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.

Quest for Meaning

by Mark Scher

I came from a Jewish family and I do not think single drop of Aryan blood flows through my veins. It is an absurd thing to say, perhaps, as all racism is absurd.

At the same time, I have never been a Jew in the religious sense. My mother’s family left the Judaic faith many years ago and could have been considered radical assimilationists, and many of them are buried at the Catholic cemetery in Warsaw. When I was a year old, my mother had me baptized at the Catholic church in our neighborhood. I was not aware of this fact until during my last visit to Poland, before my mother’s death. She gave me my baptismal certificate together with a medal of the Virgin Mary and described the circumstances surrounding my baptism.

Why did she have me baptized? She, my sister, my Brazilian aunt, her husband and their daughter were all baptized in a Catholic church, and many of them, especially my Brazilian family are not aware of their Jewish background and very religious. My sister even made her first communion. I think that my mother, although herself a Polish patriot from a very assimilated family, was fully aware of Polish antisemitism, especially after the notorious pogrom in Kielce a few months before my birth, and she probably decided that a baptismal certificate might make my life easier in an antisemitic and fanatically Catholic society. She simply wanted to protect me. My babysitter used to take me to church, when I was a young child, and I do not think that my parents cared one way or another. In addition, we were always celebrating Christmas and Easter, and I was completely ignorant about such important Jewish holidays as Passover or Jewish New Year. Religion was never a topic of interest or discussion in our house, except once.

Following the political liberalization in Poland in 1956, Catholic religious instruction was introduced in all schools in Poland. One of my schoolmates with whom I was friendly decided to try to make a good Catholic out of me and convinced me to go to the initial class. I went out of curiosity. The catechist was thrilled to have a Jew in her class and excited about the possibility of a good deed for a Catholic Church. When, after coming home, I described my experience, my father, who was a declared atheist, got very upset. (I don’t think my mother was so concerned, because I remember that she was smiling.) At any rate, I never went back.

I am not a convert, since I never changed religion and from the religious point of view, I am neither Jew nor a Christian. I became aware of my Jewish background by accident from my schoolmates but until 1968 (the year of a government-organized antisemitic campaign in Poland) did not consider it too important, and I was never personally affected by antisemitism. I never experienced any unpleasantness in school or at the university.

Even now, although I feel Jewish (not in a religious sense) and I am interested in Jewish history and culture, I do not consider Jews the epicenter of the universe, nor the most phenomenal of nations.

My wife, despite being a nonbeliever like me, has much stronger Jewish feelings that I, and it was her decision to send our son to a Hebrew school in preparation for his bar mitzvah. I was rather ambivalent about the whole process because of my upbringing, but she probably rightly decided that our son should be aware and conscious of his background. Despite my initial indifference to the whole process, we joined a modern and progressive reformed temple in preparation for my son’s bar mitzvah ceremony. I found religious services boring but inoffensive. Currently we do not belong to a synagogue, and I am not interested in joining any religious institution.

As I get older, I am no longer as anti-religious as I used to be. I would probably consider myself not an atheist but an agnostic, and I am not really preoccupied with the existence of the Supreme Being or life after death.

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.