Category Archives: Volume 3

Use this for the new 2016 stories

Between Tottenham and We

My Team Plays Across the Ocean. Doesn’t Matter

We are watching Tottenham play West Ham. We are in a bar on 14th street in Manhattan. We are drinking and we are singing. We watch as Dele Alli presses a West Ham defender into an errant pass to the feet of Tottenham midfielder Christian Eriksen, who quickly finds Harry Kane, who scores.

We who were sitting are now jumping. We are high-fiving. We are hugging. Together, we sing “Harry Kane, hes one of our own.” It is just after noon on a Sunday in New York, which makes it just after five at White Hart Lane, in North London, where Tottenham has just extended its lead and the same song is pouring down from the stands.

This appears strange. We are 3,500 miles from our home team. The chances are for most of us that distance will never be closed. We come to this bar, Flannery’s, every weekend, sometimes as early as 7 a.m. to be together for Tottenham. There are, on any given Saturday or Sunday, hundreds of us, dressed in Tottenham jerseys, t-shirts, scarves, or just in the team’s colors, white and navy blue. We are mostly guys and most of us are American. Most of us have never been to White Hart Lane. I hope to go to White Hart Lane. The team is building a new stadium and I would love to go to the Lane, just once.

I didn’t grow up watching or even playing soccer. My dad pushed me toward basketball and football, the American kind. But when I was five, I played one season of youth soccer. The coach quit halfway through the season and, with no other parents willing to step up, my dad took over the team. His first task as coach? He went to the library and got a book explaining the soccer rules. I don’t think we won a game that season.

I fell in love with soccer during the 2006 World Cup and was desperate for more of the game long after Zinedine Zidane head-butted France out of the 2006 Final. To help get my fix, I began playing the video game FIFA. I chose to play with clubs in the English Premier League, since it is widely considered the best league in the world and, more importantly for me, it was on television. But I needed a team. I quickly shunned the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea as too good. Not enough of a challenge. I also moved on from teams like Newcastle. While I had heard of the club, it wasn’t good enough to compete with other FIFA players surely playing with Man United, Chelsea or Liverpool.

Then, there was Tottenham, the lovable band of footballers good enough to be competitive, but not so good they didn’t present a challenge. There was all 5 feet 5 inches of Aaron Lennon speeding down the right flank, Jermaine Jenas showing glimpses of his never-quite-realized potential in the midfield, and the languid brilliance of Dimitar Berbatov. I was hooked on this team.

It didn’t happen that way for all of us. We came to love Tottenham in different ways and at different times. Some came for a single player, some, like me, randomly found the club, and some say they didn’t find Tottenham at all, but just the opposite. We are all in love with the same thing and we are all cool with that. In fact, it makes it better.

Back at Flannery’s, a deep and dark, wood-paneled Irish pub, it was halftime and Spurs were up 2-0. Spirits in the bar were as high as they had been all season. An Englishman named Andy Smith came and sat across from me. He had noticed me writing in my notebook and he wanted to talk about the match. And so we talked. The conversation started at the surface. Nice goal by Kane. Defense is playing well. Good start to the season. But it wasn’t long before we were reliving Tottenham’s lone foray in the Champions League. Gareth Bale single-handedly destroying Maicon, then considered among the top defenders in world football. The glory, glory European nights at White Hart Lane. The fact that Spurs haven’t been back in that competition since 2011.

During our conversation, a slightly inebriated fan heard Smith’s North London accent and said, “How do you like it here?”

Anywhere else in the city, this question might have meant, “How do you like it in New York, as opposed to London?” or “Are you having fun at this particular bar?” But at Flannery’s, among the Lilywhite Tottenham jerseys, the question unmistakably meant, “Does it feel like home?”

Nearly 200 fans were packed into Flannery’s at this point, almost all wearing Tottenham apparel and holding beers. But did Flannery’s approximate what it’s like to watch a Spurs game in a London pub?

“It’s close enough,” Smith said.

He’s supported Spurs since 1986, though it wasn’t always clear he’d be a Tottenham fan. His dad supported Spurs, but his school was closer to Upton Park, West Ham’s stadium, and most of his friends supported the Hammers. Smith went to a match between Spurs and West Ham at Upton Park with his uncle in 1986, his fanhood wide open. But two goals from Clive Allen and a 4-0 Tottenham win moved Smith’s loyalty to North London.

For the last 12 years, Smith has had season tickets at White Hart Lane, even though he’s lived in New York for the past two. If Smith gives up his seat, he says there are some 30,000 people on the list waiting to take it. Any of the fans inside Flannery’s would take one of those tickets in a second. We are dying to go to a match at White Hart Lane.

Many conversations inside Flannery’s and contain the word “we,” a word the reveals a deep psychological connection to Tottenham.

