Her name was Ellen Shoshany Kaim and she taught me the secret to life while we were waiting for a park board meeting to commence.
A blizzard was pounding Madison, as wind swept across the isthmus from what seemed to be every direction. It was the kind of day where you wanted to sit home and do nothing. In my case, I had to work at the newspaper and I was praying for a quiet night of making cop calls and writing briefs out of the briefs bin.
For reasons past my understanding, the dayside editor had received pressure from the upper management to get more work out of the nightside reporters. In an attempt to appease someone or other, he had me slated to cover a park board meeting.
Nothing of importance ever comes out of a park board meeting and nothing of importance was expected to come out of this one either. My boss had circled three minor agenda items and told me I could patch together a byline story out of them. As I listened to him tell me what he wanted, I stole glances out the newsroom windows, which were being buffeted by angry snowflakes.
The drive was about six or seven miles, but I was driving a 1991 Pontiac Firebird. This car took to snow like oil took to water. It had no back end weight and often fishtailed out of control, despite the fact I’d dumped my dad’s entire collection of weightlifting equipment into the trunk in an attempt to improve the traction.
The snow had been falling for about two hours at a rapid pace and the streets department wasn’t clearing the roads. The theory was that the folks with the plows would wait until most of the snow had fallen and do one good clearing because what kind of idiot would be on the road in this crap?
I got to the meeting with about ten minutes to spare, only to find that no one from the board was there yet. The only thing in the empty room was a microphone and a small, rumpled woman who looked to be about 900 years old. She sat quietly among the chairs in about the fourth row.
When I entered the room, she looked back at me with a smile spreading across her wrinkled face. “Why are you here?” she asked me in a very thick European accent that I couldn’t quite place.
I told her the newspaper sent me out here to cover the park board meeting and I wasn’t sure if the meeting was still on. She explained that the board members had an event or something downstairs that was still ongoing and it had been delayed because of a ridiculous amount of snow. She said she had taken the bus here much earlier in the day and had been waiting for the board.
“I came to talk about my rock,” she said.
Given the accent, I wasn’t sure I heard her right, so I repeated what she told me. She greeted the response with a perfunctory nod of pride and agreement.
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” I told her. “Your rock?”
Her eyes lit up as she realized I was a trapped audience of one. She explained that she had saved about $30,000 and was donating it to the parks department to create a memorial to the Holocaust. She was having a giant boulder put into one of the area parks with a plaque on it to remind people of what had happened all those years ago. Two benches would face the boulder and would be dedicated to two men I had never heard of who, like Oskar Schindler, had aided Jews in their survival.
She didn’t look like she had a pot to pee in or a window to throw it out of. She also had taken the bus here, lived in an apartment in a less-than-stellar part of town and seemed a bit off. The idea of her having $30,000 and just giving it to the city for a giant rock didn’t seem plausible. As a reporter, I’d heard all sorts of stories over the years and I had learned to be wary of stuff like this.
As I was pondering all of this, she seemed to see a look of quizzical doubt creeping across my face.
“I do this because there is guilt in surviving,” she said. “You have to help people remember. We aren’t many left.”
She then told me the tale of how she came from a family of well-to-do German Jews in 1930s Berlin. As Hitler rose to power, her father was warned to find a way out of the country. A week before the military started closing down the borders, she was ferried out of Germany along with the rest of her immediate family.
They made their way to America, where she grew up and eventually met a nice Jewish boy she wanted to marry. His trip to this country had been sidetracked by a stay at the Bergen-Belsen Death Camp.
The camp took on many stages of use, ranging from a POW camp to a “shoe” work camp. Eventually, the former leaders of Auschwitz took over and converted it to a death camp. Although the camp lacked the traditional tools of death associated with these facilities, such as gas chambers, approximately 50,000 people died there, mainly due to typhus. The camp gained notoriety in 1945 after images of the liberated camp become public and it remained in the collective conscience when it became known that Anne Frank had died there.
She spared me the details I’m sure her husband shared with her over the years. The one thing she did tell me was that she married him in the late 1960s and until the day he died, he slept with his arms folded and his hands placed on his shoulders. He never moved an inch during sleep. She explained that was how he was forced to sleep in the camps and despite his best efforts, he could never shake the habit.
