Monday, April 27, 2015

Break a Window or Make Stained Glass

The Holy City, by Louis Comfort , 1905, Tiffany stained glass window, Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, Image is in the public domain, full citation below in the credits.

Greetings All:

As I write this, (April 29th, early morning hours) Baltimore burns.  Police officers are hurt, some seriously.  Family members are sitting in a hospital waiting room, drinking cold coffee because it beats the alternative of doing nothing.  They wait, wait for word from a doctor, nurse, anyone that their loved' one is OK.  They stare down a hallway of the hospital, waiting, hoping, pleading for someone to come and tell them that news.

The hallway is empty.  No one comes.

Across town, a different scene, yet the same emotions are present, pain and grief.  A young man has died.  A young man of color.  A rap sheet, yes, he had one.  Yet he also had a future.  Now, all that remains is his past.  He has a family, and they mourn.  No matter what he did, how is it he died in custody?  How?

Others are filled with rage.  Yet another young man of color has died.  Yet another funeral for someone who many believe, are convinced, his death came to pass because of his pigment.  They see a world of profound injustice.  They feel the stares from those who hastily cross the street rather than pass them on the sidewalk.

"I'm just going to school," is their response.  They don't say it at loud.  But they scream it in their heads.

And Baltimore continues to burn.

I wrote last night about something that brought joy to me, seeing theater.  I wanted to do a string of blog posts about fun stuff, things that cause us to laugh.  Yet tonight there is Baltimore.  

So where do we go from here?

Perhaps there is some wisdom in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  My friend Jeremy posted this on Facebook a short while ago and I think it sums up how many of us are feeling:

From Facebook, quote attributed to Dr. King, fair use/pubic domain claimed,
 As I try (often failing miserably) to keep my blog posts short, I am going to not reiterate the various news reports out there.  I am confident you all are sadly all aware of what is unfolding in Baltimore.  I've got two cites below to two news sources and by tomorrow, there will be many more.  I hope the sunrise brings better news.  

My hope is tempered.

I cannot speak to being discriminated.  If anything, I'm on the other side of that line.  I am a white, straight, male, Christian (albeit adrive-thru Catholic) who is an attorney and Army Reserve officer.  Outside of the upper east-side of Manhattan or the Hamptons, I'm pretty much at the top of the food chain.  All my interactions with law enforcement have been cordial.  On some occasions, I have called them as witnesses for cases I have prosecuted.  

So I suppose it is easy for me to wag my figure at the protesters.  Please, let me be clear and let me be specific:  I support peaceful protest.  It is a right enshrined in our Constitution.  Yet a protest becomes a crime when a rock is thrown thru a window, when violence ensues. 

Breaking glass is not part of the public discourse, it is abrupt halt of it.  When people hate, succumb to violence, as Dr. King stated, in the quote above: "It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible."

It is always easier to break a window than to make stained glass.  Creating something takes time, requires effort, demands sacrifice.  Stained glass, when done, offers not just a way for light to enter a room, but to give that place an illumination that celebrates life.  

Isn't that worth the effort?  I think so.

So I hope those in Baltimore (and across our nation) will stop breaking windows (both metaphorically and literally) and start making stained glass.  I hope that everyone in Baltimore will help in this endeavor.  After all, the window that is in the photo above took many hands to make.  What a wonderful window it is.

And the more we work together, the grander that stained glass can be for us all to enjoy.  Then the light of peace can stream in and drive away the darkness of violence.

Be well my friends and peace to all in Baltimore.


Sunday, April 26, 2015

Two Shows in One Weekend

My ticket stubs and one program from my weekend of musical theater.  Photo by J. Berta

Greetings All:

This weekend, I had the good fortune to get to see two musicals.  On Saturday, along with my daughter Cassie, I saw West Side Story.  Tonight, the whole family saw Jersey Boys.  Two different shows, with two different casts in two different venues.  Yet I came away from both shows with the same feeling of profound appreciation for the experience of being an audience member.  More on that in a moment.

Let's talk about the shows.  First, West Side Story.  This was a young person's production, held at The Center for Living Arts in Rock Island, Illinois.  My friend Dino Hayz directed it, with considerable assistance from his wife, Tina.  For those of you not familiar with the show, here's a brief overview:

In the late 1950s, on the Upper West Side of New York City, there was gang violence.  Disaffected youths, fueled by fear, prejudice and poverty, waged war against each other, sticking with "their kind."  The "Jets" and the "Sharks" are the two gangs.  Out of this backdrop, two star-crossed lovers meet, Tony and Maria.  The musical is inspired by Romeo and Juliet and follows the same tragic script.  Along the way, there are great songs and a cast of characters you just cannot help to the beginning.