In a Washington Post article last year, Eric Simons wrote, “a sports team is an expression of a fan’s sense of self.” Simons is the author a book titled “The Secret Lives of Sports Fans: The Science of Sports Obsession.” He goes on to write in the Post, “it is not obnoxious affectation when a devotee uses the word ‘we’; it’s a literal confusion in the brain about what is ‘me’ and what is ‘the team.’ In all kinds of unconscious ways, a fan mirrors the feelings, action and even hormones of the players. Self-esteem rides on the outcome of the game and the image of the franchise.”

When I talk to other Tottenham fans, the use of “we” flows naturally. When I talk to fans of other teams, I use “we” when talking about Tottenham and “you” or “they” or “them” when talking about the other team. That’s the way our brains default when talking about the teams we love. We regard ourselves as part of the team, or at least part of a larger organization around the team.

It’s why we wake up with the sun on weekends and go to Flannery’s to watch Spurs, even though many of us could watch at home. It’s why we feel that Harry Kane really is one of our own.

Over his Guinness and my IPA, Smith and I watched the second half of the Spurs-West Ham match, which ended 4-1 to Tottenham, one of the team’s best performances of the season. Toward the end of the game, I asked Smith if it was strange to see so much support for Spurs from those with no obvious ties to the team. “I think it’s great. It’s clear that Tottenham have made the U.S. a priority and it’s obviously working. The mood is great.”

As Smith was leaving Flannery’s after Spurs beat West Ham, he told me he’d be back soon. Next time with his mates.

I Play. You Play. We All Play.

Music as the bond between struggling children

Max was the first to arrive. He was swinging an imaginary light saber as the other boys stepped off the elevator and into the waiting room. Soon there were four of them — Sam, Peter, Luke, Max – all of them eight, all joining the imaginary battle, each of them struggling to connect with other children.

Max was loud, energetic and easily distracted. Then there was Sam, who sat next to his mother, and was reluctant to leave her side. Luke, quiet and gentle, moved in and out of the duel. Peter was loud, too, but unlike Max was aware of it.

Their therapist, Jenny, knew her cue. She knew these boys. She walked into the music room and sat at the piano. When the boys heard the music they followed it into the room.

The idea was simple. For the next 30 minutes, the boys – whose names have been changed to protect their privacy — were to be transported by the music, and through it, become a band.

First, Jenny gave each boy an instrument – a cymbal, a ukulele, a melodion, and a xylophone. For 10 minutes she let them make whatever sounds they wanted. She wanted to give them the opportunity to express their emotions and gradually transition into a shared musical experience. That way, they could find common ground. The boys created a cacophony of clashing sounds and uneven tempos. Tears, at first, then smiles, then laughter.

Sam is sensitive to loud sounds. “It’s too loud,” he said anxiously with a lump in his throat. “Please do it softly,” he said again, welling up.

Before he came to Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy Foundation, he had a hard time expressing himself. Teary-eyed, he would curl up and hide away to face the corners of the walls. Now, he can communicate.

Max, meanwhile, looked concerned. Without being told, he knew. He knew he was responsible for the noise. With his eyes on Sam, he continued playing, softer now.

Then Jenny began to play chords. The boys listened. And as they did the noise lessened. But when Jenny asked them to swap instruments, something happened. They all agreed on the one they wanted, except one.

Sam’s melodion was broken. He tried to fix it but couldn’t and began to cry. Jenny tried to help him put the pieces back together. He was frustrated. He refused to give his friend, Peter, the broken instrument. He wanted to fix it first.

The others were concerned about it for a minute, and then they got distracted. They stood up from their seats and moved to the corner of the room, where they could take a nap. But Jenny was quick to react. She fastened the loose pieces of the broken instrument and guided them back into their seats as she began to play again.

Then, she gave them a melody to play and assigned parts to each of them.

Could these boys play as one?

Peter went first and, one at a time, they played. But Max didn’t quite understand the timing of his cue. So they had to start again… and again… and again. The boys were patient. Their attempts were repetitive, but they were also constructive. It wasn’t long before everything became leveled and the group was in sync. They finally managed to get through the entire song, and rejoiced. Max smiled brightly. Luke and Sam grinned and Peter laughed, swinging his long blonde hair back in excitement.

Harmony, at last.

As the session came to an end and the boys sang “goodbye and thank you for your music, goodbye, bye, bye, thank you for your music,” they were all smiles, all cheers to greet their parents. And, like a weight had been lifted from their shoulders, they decided it was time to take a short nap on the carpet floor.

Nowhere Man

Author André Aciman is at home everyplace. Sort of.

The first night of Ramadan wasn’t much different from the rest of the winter nights on the Alexandrian Corniche. The air was cool and salty, overwhelmed by the crashes of water. Apart from the rare, white headlights passing by with recurring intermittence, the stones of the wall that separated the land from the sea were only lit by the feeble rays of night stars.

