ethics, law, obits, religion

Sarah Weddington’s death brings out the pro-life trolls…

Sarah Weddington has just died. She was 76 years old, and had been in poor health. Nowadays, some people might think that 76 is kind of young for a person to die, but Sarah Weddington had already made history by the time she was 26. She definitely led a full and impressive life, even if pro-lifers don’t think so.

Back in 1971, Sarah Weddington was a recent law school graduate from Texas who was having trouble finding work because she was a woman. That year, having never before tried a case, she and her co-counsel, Linda Coffee, began presenting arguments on what would eventually be a landmark victory that gave American women the right to have an abortion. The two went before the Supreme Court, and on January 22, 1973, the court ruled that a Texas state law banning abortion except to save the life of the mother was unconstitutional. Weddington’s work on Roe v. Wade was groundbreaking, and whether or not pro-life advocates want to admit it, that law has actually saved a lot of lives.

Weddington got involved with Roe v. Wade because she was friends with women who were helping university students and others find doctors who would illegally perform abortions, or directing them to countries were abortions were legal. One of the women involved with this effort asked Ms. Weddington if she knew if they could be held liable, and prosecuted as accomplices. Weddington did not know the answer to that question, but said she would research the matter for free.

That was when she got in touch with Linda Coffee, who was a fellow University of Texas law school graduate, and had more experience in the matter. It was 1969, and Coffee was representing Norma Jean McCorvey, a homeless woman who was seeking an abortion. In December 1969, Coffee wrote Weddington a letter, asking if she’d like to join forces as co-counsel for McCorvey’s case. The two met a couple months later. and the wheels of progress toward women’s reproductive choice in the United States began to turn.

It was in December 13, 1971 that Weddington and Coffee began to plead their case to the highest court in the USA. Weddington was a star who enjoyed the public stage. Linda Coffee, while brilliant, was not as impressive to look at and didn’t enjoy the limelight as much. According to The New York Times, Coffee could come off looking “bedraggled”, and Weddington was younger and prettier. She had blonde hair and blue eyes, which in those days, apparently made her more “optically appealing”. In those days, maybe being “pretty” was considered especially important for women. Come to think of it, sadly, not that much has changed in that regard. But at least in 2021, more of us recognize how wrong and unfair that mindset is.

But Sarah Weddington’s life wasn’t just about Roe v. Wade. She was a person in her own right, a woman who pioneered in a profession that typically favored men. She was a young woman at a time when women were expected to stay home, raise babies, and be help meets to their husbands. She chose to become a lawyer instead, which says something about her intellect, courage, and tenacity. One would think that people might respect her for the person she was, rather than just focus on her impressive landmark work on Roe v. Wade.

Of course I know that expecting people to be decent is probably hoping for too much. Weddington’s death has brought out the pro-lifers, who feel the need to voice their objections to allowing people to choose whether or not they wish to be pregnant and give birth. They love to bring up cardiac activity in a 22 day old embryo as a sign of life that should be respected. And yet, these same people so often have very little regard for people who have already been born, nor do they seem to give two craps about providing access to affordable and high quality healthcare to the people who are gestating those potential lives that are so sacred to them. One man wrote this:

…a fetus is not a baby…but it is a human life. It’s a separate being, with its own unique human DNA. That’s why there is such passion from the pro-life side of this debate…and why the pro-choice side is loathe to concede the humanity of the fetus.

I started to write the below response to the man who brought up the “humanity” of a developing fetus. I looked on his Facebook page. I see that he’s a fireman, and has probably saved a lot of lives. I commend him for doing that work. I do wonder, however, if he’s thought about what happens to the people he saves… I’m sure it feels good to help someone escape a burning building. But once they’re out of the building, then what?

Does he simply vote for “pro-life” candidates, even if they’re all about gun rights and keeping healthcare outrageously expensive? Does he support making birth control more accessible and affordable? Does he vote for paid time off for new parents? Affordable and accessible childcare? Affordable housing? Work policies that make it possible for people to raise their children? But anyway, I did not post the comment below, because I didn’t want to argue with a stranger, and I figured it wouldn’t make a difference, anyway, except to rally the like-minded.

Why don’t you have more regard for the people who have already been born and will be affected by the burden of gestating that potential life? Do you make it a policy to vote for leaders who want to make healthy pregnancies, anti-violence, affordable healthcare access, and family friendly work policies a priority? Or are you just concerned about saving that *potential* human life who has no concept of life or death?  

I don’t think most people who are vehemently pro-life actually care about other people. If they did, they might consider why a person might feel the need to make that decision and why it’s very personal and not any of their business. A person who feels the need to terminate a pregnancy may have very painful and personal reasons for making that decision. Many pro-life people care only about their religious convictions, and they want to impose their beliefs on everyone else.  