Then things turn very dark very fast.  Murder follows murder, a near gang-rape occurs and then Tony dies as Maria weeps.  The show closes with Tony carried off on the arms of Jets and Sharks.  A young Jets places a black shawl, a universal symbol of mourning, around Maria's shoulders.  As the lights faded I wiped my eyes.  I doubt I was the only one.

Jersey Boys played The Adler Theater in Davenport, Iowa and tonight was its closing performance.  It tells the tale of Franky Valli and the Four Seasons.  Four guys "from the neighborhood" who made it big.  Then it almost all fell apart.  For some of the members of the group, it did.  This story is not nearly as tragic or dark as West Side Story, yet has its share of heartbreak and strife.  

I've got links to information about both shows below in the sources.  The songs are classics in pop culture and I suppose after 50 years, you can drop the "pop" reference.  They are cemented in the fabric of America.

I like both shows so much I did a rare impulse buy and got both soundtracks from iTunes.  We listened to alternating songs tonight to and from the theater.  They are catchy tunes.  Good luck in not singing along with them.

In many ways these two performances were quite different.  One was a show of junior-high and high school students in a community theater.  The other, a Broadway-level national touring production with all the bells and whistles.  Yet for me, as an audience member, I took away one similarity:  Actors and actresses performing their hearts out on stage.  

With the West Side Story production, it was wonderful to see young people taking a step forward in performing.  For some, this may be the extent of their acting career.  For others, I fully expect to see them on stage again and in bigger venues.  I look forward to those future shows.

There is something magical about theater.  It is a place where you can be transported to another time and place.  You can experience the emotions of love and hate, joy and loss.  You can leave 2015 and travel effortlessly back in time to 1957 or 1965.  You can be running the streets of New York City or standing on a street corner in Bellevue, New Jersey.  But to do so, you must pay a price and I do not mean the cost of your ticket.

That cost is, as Cassie's English teacher, Mr. Don Fry said, "The willing suspension of disbelief."  You have to ignore the limitations of a set, that a street corner is now a high school gym and now back to a street corner.  That set changes are not really set changes, that the show is not a show but an experience.  If you can do that, then you become more than just a patron, you become part of the show.  Of course, you're not up on stage acting or singing or dancing.  Yet you cease to be just a passive observer, you are able to connect (for lack of a better word) with the show.  If you can do that, then you've gotten way more than the cost of admission.

I love watching sports, especially my beloved Iowa Hawkeyes or Green Bay Packers.  Yet sports is not theater, at least for me.  Concerts, recitals, poetry readings, political debates, all important forms of expression and/or art.  Theater, however, has a special distinction for me.  Perhaps it is the involvement of most of the senses.  Maybe it's the use of music and lights.  It could also be seeing real people interacting with other real people and not on a screen.  I cannot put my finger on it, especially at this late hour.  But for me, it is something special.  

I've written on a number of somber and serious topics lately.  This is not due to some master schedule.  (If I had such a schedule, I'd have a more organized garage.)  Instead, it is triggered by events and things that matter to me, at least at that moment.  But I wanted to write about something positive, something that made me feel good.  Seeing theater this weekend did that for me.   It is great whenever I get to see a show.  Getting to see two shows in one weekend, now that is a treat indeed.    

It was my privilege to be a member of both audiences.  I look forward to getting to do it again, and soon.  If you have not seen live theater for a while and enjoy it, then seek out a show. Odds are there is some type of show going on in your community.  I think you'll be glad you did. 

Be well my friends,


Friday, April 24, 2015

An Old Man On Trial

The Auschwitz Death Camp, M Zacharz, sharing authorized, full citation below in credits.

Greetings All:

As I write this, a trial is ongoing in Germany.  A 93-year-old man is facing charges of accessory to murder.  If convicted, he is facing 15 years in prison, assuredly a life sentence.

This is not a typical trial.  The fact the defendant is so old makes it unique.  The circumstances of his crime even more so.  The defendant, Oskar Groening, is accused of being complicit in the murder of approximately 300,000 Jews, primarily Hungarian, at the notorious death camp, Auschwitz.

The facts are not in dispute.  During World War II, Groening volunteered to join the Schutzstaffel, or SS.  Although originally assigned a desk job, he was later sent to Auschwitz.  There he was part of the bureaucracy of murder.  He is not charged with personally killing anyone, or even ordering such deaths.  Instead, his guilt is inferred, based on his actions and complicit support of the Nazi "Final Solution." 