A 14-year-old boy walked along the coastline. He was a French-speaking boy, born into a Turkish family who spoke Ladino, living in Alexandria, and attending a British school where they were trying to teach him Arabic. The boy held a sheet of newspaper hiding a soggy pancake, a delicacy with which one of the street vendors had just granted him. The boy sat on the wall facing the sea. Behind him the city he never loved spread far and wide. It was the boy’s last night on the Corniche.

This time tomorrow his Turkish and Jewish family would be escaping Nasser’s anti-Semitic Egypt. They would be headed to Rome, Italy.

It was 1965.

Rome was the first stop for the boy’s family. Locked up in his room in an apartment in working-class Via Clelia, the boy spent three years hiding behind the pages of the novels that he wished his world resembled. There was no television in the house, no money, no friends, no relatives – there was only the #85 bus, from Via Clelia to the city center. On Saturday mornings, it took the boy 22 stops to get to Piazza San Silvestro, where he would get off and start wandering, stumbling into one bookstore after another. Via del Babuino, Via Frattina, Campo Marzio, Piazza Rotonda, Campo de’ Fiori – anywhere that would take him away from Via Clelia, where the boy hid his shame and his yearning for the worlds of Ovid and Dostoyevsky.

It was as if the boy was cursed to hate all the places, all the cities, all the streets. Rue Delta in Alexandria was first, Via Clelia in Rome then. But there was one city the boy thought he loved. It was a city he had only read about but never seen. It was Balzac’s labyrinthine city and Baudelaire’s splenetic metropolis. It was a place full of stores where the boy could buy Pelikan pens and cigarettes without questions asked. It was a city where the Seine would run adrift “scarcely seven minutes away” from the boy’s great-aunt’s apartment.

It was Paris.

When his family was still living in Alexandria, his Uncle Isaac teased him about his longing for Paris. “Wants to be a petit monsieur,” he used to say. “All he needs is a monocle, a top hat, and off goes our jeune flâneur through the grands boulevards de Paris.” His haggard, aging uncle asked him what he wanted to become when he grew up.

“An ambassador,” the boy said.

Uncle Isaac asked him of which country – “Which country are you a citizen of?”

“France, of course,” the boy said.

France, of course.

France was where his father, Henri, had taken a temporary job before losing his knitting factory and leaving Alexandria. So every Christmas, Easter and sometimes twice in the summer, the boy, now 15, would be boarding the 3:30 direttissimo at Stazione Termini and was off to Paris with his mother and brother. Each time, it took a lot of convincing to board the train back from Paris to Rome. As he said goodbye to the city he thought he loved, the boy was already missing it.

Aunt Flora knew it. Years later, long after the boy became a man, he would recall his asking her to play the Shubert again while they sat in the kitchen where she cooked, ate, wrote letters, read, watched television, corrected homework. In the other room of her ground floor apartment, two grand pianos sat side by side, making it hard for anyone to squeeze behind the first piano and reach the second one. The small window in the room was closed. Outside, the Venetian Grand Canal lay surmounted by bridges and crossed by gondole.

Aunt Flora would ask him if he really wanted to hear the Shubert. Shubert was what she played while the Germans stood outside Alexandria, and the whole family thought the end was near. Shubert was what she played when she did not want to think about what they were about to lose.

But Aunt Flora would play the Shubert for him, even if with all the music recalled.

“We let it happen, as Jews always let these things happen,” she would tell him. “Because, deep inside, we know we’ll lose everything we own at least twice in our lives.”

The boy’s family would lose everything they owned at least another time.

Three years after moving to Rome, the boy was headed to New York.

It was 1968.

Now 17, the boy was growing into a young man. In New York, he looked for a job. Two weeks after his arrival, he got one as a mailboy at Lincoln Center. Thirty streets below his parents’ house on 96th Street, the boy fell in love (if “love” is the word for it) with the city of art and culture which the place he worked for represented. In the mailroom, everyone liked him, and he liked everyone. In apparenza, he would later say using the Italian word, apparently, he had found a place where he belonged.

But this realization only came to him later, during his first few weeks of college. At Lehman College in the Bronx, the boy studied English and comparative literature. He had only gone there because it was a free college, though he was sure he wouldn’t like it. Then, it happened. The first snow came to dust over the city, and, while he walked across campus, the boy heard someone say loudly, “Fucking snow.” For the first time in forever, he felt comfortable in a place where people expressed themselves in a way that riveted him. For the first time in forever, he felt like he belonged.

Maybe he was a New Yorker after all.

In New York, the boy didn’t have to fake being a Christian. In New York, people were nice in the same way he was. In New York, people weren’t touchy in the same way he wasn’t. In New York, the traffic between possibilities and impossibilities and the constant shuffling of the city became the boy’s home.

