something I had already known. They were words often told to him.
In retrospect, with regard to my grandfather's life, I have thought long and hard for some time about The United States government's involvement in the Middle East, and in particular, the invasion of Iraq. I have thought about the murders in Somalia, and other places where innocent people are murdered because they are different. What I have come to accept in my own beliefs is that it is not acceptable to rationalize the murder of innocence by stating that the West does not understand the cultural differences in sovereign nations. And I quite frankly do not give a darn about issues of oil or economic stimulus. For me it is pretty simple: free men and women from around the world have an inherent responsibility to defend those individuals that cannot defend themselves with respect to every person’s innate rights to live in freedom. Now, I realize this sounds like part of an American mantra. I make no apology that The United States got it right.
The lessons learned from the time my grandfather was bound and forced into the 'Death Transporters', before he had to witness the murder of untold thousands in Auschwitz, guides my thoughts on multi-national global interventions. Clearly, there are many reasons to build a consensus - political and economic reasons included - but sometimes multi-national interventions take too much time, as was the case of the Holocaust - when cables were being sent over from England to the United States and elsewhere, painting the details of Hitler's cleansing campaign.
With respect to the current U.S. and Ally assisted occupation of Iraq, granted, there are always economic issues to be concerned about, but really, do you think it was only about oil? After all, all you have to do is take a look at the total cost to the United States over the past few years to clearly realize that economic gain was something that was not to be gained now or at any time in the future.
Could it really be possible that the vast reasoning behind this war was over the indisputable fact that millions of young children and women were murdered by fanatical leaders due to their differences? Funny that prior to the United States direct involvement in World War II (outside of the Lend-Lease Act), many individuals in America who did not want to enter that war said 'it was about the oil'. Was it really? I bet the over 35 million murdered victims of genocide who were put to death at the hands of Hitler or Stalin or the little spoken actions of the Japanese government in China would tell you something else.
There is not a day that goes by that I do not think of my grandfather Rabbi Morton Kohn – who knew how to take the time to notice one another and who was wise enough to celebrate our differences.
And to you Grandfather, I sure miss the smell of the ink, the sound of our mugs clinking together right before the sip of a cold beer, hearing you complain about my driving when I would take you to the doctors’ offices or out for dinner, that deep laughter that made everyone feel good, and most of all, hearing you sing at what I once thought were the most inappropriate of times. The truth is you were right: it was always an appropriate time to sing.
Most of all, Grandfather, I know you are still everywhere around me. And I am thankful.
When I think of my volunteer activism and desire to help others, I know who influenced me the most about the responsibility we all have in trying to make the world a better place for each of us. My greatest influence: my adopted grandfather, of course.
For those of you who may have an interest, there were two critical influences behind the writing of Cloning Christ. The first is my belief in Christ. However, the second substantial influence was the life lessons of my grandfather, Marty. In fact, so important was he to this story that the he is actually one of the characters in the story. So if you're interested in knowing just how amazing of a person he is, then I surely recommend reading Cloning Christ.