More often than not, it seems to me that MEN who are upset about abortion are really just angry that this is a decision that women can make without their input. They don’t think it’s fair. Well, a lot of women don’t think it’s fair when men have their fun in bed, but don’t actually do anything to support that *potential* life they’ve helped create. It’s not their name on the doctor’s bills. It’s not their body that is forever changed and potentially harmed by pregnancy. It’s not their life that is potentially upended.  

Unless you are the type of pro-life person who advocates for real change in US policies that support positive changes all of those babies being born, I’m not too concerned about your opinions regarding “humanity”. It’s sad that 50 years on, we’re still arguing about what should be a fundamental right for all pregnant people.  

According to The New York Times obituary, Sarah Weddington isn’t just a lawyer who argued for women’s rights to choose abortion. She was also herself the recipient of an abortion. In 1968, having recently graduated from law school, after having earned a college degree a couple of years ahead of the usual schedule, Weddington, who was then dating her husband, Ron Weddington, got pregnant. The two went to Mexico, where the former Sarah Ragle had a safe and legal abortion.

When she and Ron came back from Mexico, Sarah realized that she was very fortunate to have been able to get an abortion. Many pregnant people of that time period were not so lucky. Sarah became aware of women who had done terrible things to themselves in an attempt to abort. She wrote in the Texas Monthly in 2003:

I had had an abortion myself, during my last year in law school. I was not as sophisticated as I should have been about preventing pregnancy. I was seriously dating the man I later married, Ron Weddington, but I was determined to finish law school, and I wanted to put Ron through law school. There were a lot of considerations. And so we decided to have an abortion. You couldn’t look in the phone book then, but Ron found a name of an abortion doctor through a friend. We made an appointment and drove to Mexico. I will never forget following a man in a white guayabera shirt down an alley, and Ron and I having no idea where we were headed. I can still remember going under the anesthetic and then waking up later in a hotel room with Ron. Driving back I felt fine; I didn’t have any complications. But it made me appreciate what other women went through, who did not have someone to go with them or did not have the money to pay for a medically safe abortion, as I did.

Later, I heard stories of women who had not been so lucky. Some had beaten their own abdomens or jumped down stairs to try to induce an abortion. Others had eaten mixtures of chemicals and cleaning products. I’ll never forget seeing a photograph of a woman lying on a black-and-white checkered bathroom floor who had died from having an illegal abortion. Doctors told me about women whom they had seen hemorrhaging or in shock or with infections, who had stuffed all kinds of things into their uteruses because they were desperate to have abortions.

Don’t “pro-life” people care about the women who feel so desperate to have abortions that they’re willing to do things like take poison, stab themselves with coat hangers, or go to “butchers” who render them sterile, make them sick with infection, or even kill them? Don’t these people, so passionate about the “sanctity of life” and the “humanity” of developing embryos, give two shits about the situations facing the people whose personal situations don’t lend themselves to being pregnant? And who gets to decide when a person’s life is “threatened” enough that abortion becomes okay? And why should those situations be anyone else’s business?

Sadly, a lot of religious “pro-lifers” think that Sarah Weddington is now burning in Hell. One man commented thusly on Weddington’s obituary:

No, we’re not delighting in her passing. We’re simply stating that she will probably spend eternity with the Prince of Darkness. Even after her evil actions before the court, she could have repented and asked for forgiveness. I highly doubt she did either.

What the fuck?

I think about “Christian” people like Jim Bob Duggar, who recently lost his bid to become an Arkansas State Senator. His time as a reality star offers a treasure trove of proof of what religious people actually think about other people. Mr. Duggar’s wife, Michelle, famously counseled their daughter, Jill, to be “joyfully available” when Jill’s husband wanted sex, even if Jill was “big pregnant” and didn’t feel like having sex. Michelle told us all that being sexually available to her husband is a woman’s lot in life, and that no one else could righteously fulfill that need, other than a man’s wife.

Jim Bob and Michelle now, of course, have a son named Josh who is sitting in jail, awaiting sentencing for getting his sexual “needs” fulfilled illegally. Their son apparently didn’t get the message that his sexual “needs” should only be fulfilled by his wife– not that Anna hasn’t done her share. Jim Bob stated that he thinks rapists should be executed. I wonder if he’d like to start with his son, Josh… who was once a “precious” embryo in Michelle’s womb. Granted, even Josh has “value”, I guess. He is the father of seven, after all, and I’m sure his children deserve all the regard that any born person deserves. Life is about to get even harder for those kids and their mother, though…

I find it curious that Jim Bob Duggar, who is apparently so concerned about the rights of the unborn, thinks that already born people are expendable and should be executed for any reason… and that being truly “pro-life” can co-exist with also being “pro-gun”. Guns are literally devices that are intended to wound or KILL living beings, all of whom I assume were God’s blessings to someone or something.

