Why Albany?

As I reread my previous post about “The Match,” I realized there are some pieces of the story I wanted to add. Once again, the beauty of a blog presents itself: I can add to the history I am sharing whenever and however I want! Of course, hopefully I am keeping it coherent and interesting!

First, I want to explain how Albany, New York came to be ranked so high. The charms of Albany might not be evident. A number of my blog readers live in Albany and are well acquainted with its appeal, but not all of you are, so I will explain.

Some medical students, when they had breaks from school, went off for a beach vacation, Gary and I took the time to visit family. We’d start in the city, see Gary’s parents in Queens (Gary’s mom was kind enough to lend us her car so we could make the rounds), then mine in Brooklyn. We’d hit Jersey to see my brother and sister-in-law, Steven and Cindy. Then we’d travel up Route 17 to Middletown to see Gary’s brother and sister, Steven (so many Stevens in our lives!) and Rochelle. Finally, we’d go to Albany to visit my brother and sister-in-law, Mark and Pam, and, importantly, their sons, our nephew Joshua, and their newest arrival, Samuel Lee.

Mark began a campaign to have us come to Albany. Perhaps because of his fond memories of our grandparents and then our aunt and uncle living upstairs from us in Canarsie, Mark had visions of creating a family compound in Albany. He took every opportunity to lobby family members to relocate (his efforts, by the way, have paid off over the years. We don’t have a family compound, but some members have relocated, but more on that another time).

When we got to Albany, as part of our New York grand tour, Mark began the hard sell. He drove us around the residential neighborhoods near the hospitals, he showed us around the suburbs. He was on the verge of getting Gary carsick, but then he gave us quotes on property values. Gary had an appreciation for those numbers. We learned we might be able to afford to buy a house – not an option in most of the other places we were considering.

Mark pointed out that we were less than three hours from Boston and New York City, and only four hours from Montreal. He knew I loved those cities. He also dangled the offer of lawn passes to see the New York City ballet at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in the summer. During my teenage and young adult years I went to the ballet regularly with my mom, her sister, Aunt Simma, and her daughter, Laurie. We had a subscription. I loved (and still love) the ballet.

Our visit ended with us sitting on the floor of Mark’s living room playing with Josh and Sam.

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Dad and Sam, on Sam’s first birthday, in 1986. Just after Gary and I moved to Albany.
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Other than wearing the wrong baseball cap, Josh was perfect. He is 4 years old in 1986.

That’s how Albany made it to number two.

When ‘the match’ revealed itself and we learned we were going to Albany, I think Gary was a little perplexed. His interview at Columbia had gone well. He had done research there before attending medical school in Pittsburgh. His grades and board scores were excellent. While he certainly didn’t feel like a shoo-in, it seemed like a reasonable bet.

We thought it was just one of those things that we would never understand. But not long after match day, Gary saw the head of Pittsburgh’s internal medicine department, Dr. Levy, and they chatted a bit. Gary learned that during the process Columbia had called Dr. Levy to express their interest in Gary but wanted to know if Gary would attend if they selected him. We were unaware that there was gamesmanship going on behind the scenes. Dr. Levy told them that Gary was planning to come to Pittsburgh. When hearing this, Gary was speechless – he didn’t know where Dr. Levy got that impression. Gary didn’t apply to or interview at Pitt. When Gary shared this with me, I wondered whether there was something that could be done. Gary believed that when you entered the match, you agreed to the terms, which would mean accepting the assignment. We also thought maybe it was for the best anyway – the stresses and strains of commuting and working at Columbia were daunting. Though neither of us put a lot of weight on fate, we decided to let it be.

And, finally, another word about the Firebird. The car, when last we left off, was sitting in a Breezewood, Pennsylvania service station, 123 miles away from me in Pittsburgh. After many phone calls, I had the car towed back to Pittsburgh to a recommended repair shop. They found a replacement engine. Since the car had been gifted to us with the understanding that we would return it when we no longer needed it, we wanted to repair it. The problem was that the cost was $1100, not including what we paid to tow it! I don’t recall now, but our credit limit on our Mastercard may not have been high enough to handle it. But, I was blessed with an unbelievably supportive father – I could always count on him. With Dad, if I even hinted at some difficulty, he was quick to offer his help. Fortunately, Mom and Dad were in a comfortable place financially at that point. I didn’t even have to ask; he knew we were struggling to make ends meet. He gave us the money, no strings attached!

Dad’s birthday is coming up, he would be 86, this Friday. It seems particularly appropriate to end this blog post with a remembrance of him and his extraordinary support and generosity. It may be almost 14 years since he died, but I think of him all the time and he is alive in my heart.

