CHAPTER 17: RETIREMENT AND A TRAGIC ENDING

On April 20th, 1986 I retired after thirty two years as a hairdresser. I had no idea what I was going to do with my free time but we had decided to go on a six months trip immediately after I stopped working. I had it all planned ahead. First we went on a cruise tour of Alaska with a three day extension in Vancouver where we saw the 1986 World fair. After that we returned by plane to Phoenix, stayed home for two days to take care of our laundry and to catch up with the mail. Then we packed up our car and drove for two months across Canada, as far North-West as Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. Then we drove south along the coast of Canada and New England, then inland to Philadelphia. There we parked our car, which was loaded down with all our suitcases in the trunk and our food and extra sweaters and coats in the back seat. In our ice chest I kept all our film and video tapes, so the hot sun (it was now the end of June already) would not spoil our pictures. I parked the car in what I thought a safe place, at the corner of a major intersection with a lot of police and meter maids walking around. I even remarked to Anita that, with all those uniformed people around, the car would be safe. It was a two hour meter which gave us enough time to see the Liberty Bell and the historical buildings in that area.

When we returned to the car I noticed that it was unlocked. I knew I had locked the car so I realized immediately that somebody had picked our locks. First I checked the trunk where to my relief nothing was missing. But when I checked the ice chest I saw that everything had been moved around there. They had stolen a lot of food but, worst of all, they had stolen all the film and all the videotapes, both the ones which were used and the blank films and tapes. We were devastated: we did not have one picture left, no slides and no video, of that gorgeous journey across Southern Canada, a ten thousand mile ride of the most beautiful scenery one can imagine. Even today, after twelve years, I can feel the lack of pictures of that indescribably beautiful trip. To add to our distress, we were insulted by the Philadelphia police when, after a wait of many hours, they finally made out a report, which we needed to recover some of our losses from the insurance company. Basically they said: "What do you expect when you park your car at a meter in the street?" When I mentioned that I had thought it would be safe on a main street teeming with uniformed policemen, they laughed at us. I had trouble controlling my anger but I did not want to make things worse. I really felt that, if I said one more thing, I would end up at the police station. So I just asked him to make the report and give me a copy and we would get out of there. We were extremely upset but we had still four more months left of our projected trip. We kept telling each other not to let this spoil our entire vacation. We gave it our best shot.

We were still visibly upset when we arrived late at my friend Elliot Gilbert's (Kaminsky's) house in New Brunswick, New Jersey, where he and his family were waiting for us with a great dinner prepared in our honor. He was very supportive when he heard our sad tale and after dinner he took us in his car to a shopping center where we bought new film and replaced some toilet articles which had also been stolen. I hope we showed our gratitude to him sufficiently because we were still extremely distraught when we left the next morning on our way to new adventures.

Our next stop was for a visit at Milton's (Anita's brother's) house in Virginia, just outside of Washington. We stayed there a few days and did the usual sight-seeing in Washington, DC. During our stay I had a rather unpleasant experience. One evening Anita went upstairs where Milton and his wife, Sara, were in their bedroom. It was still early in the evening and I was wondering why they had all gone upstairs. But I was not invited so I tried to keep myself busy, which is not easy in someone else's house. After a few hours I became impatient and went upstairs, knocked on the door and asked how long Anita planned to stay there. It was now almost midnight! They invited me in but only to tell me that I should go to bed and that Anita would come very soon. I felt very uncomfortable, so I bid everyone good night and went downstairs where our bedroom was. It was a long time before Anita finally joined me. I asked her what was going on but she was non-committal. The next morning, as we were leaving for the next stage of our trip, we thanked our hosts for their hospitality. Anita received some hugs and kisses and then Sara said to her out of the clear sky: "I hope you'll have a good time in spite of Fred." I did not know what she was talking about. I thought that we both had had a wonderful time all along. After we left I questioned Anita about it but she claimed not to know why all this came about. I knew that she was not telling the truth but I decided not to let this incident spoil the rest of our terrific trip. Only years later, after she died, I found out what had taken place that previous evening. More about that later.

From there we flew to Holland where we spent two glorious weeks visiting and sight-seeing with my family. As always, we visited Uncle Michael and his wife. Both of these wonderful people were getting older and Mrs. van Lieshout already suffered from Alzheimer's disease. We also paid our respect to Ms.Tinbergen. She is a remarkable person. At that time, in 1986, she was in her middle eighties. Her mind was as sharp as ever. She wanted to know everything about our families. She looked exactly as she had looked forty years earlier, the same hairdo and, it seemed to me, even the same dress! Of course, that was not true, but her appearance had not changed much during all these years.