As disgusted as I am about Michelle Duggar’s comments about being “joyfully available”, I also wonder how many times she felt forced to have sex with Jim Bob, a man with chronic halitosis and poor social graces, because his dick was stirring. And how much attention did Jim Bob pay to Michelle’s menstrual cycles, so he could force her to pop out as many of “God’s blessings” as humanly possible?

Seriously–there are men who are like this. Some of them even work(ed) for the federal government. And a lot of these men– many of whom vote for pro-life Republicans and screech about small governments and their personal liberties– don’t seem to realize that not so long ago, there were some communist countries that were all about forced birthing. And there are some countries where a woman can wind up in prison because she had a miscarriage. That doesn’t sound very “freedom-loving” to me. But even those countries are starting to understand that this is a decision that should be up to the person directly involved with being pregnant, not governments, law enforcement agencies, or MEN who will never have to face being pregnant.

The bottom line is that Sarah Weddington did a huge serve to many women when she took on the fight to allow women to choose. No one is forced to have an abortion in the United States. It’s a CHOICE. And it’s a choice that should be private, involving only the person who is directly involved in the pregnancy.

Whatever the pro-life men think of Sarah Weddington’s marvelously courageous work on allowing women to choose abortion, I think she was a brave and incredible person, and there was so much more to her life than Roe v. Wade, although that was VERY important work. She was a teacher, a traveler, and a brilliant woman who fought for other women. She has no reason to ask forgiveness for the very important work she did.

It’s too bad that some people think she’s gone to Hell, simply because she didn’t have the same views about religion that they do. More often now than ever before, it’s clear to me that a lot of religious people aren’t actually very good people, when it comes down to it. They care more about their “holy book” and religious platitudes than actually helping people. At least Sarah Weddington did not live to see the day when her work was ruined by Donald Trump’s stacked Supreme Court and so-called “freedom loving men” who only care about freedom for wealthy white people with dicks.

May Sarah Weddington rest in eternal peace. I’m sure wherever she is now, it’s better than down here.

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book reviews, sports

A review of Feel No Fear: The Power, Passion, and Politics of a Life in Gymnastics by Bela Karolyi and his ghostwriter, Nancy Ann Richardson…

The women’s gymnastics competition is over at the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo. For the first time in many years, the last name “Karolyi” was not part of the Olympic action. Although I have never been the slightest bit gymnastically inclined myself, I’ve watched the sport since the late 1980s. In those days, Bela and Marta Karolyi were super hot gymnastics coaches who were known for guiding athletes like Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton to global stardom. By 1991, the Karolyis had added the teenaged phenom, Kim Zmeskal, to their stable of amazing gymnasts. In those days, it seemed the Karolyis could do no wrong, even if behind closed doors, things were not as they seemed.

I just finished reading the book Feel No Fear: The Power, Passion, and Politics of a Life in Gymnastics. This book, published May 31, 1994, was probably mostly written by ghost author Nancy Ann Richardson, but it’s Bela Karolyi’s life story, such as it was at that time. In the 90s, most of us either didn’t know or turned a blind eye to the abuses suffered by women gymnasts, particularly at the elite level. The Karolyis, while controversial, were also very charismatic people. And so, it made sense that Bela would share his story to the masses. As it’s written in this book, the whitewashed version of Bela Karolyi’s tale is the stuff of which American dreams are made. It would take many years before more of the truth about the Karolyis started to leak out, and their motives and methods were questioned.

I picked up a used copy of this book a few months ago. At the time, I also purchased Kerri Strug’s book, Landing on My Feet: A Diary of Dreams. Both Bela’s and Kerri’s books are out of print, so I had to wait for physical copies of them to reach me. Kerri Strug was one of Bela’s gymnasts, and she’s best known for sticking her second vault at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics when she was badly hurt. In the wake of Simone Biles’ controversial decision to withdraw from most of the Olympic events in Tokyo, there’s been a renewed interest in Kerri’s famous Olympic story. Consequently, I’ve noticed a lot of people hitting my review of Kerri Strug’s book, which I wrote in April of this year.

Kerri’s book got to me much faster than Bela’s did, and as I recall, I managed to read it within a day or so. It was an overwhelmingly positive book, even the parts about disgraced former physician, Larry Nassar, who was there to help Kerri after Bela carried her off the floor following her historic vault. I think I actually meant to read Bela’s book first, and threw Kerri’s into my Amazon cart as an afterthought, not realizing that Kerri Strug would be remembered at this year’s Olympic Games. But as it turned out, Bela’s book would prove to be less interesting and relevant than Kerri’s book is, especially in 2021. Kerri Strug is now relevant, while Bela Karolyi no longer is.

