In Gratitude to the Czars

By: Richard A. Gardner, M.D.

In the middle of his 96th year, my father died suddenly. Sitting in a chair he called my mother, and when she got there, less than one minute later, he was dead. After his death, my mother told me that recently he had started to become incontinent. I myself had noted that his memory losses were becoming painfully more apparent. If death must come, what better way than quickly at the age of 95, just at the point when one is beginning to become a burden to oneself and others.
Among my ruminations following his death, I recalled a telephone call I received about 25 years ago from the principal of a nearby New Jersey suburban elementary school. It was during one of my occasional ad hoc consultations that she asked me this question: “Dr. Gardner, as a child psychiatrist, I’d like your opinion on whether our fifth graders can reasonably be relied upon to take a bike trip for a picnic two miles away?”

Chuckling, I responded: “Your question reminds me of an experience my father had, as a boy, that I believe will answer your question. As you know, the typical pattern for immigrant families was for the father to come to America first and periodically send money to his wife who would then send on the children seriatim. Finally, she would come with the youngest. In 1906 my father, then 7-1/2, left for America from Kulicow, a town in Austria-Hungry to which his father had fled from Russia. He was accompanied only by his 10-year-old brother. En route to Hamburg, where they were to board their boat, they were accidentally separated from one another. My father understood that both of them were to get off the train at a certain station for a stopover visit to the home of relatives. Mistakenly, my father got off and watched helplessly as the train pulled away with his brother. Of the various options my father considered, he decided it was most likely that his brother would get off at the next stop and wait for him until the next train arrived - whenever that would be. My father went into a nearby restaurant and explained his situation to the owner. She fed him and let him stay overnight. The next morning he boarded the train and upon arriving at the next station, he saw his brother - who had waited for him all night on the station platform. They both made it to Hamburg and then to New York.” The principal’s response: “Thank you, Dr. Gardner, I get your point. Well said!”

Jean Piaget, the renowned French psychologist, considered a central element in intelligence to be the ability to adapt in a novel situation. Although my father’s primary education did not go beyond the fifth grade, his basic intellectual capacities certainly revealed themselves with this experience. Most children that age would have just stood there and cried!

At the time of my father’s death, I thought about what his life might have been like had he stayed in Kulicow. In 1914 Austria-Hungary became embroiled in the first World War as an ally of Germany . He most likely would have been recruited into the Austrian army. It is reasonable to assume that, as a Jew, he would not have been selected for officers’ training and would most likely have ended up a foot soldier, traditionally referred to as Kanonenfutter (cannon fodder). Had he survived that bloodbath, he soon would have found himself no longer a denizen of Austria-Hungary, but of the newly reconstituted Poland.

Had my father still remained in the same area, it is likely that new griefs would have befallen him in 1939, not only as a Pole, whose country was now being eaten alive by both Germans and Russians but, more importantly, as a Jew. Whereas Jews in many Europeans countries could rely upon the assistance of some (admittedly few) brave gentiles to protect them from the Nazis, Jews in Poland were far less fortunate - so deep-rooted was the antisemitism. His most likely fate would have been the death camps, about which I need say no more.

If, however, he had somehow survived the Holocaust, in 1945 he would have found himself the citizen of yet another country: the U.S.S.R. Polish antisemitism would now be replaced by Russian antisemitism. Because Jewish “comrades” were “less equal” than other comrades, his life would have predictably been difficult. In 1991, in association with the breakup of the U.S.S.R. , he would have found himself a citizen of yet another nation - Ukraine.

I do not know how many people (Jew or gentile) who were born in Kulicow in 1898 lived until 1994 - but there could not have been many, and there may have been none.

But the story does not end there. There is a strange irony here with regard to one of his sons. In association with my professional work in the field of child psychiatry, I have been invited to lecture throughout the United States and occasionally abroad. Interestingly, a country in which my work is most enthusiastically embraced is Russia, the land not only of my father’s forebears but my mother’s as well. My therapeutic games and books are being enthusiastically translated, and I recently returned from my fifth (and last) trip there. For my more recent lecture series, people came from such remote parts of the former Soviet Union as central Asia and eastern Siberia. The son of an expelled immigrant, a person whose family fled the persecutions and pogroms of the czars, is welcomed back with honor and gratitude. During each visit I am swept up by the irony of the situation.

I often asked myself why I went back. Certainly not for the rubles. Even my professorial appointment at The University of St. Petersburg did not include a stipend, nor even reimbursement for travel and lodgings expenses. I admit to the ego enhancement attendant to my reception. It was an “ego trip” in every sense of the term. But there were more important reasons. I had the chance to reach out across time and distance to bridge a gap that divided people and separated me from my roots. Perhaps with each visit I helped counter anti-Semitism, admittedly in a very small way. I never said a word about it. My giving Russians the living experience that a Jew was helping them make up - admittedly in a very small way - for their 75 years of academic deprivation contributed to the reduction of their prejudicial stereotypes.

During my visits, I was continually confronted with the privation and frustration with which most Russians continually live. I could not help but think how lucky I was that my forebears left Russia when they did. I often think that the descendants of the Jews who were forced out of eastern Europe, who often prospered wherever they went, should build monuments to the czars in gratitude for their having driven us out.


Dr. Gardner is Clinical Professor of Child Psychiatry, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Correspondence to: Richard Gardner, MD 155 County Road, PO Box 522 Cresskill, NJ 07626-0522

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