Wednesday, October 26, 2016

A Tale of Two (Empty) Swimming Pools

Within the span of 24 hours on September 9 and 10, I observed two empty swimming pools in the Czech Republic. Each portays the history of the Jews in Czechoslovakia, one symbolizing an almost certain end of the road, the other a rebirth.
The first is in the basement of Petschek Villa, the residence of the United States Ambassador to the Czech Republic. Through a mutual friend, Janet and I visited with Ambassador Andrew Schapiro and his wife, Tamar Newberger, in the late afternoon and evening of September 9. Along with two couples and two guests, Andrew and Tamar took us on a tour of part of the 70-room residence.

The Villa was built in the late 1920s, during the brief flowering of the first republic of Czechoslovakia by Otto Petschek, the patriarch of one of the wealthiest families in the country. The Petscheks were a German-speaking Jewish family, and their wealth was attributable in large part to coal mining and banking.

While the mansion was being built, the family lived in the present Deputy Chief of Mission’s residence. The Petschek grandparents continued to live there after the rest of the family moved into their new home during the winter of 1929 - 1930. Otto Petschek became ill and died in 1934.

In 1938, with the growing Nazi threat in Europe and specifically toward Czechoslovakia, the Petschek family (a son and three daughters) sold their holdings and departed for the United States, where members of the family still live. After the Nazis occupied Prague, they seized the house, and it became the residence of General Rudolf Toussaint, the head of the German army occupying Prague. A considerable number of Nazi aides and soldiers were quartered on the property during this seven-year period.

Taking us into the basement and switching on a light in a huge dark room, Andrew revealed an empty swimming pool with an interesting history. NOTE: Because of the family’s wishes, photos of the pool and other rooms in the residence will not be posted here or on social media.

The swimming pool is said to have been used during only one winter. By one account, after one of the Petschek sisters caught pneumonia after swimming and nearly died, her father decreed that the pool should never be used again. Another account holds that a family member dived in and broke a leg, which resulted in the ban. Another explanation for the pools’ disuse (a less dramatic one offered by a family member) was the pool was too expensive to heat, even for an owner of coal mines. Either way, the pool has remained empty for more than eighty years.

Terezin concentration camp

The second is in the Terezin concentration camp, 40 miles north of Prague, which visited the following day. The Nazis took over the fortress built by Hapsburgs between 1780 and 1790 that had been used a prison for army and political prisoners. It served mainly as a transfer camp, although thousands died here from disease, starvation and execution. For a visit by the Red Cross, the Nazis built facilities that were never used by the inmates, including rows of sinks on each side of a long room.

Sinks, Terezin concentration camp

Toward the end of our visit, we were taken to an empty swimming pool, surrounded by a fence. Jews and students were forced to build it for the guards and their families in 1942. The inmates used it once . . . for the propaganda film. It was not particularly large or deep, compared to the pool at the Petschek Villa.
Swimming pool, Terezin concentration camp

Of the vast majority of Czech Jews taken to Terezin, 97,297 died, including 15,000 children. Only 132 children were known to have survived. The elderly and families were brought in large numbers to Terezin. Then, in large groups, they were transported to the east, to Auschwitz-Birkenau, when it was fully operational in late 1942. The elderly were sent immediately to the gas chambers, while younger inmates who still could work were temporarily spared. Terezin families were, in some instances, kept together at Birkenau, in family barracks, until their fate was met.
Terezin Concentration camp

Simply stated, the empty Terezin swimming pool was as depressing a symbol of death one can find for the Holocaust. Ovens, gallows, gas chambers and the like our guttural reminders of the unfortunate capabilities of human beings. The pool rather transcends that, as one imagines the slave laborers literally being worked to death for the benefit of the guards and their families, as they were in bunkers below Auschwitz making parts for B-1 and B-2 rockets. Sadness and anger overwhelm the soul as one looks out at the decaying expanse.