That is, until he moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts.

It was 1973.

Oxford Street, Ware Street, Concord Avenue, Prescott Street and Lowell House are all the places the boy lived in while earning his doctorate in comparative literature at Harvard.

During summers in an empty Cambridge, the boy divided his days between Houghton Library and the roof terrace of the Lowell House building where he was a resident tutor, armed with a folding chair, a bathing suit, cigarettes, music, a bit of booze and, of course, books. Right there on the fourth floor of a college dorm overlooking Cambridge, the young man from Alexandria, who felt unable to fit into the strange New World, imagined paradoxically to be lying by some beach on the Mediterranean.

Paradoxically because he didn’t just hate Alexandria, he also hated the beach. Back in Egypt, he would get paralyzing migraines from being in the sun for too long. On that terrace, with an equal amount of books and Tom Collins, the boy realized he wasn’t longing for the beach – he was longing for the sea, for those “quiet beach-day Sundays” right before the crowds headed out to the beaches in early summer. And, yet, he had never thought about those beach-days before. They had come to him, as memories, only once they stopped existing, during a stroll on Riverside Drive in New York City or during conversations with friends on the terraces in Cambridge.

Because every place in the boy’s life was nothing more than a throwback to Egypt, to a life he sometimes missed, mostly just remembered. Lawrence Durrell once wrote about Alexandria, the “capital of memory,” that “the city, half-imagined (yet wholly real), begins and ends in us, roots lodged in our memory.” The boy didn’t even love the city or the things he remembered about the city – he simply loved remembering. It was within his memory that Alexandria had started existing again.

And, on the terrace of his college dorm, the boy remembered the sea that had followed him from the tip of North Africa all the way to Italy, France and the United States. He remembered how the water looked, glimpsed through the trees on the direttissimo from Rome to Paris. He remembered how he grew to love the sun in New York. He remembered how he caught his old aunt staring at the Mediterranean in Alexandria, longing for the Seine. He remembered the summers spent in the town beaches on the Italian Riviera. He remembered the view of the Lido from Aunt Flora’s house in Venice.

It was Aunt Flora who had taught him to swim.

Suddenly, Harvard became too much for him and not quite enough. The boy moved back to New York and there, away from anything academic and completely immersed in the metropolis, he wrote his dissertation in six months and fell back in love (again, if “love” is the word for it) with a city he hasn’t left since.

It was 1980.

The boy is now 65. The body of a small, French child has turned into the short but slim body of a grown man. With thinning ivory hair, André Aciman has his mother’s eyes. Like Gigi’s eyes, his are almond-shaped, dark and Mediterranean in color. Like Gigi, he carries himself with a combination of elegance, grace and utter boldness.

His eyes have the confidence of a man who has spent his youth flirting with girls in bars, exploiting his French accent. But his eyes also seem doomed by the knowledge that that same accent has prevented him from fitting in his whole life.

Apart from the years, seven books have also gone by. The first one was Out of Egypt, an account of his last days in Alexandria, published 30 years after his exile, in 1995.

There was False Papers: Essays on Exile and Memory in 2000, a collection of essays on cities, memory, Marcel Proust and exile. False Papers is also the book that narrates his return to Alexandria, the capital of memory. “This, I realize, is what happens when one finally comes home: one hardly notices, and it doesn’t feel odd at all,” he wrote. In Alexandria, the boy realized the city was dead, Egypt was dead and even he was not alive anymore. He vowed never to return. But he forgot to kiss his grandfather’s grave.

“Maybe next time,” he wrote.

Then, in 2004, The Proust Project was published. It was a collection of essays he had edited from 28 writers about their favorite passages from In Search of Lost Time. The year of his first novel, Call Me by Your Name, was 2007. Even this work of fiction was created because of the boy’s longing for a place he couldn’t have – Italy. He fantasized about the country, the Riviera, the town beaches, the villas and the days by the sea. So, Elio, a slightly younger version of the Alexandrian intellectual educated in those bookstores in Rome, was born.

The protagonist of Harvard Square (2013) was also another version of himself, if not simply himself as a graduate student at Harvard. In Cambridge, at his favorite hangout spot, Café Algiers, the boy met a Tunisian cabdriver called Kalaj, short for Kalashnikov. Kalaj reminded the boy of Henri, his father. Like Henri, Kalaj was a misogynistic womanizer with North African values but also with an earthy love for France and anything French.

But there is only one book Aciman is proud of. It’s the work that “every author wishes to be able to write at least once in his life.” Eight White Nights was published in 2010. The novel was a journey through an asexual romance between two upper-middle-classers in New York City.

Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere came in 2011. A collection of travel essays and trips down memory lane, Alibis was also where he wrote,

“I am an exile from Alexandria, Egypt.