The Match

Towards the end of Gary’s third year of medical school, we were thinking about next steps. Though graduating from medical school is a significant milestone, it isn’t close to the end of the journey. Internship, residency and, likely, fellowship remained to be completed. And, before he could begin, he had to go through a process called ‘the match.’

Medical students choose a specialty and then apply for programs in that specialty. Gary chose internal medicine. The way it works is that he fills out an application, which includes his transcript, the scores on the different medical boards that are taken along the way, and references. I don’t recall all the specifics, but after the initial application, you would be invited for an interview if the program was interested in you. During the 4th year of med school, about four weeks were set aside so that the student could travel around for those interviews. Then, the student ranked his/her preferences from top choice to places they would accept. At the same time, the programs ranked their choice of students. The two sets of rankings were fed into a computer and voila! – a match was made.

So much went into this process; so many decisions along the way – from choosing the specialty to deciding what part of the country we wanted to consider. Although we enjoyed our time in Pittsburgh, we wanted to be closer to family so Gary focused his attention on programs in the Northeast – mainly New York (upstate and the metropolitan area) and Philadelphia. He scheduled the interviews and we created an itinerary. The Toyota Celica we had when I first came to Pittsburgh had died, we got tired of pushing it downhill to pop it into gear and donated it to a local vocational school, and we were without a car for a while. We were fortunate that Gary’s brother Steven bought a new car at that time and generously gave us his old one – a car way too cool for us, a Pontiac Firebird with a t-top. We gratefully accepted his gift, it would make the interview process so much easier and less expensive.

Gary left Pittsburgh early afternoon on the first Sunday in November to make a grand tour of Pennsylvania and New York, with his first stop in Syracuse. I would meet him at the end in Brooklyn for Thanksgiving. We said our good-byes, I wished him luck and he went on his way.

He was driving on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, not that far out of Pittsburgh (but far enough), when the engine light came on. Neither Gary nor I were knowledgeable about cars. He drove for a bit, thinking he’d get off the next exit. But, exits on turnpikes aren’t that close together. To make a long story short, he had to pull over onto the shoulder when he saw smoke wafting from the engine. A state trooper luckily came upon him quickly. The car got towed to the nearest service station.

At that point, I got a collect call from Gary, explaining that he was in Breezewood, Pennsylvania and was being told that the engine had seized. The car would be out of commission for quite a while, even if they were able to find a replacement engine. Gary was in something of a panic, his interview was scheduled the next day at 8:00 am in Syracuse. I went into problem-solving mode. We decided I would deal with the car. We got off the phone so he could look into transportation back to Pittsburgh and I would figure out how to get him to Syracuse.

A number of things fell into place: he was able to get a bus to Pittsburgh very quickly, then he grabbed a cab to the airport. I found and booked him a flight to Syracuse and arranged for a rental car. It looked like we would be able to pull this off in time to make his interview. It also meant that we spent hundreds of dollars we couldn’t afford, but that’s what credit cards (and parents, if you are lucky) are for.

The rest of his travels went well. When he finished all the interviews, we had some decisions to make. I put my policy analysis skills (I knew I’d find some use for them) into action to help sort things out. The task of figuring out how to rank the programs was overwhelming. Without going into the gory details, we made a matrix – yes, a matrix! The elements that were relevant to the decision were listed on one side (quality of the program, quality of life for us, closeness to family, affordability, etc.). I think we had something like 7 factors. We gave a weight to each factor (quality of program got the most weight, and quality of life was second). Then we ranked each program according to each factor and came up with a score. Much discussion went into this, as well as many hours of thought. While the matrix was helpful, it wasn’t an exact science. Ultimately, Gary ranked Columbia (in New York City) first, Albany Med second, I think one of the Philly programs was next and I don’t remember after that (maybe Gary does). I know he ranked ten programs

One of the considerations in this equation was what each program offered in the way of experiences. The sad reality was that this was in the midst of the AIDS crisis, before any viable treatment options were available. When Gary visited NYU (located in Manhattan) and Downstate (located in Brooklyn), the combination of the huge number of AIDS patients, their suffering and not being able to offer much to relieve their symptoms, was devastating. All hospitals were challenged by this crisis, but the internal medicine programs in those two locations were simply overwhelmed. I don’t recall if Gary included either of those programs on his list, or if maybe he ranked them at the bottom.

All the paperwork and interviews were done, now it was up to the invisible, giant (in my imagination anyway) all-powerful computer to do its magic. Match day was March 19, 1986.

All the students gathered in a large common room in the medical school at the appointed hour – I think it was noon. I took off from work to be there to get the news hot off the press with Gary. Each student’s name was called and they were given an envelope. Inside was a computer-generated letter that indicated the program.