Feel No Fear begins with a story about the 1979 Gymnastics World Championships, which were held in Forth Worth, Texas. At the time, Bela Karolyi, and his with, Marta, were the women’s gymnastics coaches in Romania. They had brought a young team of gymnasts with them to Texas, along with Nadia Comaneci, who had recently gotten back into shape after having been “kidnapped” from Karolyi’s tutelage and “trained” by less oppressive coaches in Bucharest. Nadia had injured her wrist, and Bela had dressed the minor wound the night before, but a Romanian official– Bela’s nemesis– had spirited Nadia away to the hospital. There, doctors had supposedly done a surgical procedure on the injury, numbing and heavily bandaging it, and effectively rendering Nadia useless to the team. Bela was, of course, livid, but at the time, he was subject to the whims of government flunkies who did the bidding of Romania’s dictatorial president at the time, Nicolae Ceausescu. The Fort Worth story isn’t resolved until later in the book.; it serves as a hook to get people invested in Bela’s story.

After setting up the scene, Karolyi’s life story starts at the beginning. He was born in Romania on September 13, 1942, the second child of an engineer father and his mild mannered wife. He also had an older sister. Karolyi mentions that his paternal grandfather was a very gregarious Hungarian man who liked parties and pretty women. His grandmother was a very stern German woman. Karolyi, who thinks he’s a bit like his grandfather, explains that his grandparents split up, and he was denied much of a relationship with his grandfather. Bela laments that he never really got to know the man, especially since his father was more like his strict and apparently humorless and demanding German grandmother.

Bela Karolyi’s father wanted him to follow in his footsteps as an engineer. But Bela was more interested in sports. Bela’s interest in sports and lack of affinity for the sciences caused friction in his home. When Bela decided to study physical education instead of science, his father threw him out of the family home. Bela Karolyi had to live by his muscles and wits to get through university. He pursued sports with a passion– hammer throwing, handball, track, and boxing, specifically. He had to take a gymnastics class as part of his studies and apparently hated it, at first. But then he met Marta, who had been a gymnast in high school, and was also studying physical education. The two were a love match, and they got married.

The story/legend continues, much as I’ve seen it depicted in movies like Nadia

I watched this movie on TV years ago. It was made in 1984. Kerri Strug wrote in her book that she watched it many times. Nadia herself once said that this movie was “pure fiction”, but Bela Karolyi’s book indicates that this movie is pretty accurate. I suspect the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Karolyi explains that he found the Romanian regime oppressive. He was constantly at odds with government officials, who wouldn’t let him run his program without interference. In 1981, having been forced to lead a team of Romanian gymnasts, including Nadia Comaneci, on a U.S. tour, Bela and Marta Karolyi, along with the team’s choreographer, Geza Poszar, decided to defect. They lost their minders in the busy streets of New York City. At the time, the Karolyis didn’t speak English, and they only had one of Marta’s aunts to help them assimilate. Their young daughter, Andrea, was still in Romania, and they weren’t sure if they’d ever be able to get her out of there. They had no home and no money. Still, through apparent grit and determination, the Karolyis were able to claw their way into the U.S. gymnastics scene, and they went on to create a “powerhouse” of women gymnasts.

Karolyi writes a bit about some of his more famous American clients, to include Dianne Durham, one of the first Black elite gymnasts. Durham recently died, and her first name is repeatedly misspelled “Diane” in the book. He includes comments about Mary Lou Retton, Kristie Phillips, and her mother, Phoebe Mills, Chelle Stack, Brandy Johnson, Rhonda Faehn, and Kim Zmeskal. I found this part of the book interesting, although I also thought some of his more candid comments, particularly the negative ones, were kind of telling. I remember reading an unofficial manuscript Chelle Stack’s mother wrote about working with Bela. It seems there wasn’t much love lost there.

Throughout the book, Bela Karolyi comes off as passionate, dedicated, and even kind. He includes several well known stories about how he achieved the American Dream. Some of the stories are kind of funny, like, for instance, his tale about how, when he was learning English, he thought the term “son of a bitch” was a compliment. Karolyi is supposedly an animal lover who loves dogs, and thought it was a good thing to be called a “child of a dog”. He writes that he’d actually wanted to be a veterinarian, but lacked the political and social contacts in Romania to achieve that dream. Physical education was actually Karolyi’s second choice of a career.