Like the nomad, an exile is someone who has no home to go back to. He has lost his home; it’s no longer there; there is no going back – Odysseus just got wind that Ithaca was entirely destroyed by an earthquake and that every person he knew there is gone. Unlike the nomad, though, an exile is not resigned to homelessness; perpetual transience feels as unnatural to him as it would to any tourist who’s lost his return ticket. An exile wants a home, not a provisional rest stop. But having lost his home, he hasn’t the foggiest notion how to go about finding a new one. He is even wary of having to ‘choose’ a new home. Can one choose one’s home any more than one can choose the color of one’s skin? Anyone can build a house – but is it ever a home?”

New York should be his home. Sometimes, it’s not. Because, sometimes, André Aciman dreams of being in Italy, sunbathing on the poolside of a beautiful Mediterranean mansion, or in France, strolling in a narrow cobble lane street, or in Egypt, longing to be out of there. But New York should be his home. That’s where he’s a professor at CUNY. That’s where he lives with his wife Susan, also a Harvard graduate he met at a former student’s party. That’s where his firstborn, Alexander, and the twins, Michael and Philip, were born. That’s where Gigi and Henri are buried.

Sometimes, though, the boy had to flee New York. Paris, Barcelona, St. Petersburg, Jerusalem, his return to Alexandria. Intermittently over the years, he left New York, longing for other places.

It happened in 2000 in Paris. During his stay in Place des Vosges, the boy sat in his hotel room, thinking about every corner of the square he had experienced. The grocery stores, the bookstores, the art galleries, the tiny synagogue and the nursery school underneath the arcades – after a few days, everything had grown more and more familiar, including the faces. He thought he was ready to write about it. But he didn’t. He wanted to be back in New York. He knew that, only once he was no longer in Paris, he could begin to remember it, pretend to be there still, long for it.

It happened again in 2003, this time in Tuscany. At Il Leccio, one of many timeless villas in central Italy, the boy realized that the way he traveled was also the way he lived. It wasn’t about being in a place, it was about planning the itinerary for the next trip. Wherever he wasn’t, that’s where he was. That’s where they all were, David Ostwald said. A lawyer with an optimistic attitude, Ostwald didn’t even know how he had ended up becoming Aciman’s best friend. He just knew he was, probably because they were so different. Ostwald saw the glass half full. Mr. Quicksand saw it half empty. That was Ostwald’s nickname for him. Sometimes he called him Mr. Somewhere-I’m-Not. Sometimes, Mr. On-the-One-Hand. Other times, Mr. On-the-Other-Hand.

In Volpaia, the wine village in the Chianti region that Aciman adored, walking with Ostwald and their wives, Mr. Quicksand thought he was there, but he really wasn’t. In reality, he was already longing to be back in New York. He ran from one place to the other, one street corner to the next.

“Why don’t you just slow down?” Ostwald urged him.

His friend stopped and said, “I can’t, I want to see this whole town.” But he wasn’t seeing it. He knew that the only way he could see it was to be back in New York, remembering it.

So he went back to New York.

On a freezing Saturday afternoon, André Aciman left his apartment on the Upper West Side and biked to the intersection of Broadway, West End Avenue and 106th Street. It was a route he had known since his college days, when he would ride his way to and from the Bronx.

The sun tried desperately to heat up the hazy laziness of the after-lunch hours in empty Straus Park, shining weakly on the back of Mnemosyne, mother of all muses, whose bronze body lay before an inscription, “In memory of Isidor and Ida Straus / who were lost at sea in the Titanic disaster April 15, 1912 / Lovely and pleasant were they in their lives and in / Their death they were not divided.”

In memory of. Mnemosyne. The personification of Memory.

Aciman was drawn to this place. He used to walk here when he needed a break from writing his dissertation in the somber stacks of Columbia University’s Butler Library. Every day for a summer, at noon, he would come down Broadway. He did it mostly for the statue of the muse because she, like him, was doomed to be stuck in a place halfway between places, on an island in the middle of another island, in the accidental quietness among the traffic. Mnemosyne didn’t really have a home address. She lived at the intersection of four different addresses. Just like he always had. That was why, in Straus Park, he felt at home.

He grew so fond of the place that, in 2007, unaware of the restoration the park was undergoing, he panicked at the thought of its imminent demolition, believing that a part of him, imprinted in that oasis in the middle of a city, would have died with it. Aciman held tight to his affection for the park for years, to the point where his friends and family made fun of him each time he told them he was going there.

“Are you sure you’re where you are?” David Ostwald asked him.

“Not Straus Park again,” the twins said.

But it was Straus Park, again.

He secured his bike to a bench to the right of Mnemosyne. He took off his bright green helmet and sat down on the edge of the bench, elbows on knees, fingers intertwined. This time, he had gone there almost reluctantly. Then he started looking around, and he saw it again. Home.