After that we went to Israel for two months, exploring every corner of that beautiful country and testing if we would want to move there permanently. We decided not to make that move for several reasons. The most important reason was that we would not be covered by our health insurance. Also, we were spoiled and did not want to give up the easy life we had in the United States. Besides that, the inflation rate in Israel at that time was around four hundred percent. When we found out that the principle of the mortgage on a house was tied to the inflation rate, we decided not to invest in an apartment in Israel but rather to visit there once or twice each year. Naftali took us sightseeing everywhere. We had a wonderful and happy time with our family. By now they had a second child, Boaz, who greeted us with a big smile. We also met my old friend from Holland, Hans Schellekens and his wife. We still do so regularly and stay in touch with them on the holidays.

From there we returned to Virginia and Milton to pick up our car. Anita wanted to spend a few more days with them but I was adamant in my refusal. I did not want anything to do with them anymore after that painful experience some three months earlier. So, we left the same day and drove home. We went through West Virginia which was in full fall colors (it was November) and in Colorado we were greeted by a blue sky but the fields and mountains were covered with a heavy blanket of snow. That was an unforgettable sight. We were also excited to see our trusted townhouse again after more than a half year of travel.

I do not need to describe in great detail all our travels and how we spent our time. But I will give you a general idea. First of all, Anita and I grew very close during this time. We enjoyed each other's company. We went for long walks during which we held hands and talked about our plans and our problems and fears. It could have been idyllic except for two things: Anita constantly mentioned the possibility of dying before she could do the things we had planned and she became extremely sensitive. I tried to talk her out of the former while encouraging her to enjoy life every day to the fullest. I had to do this on a daily basis. This was very difficult for both of us and for me especially as I was not allowed to talk with anybody about her condition. Besides that, at this time she was not sick or in pain or limited in anything she wanted to do. Her over-sensitivity was even harder to handle. I did not know how to approach it. There was some talk about going to a psychiatrist but it never happened. I tried to humor her but that sometimes made her even more mad. However, all this did not deter us from having a wonderful and exciting time during the last years of her life. I will do my best to describe this difficult period as accurately as I can.

Before I retired I had mixed emotions; how would I spend all that free time? On the one hand, I had a lot of hobbies: I could paint, I liked reading, I knew that I would be much involved with travel and the planning of our trips and I liked talking to people, so I did not think I would be bored. But I could not figure out what exactly would keep me occupied. I wanted to contribute something meaningful in some way to some cause, I wanted to make a difference, maybe even leave a lasting legacy, but I had no idea what it could be. On the other hand, I had heard that some people became depressed and difficult when they were home all day. I definitely did not want to go through that. I also thought that I might do something with my photography, give more slide shows like the ones I had been giving for the last ten years or do some kind of teaching. All this went through my mind as the time of my retirement approached. So, when we finally settled down after our six months hiatus I started to look into activities for me to do.

By now I was used to "leisure time" without the routine of a working person. Yet, I had not found a way to keep myself occupied. Here Anita was a great inspiration. She wanted to join the Plotkin Judaica Museum and become one of its tour guides. She had gone there several times between the time of her retirement and mine and now she wanted to go to the classes regularly. She said that these were interesting and informative classes and that I would enjoy them also, and that I should give it a chance. The first time I went reluctantly. I did not know what to expect. By chance that year the museum was preparing the opening of the Anne Frank exhibit and Rabbi Plotkin was giving a background talk on the history of Dutch Jewry and the Holocaust. As I was listening to him I became very agitated. I had never talked about my life during the war to anybody and now, listening to the Rabbi talk, I felt every memory coming back. Anita whispered to me that I should tell him that I had come from Holland but I could not do it. So, she brought it up and told the group that I had spent the war years in Holland. Rabbi Plotkin immediately interrupted his talk and asked me to talk to the group about my experiences. I said that I could not. I am sure that they noticed that I was visibly shaken. So, he went on with his presentation but after the class Sylvia Plotkin, his wife, came over to me and said that I would have much to contribute to the class and the show. After all, she remarked, who could talk better about the war years than someone who personally had gone through that experience? I still declined but Sylvia had her unique ways and somehow, the following week, I talked to our docents for an hour about my experiences. It was very difficult for me and several time I had to stop for a minute as my emotions ran out of control. Everybody was very supportive and understanding and afterwards everybody thanked me and said they appreciated my sharing my story with them. Sylvia said she was surprised that I could talk so well in public ( I told you she had a unique way with people!) and when I told her that I was used to talk in public as I was giving slide shows regularly, she suggested that I should talk about the war to groups visiting the exhibit. I did not make any promises but soon after the exhibit opened Sylvia called and said that a group of high school youngsters were booked for a tour and that I would be the person to tour them. I reluctantly agreed.