This generous, humorous, and gregarious side of Karolyi’s was also the public persona most people saw, especially when he was on television. However, in the wake of the gymnastics scandal of a few years ago, we found out that this was mostly a facade. Gymnasts like Dominique Moceanu have spoken out about Karolyi’s methods, which were said to be abusive and even sadistic. In fact, just this year, there was a book published in Romania called Nadia and the Securitate, which includes information about Bela and Marta Karolyi. It was written by Romanian historian, Stefjarel Olaru, and based on interviews with Romanian gymnasts and records kept by the Securitate (Romania’s secret police during Ceausescu’s reign). The gymnasts reported that the Karolyis beat and starved them, and in fact, Comaneci supposedly attempted suicide by drinking bleach when she was fifteen years old. She reportedly was happy to be hospitalized for two days, because it meant she didn’t have to go to the gym.

I remember reading this article. It made Nadia sound like a bulimic tramp.

I remember in March 1990, an issue of Life Magazine came out. Nadia was on the cover, as she had recently defected from Romania, just weeks before the Ceausescu regime fell. I recall reading that article in the library at Longwood College (now university), shocked by the negative way Nadia was portrayed. She reportedly had bulimia and was “narcissistic”, although it later came out that the much older man who had helped her escape Romania was actually holding her captive. Nadia revamped her image and is now married to fellow Olympic gold medalist gymnast, Bart Conner. But I clearly remember that in the early 90s, Nadia was depicted as some kind of “euro trash”, while her former coach was supposedly the greatest gymnastics coach ever. I guess it just goes to show that you can’t always trust what you read.

I think Feel No Fear is basically well-written. The ghostwriter did a good job making the story sound like it came directly from Bela Karolyi. There are two photo sections, which include old photos of Karolyi and his family. Those photos might have even been worth the price of the book. However, I think this book is largely whitewashed PR, which depicts Karolyi in an undeserved flattering light. I notice that Karolyi is quick to take credit for successes and just as quick to deflect blame when things go wrong. There’s no question in my mind that many of Bela’s methods were extremely abusive, even if the Karolyis did produce some champions. I wonder if the fleeting fame of a gold medal is worth a lifetime of psychological and physical trauma. I suppose I’d have to ask Karolyi’s former gymnasts about that. Karolyi himself is reportedly now suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease.

I did find Feel No Fear to be intriguing reading, although perhaps not in the way Karolyi had intended it to be. It’s especially interesting to read about Karolyi’s methods in the aftermath of Simone Biles’ decision to look after her own mental health and well-being over taking one for the team. Biles was one of Larry Nassar’s many victims, and she has suffered incredible stress. Not only was she under tremendous pressure to perform perfectly at the Olympics this year, but she’s also had to contend with her brother’s serious legal issues, which only now seem to be rectifying. I think if Bela or Marta Karolyi had been coaching this year’s gymnastics team, Biles would have been under insane pressure to perform, even if it meant seriously injuring or killing herself. As the world witnessed back in 1996, Bela Karolyi had no problem spurring his gymnasts on to fame, even when they were seriously hurt, as Kerri Strug was. Yes, she stuck her vault, but at what price? And isn’t she very lucky that she didn’t tragically permanently injure or kill herself on live TV?

I don’t think Feel No Fear is widely available anymore. I do think it’s worth reading, if only for historical purposes, and if only to demonstrate how much bullshit the U.S. gymnastics machine has been peddling for so many years. Joan Ryan’s 1995 book, Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, is the first one I remember reading that shined a light on just how abusive the sports of women’s gymnastics and women’s figure skating can be. It’s taken over 25 years for people to realize how right Joan Ryan was, especially in light of Larry Nassar’s abuses. Remember, Nassar was regarded as a “nice guy”. Gymnasts trusted him because he was “kind” and gave them food and comfort, while coaches like the Karolyis (and others) would scream, throw things, starve them, and even beat them to get results. That trust set them up for even more egregious abuse.

The Karolyis defend themselves.

I, for one, am glad to see this sport evolving, and people like Simone Biles, who is unquestionably extremely athletically gifted, showing everyone that there’s more to life than winning… and more to gymnastics than competing at all costs. I hope she’s able to continue to usher an end to the abusive era in which Bela and Marta Karolyi encouraged and participated. I admire the Karolyis for their ability to get out of Romania and succeed in the United States, but I do not appreciate the unethical manner in which they achieved those dreams– by abusing impressionable and ambitious young women (and their parents) who simply wanted to win at all costs.

As for Feel No Fear, I think it’s a well-polished and whitewashed version of the Karolyi legend. It’s an enjoyable enough read, if you don’t know anything about gymnastics or the truth regarding the Karolyis. But I think anyone who knows anything about elite gymnastics during the Karolyi era is going to see this story for what it really is… well-formed and highly polished bullshit.

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healthcare, LDS, movies

Repost: Do they have “good” hospitals in Romania?