He fixed his eyes on the intersection between West End Avenue and 107th Street but didn’t see West End and 107th. Instead, André Aciman saw townhouses, coffee shops and old lampposts along the canal. He saw Amsterdam. His gaze followed the Dutch canal south, to West End Avenue and 106th Street. And there it was, London.

He stood up impatiently. He turned around and faced the bench. Narrowing his eyes to block out the sight of the Manhattan traffic, he fixed his gaze on 106th Street as it continued east toward Central Park. His imagination traveled faster than the blink of the streetlight. The paved road of a town on the Italian Riviera lay before him. He saw the row of Mediterranean poplars, the colors of the beach ombrelloni, the pavement slowly turning into sand and then, finally, he saw the blue of the sea.

He sat back down. Suddenly, he felt Paris on his skin. It seemed that, if he followed the crisp breeze passing through the park all the way west on 106th Street, it would lead him to the bank of the Seine, flowing quietly behind Riverside Park.

Just sitting there, on that bench, trapped in a transitional place of remembrance, would make him think of all those nearly abandoned but unexplainably snug parks in Rome, where he used to rest his feet on his Saturday morning walks.

But it was just Straus Park, again.

It was just New York, the city he didn’t love – the one he preferred to others.

He thought about leaving New York.

But where would he go? Paris? Too many tourists. Rome? God, no. He laughed. New York was his home, a place where he could be everywhere – Amsterdam, London, Paris, Rome, St. Petersburg – in all of his shadow cities.

Of course, Aciman knew he was going to leave New York someday. There’s a small cemetery in Rome in the shadow of the Egyptian-style pyramid that Gaius Cestius forced his heirs to build for him in 330 days. Officially, it’s called Cimitero Acattolico, but the locals know it as cimitero degli artisti e dei poeti. The hill-like greenery is the final resting place of Percy Shelley, John Keats, William Story, Antonio Gramsci.

It will also be home to André Aciman.

Or, at least, to one part of him. The rest remains a mystery.

The Lives She Saved

 A Stranger Saves a Woman and Her Child from the Nazis. Why Did She Do It?


She was supposed to die.

Emily Kessler was the mouse. The Nazis were the cats. The chase went on for two years. The mouse was scared and starving. The cat was agile and ferocious. But the cat didn’t know there were other players in the game. This is their story.

When the sun blinked through the winter skies of Khmelnik, Ukraine on Jan. 9, 1942, Emily Kessler didn’t know it would be the last day she would ever be home. The war had taken her husband the year before and she was living with her parents and her brother Sasha, along with her two-year-old son.

The town was swarming with SS death squads and Wehrmacht combat units whose mission was the liquidation of Jews, day after day, without restraint or compromise, with the help of local collaborators. Since the Nazis had marched in, Jews were all made to wear the yellow Star of David, first on their sleeves, then on their chests and on backs. The Jews were all assigned backbreaking and humiliating work, which was the least bad thing they had to do. They were not allowed on the sidewalks of their hometown. They were not allowed to buy food. They were not allowed to see a doctor. They were beaten or killed on the whims of the Nazis.

At 6:00 a.m. on that frigid January morning, several Nazis burst in into Kessler’s home and started beating her. One of them pointed his gun at Kessler’s brother Sasha. During Stalin’s homegrown famine in the 1930s, Sasha had fainted on the road from hunger, was hit by a bus and had lost both his legs in the accident.

Nazis were not known for their kindness to the physically challenged.

Kessler stood between the gun and her brother but the soldier pushed her away and killed Sasha in front of her eyes. Too numb to process what she had just seen, she forgot to put clothes on her two-year-old son, Valeriy, when she was pushed and prodded out on the cold street. There were more Jews lined outside and Nazis on horses herding them towards the nearby forest. When they entered the forest Kessler saw a large pit.

Quickly enough, Nazi horsemen started screaming at people to strip naked and then shot and pushed them into the pit. Kessler saw them throwing down babies in the pit over their dead parents. She saw them breaking the babies into two on their knees. She saw a friend walking towards the pit with dead eyes and no will to fight.

Kessler wanted to live for three reasons. She didn’t want to die young, she didn’t want her son to die and she wanted to bear witness to what she had seen. She started darting from one line of captives to another on the frosty forest floor in her summer dress, undeterred by the guards who were beating her.

When her turn at the edge of the pit came, a strange thing happened. A German officer looked at her and decided she was not a Jew. He told her to run away. She ran but was caught and brought back to the pit by the local policemen. Again, the German officer looked at her and told her to run away.

Kessler later heard that thousands of Jews – men, women and children – were killed in the mass shooting that she had escaped. Those alive, like Kessler, were rounded up and marched to the prison where they were kept for four days without food or water.