For the following three months I talked to groups about the war one to three times a day. Normally docents are not allowed to lead a group until they had been in training for two years, but Sylvia not only made me an exception, she also booked me as much as she could. Now I did not refuse anymore; I had found a way to stay busy in my retirement. I toured groups as small as eight and as large as forty people at a time. I had no trouble keeping their attention but I did have trouble controlling my emotions. At some point or another, not always at the same point, I had to swallow hard to control my tears. It was all very emotional but I finally talked. Since then I have given presentations for high school classes and retreats of as many as two hundred students and have given interviews to newspapers, a radio station and a TV program. Most importantly, I have participated in a taping of a video about how Holocaust survivors have adjusted to normal life after the war. That tape goes around the country to all the high schools and will be circulating from now on. It is also a part of the Holocaust Museum library in Washington DC. So, hereby I fulfilled my dream to make a difference and to leave a lasting imprint on at least a few people. I am so grateful for that. Not everybody gets such a chance.

This was only the beginning. I went to all the museum classes and after the Anne Frank exhibit closed Sylvia continued asking me to do tours. I became really involved with the museum. When she found out that I was good at photography she put me to work with that. I made some pictures of new acquisitions but more than that, I made fourteen videos of shows the museum had and of trips we made to Israel and interviews I did with Israeli artists and a slide show showing the various aspects of life in Israel. I also wrote the script for the latter. They are all in the museum and I am thrilled that these are a part of the permanent collection.

At the same time Anita became involved in "Sun Sound Radio," a radio show for home bound and print handicapped people. All people working there, except for the director, were volunteers. Again Anita encouraged me to come along with her for an interview and a sound test of our voices. We both passed that test and the director seemed to be anxious to have us join the station. There were two openings available: one for reading art magazines in the studio and the other a travel show done on the road. The latter was just what I wanted. From 1987 until the middle of 1992, when Anita became so ill that I had to take care of her one hundred percent, we traveled and went to all kinds of exciting places which I described on my little tape recorder. I was the eyes and ears of the listeners, who got their special receivers free of charge from Sun Sound Radio. I had to do fifty weekly half hour shows per year. This turned out to be a thrilling experience. At local events Anita went with me and prepared the person to be interviewed with what I was doing. That was a great help for me so I could start my interview without any ado. I also had a press pass so that we went behind the scenes of state fairs, balloon races, rodeos and other sporting and cultural events. While traveling I often had my video camera in one hand and the audio recorder in the other hand. I interviewed governors, mayors and many famous sport and cultural figures. It ended up to be one of the more exciting times of our lives and it also helped us to grow closer as we spent so many exceptional moments together. After coming home with the twenty five to twenty-seven minute tapes I transferred these onto another tape on which I had prepared my short introduction with the background of the music of "Around the World in Eighty Days." My greatest reward for all that work came when one of the listeners, who was totally blind, said that, while listening to my report during an open house at Luke Air Force Base, she felt as if she were there and could see the planes going through their demonstrations. I felt I had done my job well.

And so we were pretty busy with all these wonderful activities. Retirement became a fun time and has been such ever since. I became gradually more involved with all these volunteer jobs, so much so that between these and my work-outs at the spa I was busy from morning to night and often even during the night. I did not sleep much anyway and many nights I would sit up for hours working on a report for the docents or preparing a book review, another one of my activities. The marathons and other competitions I had to discontinue. I developed a bad cough during the training for the 1986 marathon. I had to reduce my long distance runs to the point that I realized that I would not be able to run that marathon. While in Israel I had a terrible coughing attack which kept me up all night. The next day, while walking up a slight incline in Jerusalem, I had to stop walking and nearly collapsed. I thought that I might have lung cancer. Marcia, Naftali's wife, who has a bad case of asthma, made an appointment for me with her doctor. After examining me he told me that I, too, had asthma and he put me immediately on two medications. I was relieved to know that I did not have cancer but I also had to make an adjustment in my life style to accommodate the limitations asthma put on me. The medications gave me instant relief but I could not run anymore. I had to stop all running but I kept working out. I concentrated now on speed walking and swimming. I did well enough in the latter to win several medals while competing in the senior Olympics in Arizona. I have kept up the regular workouts although, after getting a ruptured disk a few years later, I gave up all competitions. I still miss these but I thank G'd that he had given me the ability to do it for a few years and to have the wonderful memories.