I have tried to find a copy of Groening's indictment, without success.  The basic concept is that by his presence at Auschwitz, his role, however mundane and passive, is enough to convict him of a war crime.  This from an NPR story:  "Prosecutor Jens Lehmann read out the indictment today against Groening, saying: 'Through his job, the defendant supported the machinery of death.'" 

One of Groening's jobs at Auschwitz was to collect money and other valuables from the condemned.  There were audible gasps in the courtroom when he said (to why he did this), "They (the Jews) did not need it anymore."  (Or words to this effect.)

His trial began a few days ago.  In his opening statement, Groening said the following:  “It is beyond question that I am morally complicit.  This moral guilt I acknowledge here, before the victims, with regret and humility.”  Then he said, "As concerns guilt before the law, you must decide."  (Please see The New York Times citation below.)

This is not a new legal theory, although it's most recent attention came from the trials of John Demjanjuk from the 1980s.  Demjanjuk was first accused of being a particularly sadistic Nazi, "Ivan The Terrible."  Later, he was absolved of that accusation, yet still convicted of being a guard at Sobibor, an extermination camp.  In the later case, his presence at such an infamous place was enough (in the eyes of the German court) to warrant guilt.  (For the record, Demjanjuk was appealing this conviction when he died.)  However, this theory has been used before, as far back as shortly after World War II.

I learned about it in Professor Tomaz Jardin's execellent book, The Mauthausen Trial.  I discovered it in a bookstore in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2012.  If you would like to learn more about war crimes trials, punishments and the behind-the-scenes activity, I highly recommend it.  When I saw the cover of a condemned Nazi about to be hanged, I knew I had to read it.  Here's a photo of it.
Cover, The Mauthausen Trial by Professor Tomaz Jardim, permission granted to use this image.

In the book, Jardim lays out how this trial came about and how the U.S. was able to obtain complete convictions of all the defendants.  Most were hung.  The prosecution's case was straight-forward:  All the Mauthausen defendants knew what Mauthausen's purpose was and supported this endeavor by their actions.  Knowledge plus support equals guilt.  This was, I believe, the first time this idea was applied in a war crimes trial.  

There is no doubt that those tried and convicted at Mauthausen were guilty as sin of perpetrating the crimes of the Third Reich.  Still, Jardim raises some important and less than convenient questions about the procedural aspects of that trial.  I am not saying those on trial at Mauthausen did not get a fair trial.  However, the due process safeguards in place today are far more robust today.  One only has to look at Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber, trial to see the difference.  Again, I strongly encourage you to check out this book if you have even a passing interest in this part of history and/or military justice.

Getting back to Oskar Groening and his trial, I am glad it is happening.  He appears to be competent to stand trial and seems well-represented.  The fact he's an old man has no sway with me.  There is no statute of limitations on genocide.  And we are talking about genocide, mass murder on a barley-comprehensibly scale.  Groening was there, he's admitted as much.  He was also clearly on the side of the killers, another admission.  

So let's ignore for the moment the old man on trial.  Instead, let's focus on who Groening was during the war, during the killing.  Here's a photo of him from that time.

Gröning, Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau/Museum, AP re-post, fair use/public domain claimed.

In this photo, Groening looks like what he was at the time, a young man.  With the glasses, he looks almost scholarly.  However, that disappears as soon has you get to his neck and the SS symbol.  Then, it's clear the only thing he was studying was the Nazi hate regime, a neophyte apprenticing at the Nazi school of death.

I have many reasons to be following this story.  One of them is my legal background.  I am curious as to what is the burden of proof, the elements necessary to convict, and if there are the equivalent of our jury instructions, to aid the judges in determining guilt.  It may come to pass that Mr. Groening will convince the judges (or perhaps better put the prosecution will fail to prove) that just being there is not enough to convict.  If so, then should not everyone who wore that uniform be subject to the same fate?  Whatever is the outcome, I hope this trial is closely studied for use in future war crime trials.  Unfortunately, there will be others in the future.

There are a few other issues I want to touch on before I conclude this blog post.  First, Groening's testimony is important as perhaps the last first-hand testimony of someone who had first-hand knowledge of the crimes of the Holocaust.  I believe those who deny the Holocaust are awaiting the time when there are no more witnesses.  Then, they can tell their lies that it never happened, or not to the extent claimed.  Groening tells otherwise.  He is a credible witness and that matters.  After all, he was there and wearing the uniform of the killers.

Then, there is the matter of the survivors.  I read about two survivors, both named Eva.  Eva Fahidi cannot forgive Groening.  Eva Kor can, and did.  I have a link to both stories.  In the case of Ms. Kor, it is an amazing act of forgiveness.  It is in the last source if you'd like to read the whole story.