She fed her hungry baby boy the snow frozen on the windowsill of her cell. Kessler saw her parents through the prison window once and they saw her. Only once in those four days, a local policeman tore off a piece of bread and threw it at the prisoners. A hundred fifty pairs of hands rushed to catch the bread. Kessler caught a tiny piece.

The Jews were soon ordered to move into a ghetto where 200 of them were crammed together on cold floors. A week after she saw her brother’s death, Kessler witnessed rows and rows of Jews sentenced to death. Among them were her parents, embracing each other, dawdling to their death. Some of the Jews, unhinged or truly happy, were dancing while they moved to the grave.

In the ghetto, those “fit” were made to work. Like many, Kessler washed the lavatories used by Nazis with bare hands, carried bricks for construction and ploughed the snow from the roads. Her hands, tiny and delicate, that once strummed the mandolin were always busy scraping and scrubbing dirt. She grew weaker and weaker and knew she wouldn’t pass the medical test that sent the unfit Jews to the graves. It was forbidden to treat sick Jews or even those dying of starvation. The labor camp was a factory for making people sick and then dead. Then she heard whispers in the camp that all the children were to be killed the next night. She did the unthinkable. She slipped out of the ghetto in the dark of night.

Kessler roamed the town for days, looking for places to spend the nights. She hid in abandoned buildings and cellars while avoiding the soldiers and their search dogs. One night, she knocked on the door of a woman named Vera Shchupova. She was the sister one of a Ukrainian policemen in the ghetto. She was also Kessler’s classmate when they were children.


It was a rainy night when Vera Shchupova opened her doors and found Emily Kessler with Valeriy at her step, barefoot and drenched. Her brother’s position meant Shchupova had the freedom to go inside the fenced area without restrictions. Her brother didn’t know that she had been going to the ghetto to slip food to Kessler and few others. She told Kessler that, as she feared, the Nazis had carried off the children’s Aktion — mass killings of sick, disabled and children “unworthy of life” started by Hitler in 1939. She let Kessler in and hid her in the basement for a month. During the time Kessler was hiding in Shchupova’s basement, her brother often visited her sister’s home with his fellow officers.

American cartoonist Art Spiegelman once asked his psychiatrist Pavel, a Czech Jew and survivor of Terezin and Auschwitz, how it felt to be in the camp, to live under the shadows of Nazis and SS officers.

“What Auschwitz felt like?” Pavel said, “How can I explain?”

“BOO!” He startled Spiegelman with the loud sound.

“It felt a little like THAT,” Pavel said. “But ALWAYS. From the moment you got to the gate until the very end.”

Kessler lived in Shchupova’s basement hearing the Nazi collaborators and policemen coming and going. Frightened of her own baby’s cries, she finally asked Shchupova if there was a way she could leave the town. Shchupova thought of Yekaterina (Katya) Surovova.


Yekaterina (Katya) Surovova was a Gentile woman who had been widowed at a young age, much like Emily Kessler. She was raising a daughter and a son on her own with her job in a coat factory in Khmelnik. She saw the Nazis march into her town, where most of the non-Jewish population was very pro-German. It was no surprise that they had found so many collaborators so quickly. In these times, there was a thin line between collaborators and bystanders. Surovova fell in neither of these comfortable categories. When her friend Shchupova sought Surovova and asked her if she would give her passport to help Kessler flee, she thought of Kessler and her baby boy. She thought of her own children. The passport had her face, her name, her address on it. Kessler’s arrest would have meant death, not just for her but for her children too. All she had to do was lower her head and carry on with her life like many around her were doing. Why risk her life, the life of her children for a Jew with SS guards on her heels? She had all the reasons not to help Kessler. She decided to help her.

With her new passport, Kessler was now Katya Surovova. She left town with her son and another Aktion survivor, 13-year-old Fira Milkis whom Kessler had found hiding in a cellar. They walked through the day, and slept in the shade of haystacks when the night fell. After days of walking and they came upon the border zone, patrolled by frontier-guards who killed anyone trying to cross the line. Kessler waded through a river that was running up to her neck, carrying her son over her head and Milkis in tow. Somehow the frontier-guards missed them. She eventually came to the town of Zhmerinka in Central Ukraine, which was under Romanian control. But she was still was not safe, not if anyone took too close a look at her passport. So she kept running and running until the country was liberated in March of 1944.


While Kessler was still in the labor camp, the local policemen had allowed a few people to bring bedding from their now abandoned houses. When Kessler had made her way back to her home, she had found all the windows and doors broken. The house stood silent and plundered, covered with blood and feathers. And in the middle lay the frozen corpse of her brother. Kessler had just stood there, staring at her brother. She couldn’t cry, for fear her cries might be heard. In the end, she couldn’t bring herself to take anything from the house, not even her baby’s clothes.

