Tag Archives: Holocaust

Transitions, Awakenings, Gratitude

Every time an old person dies, it’s like a library burning down.”

 — Alex Haley

There is now one less faithful reader of my rambles and musings. Audrey’s mom — my mother-in-law — passed away last week. She was 87-1/2 years old. She lived a full life. RIP Eleanor “Elle” Rolfe (Nee: Stork).

She was a Holocaust survivor, escaping Nazi Germany in late 1938, thanks to the Kindertransport, which safely evacuated some 10,000 children (not nearly enough) to England in the dark and fearful few months following Kristallnacht.

Her father, Kurt, had been a very successful lawyer in Hamburg. He was pulled right out of a courtroom during a hearing, arrested, and sent off to a concentration camp.  The story is a bit vague at this point (see Haley quote), but her mother Paula and Kurt’s partner managed to get Eleanor onto one of the children evacuations. Her brother Eric, older by some three years, had been sent to a boarding school in England a couple years earlier.

Not quite age nine, she lived in England for about a year, staying with several families and even an orphanage. She arrived without knowing any English.  The first English word she recalled learning was “soon.” Every time she would ask when she could be with her brother (asked in German, of course, but I think they could understand “Bruder”) her guardians would answer “soon.”

Of course, they didn’t really know. Everything was chaos.  The Brits — mostly country folk, since the government was so terrified of the city bombings that would indeed come, starting in September, 1940 — were generous to care for these children.  (Many stayed after the war; they were orphaned).

Eventually she and brother Eric were re-united. Some time later their father was extracted from the Nazi grip by his law partners’ connections and bribes.  We owe a great debt of gratitude to law partner Kurt Sieveking, from a famous Hamburg family, for helping to get the family out of Hamburg in those dark, fearful months.

The family was re-united in Amsterdam, was able to obtain visas to the US, and sailed away the next December.  They arrived in New York harbor on New Years’ Day, 1940.

Hers is truly an epic story.  The family has a collection of epic stories, really.  Enough death, sorrow, and broken families to make you fill Amsterdam’s canals with tears. And these are just a few of many millions of stories.  What we know of the family alone could fill volumes; could be turned into several screenplays.  And that’s not half of it.  So very sad; and yet so very real.


My wife and I watched a rather odd, painful — yet interesting — movie earlier this week: Sleepwalk with me. It’s a mini-autobiographical biopic, written, and directed by the main character, who also stars as himself. [1]

[Warning: Plot spoiler] Brief synopsis.  The protagonist is a nice guy, but sort of a loser.  He’s in a nowhere job, but aspires to be a stand-up comic.  The aspirations are going nowhere too.  He has a beautiful, wonderful girlfriend. The relationship is eight years old, stale, and not really going anywhere.

He finally proposes marriage, more out of desperation than love.  This occurs just as his stand-up career starts improving immensely, as unlikely as that appears. She starts making bride-zilla scale wedding plans. She seems so excited.

As the wedding date approaches, near the end of the story, he admits that marriage is a bad idea for them.  To his astonishment, she agrees!  They break it off as easily as snapping a single uncooked spaghetti noodle.  Poof!  She never really thought the relationship would work out — for almost the entire eight years! And yet, she had accepted his proposal.

So why, why, why — he asks — did you keep hanging on with me???

Answer: I didn’t want to hurt you.


And it is a pretty weird story.  But it made an impression on me in a couple of ways, because it has such a ring of truth.

First, this guy (Mike Birbiglia — he is called Matt Pandamiglio in the story) put a lot of effort into telling an elaborate story that shows himself in a bad light. That’s honest and honorable. It ended up being kind of funny too, in a mostly awkward way, but that’s not the point.

Second, it got me to thinking about relationships, and how often they lack useful candor.

I don’t want to try and count the number of relationships I’ve had that have ended awkwardly.  And you know? … I almost never had a solid clue.  Am I dense?  With few exceptions, it seems like the young lady just sort of lost interest, but never had the nerve to tell me. Or maybe I did something wrong — and they never told me what it was. Never told me to “bug off.”

My wife can tell you that I’m a hopeless, sentimental romantic. With one exception, I just blithely thought any lady who’d date me more than two or three times was a potential lifelong mate.

And then .. and then … what?  Who knows?  I was just supposed to figure out from  their change of affection, or body language, or how they said my name  — or not being available next weekend, or the one after — that I just wasn’t their cup of tea. I’m not a good mind reader, especially when it comes to the opposite sex.

Except for once, every single break up just sort of happened when I stopped calling — with no regrets or “what happened?” from them. Or ended when I specifically made a point of saying something like: “I’m mystified.  With no more useful information, this is over.” This generally was just fine with them. [2]

With regard to exceptions, the most mature approach was probably the youngest, a lass we’ll call Susan (because that was her name).  Aged only 17, I dropped by one day, unannounced, fishing for clues, and asked “what’s up?”

She hemmed a few moments, then pulled a fresh sprig from a spruce tree and handed it to me. “This is a gift for you. See?  It smells nice.”

I said something like “Yes, it does. But, I don’t understand.”

She said “It will die soon. Even nice things die.”

Brilliant!  I eventually figured it out.  But I kept the dried up, dead old sprig for several months. Sentimental me.


I made a lot of mistakes when I courted Audrey.  Even more since we married. There was a lot of growth potential for Joe; but there was a long way between where Joe was and where that potential suggested he could be.

And that was — and is — one of her principal qualities. She held out for the potential. She has seldom been reticent about telling me how I could be better.  What I’d done wrong.  What she was expecting.

What a relief.  Yes, it hurt sometimes. And sometimes it’s even been kind of funny; for example I’ve even had to change how I fold socks and make a bed.  Pleasing a woman can be difficult and mysterious. It’s so much easier when she tells you what she wants and expects. And when she’s disappointed.

I’m pretty sure we owe quite a bit to Elle for these and many other of Audrey’s wonderful qualities.  The object of my affection saw potential and set a high bar for me; then she helped me get there — instead of just harrumphing and leaving me to guess, or divine the answers from a Ouija board.  Add to that her desire to be a devoted mother of children, something her mother faithfully and consistently displayed (fact: this was something we discussed on our first date!) and I knew I had a winner.  That was clear pretty early on.  I’m pretty sure around our 3rd date. And Audrey herself helped me earn her.

I’m a lucky man.

I’ve thanked Elle more than a few times for the gift of Audrey.  But let me say it again, here and now.  Elle: for anything and everything you had to do and endure to get Audrey to be the way she is, I thank you.

Joe Girard © 2017

Read Elle’s interview for Kindertransport history. Or listen to her interview for the US Holocaust Museum.

[1] Sleepwalk with me was produced by Ira Glass, he of fame from the Radio Series “This American Life.” The story was first made public on the show, narrated by Mike Birbiglia,and was very well received. The film premiered at the 2012 Sundance Festival, wherein it won the Best of NEXT Audience Award.

[2] Miss E(B)K, in case you ever read this — you were different: very nice, generous, mature and interesting lady.  Simply a poor fit, although it was a pretty good run for a few months.  The lessons on this one were: don’t wait too long, and don’t break up over the phone. Sorry about that. I also learned that live theater in a small venue is cool; so are older women.  Thank you.