Last repost for today… I wrote this post on April 11, 2018. It’s part current event/LDS church rant, part movie review. Romania has surprisingly excellent films. I should probably watch a few today, since it’s cold and rainy outside.

This morning’s post comes courtesy of a news report I read about a Mormon sister missionary in Romania.  Sister Jacie Robinson was supposed to come home to Utah from Romania today, but instead, she’s in a hospital.  On Friday of last week, Sister Robinson fainted.  It turns out she has encephalitis, which is a brain infection.

I don’t know how this young woman got her infection.  It’s my understanding that encephalitis can come on very suddenly.  I have heard of LDS missionaries getting sick or injured while in the field, due to being exposed to danger.  It does not sound like that’s what happened in this case. 

Someone on RfM posted about Sister Robinson, wanting to know if Romania has “good” hospitals.  To be honest, I’ve never visited Romania; however, I did go through a brief Romanian film phase.  One of the movies I watched was a “black comedy” from 2005 called The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.

A trailer for the Romanian film, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.

I was intrigued on several levels by The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.  First off, I spent two years living in Armenia, which is a former Soviet republic.  Although Armenia and Romania are very different places, they do have some similarities, even in this era of post communism.  Secondly, I studied public health in graduate school, so although I myself almost never visit doctors or hospitals, I do find healthcare interesting, especially in the international arena.  
Some time ago, I rented The Death of Mr. Lazarescu from Netflix and spent a couple of hours watching it.  The film is in Romanian, but it has English subtitles.  The subtitles force you to pay close attention.  The film is billed as a “black comedy” and some parts of it are truly funny, but in reality, it’s a very sad and sometimes poignant film.  It doesn’t just apply to Romania, either.  

The film in its entirety.    

For those who would rather not watch the film (which I do recommend), here’s a basic synopsis.  Mr. Dante Lazarescu is a lonely widower who has three cats and a bad headache.  He calls an ambulance on an old rotary style phone, even though he doesn’t think the headache is serious.  When the ambulance doesn’t come, he asks his neighbor for help.  The neighbors give him some pills for his nausea, reveal him as a drunk, then help him to bed.  The neighbors call again for an ambulance.

When the ambulance arrives, the nurse on board suspects the old man has colon cancer.  She calls Mr. Lazarescu’s sister and tells him she should visit him in the hospital.  She then gets him into the ambulance and the nurse, the old man, and the driver spend the rest of the night going to different hospitals around the city, trying to get Mr. Lazarescu admitted.   

As the night progresses, the old man’s condition worsens.  He loses the ability to speak coherently and wets his pants.  Even though he’s very ill and needs treatment, no one wants to bother to examine Mr. Lazarescu.  He keeps getting shuffled from one place to the next.  He finally gets an operation to remove a blood clot, but the doctor quips they’ve saved him from the clot only so he can die of liver cancer.  

As I mentioned before, I honestly don’t know about the quality of Romanian hospitals.  I did see a few interesting comments on the YouTube videos I posted.  I did have a couple of colleagues who experienced Armenian medicine in the 1990s.  While it wasn’t deadly for them, it was not like what we in the United States are used to.  On the other hand, people in places like Romania probably don’t go bankrupt when they get sick, either.  

I think The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is worthy viewing, if you can stand the dark humor of it.  Some people might find it depressing.  I thought it was an interesting film.  Actually, Romania has put out some great movies in the past couple of decades.  I’ve watched three or four of them and been impressed by their quality.  If you have the patience to read subtitles and enjoy foreign films, I’d say your time will be well spent watching a couple of Romanian flicks. As for Sister Robinson, I hope she makes a full and speedy recovery.  Encephalitis is scary business, no matter where you are!

On another note…  

Bill is trying to arrange for some time off at the beginning of May so we can take a much needed break from Germany.  Actually, I don’t mind Germany… I just think Bill needs a breather.  Work has been rather stressful for him lately.

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book reviews

Repost: A review of The Pharmacist of Auschwitz: The Untold Story by Patricia Posner

Another book review repost. This one was written May 27, 2017. It appears here as/is.

For some reason, I often read about the Holocaust during the late spring months.  It was definitely true when we lived in Germany the last time.  It’s been true this year, too.  Maybe there’s something about the sunny weather and warmer temperatures that make me want to read about the grotesque history of Naziism and Hitler’s Final Solution.  I don’t know.

I just finished Patricia Posner’s fascinating book, The Pharmacist of Auschwitz: The Untold Story, which is the remarkable tale of Victor Capesius, a Romanian man who served as the chief pharmacist at Auschwitz during World War II.  Posner’s book, published in January of 2017, apparently breaks new ground with a story that, until now, had not been widely reported.  Having finished reading it this morning, I feel like I learned a lot by reading this well-written and solidly researched book.  It was particularly interesting because I happen to live not too far from where Victor Capesius eventually settled after the war.