Instead of returning home to Ukraine after the war, Kessler decided instead to go to Moscow and that was where she remained for another 30 years. Every October, however, she returned to Khmelnik for the memorial service of those perished in Holocaust. She also visited her saviors, Shchupova and Surovova. Finally, in 1977, she and her grown son left the Soviet Union for America. But life in New York was difficult for Kessler. She knew no one and spoke little English.

It wasn’t until 1985 that she caught a glimpse of home. She was walking past a music shop window in Manhattan when she spotted a mandolin, an instrument whose song was the song of home. She had somehow forgotten in the midst of all the noisy, bloody memories that she knew how to play mandolin. The lyrics of all the Ukrainian songs she had once sung came rushing back to her.

Now, Emily Kessler has a map of wrinkles on her face and eyes that still twinkle with intelligence. She won’t talk without clasping her pearl necklace around her neck. She most probably will comment about the lack of grey in her chestnut hair. And she is always translating English to Russian and Russian to English with the help of an old withering dictionary. She has battled depression and memories her whole life.

But she’s home when she plays her mandolin.

Post Script

Through Emily Kessler’s story I wanted to know the answer to one question – why do people show remarkable courage in extremely difficult times when they have a choice to look the other way?

I knew the story was all about memories – reliving them, corroborating them and looking at one remembrance from different vantage points. When I went to meet 98-year-old Emily Kessler in her Upper West Side apartment, she had forgotten that we had an appointment but then she scrubbed her face clean, creamed it, clasped her pearl necklace around her neck and sat down on her sofa to talk to me. She told me as much as she could. We spoke about her life after the liberation, her days in the camp, her rescuers and their family. She told me she still sends three hundred dollars, every three months, to Kolya Surovova – the grandson of her rescuer Katya Surovova. She told me how she had even helped and was in touch with another inmate of the same labor camp Sophia Karpovich, now living in New York.

So, I contacted Sophia Karpovich, now 77-years-old, to know her side of the story. Her memories (including what she had heard from her elder brother, also an inmate in the camp) matched Kessler’s.

The next step was to contact the Surovovas in Ukraine. They were pleased to corroborate Kessler’s story. Kolya said something to the effect that their grandmother’s one good deed was now rescuing his family with the money Kessler sends them. The economic conditions of Ukraine are at their worst and the only earning member in Kolya’s family of four is his wife Tatiana.

Then I asked him – why did she do it? Why did Katya help Kessler?

She was a mother too, Kolya said. They must have connected, she saw the baby. But the answer really was this – she just did.

I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact someone could risk her own life and that of their family to save someone she hardly knew. I myself have witnessed how easy it is to do otherwise, and it had been to a question that has been haunting me since childhood. I had witnessed sectarian riots in my native India. I had seen my own neighbors turn into bystanders; I had seen people who were kind to those utterly helpless and at the mercy of the mob. I had always wanted to know the difference between those who acted well, and those who did not.

So I contacted Kristen Renwick Monroe, Director of University of California Irvine’s Ethics Center. She has written three books analyzing altruism and ethics in the age of terror. She gave me the psychological answers to my question based on her extensive research and years of interviews with people who fell in three categories: rescuers, silent bystanders and the tormentors.

She told me that altruists see the world as one and believe they have no choice but to save other people. Bystanders, by contrast, see themselves as weak and unable to change the fate of anyone, so they remain uninvolved – looking the other way. Tormentors (in Kessler’s case, the Nazis) believe they are under attack, and so have a rationale for inflicting pain.

Her research suggested a thin line between those who rescued Jews and those who didn’t. It is clear from the quotes of those Monroe interviewed and included in her book “Ethics in the Age of Terror:”

“But what else could I do? They were human beings like you and me.” ~ Rescuers of Jews during Holocaust

But what could I do? I was one person, alone against the Nazis.” ~ Bystanders, World War II.

I then contacted Yad Vashem – an organization that was established in 1953 as the world center for documentation, research, education and commemoration of the Holocaust. They sent me links to the records and accounts of these two women – Vera and Katya – who had saved Kessler and Valeriy’s life. Yad Vashem also honors those non-Jews who had aided Jews during World War II. Since 1960s, the title of “Righteous Amongst the Nations” has been awarded to 24,355 people from over 47 countries. Vera and Katya are among them.

I went on the website of Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. to find any references of Kessler and got a hit. Apparently in 1993, with the help of someone in New York Public Library, Kessler had written a memoir of her ordeals in Khmelnik under German occupation. That is how I came to find Kessler’s memoir.

Now, I had the pieces of Kessler’s story, from many sources including her own words, written when she was young.

During the interview Kessler said something that made me think about the masks we all wear over our scars everyday.

“I smile,” Kessler. “People know me only smiling. People find me beautiful. How can I be beautiful after what I have seen?”