The chancellor of the University of Nebraska, Lincoln wrote an essay about a cab ride. But he couldn’t get through it without choking up, so he asked the Theater Department to recommend a reader. Someone who will understand it. Someone who will connect with the audience.
Who better than our new assistant professor? He’s also a Jew. Also with a dramatic European past.
So it was my husband who first presented this story to the public in 1994. That’s why I remember it.
An administrator at a midwestern university grabs a cab with a young couple from Germany and strikes up a conversation with seeming strangers:
I asked if they knew of a small town named Bunde, thinking quietly to myself about this horrid little place where my father’s uncle Willie had been hanged in a storefront window and set afire. Why yes, they lived there! Incredible, I thought, someone from the small town where my family lived for generations.
“My family is from Bunde,” I said. “Is there by any chance a cigar factory that is still there?”
“Yes,” he exclaimed with amazement, “it is our factory!”
I’m not a terribly emotional person, but I experienced in the span of a few moments more emotions than I knew were possible to feel in so short a time. I was stunned by the coincidence, incredibly excited by the opportunity to be able to find answers to a hundred questions that clamored in my mind. I also experienced horror thinking that I was inches away from the person who inherited from his grandfather the very house and business that Hitler had taken from my grandfather.
I suffered a silent rage as I contrasted the affluence of this young couple, who I learned were on a 10-city vacation-of-a-lifetime first-class tour of the U.S., with the poverty my father inherited, and I experienced, spending my first eight years in a working class neighborhood of immigrants on the South Side of Chicago. My father died an unhappy man, never seeming to transcend the reality of his lot, always aspiring to the affluence he might have had but never did.
This young man in the taxi was friendly enough, and I reminded myself that he, too, was a post-war baby. It was not his fault that he owned my family’s factory, I reasoned charitably.
“My grandfather built that factory,” I said with a mixture of revelation and tact. “His name was Gustav Spanier. He left there in 1941.”
“I know the name! Yes, I know that he was the founder.”
He was now a sticky kind of pale, and I felt the very same way. I learned that the factory came to his family immediately after my grandfather was forced to leave it. I learned that it employs 1500 people, and is still the major employer in the region.
. . . .
As the cab arrived at the hotel, I had asked only ten or twelve of my hundred questions. I wanted to know so much more. What did he personally know of the circumstances leading to his family’s acquisition of the company? What was his grandfather’s connection to the Nazis? How did he feel about this twisted injustice?
My husband (who left Soviet Russia in the mid-1970s) understood the story. He read it, and connected with the audience.
Later that year, we left Lincoln for the University of Utah.
The chancellor, Graham Spanier, left around the same time. He took up the presidency at Penn State. And he flourished in that job. Until recently.
There’s a lot of twisted injustice in the world. Let’s try not to add to it.
Let’s reason charitably: I don’t yet know what happened on the Penn State football team or what Mr. Spanier personally knew about it. Perhaps his affluence at football-rich Penn State (reportedly over $800,000 in annual income) was deserved and had no bearing on his relationship to the football program.
Maybe you sense my skepticism. But, I will say that back in 1994, my husband found him to be friendly enough and rather liked him.
For now, I think of Graham Spanier, sitting on the other side of the cab. Facing the silent rage and the horror that many will feel at being inches away from…what? Something. Anticipating the hundreds of questions we want to ask.
Turning (again) a sticky kind of pale.