Our hearts were thumping. I believe names were called alphabetically – it was good to be a Bakst. Gary went up and got the envelope and quickly made his way back to me so we could open it together. He ripped it open, our eyes scanned the paper and found…Albany. I looked at Gary to see his reaction – after all this was his second choice. I did not read disappointment. I felt a small let down and maybe a bit of surprise. Of course, I had no idea what would happen, and had no reason to assume he would get Columbia. We compared results with our friends – it seemed that everyone was happy with their placement.

We knew our families were waiting to hear where we would be going. We went over to the pay phones to call them. As we made the calls, and processed the outcome, we got more excited. Then we joined friends and went out to celebrate.

We would have a few more months in Pittsburgh, and then start the next phase of our lives together…in Albany, New York.

When We Went to Medical School

Sometimes I slip and say, “when we went to medical school.” Of course, I know that I didn’t go. In fact, when I would meet Gary on campus, we would take a short cut that went through the anatomy lab. I kept my eyes tightly closed, held my breath and he guided me through as quickly as possible. I wasn’t cut out for blood, guts or formaldehyde. But, I still feel like I went through it. Maybe because it was so intense. Maybe because our lives were totally consumed and structured by the demands of Gary’s schedule. Whatever the reason, now and again the phrase still slips out.

When I joined Gary in Pittsburgh, one of the things I was struck by, and people will be pleased to know this, was how seriously Gary and his fellow students took their learning. I don’t know if it is like this in other medical schools, but at Pitt, with a few exceptions, students were committed to learning all of the material. There was concern about grades, too, but the focus was actually on learning. They took their responsibility very seriously. Not only were they studying for a given test, they were trying to retain the knowledge beyond that test. Certainly, this was true for Gary and his circle of friends.

This was a contrast from my experience in graduate school, where my fellow students at Columbia were present and worked hard, but didn’t display that level of commitment, not even close. The med school students saw a connection between what they were learning and the quality of care they would later provide patients. I found it very reassuring.

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These were some of the thick books Gary lugged around.

The first two years of medical school were comprised of traditional classes. Gary lugged huge, thick texts on biochemistry and anatomy and physiology to and from the apartment – sometimes to one of the libraries on campus, more often downstairs to a room in our building. Ruskin Hall, where we lived, had a lounge on the first floor that was good for studying. There was a long wooden table with sturdy chairs and some more comfortable chairs against the walls. It was never terribly crowded, but there were always some people studying there. When he wasn’t in class or lab, that’s where I’d find Gary. It became a routine: every evening around 8:00 I’d bring him a cup of Maxwell House International Suisse Mocha (the instant mix). We’d touch base for a minute or two and then I’d go back up to the apartment, watch t.v. or read and go to sleep. I didn’t know what time Gary came up.

It could be lonely for me. Other than Gary, I didn’t know a soul in Pittsburgh. It took a few months for me to find a job, but even after finding one, it was hard to make friends. I was an outsider at work, being so young, a New Yorker and Jewish (I wrote about that here and here). My colleagues were married, with children and in a different place in their lives. Though it was fine for work, for the most part, I couldn’t make a connection that went beyond a celebratory drink during the holidays.

We did have a circle of friends from Gary’s class, which included some women. I did become friends with one who was in a similar situation, she worked while her husband went to med school. She was a copy editor at a publishing company. But her life took a major turn when she got pregnant and had a baby during the second year of medical school. We remained friendly, and we socialized as couples, but she, understandably, was preoccupied.

I tried some different things to network and branch out. I joined a group called Women in Community Development and edited their newsletter. I enrolled to get my PhD in Public Administration at the University of Pittsburgh and took a few classes, while working full time. I joined a gym near work. None of those efforts led to the kind of connection I wanted. Looking back, I think my loneliness and sadness were more about my general melancholia, not yet treated with medication.

I muddled through, trying to be as supportive of Gary as possible, while simultaneously leaning on him to fulfill all of my emotional needs (perhaps a contradiction in terms). The third year of medical school brought new and different challenges. Gary began rotations in the hospitals, each one exposing him to another specialty. Most med students, early on, made a choice: medicine or surgery. There were many specialties within each of those two branches, but the two areas called upon different skill sets. Surgeons tended to be action-oriented, take-charge, fix-it kind of people. Internal medicine drew problem-solvers, relationship-focused, detail-oriented folks. There was some trash talk between the two groups, with those choosing medicine disparagingly referred to as ‘fleas.’ I don’t recall a pejorative assigned to surgeons, but the general idea was that they wanted to operate first, ask questions later.

Gary chose medicine, not surprisingly. As a result, the medicine rotation loomed large for him. He was determined to ace it. It was the longest rotation, lasting almost three months, taking him to different hospitals with a long stint at the VA. The hours were brutal. Gary would leave the apartment at 6:00 am and get home around 9:00 pm, if not later, and then he would read/study. I don’t recall him having weekends off, and if he did, they were spent studying. There was just so much to learn.