Dr. Victor Capesius was an ethnic German who was born and raised in Transylvania.  He studied pharmacology, married his wife, Fritzi, who was also from Romania, and had three daughters.  Eventually, he started working for Bayer, a German pharmaceutical company.  Capesius dispensed medications, but he also sold them.  He did business with people throughout Europe and was well-liked and regarded.  Then, in 1943, when he was 35 years old, Capesius joined the Nazi SS.  He was sent to work at Auschwitz, where he quickly rose the ranks in power to become the chief pharmacist.

As chief pharmacist, Capesius had many duties.  Some of his work involved providing medications to people who were sick– those people being other officers and their families.  He was also in charge of procuring and dispensing Zyklon B, the deadly cyanide based pesticide that was used to murder Jews in gas chambers at death camps around Europe.  Another one of Capesius’ duties was to help select Jews arriving at Auschwitz for the gas chambers.  Apparently, Capesius wasn’t happy about having to participate in selections, not because he was morally opposed to it, but because he didn’t want the extra duty.  Like Josef Mengele, the infamous “Angel of Death” who capriciously chose who lived or died, Capesius decided whose lives would be spared and who would be gassed within an hour or two of arrival at the death camp.

Because of his work as a salesman and pharmacist, it wasn’t unusual for Capesius to see people he knew arriving at Auschwitz.  These were former friends, colleagues, and customers who had known him as a kind, friendly person.  When the prisoners saw Capesius’ familiar face, they trusted him.  They had no way of knowing that this man they had once regarded as a friend, or at least someone worthy of respect, was making the decision to exterminate Jews.  Sometimes Capesius would spare people he knew and send their families off to be gassed. 

Capesius was also notorious for stealing.  He stole the belongings of the arriving prisoners, many of whom had stashed their valuables in their luggage, thinking they were simply going to be working for awhile.  The pharmacist also stole dental gold from the corpses.  He stockpiled these treasures and, once the war was over, used the booty to establish a comfortable life for himself.  After World War II, Capesius moved to Göppingen, a town not far from Stuttgart, and started a successful pharmacy.  Eventually, his wife, Fritzi, and daughters Melitta, Ingrid, and Christa, were able to leave Romania and join him in Germany.  Capesius and his colleagues had pretty much reintegrated into German society after the war and the government seemed content to simply whitewash the past.

Twenty years after the war ended, Capesius and his cronies were brought to justice by a very determined prosecutor.  Against the odds, the men were tried and most were found guilty and sentenced to prison.  Sadly, the sentences they received for their crimes were ridiculously light.

Patricia Posner’s book is a very interesting read.  But more than that, it’s a cautionary tale that Americans should expose themselves to, especially given our current government situation.  Victor Capesius was once a fairly decent person.  Once he was given unconditional power, he underwent a metamorphosis into a monster.  And then, when the war was over and he went back to his regular life, he wanted to bury the past and not be held accountable for his crimes.  It seems that many Germans were content with simply forgetting about the horrors of the Holocaust.  The same thing could happen in the United States if we’re not careful.

Capesius died in 1985.  He was stripped of his pharmacy degree, but he still owned his home and his business, which he ran even after he was convicted of war crimes and served some time in a German prison.  His wife, Fritzi, died in 1998.  His three daughters went on to earn high level degrees and launched successful careers in Germany, attending schools very close to where I’m currently living. 

Another aspect of this book that I found interesting is Posner’s discussion of the company I.G. Farben, which was a conglomerate of several German chemical and pharmaceutical companies, a few of which are still operating today.  I.G. Farben consisted of Bayer, BASF, Hoechst, Agfa, Chemische Fabrik Griesheim-Elektron, and Chemische Fabrik vorm. Weiler Ter Meer.  At the beginning of the 20th century, German chemical companies led the world in the production of synthetic dyes.  The word “Farben” in German means colors.

I.G. Farben had a pretty dirty history.  The company used slave labor provided by prisoners from Auschwitz to produce its products.  In fact, when it became clear that there was a need for more prison labor, the company was even responsible for the construction of the Monowitz concentration camp, which was a sub-camp of the Auschwitz concentration camp system.  It was named after the Polish town where it was located.  Prisoners at Monowitz were used at I.G. Farben’s Buna Werke industrial complex, where synthetic rubber was made.  The prisoners were starved and sickened and they could not work as hard or as efficiently as the regular employees, despite being threatened with beatings.  Prisoners who died while working were dragged back to the camp at night by their colleagues so they could be properly accounted for.  Female prisoners were forced to work as sex slaves at Monowitz’s bordello. 