Terezin concentration camp

The pool at the Ambassador’s residence is the opposite, a symbol of the enduring strength of the Jewish people. Ambassador Schapiro’s mother’s family lived in Prague during the war. In fact, the Czemer family (his grandfather worked for Shell Oil) lived in an apartment building close to the Villa. Raya Czemer fled Czechoslovakia at age 5 in 1939 and settled in Chicago, where she attended public schools, college and medical school, becoming a psychiatrist. Andrew had a distinguished career in law, including clerking for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, before being named ambassador in 2014. Ironically, the residence had already been made kosher by the previous ambassador, Norman Eisen. Our tour included the kitchen, where the chef displayed the freshly baked challah that would be served for Shabbat dinner.

The story of rebirth doesn’t simply end with the success of the son of a Holocaust survivor. A month previously, Alex Schapiro celebrated his bar mitzvah at the beautiful Spanish Synagogue, where his grandmother's family had worshipped. Rabbi Asher Lopatin, president of a modern Orthodox rabbinical school in New York City who had been the family’s rabbi at Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel in Chicago, officiated.

Spanish Synagogue, Prague

Two empty swimming pools, one representing death and the cruelty of humankind and one representing life and the will of a people not just to survive but to prosper in many ways. I shall never forget either of them.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Fenway Tales: September 1968

I transferred to Boston University from Lehigh University after my freshman year, arriving in September 1968 knowing a few people in the area but none at BU. As a transfer student, I was required to arrive early with the freshmen, partly to take a test that exempted me from the language requirement (I passed). Home was Room 401 in Myles Standish Hall, a former hotel in Kenmore Square that housed Major League Baseball teams in town to play the Red Sox or Braves until it was bought by the university in 1950.  Four students lived in the three-room suite; I was assigned to the former living room with a returning student, while another transfer student and a returning student had the single room.
Myles Standish Hall, 2008
With classes yet to begin and Brent, the LIU transfer still not arriving, I found myself on Sunday, September 8 (my mother’s 45th birthday), with nothing much to do. To kill time on a beautiful afternoon, I walked the few blocks to Fenway Park to see what turned out to be my first, last and only professional soccer game. I’d been to the ballpark to see a Red Sox game on a family trip seven years earlier and, although Fenway hadn’t yet reached icon status, it was an interesting place to see an athletic contest. The Boston Beacons hosted the Baltimore Bays in their final games of the North American Soccer League (NASL) season.

Boston Red Sox program cover and ticket, 1961

In 1967, two professional soccer leagues started in the United States: the United Soccer Association (USA), a collection of entire European and South American teams brought to the U.S. and given local names, and the National Professional Soccer League (NPSL) The two leagues merged in December 1967 to form the NASL, which began the season with 17 of the 22 teams that had participated during the 1967 seasons. The teams used mostly on foreign talent. Despite some successes, the NASL also had significant problems. The teams included only 30 North American players. High salaries for foreign players and steep rents for large stadiums, coupled with low attendances, resulted in every team losing money in 1968. Only 5 of the 17 teams returned next season.

The Beacons were a new team, while the Bays had been part of the NPSL. The Boston Shamrock Rovers, owned by Boston Bruins owner Weston Adams, were disbanded after playing one year in the USA in suburban Lynn. The Bays, owned by Baltimore Orioles owner Jerry Hoffburger, played in spacious Memorial Stadium, the home of the Orioles and Colts. They lost the only NPSL championship game to the Oakland Clippers.

Baltimore Bays, 1968, Boston Beacons logo, 1968

After purchasing a general-admission ticket (the going price according to tickets for games in Baltimore and New York appears to have been $3.50 – about $24 today - but may have been less), I settled down into a nearly empty section that would have been opposite the pitcher’s mound on the first-base side. The Beacons defeated the Bays, 1-0, before 2,229 fans. The Bays would make it to the next season; the Beacons did not. The Beacons ended the season at the bottom of the Atlantic Division with a 9-17-6 record. Their largest crowd was 7,319 (not including an exhibition versus Pele and Santos, which drew 18,431) on August 6 against the Atlanta Chiefs. The Chicago Mustangs, who played at Comiskey Park, drew the league’s second-worst average attendance of 2,463.