One night, tired of eating dinner alone and feeling resentful, I asked Gary if he had to keep these hours. “Can’t you cut back a bit? Does everyone do what you’re doing?” Gary carefully explained to me that this was time-limited, the rotation would end. He felt he needed to go all out because it would be important for future choices. If he wanted to get a residency placement of his choosing, the better he did in this rotation, the more options he would have. I didn’t know it then, but this argument would become a recurring theme in the first ten years of our marriage: me questioning whether Gary’s long hours were necessary. This time I told him I understood, and tried to suck it up.

I don’t know how he did it, I barely made it through the ordeal. I have this unfortunate tendency when in a dark period to feel like it will never end. I find it a challenge to see light at the end of the tunnel. Fortunately, that isn’t a quality Gary shares – he certainly wasn’t seeing much light, literally or figuratively. It was the fall, he left in the dark and came home in the dark and spent most of his time in the dim fluorescent light of hospital wards.

Finally, the rotation came to an end. I arrived home from work and found Gary already in the apartment. This was a major step forward, he was never home before me. I hung up my coat, went to the bathroom and came out to greet him. He was standing by the kitchen sink, taking a glass of water, but looking quizzically at me.

“What?” I asked, feeling like I must’ve missed something. Turned out I had.

“Did you go into the bathroom?”

“Yes, why?”

“Go in there again.”

I was perplexed but I did as he asked. I looked up and taped to the mirror was a piece of paper. I don’t know how I missed it the first time, though I do try to avoid mirrors. I recognized the format – it was the end of rotation evaluation. Gary got honors in Medicine! I screeched and jumped up and down. I threw my arms around him. We danced around the apartment. I later learned that Gary was one of only four students (out of 140) to achieve that distinction. Gary was well on his way to leaving his ‘imposter syndrome’ behind, and hopefully getting a choice residency when he graduated.

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The form that was taped to the mirror.

Medical School Begins

One challenge in writing this blog is that it is disjointed. I’ve jumped around quite a bit, while still trying to follow some threads in a coherent way. I appreciate you readers taking the journey with me. Hopefully it hasn’t been too confusing!

In preparing to write this piece, I reread a bunch of posts to remind myself what I had covered. I don’t want to repeat myself, but I also want to make sure that each essay stands on its own. Please feel free to comment or message me if you have questions or if I’ve lost you! I welcome the feedback.

I’ve written about the ‘tense conversation’ (read here) Gary and I had about his applying to medical school. With all that went into the application, and all the pressure he felt, medical school presented quite a test – to Gary, to me and to our relationship.

Gary sailed through high school with minimal effort. He needed only a bit more energy to get through college. He began medical school not knowing how smart he was and without well-developed study skills. I think to some degree he had ‘impostor syndrome,’ he didn’t know if he belonged or deserved to be there.

Plus, he had his father’s hopes and dreams (and money for tuition!) riding on his success. Not too much pressure! Fortunately, Gary rose to the challenge. He not only met it, but he excelled. He set a brutal work pace for himself to achieve it.

As I wrote previously, Gary and I drove a U-Haul from Queens to Pittsburgh in August of 1982. We parked the truck in front of Ruskin Hall in Oakland, the neighborhood which the University of Pittsburgh occupies, and got the keys and went up to the apartment.

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Ruskin Hall – photo from University of Pittsburgh website

Gary and his parents had traveled to Pittsburgh earlier in the summer to select the apartment, this was my first time seeing it. I was pleasantly surprised, and a bit overwhelmed. Tears welled as I looked at the high ceilings, huge windows, hardwood floors and spacious bedroom and living room. It reminded me of an upper west side of New York City pre-war apartment and I hadn’t expected something so nice. I couldn’t believe this was going to be Gary and my first home together. I wasn’t actually moving in with him at that point, I was going to join him later, but I knew it would be ours. I wanted to get at least six months in my new job before moving on, and Gary needed to get acclimated to medical school on his own. I knew I would be joining him in the not too distant future and I had no expectation that we would have such a nice apartment.

We moved the furniture in, which wasn’t much, but he had the essentials. We went to the nearest mall and bought some other items, including a phone. One of those new-fangled portable models that we plugged in and didn’t think anything more of it. After finding a grocery store and stocking the pantry and refrigerator with things he could easily prepare, I took a cab to the airport and flew home. I was sad to say goodbye, but fortunately airfare from New York to Pittsburgh was $29, thanks to PeopleExpress and US Air. We planned that I would visit once a month. We also planned to talk on the phone every few days and set our first phone date for  Tuesday evening at 8:00, two days from then.