Yet, I felt that there was something missing. My religious life was in shambles. I only went to the Synagogue on the High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur). I did believe in a G'd but I was mad at G'd for what had happened during the Holocaust. For several years now, when I was supposed to ask G'd for forgiveness of my sins I would instead deep in my mind demand from G'd to ask me to forgive Him for the death of so many in my family, especially for the death of my oldest brother Hans, and for the murder of so many millions of the Jews in Europe. Eventually I resolved this dilemma within myself.

Every time we went to Israel I went with Naftali to an Orthodox synagogue. I felt uncomfortable with the service because it was mostly unfamiliar to me. Often I was asked to perform one of the rituals of the service because I am a Levi. Levites used to aid in the Temple service during the Temple days and now we still perform special rituals. However, I always had to decline the honor simply because I did not know what to do or how to recite the prayers and I had no clue what it all meant. I asked Naftali questions and I must say that he had much to do with my return to our traditions.

1988 was an important year in that respect. We had come home from Israel after a stay during the High Holiday season. What we experienced there combined with what I had learned in the museum made me more curious than ever. Strangely enough, at the museum, which is affiliated with a Reformed Temple, we were taught all the traditions the proper way. The more I learned the more I realized how little I knew and how much more there was to be acquainted with. One day I toured a group of Orthodox youngsters and their teacher, Rabbi Cooperman of the Hebrew Academy, who exclaimed that he was so glad to have a male tour guide. This struck me as funny because I did not know the museum as well as Sylvia Plotkin or some of the other old-time female docents. So, I did the best I could with the show, which was about King David and the psalms, until the Rabbi asked one of the youngsters to read one of the psalms. It appeared that he knew it by heart and the Rabbi proceeded to give some explanations. I felt totally inadequate and I asked the Rabbi to continue his teaching while I listened and learned. Right then and there I decided that I did not want to be an ignoramus of our traditions any more and I started giving the study of our religion all the time I had left during the day and, again, often for many hours during the night.

The following year, while in Israel, I bought the pocket sized edition of the Artscroll Sidur which has an almost literal translation of the prayers and a lot of commentaries and instructions as to what to do and how and when. I even taught myself to read Hebrew. Because of the war I had interrupted my Hebrew lessons when I was twelve years old and barely knew the aleph-beit, the Hebrew alphabet. With this little bit of knowledge I figured out word for word how to pronounce the prayers. Anita, as always, was very encouraging and bought me some books explaining the prayers and rituals. She also encouraged me to join with her in the Talmud classes which were at that time given by Dr. Joel Gereboff in a Temple Beth Israel classroom. After a while I felt comfortable enough to prepare some programs on our religion for the docents. One was about our history between the first and second Temple days, one was on the layout of the Talmud and how it came about (that one was particularly difficult), and one about some of the ritual items such as the Tallith and the Tefillin. It gave me great pleasure that often Rabbi Plotkin would sit in part of the time during my lectures and showed me his approval.

But now a new problem developed. As I understood our customs and laws better, I also felt very much the lack of the rituals in the Reformed service. I became very annoyed with that to the point that I finally decided to make a break with Temple Beth Israel, which I had joined in 1966, and now we became members of Congregation Beth El, a conservative synagogue with the very traditional Rabbi Silberman. We became acquainted with the Rabbi when Anita's father had died in 1981. Rabbi Silberman, who led some services at Kivel Nursing Home where my in-laws had lived for many years, is a real "mensch" and at my father-in-law's funeral he made a beautiful speech which made us all feel at peace. Anita had already gone to his service at Beth El since we had come back from Israel and she encouraged me to at least try it for a couple of Shabbaths. Well, I immediately felt at home there for two reasons: first and foremost, the service was very close to the Orthodox service I had participated in so many times in Israel and which reminded me of what little I remembered from before the war which had stopped it all. And then, to my surprise, I knew more people at Beth El than I knew at Beth Israel after twenty two years. Some I knew from my health spa, some from the Holocaust Association and a few even from the museum. So, I immediately received a hearty welcome and Rabbi Silberman gave me the Levi aliyah on my first visit, one of the honors for a Levi. I felt elated, even though I was embarrassed that I still did not know the prayers and special blessings very well. But I had found a Jewish religious home.