Beacons' lone goal vs. Bays, Sept. 8, 1968

The following Friday, again with no plans for the evening, I returned to Fenway to see the Red Sox take on the Minnesota Twins. Unlike the previous season, when the Red Sox defeated the Twins on the final game of the season and waited for the Tigers to lose to the Angels to win its first American League pennant since 1946, both teams were far behind the league-leading Detroit Tigers. In the final season before MLB split each league into two divisions, the Red Sox finished 4th,  behind 17 games with a 86-76 record, while the Twins ended up in 7th, 24 games back at 79-83.

One of my goals was simply to kill an evening, as the game started at 7:30 p.m. The Red Sox’s starter was Ray Culp, who pitched for the Phillies during their infamous 1964 season and came over from the Cubs during the winter in another disastrous trade for the North Siders. The Red Sox sent Rudy Schlesinger and cash to the Cubs; Schlesinger had one pinch-hit at-bat in 1965 and would never make it to MLB again. Culp won 71 while losing 58 before retiring from the Red Sox after the 1973 season. Dean Chance, winner of the 1964 Cy Young Award with the Angels sporting a 20-9 record, a 1.65 earned-run average and 11 shutouts at age 23, started for Twins. He won 20 games the previous season, his first in Minnesota, but lost the all-important final game of the season.

1968 Topps cards for Sept. 13 game starting pitchers

The Red Sox, on Culp’s 6-hit shutout, defeated the Twins, 3-0. Attendance was 23,171. A two-run home run by Ken “Hawk” Harrelson, his 35th, and an RBI by light-hitting rookie infielder Luis Alvarado (.130 that first season) accounted for the Red Sox’s runs. Harrelson would later become the White Sox long-time play-by-play announcer, while Alvarado would have four undistinguished seasons with the White Sox (4 home runs, 57 RBI and .218 batting average). Alvarado was traded from Boston to Chicago after the 1970 season with Mike Andrews (who left me a pitifully small tip after I waited on his group during my very short stint as a waiter that summer) for future Hall of Famer Luis Aparicio after his second stint with the White Sox.

The most important part of the game was its time: 1 hour and 40 minutes. It may have been the fastest game for the Red Sox or even in MLB in a five-year period, and only 11 minutes longer than the fastest night game in MLB history. So much for killing time; I was back on the street by 9:15. I would attend three more games at Fenway during my college days: a Patriot’s Day game in April 1969 (Yankees 6 Red Sox 4) and White Sox’s games in 1969 and 1970, both started by Tommy John. On June 4, 1969, home runs by non-power hitters Ed Hermann, Gail Hopkins and Bobby Knoop gave the ChiSox a 7-2 victory. The following year, my only season not seeing a White Sox home game since going to the ballpark in 1954, Wilbur Wood and Danny Murphy could not hold a 3-1 lead, and the Red Sox won, 4-3. I regret not seeing the Boston Patriots play in their 1968 and last season at Fenway Park.

While picking up my ticket at will-call (thanks to one of my BU roommates, Nate Greenberg) for the Diamondbacks – Red Sox game in June 2008, the agent asked if I’d ever been to Fenway Park. I replied, “Yes, but not for 38 years.” Two things were noticeably higher: a new deck added above the roof level that had been turned into luxury boxes and ticket prices, paying $90 to sit halfway up the upper deck. And, of course, “Sweet Caroline,” which always has me reaching for the mute button.

Fenway Park, 2008

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Here in Youngstown

I’m not a diehard Bruce Springsteen fan but rather took a liking to his music through searching for Nils Lofgren performances on YouTube. I first came across Lofgren from his days with Neil Young and Crazy Horse and his knockout performance of “Keith Don’t Go” more than 40 years ago. Born two years after me in 1951, also in Chicago, he joined the E Street Band in 1984 and also did some solo work. Some his most notable work with the band is on “Because the Night” and “Ghost of Tom Joad.”

My favorite of all is “Youngstown.” It’s a blistering 5-star, circle-the-bases performance by the band and has been performed in venues around the world. It always gets me thinking about my one trip to Youngstown, Ohio, in what would be my first taste of what I call Post-Industrial America.