I went back to work on that Monday and pined for Gary. I couldn’t wait to talk to him. The appointed hour couldn’t come fast enough. At 7:59 on Tuesday evening, I picked up the phone in Canarsie and dialed Gary’s new number in Pittsburgh. The phone rang and rang. I counted 20 times. I hung up and dialed again and let it ring another 20 times. I was worried (was something wrong? Was he sick?). I was angry (how could he forget that we had a phone date?) I was confused (what should I do? There was no one to call to check on him). I kept trying. Eventually, he answered and he had a story to tell.

Gary was in the apartment, waiting for my call, keeping himself busy by refinishing a wooden desk that he had brought from home. He heard a chirping sound. Perplexed, he walked around the apartment trying to locate the source. It was a persistent, annoying sound and he wanted it to stop. He determined that it was coming from the smoke detector (also a new-fangled device in those days). He took the step ladder and tried to reach it to disconnect it (the downside of those high ceilings). No luck. The sound stopped, but then resumed. He got the broom and took the stick and pummeled the smoke detector. It fell to the floor, but the sound began again. It finally dawned on him that it wasn’t the smoke detector, but rather it was the new telephone. In the two days that he had been in the apartment it hadn’t rung once, so he had no idea what it sounded like. We were all used to the sound of the classic bell that our phones at home used when they jingled. This phone sounded more like a bird tweeting in a high pitched insistent tone. Meanwhile, back in Canarsie, I was in a panic. I was ready to be furious, until I heard his story. Then we started laughing. Though he had mangled the smoke detector, he was fine and would have the sound of that phone chirping imprinted on his brain forever.

It was a minor but amusing misunderstanding. We managed to communicate more successfully through that first semester. Gary wrote me a letter every day (I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that he writes the kids an email every day). I was a faithful correspondent, too. And, we had no further problems with the telephone. That isn’t to say that we didn’t have our struggles during his four years of med school, but more on that next time.

A Tense Conversation

Note: At the end of this piece, Gary offers his perspective.

It was the beginning of our relationship. Gary and I had long conversations about our histories, comparing our families, and sharing our dreams for the future. I knew the broad outlines of his family background, that his parents were Holocaust survivors who had not been in concentration camps. But, I didn’t yet grasp the impact of that on Gary. On one particular autumn night, with a particular conversation, I touched a nerve and, thus, I began to learn.

We were in the living room of the apartment that he shared with two friends. It was late at night, as it often was in those days when we hung out and talked into the wee hours. I was sitting on the floor with my back against the chair he was sitting in, his legs framing my arms.

It started as an innocuous conversation, at least it seemed so to me, about his need to take the MCATs (the medical school entrance exams) and the timing of the test.

A little background might be helpful. Most pre-med students take the MCATs at the end of junior year so that they can apply to medical school during senior year. This sets them up to go directly from college to med school. Since med school is four years and there is additional training required beyond that, which often takes anywhere from three to ten years, many want to be as efficient with their time as possible. Unfortunately, Gary wasn’t in position to do that. His junior year had not been terribly successful. He lost motivation and stepped off the track he had been on, and didn’t take the MCATs. It was now the 1979-80 school year, our senior year, and the test wasn’t available to be taken very often. I think it was offered maybe twice a year. Gary’s next opportunity would be in the Spring, but he hadn’t filled out the application yet.

In order to take the test, Gary had to fill out some paperwork, write a check and mail it in. Paperwork wasn’t a strong suit for Gary, as I was beginning to learn. But, it turned out there was more to his procrastination than met the eye.

“So, let’s fill out the application now and you can mail it tomorrow,” I helpfully suggested.

“You don’t understand,” came the testy reply.

“What do you mean?” I asked, moving to turn around to face him.

“You don’t understand the pressure I am under,” his voice was tight. I heard anger, frustration and anxiety.

“Explain it, then.”

Explain he did. A torrent of words describing high expectations placed on him from as early as he could remember. “It’s good to be a doctor,” his father, David, told him when he was in Kindergarten. It was an idea David repeated regularly over the years. Gary was a good student, it was clear he was intelligent from the get-go. The seed was planted early and his father could be relentless. It was assumed he would go to medical school.

This story isn’t unusual among Jewish families. Many children were on the receiving end of those messages. My response, thinking I was supporting his vision for himself, was to say, “But you can do whatever you want! You don’t have to be limited! You don’t have to be a doctor.”

“You’re not hearing me!” Now he was angry. Gary didn’t, and doesn’t, get angry often. He was angry now.

“I feel like I do have to be a doctor! I will disappoint my father, let down my entire family, if I’m not!” He went on to describe how things went at family gatherings, how it was assumed he was on track to go to medical school. His parents, not aware of the particulars of college and graduate school, didn’t know where Gary was in the process. He was carrying 22 credits that semester (and would have to carry an equivalent load again the next semester), to make up for junior year and to graduate on time. He explained how so much was wrapped up, for his father in particular, in his earning a medical degree.

