Death and Dying

by Mark Scher

At home we never talked about death and dying. I assume that silence was due to my mother’s state of mind after her parents’ tragic deaths. They were shot by German soldiers during the World War II while hiding in a village near Warsaw, following their escape from the Warsaw ghetto. My mother witnessed their execution from her hiding place in the attic. I was told by her friend that after the war, when she had to identify her parents’ bodies, she went into a deep depression and considered aborting me. Neither she nor my father ever wanted to talk to me about it, and the subject of death was a taboo in our house.

But, of course, it was impossible to avoid the topic of death even at my early age. I first encountered it when I was about 10 years old when my uncle died of a heart attack. He was my father’s only sibling, and my father who was deeply attached to him, was extremely distraught. I was also sad and upset, because I felt very close to him; he looked like my father and like him was kind and gentle. He was only 53 years old when he died, and my parents rightly thought that I was too young to attend his funeral.

I can never forget the sad story of a girl named Irenka, one of my neighbors in the building. She was only 13 years old (three years older than me), which meant that she had been born during the Nazi occupation of Poland. She was a daughter of a highly educated Jewish couple, who were friends of my parents. Irenka had always seemed happy and friendly, but one day, she swallowed a large number of sleeping pills with the intention of killing herself. It was a miracle that she survived her suicide attempt, since she was close to dying. I found out later that she was an adopted daughter of that couple. Her natural parents had been murdered by the Nazis. She survived the war hidden by a Polish family, and soon after the war, she was adopted, and she had no idea that the couple were not her natural parents, but other people knew her past, and some “friendly soul” decided to tell her that she was Jewish. It was such a shock that she decided that she did not want to live any longer. Fortunately, she survived, but it was not an isolated event in the post-war Poland.

My father’s funeral was the first funeral I ever attended. I was 21 and a third-year law student. My father was not a healthy person, and he was often ill, especially in his later years, when he spent many days in bed or in the hospital. He had many health issues as a result of his life during the war, and had three heart attacks, the last of which killed him on March 7,1968. He was only 65 years old.

That date is important because of the circumstances surrounding his funeral. My father was buried at the state military cemetery, where some notable people were buried regardless of their faith. He was an atheist, so a religious ceremony was out of the question. But it was not an ordinary funeral because of the dramatic political situation in Poland, leading up to the outbreak of student protests at the University of Warsaw against the communist regime on March 8.

Usually, it took a few days or even a week or more to arrange a funeral, but because of the tense atmosphere in Warsaw, and the skirmishes between the police and students, the university administration where my father was a professor decided to organize the funeral as quickly as possible to assure the presence of the faculty, before the political events deteriorated even further.

It was a painful experience to reach the cemetery. There was a massive police presence, stopping and searching most of the vehicles, and the traffic was moving slowly. The air was full of smoke and heavy with tear gas. Despite these difficulties, many friends, family members, and university colleagues of my father were present.

Mark Scher: I came to the United States as a refugee in 1969. I am a graduate of law schools in Poland the the United States. I practiced law in New York for over 30 years. I have been a member of LP² for the past 15 years and I have coordinated or co-coordinated 10 study groups.