The Nazis cost her aunts, uncles, cousins and more. As the years went by, she found that more people showed more doubt about the stories she shared and information that emerged. She kept saying to me that it was important for people to remember and for the people who saw and experienced these things to keep finding ways to remind people so it never happened again.
I found myself taking notes, forgetting all about why I was there in the first place. I then asked her name and asked if I could tell her story. After three attempts to have her spell her name for me and me screwing it up, I handed over my reporter’s pad and she printed out “Ellen Shoshany Kaim.”
The park board had found its way into the meeting room at this point and its members were shuffling through their paperwork. Mrs. Kaim and I settled into our seat and got ready for the meeting to start. I was looking toward the front of the room when I felt a tug on my arm. I looked down and saw her gnarled hand.
She had a small twinkle in her eye and asked, “Would you like to know what I have found to be the secret to life?”
She beckoned me in with a bony finger and I leaned in close, as to not have her voice disrupt the meeting as it was called to order.
“Spend all your money on education and travel.”
I gave her kind of a strange look.
She answered my stare.
“Those are the two things no one can ever take away from you.”
The meeting began and Mrs. Kaim took to the front of the room, explaining the rock and her plans for it. The board passed it with no trouble at all. I had to duck out of the meeting early to make my deadline. When I got back, I explained to my boss what I had found and that, yeah, sure I could do the three boring briefs or I could tell this story. She not only agreed to let me do Mrs. Kaim’s story, but she managed to carve out a premier spot for it. The story drew praise from the dayside crew as well.
About a year or so later, I got an invitation from the park board to come to the unveiling of the boulder. I was about two weeks from leaving the state for what would be a decade, so I skipped the ceremony without much of a thought.
Still, I often found myself replaying that moment in my head and her secret to life: education and travel.
I hated travel, but I did get about as much education as possible. When my formal degrees had reached their end, I tried learning about other things. I learned how to work on cars, small engines and other mechanical items. I taught myself how to refinish furniture and how to cane chairs. I learned how to use different computers and various programs. I also dedicated myself to teaching people so that I could share what I had learned and maybe find a way to help other help themselves.
Over the years, I’d bump into a copy of the story I had written on her and the note my boss had scrawled across it, complimenting me on a job well done. I could still recount, practically word for word how she explained why she was giving the city a “rock.”
About two weeks ago, during a break in one of my classes, a couple kids were yammering on about a chance to take an interim class on travel photography and how cool it would be and how great it would be to go to all these places and photograph them and…
“So go,” I piped up, drawing the attention of everyone in the room. It was as if E.F. Hutton had shown up or something. “What’s the problem?”
The young lady shot back, “Uh… It’s called MONEY! I can’t spend all that money on a trip for something like this.”
“Spend all your money on education and travel,” I told her. “Those are the two things no one can ever take away from you.”
She paused. “What?”
I told her the story of Mrs. Kaim and the rock and the secret to life. The kid paused and pondered and then said, “I wonder if I can use some of my student aid for this.”
She then looked at me. “Whatever happened to that lady?”
“I really don’t know,” I said. “I’ll see what I can find out.”
The rest of the day, I Googled the terms “Shoshany Kaim” and “obituary,” figuring on her being dead. Nothing came up, so I started going through various guides and online phone books. No luck there either.
I saw that her rock was listed on the website of a Jewish community center near the park, so I emailed the office and asked for any information on her. I received a perfunctory email about an hour later:
“Mrs. Kaim passed away a number of years ago.
If I can be of further assistance please feel free to contact me.”
A follow-up inquiry directed me to an obituary in the paper I used to work for. She died about four or five years ago. I hadn’t really thought about her in years other than when that moment comes up to talk about education or travel. Or when I want to tell kids about how sometimes a great story can just fall right into your lap. Or when I have to explain how some things just stick with you, like the image of a man sleeping with his hands on his shoulders…
Or on this Thanksgiving, where I realized that a park board meeting and a chance encounter gave me the gift of perspective and a sense of understanding.
Good night, Mrs. Kaim. And thanks for everything.