At first, I stuck to my thought that Gary could do what he wanted. “You’re great at explaining things. You could be a great science teacher,” I said. After all, I was thinking, both of my parents were teachers. I thought it was an admirable profession.

“You’re still not getting it!” Gary exploded.

I recoiled at the power and emotion behind his words. I retreated, “Okay. Okay.”

We agreed that it was late and we weren’t going to solve anything in that moment. I told him I wanted to understand, and we could talk again after we both got some sleep. We said good night and I went back across the hall to my apartment.

It was the beginning of my understanding the impact of his parent’s Holocaust experience on Gary and how it shaped him. No child wants to disappoint their parents, I certainly didn’t, but there was a more intense sense of responsibility and deeper obligation for Gary, knowing how much his Mom and Dad had gone through, how much they suffered. Gary had this opportunity that they never had, and he felt a duty to make the most of it regardless of his own wishes. I was beginning to appreciate the weight of that.

I think our conversation was also a step along Gary’s journey to sort out what he actually wanted for himself and what others expected of him. He began to acknowledge that it was okay to factor in what his father wanted, after going through an internal rebellion. And, over the course of the next two years, it would become clear to him that he did want to be a doctor.

Of course, there was also all the other anxiety that every pre-med student deals with: getting good grades, scoring high enough on the MCATs, getting into a program (preferably in the United States!) and succeeding in one. Under the best of circumstances, it is a fraught journey. Not nearly as fraught as the journey his parents had taken, but challenging nonetheless.

Some thoughts from Gary:

We all should pursue our own dreams.  Right?  That seems straight forward enough and yet that very question was at the heart of my dilemma back when Linda and I had that tense conversation.  To be fair, that idea, the belief that each of us can and should do what we want to do, is something that many in the world would find laughable. It is a luxury many don’t have.

Many people are just trying to survive and it is for those who are fortunate enough to grow up in the right county and in the right circumstances to even think about such questions.  How many people dream of picking up garbage or cleaning hotel rooms?  Of working endless hours picking fruit on farms, or working in mines?  On top of that, many people really don’t have a dream.  We fall into whatever and we do our jobs and earn our paychecks and the world keeps spinning around.

But back then, I firmly believed I should pursue my dreams.  And, while I had no reason why being a physician couldn’t be my dream, I had one really big problem:  My father wanted it for me more than anyone.  And that left me with the dilemma.  Did I want it or was I doing it for my father?  And how could I do it if it wasn’t for me?  And how could I not do it after all he had been through and all that he seemed to have emotionally invested in my becoming a doctor?

As it turns out, medical school was four of the best years of my life and being a physician has allowed me to utilize my inclination to think scientifically and serve people in a most important and personal way.  It has brought me a tremendous sense of purpose, a sense of doing something meaningful.  And it has given me financial rewards beyond what I would have ever imagined reaping.  As it turns out, it was the perfect decision.

But at that time, it wasn’t clear to me whose decision it was; where did my father’s will end and mine begin?  Certainly, complicating all of this was the fact that my parents are Holocaust survivors.  The children (and I’m sure grandchildren) of survivors have common traits.  We tend to be anxious.  We tend to be driven.  We tend to live with the guilt that comes from the fact that we never had to endure what our parents did.  They were getting shot at.  I was more concerned about whether Keith Hernandez would get the lead runner out when fielding a bunt.  They didn’t have food.  I was annoyed when my brother changed the channel on our TV.

Even now, if you ask me whether I should feel guilty, I think the answer would be yes, I should.

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Graduation day from SUNY-Binghamton, May 1980 – we made it through to the other side of that conversation.

 

 

 

The Wedding

The Silberfarbs arrival in Cuba was greeted with a warm welcome, a furnished apartment and opportunities to work. David’s arrival in the United States, while supported by his uncle and aunt, wasn’t quite as warm. And, it started with a much more trying trip across the Atlantic, than the Silberfarb’s plane flight.

David, and 548 other displaced persons, left Bremerhaven, Germany on the Marine Flasher on January 7, 1949. The Marine Flasher was an American ship that was built to carry troops during the war in the Pacific. In 1946, it was refitted to ferry emigres across the Atlantic. It made many such trips until it went out of service in September of 1949. The American Joint Distribution Committee (AJDC), a Jewish charity which was involved in organizing and funding these trips, made efforts to comfort the traumatized passengers, many of whom were concentration camp survivors, or like David, battered by the relentless effort to endure the war. The AJDC provided kosher food to those who required it, they had novels in Yiddish available, and religious services were conducted on board. But, they could not control the weather.