It was extremely hard for me to tell Sylvia and Rabbi Plotkin, who by now were like friends to me, that I had to quit their synagogue. But I told them exactly how I felt and they were very gracious about it and said that they hoped that I would come again once in a while to their service. As a matter of fact, several times, after we quit, Rabbi Plotkin invited me for an honor during the Friday night service, which I accepted. Sylvia faced a problem because the by-laws of the museum required the docents to be members of Beth Israel as well. I must say that I felt flattered when she told me that she had called for a special meeting of the museum board during which, at her prodding, they changed the by-laws so I could remain a docent ( I told you that she had her special way). Later they had many more docents who were not members of Beth Israel. I was very happy with that decision because I believe in that museum which does a marvelous teaching job and reaches out to the community. And now I gave all my available time to the study of anything Judaica. I lectured, gave book reviews, made many video tapes and sometimes toured four to five times a week. I was busy! Not only with my studies and volunteer work but also traveling, preparing for the travels, arranging the thousands of slides I had taken of the travels( I have over twenty two thousand catalogued slides) and giving slide shows of our trips. I also still competed, now only in swimming, for which I received a silver medal in the Senior Olympics for second place overall in the one mile race. I was physically and mentally in the best shape ever. I did not know then how well this prepared me for later very difficult and trying years.

We had a very good life during those years. We made many friends and acquaintances, were members of two Chavuroth (synagogue groups who met monthly and discussed Jewish subjects), we traveled a lot, learned a great deal and worked out regularly in the health spa. I became a member of three different committees at Beth El, one was the ritual committee, another the education committee, and I was the chairman of the library committee. The latter was especially interesting because Beth El had just built a new library in the (at that time new) Schurgin Building. I was then in charge of furnishing and setting up the new library. Just think where I received my original experience in library work: in the army when I had walked away from the daily work detail!

Needless to say that we were busy all the time. We had a good and pleasant life. Then, one day in 1989, Anita complained of back ache which became very severe and persistent. It was very noticeable but I mostly tried to ignore it. I had noticed that she was walking improperly. She had a strange, unbalanced gait and during our walks I often reminded her to walk upright or to hold her back straight. But she said that she simply could not do that. The pain became gradually worse. I encouraged her to do some special exercises which I had learned during the years I had back problems. She tried but I could see that this was not working. In the spa she did less and less and at a slower pace. I suggested that she should get some massage. That would do her good. She actually had an appointment for such a massage the day after she decided to see a doctor. The doctor told her to cancel that appointment until he saw an X-ray of her back. After that he ordered an MRI and when he saw that he sent her back to her oncologist. There she received the horrible news: she had bone cancer! The cancer had spread to the back of her head and over a major part of her back. We were devastated. There is no way to describe the sick feeling in the pit of your stomach when you hear that awful C-word, now for the second time. I tried to keep her spirits up as much as I could but she was very depressed.

I do not want to go too deeply into the next three and a half years. Suffice it to say that, during that time, Anita suffered greatly, both physically and emotionally, and I emotionally. She gradually deteriorated to the point that, after several periods in and out of the hospital, she ended up in a wheelchair hooked up to oxygen. During the final four months of her life she remained in a semi-comatose state in a nursing home. I took care of her as well as I could. I tried to keep her as comfortable as was possible under these circumstances. It became obvious that she was failing fast.

On Saturday, January 9 1993, I went into her room early in the morning. She seemed to be resting comfortably. I told her that I was going to the synagogue and that I would return right after the service. I walked out and I knew that I would not see her anymore. I just knew it. I went to the synagogue and when it was time for the Kaddish, the traditional prayer commemorating the dead, I told a friend of mine: "I'll be saying this soon, too." After the service I did not even stay one minute for the traditional get together of the congregation, the Kiddush, but I ran back to the nursing home. As I approached it I knew that Anita was not alive anymore; I felt it in the pit of my stomach. I walked down the path to the entrance where two nurses were waiting for me. Before they could say anything I said: "Don't tell me, I know." They asked me if I wanted to see her one last time but I could not. I did not want to see her dead.

Next -> CHAPTER 18: MY LIFE AS A WIDOWER AND THE HEALING PROCESS

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