At the end of the 1980s, I was a vice president at The Financial Relations Board, Inc. (FRB), the nation’s largest investor-relations firm at the time. I had several excellent clients – Budget Rent-a-Car, Toro, Old Republic International and Giddngs & Lewis, to name a few – but at various times was stuck with new clients for which the only rationale for signing up was to get as much revenue out of them as possible until they cut us loose. These marginal clients were a bane to every account manager’s existence because like the good ones you still had to bill certain hours, do monthly reports and perform other cumbersome tasks.

One day, probably in early 1989, my boss Dennis Waite and I were called into the president’s office and told we had a new client: GF Corporation and its wholly owned subsidiary, GF Business Equipment, Inc., in Youngstown, Ohio. Having done work for United Stationers and ACCO World in the office products segment, I thought it would be a interesting assignment.

However, this was an unusual client for several reasons: It was in eastern Ohio, where the agency had no other clients and might well have gone to the New York office; the company, although listed on the New York Stock Exchange, was in deep financial trouble; and the assignment was to help get the stock price up as quickly as possible to fetch a better sale price.

GF Business Equipment, Inc. stock certificate

Under usual protocol, a full account team would fly out for the new-client orientation meeting, which would be Dennis and me, a member from Market Intelligence (the FRB unit that set up investor meetings across the country) and a media-relations person. However, given that there was probably little or no budget, I was the sole FRB representative sent to meet with management. To save money, it would be a one-day, in-and-out visit to talk with the CEO, CFO and others involved in the company’s investor-contact programs.

GF began life as General Fireproofing Company in 1902. It entered the office-furniture business in 1907, changing its name first to GF Office Furniture and later to GF Business Equipment. GF was once the nation’s largest producer of metal office furniture, employing more than 2,000 people at its plant at Dennick and Wydesteel on Youngstown’s east side. Because of its expertise in metal fabrication, it manufactured aircraft parts during World War II rather than office furniture. According to reports, GF discontinued several product lines during 1970s.

Other than a walk through the plant, I remember very little about the visit. I was met by a woman whose name I’ve long forgotten (I’ll call her Carol for this purpose) and, as you may guess, the relationship was so short-lived that I’ve retained neither a Rolodex nor business card for anyone at GF. There were no sessions with CEO Ronald Anderson and the CFO discussing the business, plans for a turnaround or other actions that would help increase shareholder value, if I met them at all. There was, however, the plant tour.

Very few production lines operated that day down the long stretch of a typical American factory, and the facility was amazingly quiet. As Carol and I walked through the plant, me in a banker’s gray pinstriped suit, starched white shirt, red power tie and black oxfords, I noted the workers eying me warily for an inordinate amount of time. Each sported a look of suspicion, sadness and resignation. After returning to Carol’s office she told me why: They thought I might be somebody checking out the place for possible acquisition. Obviously others had been through before; I hadn’t realized that at age 40 I could look like a captain of industry.

Upon return to the office the following day, I surprisingly received little resistance when informing management this was a lost cause. GF probably paid my travel expenses, and we didn’t do as much as a quarterly earnings release. This trip has obviously left a great impression on me, some 27 years later. It’s one thing to read about companies in distress, quite another to witness it on the inside, first-hand.

In December 1989, GF stated it would close the Youngstown plant during the first quarter of 1990. It had been running losses of $9 million to $10 million annually on shrinking sales. The company declared bankruptcy on April 18, 1990, and its manufacturing facility, trademarks and patents were acquired by Tang Industries, an industrial conglomerate headed by Chicagoan Cyrus Tang. The plant closure put 300 people out of work and resulted in a flurry of lawsuits regarding pension and health-insurance obligations. Remaining production was transferred to Gallatin, Tennessee, and the company name was changed to GF Office Furniture, Ltd. That facility has since closed; a call to the main number states it has been disconnected.

The following is a link to photographs of the shuttered plant on Flickr by Steven B. Heselden, a retired Columbus, Ohio, firefighter, who graciously allowed my usage for this entry.

As late as the 1960 census, Youngstown's population was about 167,000, down only about 3,000 from its high in the 1930 census. By the time of my arrival, it had fallen to approximately 96,000, and today is estimated at about 65,000. Here, then, is Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band doing "Youngstown"; watch a short 60+ year-old guy in a top hat with a hip replacement end the song with a dazzling solo. It's about the only thing positive to take from this story.