David’s journey was a particularly challenging one. The North Atlantic was stormy in January and the seas were rough. In fact, the arrival of the ship was delayed by heavy gales. According to a newspaper article at the time, the Marine Flasher had to slow down to withstand the storms. David recalls that even the sailors were sick. David didn’t think he’d survive the waves crashing over the sides and his intense sea sickness. He was never so happy to set foot on land as when he disembarked on the pier of Boston Harbor on January 17th.

His cousin, Benny, Uncle Willie and Aunt Rose’s son, met him at the harbor and drove him to Brooklyn. David had never seen buildings so big or a city so densely populated as New York. In Europe, the tallest building he had seen was two stories! He moved into a room in a house in Brooklyn and he began work for his uncle at First National Pickle Products.

He put on overalls every day, took the subway to Kent Avenue and moved pickle barrels at the warehouse in Williamsburg. David didn’t feel good about dressing like a laborer and hoped for a time in the future when his work would be more professional. In the meanwhile, Uncle Willie took him to the Lower East Side to get a suit. David took pride in his appearance and looked forward to the weekends when he would don his suit to go to synagogue and socialize with fellow ‘greeners.’ Greenhorn was a term used to describe the newcomers. While it may have been meant as a pejorative when used by other Americans, when David and his community used it, they were acknowledging their shared experience.

David went to dances and sought out the company of the few survivors from his hometown. It had been customary, dating back to earlier waves of Jewish immigrants, to create organizations of ‘landsleit,’ people from the same shtetls in Eastern Europe. There was an Iwie Society that met at least annually and David became active in it.

Though David met single women during his first months in New York, his mind and heart were still with Paula. In order to ensure that Paula still had his attention, Aunt Bushe insisted that Paula send a photograph of herself to her boyfriend in New York. She took Paula to a photographer’s studio. Whether the picture did the trick or not, he continued to correspond with her, and they planned his visit.

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Though this isn’t the photo that was taken at the studio, it is from the same time. Paula in 1948 in Cuba.

But before David could visit, Uncle Nachum flew up to New York to talk to him. Since Paula’s father had been tragically murdered, Nachum took it upon himself to look out for his niece’s best interests. He went to the pickle factory and talked to David there. David felt self-conscious in his overalls, knowing Nachum was a successful business man. Paula’s uncle asked David about his future. David explained that he aspired to move up to management and he looked forward to the day when he could discard his overalls, but this was his job now and he worked hard for his uncle. Nachum asked, “Do you love Paula?” David, without embarrassment, replied unequivocally, “Yes.” Though Nachum may not have been impressed with David’s current station in life, he saw something in David’s resolve that gave him confidence. He gave his blessing so that David could visit Paula and then he returned to Cuba.

David flew to Cuba in November of 1949, 10 months after his arrival in Boston.

Uncle Nachum and Aunt Bushe were particularly welcoming to David when he arrived in Havana. He was invited to stay in the guest room of their home. David felt very comfortable there. Lea, Paula’s mother, also treated David warmly as they renewed their relationship which was first established in Ranshofen. It became increasingly clear to David that he wanted to make a family with Paula, and fortunately, she agreed. At the end of the three-week visit, they decided that he would come back to Cuba the following September and they would marry.

David flew back to New York and shared the good news with his aunts and uncles. He asked Uncle Willie and Aunt Rose to come to Cuba for the wedding. He continued to work hard and save his pennies.

Paula and her family planned the wedding. The date was set, September 3, 1950, at Havana’s main synagogue. At the last minute, Uncle Willie told David that they would not be going. He told him that it was too hard on Aunt Rose to travel. David was profoundly disappointed and hurt. Though he was excited about his marriage, he was deeply sad that he had no family to stand up for him, that he would walk down the aisle alone. It is traditional at Jewish weddings for both the bride and the groom to be accompanied by their respective parents when they walk down the aisle. David missed his father desperately.

When David got to Havana, he shared his disappointment with Uncle Nachum. Nachum offered to accompany him, with Bushe, to the chupah (wedding canopy), and they did. Paula was accompanied by her mother and brother. David also wanted to acknowledge his parents at the ceremony. He asked the cantor to recite El Maleh Rachamim, the Jewish prayer for the dead. The cantor objected, saying that it wasn’t appropriate to chant that prayer at a simcha (a celebration). David insisted. He explained that it would make him feel better, it would help him to feel his parents’ presence at this milestone in his life. After quite a bit of back and forth, David prevailed. The cantor sang the prayer in memory of Berl and Rochel. David felt that his parents were blessing this momentous occasion.