I.G. Farben cooperated closely with Nazi officials, producing goods used by the Nazi regime.  The conglomerate also owned the patent for Zyklon B, which was invented by a Jewish-German Nobel Prize Winner named Fritz Haber.  Zyklon B was originally intended to be an insecticide, but it was very effective for killing people, as well.  I.G. Farben profited directly from its use as a murder agent in the gas chambers.

After the war, the Allies considered I.G. Farben to be too morally corrupt to continue operating.  Indeed, since 1952, the conglomerate ceased any real activity and remained a shell of a business.  However, legally, the conglomerate still existed until just fourteen years ago.  And most of the individual companies that were involved with the conglomerate are still operating today. 

I highly recommend Patricia Posner’s book for many reasons.  I think it’s a good reminder of what can happen when good countries fall victim to bad leadership.  Greed, corruption, and hatred can cause a decent society to fall into moral bankruptcy. 

Certainly, anyone interested in the history of the Holocaust will find Ms. Posner’s book a great read.  She provides plenty of sources for additional reading, so the especially curious will find a rich supply of information.  Yes, the subject matter of The Pharmacist of Auschwitz is horrifying and depressing, but it’s a cautionary tale to which we should all pay heed.

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book reviews

Repost: My review of Under A Red Sky: Memoir of a Childhood in Communist Romania

And finally, one more reposted book review. This one was originally posted on Epinions.com in 2013; then it appeared on my old blog. It appears as it did on May 31, 2015, which is when I last reposted it.

I recently downloaded several books written by people who lived through post World War II communist regimes. Last week, I reviewed a book about a woman who saw firsthand when her homeland, Latvia, was overtaken by the Soviet Union. Today, I’m going to review Under a Red Sky: Memoir of a Childhood in Communist Romania (2010), a book by Haya Leah Molnar, a Romanian Jewish woman who saw Romania turn communist after World War II. I decided to download this book because it got very good ratings on Amazon.com and I love a good true story.

Eva’s story

Haya Leah Molnar explains that she grew up the much beloved only child of Romanian Jewish parents, who called her Eva Zimmermann. She lived with her parents, grandparents, and an aunt and uncle, all of whom had escaped the Holocaust. Her family was very anti-communist, but were unable to leave Romania due to the travel restrictions imposed by the government.

Though Eva’s family is Jewish, they hadn’t shared the faith with her and she didn’t know she was Jewish. At the tender age of seven, Eva finds out about her religion, but doesn’t understand what it means. Though her family loves her very much, they don’t help her understand Judaism. Her father makes some vague references to his experiences during World War II, but Eva remains confused about what makes her different.

As Eva grows older, she joins the Young Pioneers, a group for all youngsters that teaches them how to be good communists. A non-Jewish couple is moved into her family’s home, which makes it difficult for them to speak freely with each other. Eva’s father, a photographer, doesn’t feel free to practice his craft. In 1958, Eva learns that her whole family has applied to immigrate to Israel, which they consider their true “home”. Eva and her family endure interviews with government officials, give up all their worldly possessions, and must travel a less desirable route to Israel.

My thoughts

I was surprised to find out this very well-written and complex book is marketed to young readers. It’s an easy enough book to read and understand; in fact, it reminds me a little of The Diary of Anne Frank. But it just doesn’t strike me as adolescent literature. I’m 40 years old and I found it very relevant and interesting reading, certainly appropriate for adults to read and enjoy.

Parts of this book are funny and charming, while other parts are sobering. One part is gruesome, as Eva relates the story of how two Nazi officers her mother’s family had been forced to house had saved them from being killed at a slaughterhouse. Reading that account was alternately fascinating and horrifying, as it also cast a rare positive light on Nazis. It was interesting to read that bit about Romanians during the Holocaust, since I had read a lot about Jews in other parts of Europe during World War II.

Eva mentions the Securitate, Romania’s secret police force that terrorized Romanian citizens during the Ceausescu regime. But she never mentions Ceausescu or really explains what the Securitate is, other than to infer that they kept everyone in line. I would think that young people who know nothing about World War II or communism would benefit from discussion about what it was and how people lived.

One thing I didn’t like about this book was the rather abrupt ending. Toward the end of the book, Eva explains how she and her parents took a train into Bulgaria and her father realized he had left his camera behind. He needed the camera to make a living, so he went back to get it. Eva and her mother ended up waiting for her father to return; then they took a ship from Istanbul to Israel. That part of the book seems a bit rushed and I was surprised and disappointed when suddenly, the book was ending. I would have liked another chapter or two about how Eva and her family settled in Israel.

Overall

This is a great book for adolescents and adults. I would highly recommend it to those who are interested in memoirs about life during the communist era in Romania. I would caution parents about that one gruesome passage about the slaughterhouse, though it wasn’t as graphic as it could have been.

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