 

 

Displaced Persons

Imagine resettling the entire population of New York City all at once. When World War II ended that was the task. Estimates of the number of displaced persons (DPs) vary wildly, probably depending on who was included in that category. Prisoners of war, concentration camp survivors, partisans, and refugees from towns caught in the cross-fire flooded Europe. At the low end, 6.5 million people were displaced, at the high end 17 million. Berl, David and Batya were among them.

For some, once the bullets stopped flying and the bombs stopped falling, they could go home and rebuild their lives. By September of 1945, three-quarters of the refugees went back to their country of origin. For others, including the Baksts, going home wasn’t an option. Out of the 4000 or so Jews that lived in Iwie, only about 50 survived. The town had been “cleansed” of Jews. The Bakst home was occupied by others.

In order to establish order and begin the process of repatriating DPs, the Allies divided Germany and Austria into zones. Great Britain, France, the United States and Soviet Union each controlled areas and all but the Soviets set up camps to house the refugees. The USSR had a policy of expecting all its DPs to reintegrate into Soviet society, irrespective of their status as a former prisoner of war or a concentration camp survivor, and therefore no DP camps were set up in their zone. The other Allied countries utilized abandoned military barracks, hospitals, apartment buildings, private homes and other assorted structures to establish DP camps. In December of 1945 the American zone had 134 camps, and by June of 1947, they had 416 sites. Great Britain had 272, while the French hosted 45.

An organization called Birchah (the Hebrew word for ‘flight’), which was a semi-clandestine Zionist network, helped Jewish survivors get to DP camps (there were some camps that only housed Jews, but most were a mixture of ethnicities).  The Baksts were assisted by Birchah and got to a camp in the American Zone. Berl had heard that concentration camp survivors were allowed expedited immigration to the United States, so he attempted to register as a camp survivor. Since neither he nor his children had a number tattooed on their arm, they were rejected. It was not uncommon for people to move among the camps since everything was in such flux. They went to another DP camp, this time in Austria, to begin the process again. It turned out to be a lucky thing that they did.

They ended up at Ranshofen. Ironically, Ranshofen was located near Brunau, Hitler’s birthplace. The DP camp was made up of brick buildings that were each two stories, with two  two-bedroom apartments on each floor.  Berl, David, Batya, who had recently married Fishel (the man she met while they were with the Partisans), were assigned one bedroom in an apartment, and another family was assigned the other bedroom. The two families shared the common spaces (living room, kitchen and bathroom).

The other family assigned to the apartment included a woman, Lea Silberfarb, and her three children, from oldest to youngest, Bernard, Paula and Sophia. The families became close, sharing stories of their experiences. David was particularly taken with Paula, who despite being 9 years younger, was a good listener, sympathetic, smart, pretty and mature well beyond her years. Living as the Silberfarbs had through the war, stripped Paula of her childhood.

Paula was 10 when the Germans invaded her town, Serniki, Poland (now part of the Ukraine). She, her mom and her siblings lived, on the run, staying in forest encampments, moving from village to village, for over 4 years. (Note: I will share Paula’s story in next week’s blog post)

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David and Paula in Ranshofen

They were all in Ranshofen for about two years before leaving on the next step of their journey. The Silberfarbs wanted to go to Palestine, as did Batya and Fishel. Berl and David were trying to get to the United States. The paperwork to get visas and arrange travel was a bureaucratic nightmare that took patience and perseverance. In the meanwhile, Paula and David got to know each other, as well as take classes and participate in activities. David even played in a volleyball tournament against other DP camp teams, which his team won. Conditions at DP camps varied widely. Fortunately, Ranshofen offered comfortable accommodations and a range of services.

One of the factors that determined which camp a refugee went to was where they wanted to resettle. For example, the best chance to immigrate to Palestine was from a DP camp in Italy. After some time at Ranshofen, Batya and Fishel went to Italy, since that was their goal. The Silberfarbs didn’t because they were considering another option offered by family that was already settled in Cuba.

Immigrating to Palestine was very difficult and conditions in the Holy Land were challenging as the area tried to absorb survivors and build a new country in a hostile environment. In 1939 Great Britain, which exercised authority over the area, severely limited Jewish immigration. After the war, 69,000 survivors attempted illegal immigration, less than half were successful. Others were arrested and interned on Cyprus. Batya and Fishel were among those waylaid in Cyprus. In fact, their daughter, Rochelle, was born there. Once the state of Israel was established in 1948, immigration flowed more freely. Batya, Fishel and Rochelle finally made it to a Jewish homeland, and faced another war, the war for Israeli independence.

Meanwhile, Berl and David went to another DP camp in Germany, one step closer to getting to the United States. David and Paula agreed to correspond by letter. David told Paula that if she ended up going to Cuba, they would meet again. Paula held on to that thought.

(Next week: Paula’s experience during the war)