This trial is ultimately, in my opinion, being held for both Evas, and all the surviors.  This trial is to make Oskar Groening face his crimes and his accusers.  This is to make him stand and confront the evil of the past and his role in it.  

As this old man helped to court everyday with dignity, even kindness, I hope he recalls with detail (and guilt) what happened to those thousands of Jews he watched escorted to another place those many years ago.  A place as far removed from a place of justice as one soul can be.

לעולם לא ישכח

Never forget.

Be well my friends,


Opening photo:

Friday, April 10, 2015

A Conversation Worth Hearing

Greetings All:

I don't have a photo to launch this post.  I almost always lead with one but not this time.  If anything, this blog post is going to be more basic, more stripped down.  There will be only one cite, it's below.

If you read this blog (and if you do, thanks!) then you know I'm a Tim Ferriss fan.  I read The 4 Hour Work Week about six years ago and have followed him ever since.  I don't endorse everything he does but I respect how seriously he takes his work.

He also interviews some really cool people.  Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tony Robbins, and a long list of other very successful people.  I don't listen to all his pod casts.  Now that the weather is warmer, I hope to listen to more of these.  They are stellar interviews.  Tim Ferriss respects his guest's time and is prepared for an interview.  Even the podcasts I don't love give me a few tidbits of knowledge to take away.

The one I just finished listening to is not one of those.  I loved it.

I did not think I was going to like it, in large part because of the subject/guest- Glen Beck.  That's right, Glen Beck, the arch-conservative talk show host.  The man who self-labeled himself to The New York Times as a "rodeo clown."  (no citation available, I have personal knowledge of reading this fact.)  The man who I mocked when FOX News fired him (or so I thought).  The man whose views of the world I profoundly disagree with in large measure.  This man, my favorite interview by Tim Ferriss.

Yes, you read that correctly, my favorite interview.  In the 1994 movie, Pulp Fiction, John Travolta's character, Vincent Vega has a line that has resonated with me over the years. Here it is: "That's a bold statement."  I suppose the reason it has resonated with me is that things in my youth I held with utter certainty are not quite that way now.  So it is with more than minor deliberation I arrive at this position:  Yes, Glen Beck is my favorite Tim Ferriss interview.

So why?  Why did I come into this conclusion?  In part, it is Tim Ferriss' interview skills.  He is clearly the Charlie Rose of the younger crowd.  It is, in large part, to the stripped down honesty of Mr. Beck.  Oh, and I'd be remiss not to mention the impact this interview had on me.  (Did you think that the author of this blog, a lawyer and an only child, would not include himself?)  

In all seriousness, this interview caused me to recognize that I had failed miserably to view Glen Beck as a fellow human being.  I had previously viewed him as an angry right-winger who lacked the intellectual capacity to do anything more than lob bombs at those attempting to make life better.  Years ago I came up with the expression, "It's easier to break a window than to make stained glass."  A guy like Glen Beck is someone who would first come to mind as someone gleefully flinging a brick into the window of society.

Then I heard this interview.  I recognized that I had not taken the time to hear this man.  I had failed to acknowledge the courage it must have taken to confront his addiction to alcohol and drugs and get sober.  Someone who took one class at Yale and earned the respect of his teacher.  Someone who said in this interview our principles, not our interests, should drive our decision-making.

Our principles, not our interests.  I have to quote Jamie Foxx, playing the role of Staff Sergeant Sikes, in the movie, Jarhead, "That's some heavy dope..." (Dope not being a drug but something of powerful knowledge.)  When I heard this line, "principles, not interests," I was blown away by the pure candor of that line.  

I still think Glen Beck is wrong on many, many things.  And yet in listening to this podcast, I realized that I was wrong to dismiss the man just because I dislike his politics.  Dr. Stephen Covey, of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, stresses as one of his habits, "Seek first to understand, then to be understood."  I've heard this before.  However, I think with this podcast, I finally followed through on taking this advice to heart.

Please check out this podcast and let me know what you think.  It's just my two cents, but after listening to these two guys chat, I am convinced it is a conversation worth hearing.

Be well my friends,

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Celebrations & Observances, Then and Now

The Seder Plate from our  Passover dinner, Friday (April 3, 2015) night.  Photo by J. Berta
Greetings All:

This weekend marked a rather unusual occurrence.  Passover and Easter happened only days apart.  On Friday night, we had a Seder that Dawn led.  We elected to have an abbreviated event and yet it was a complete event for us and our guests.  For those of you who might not be familiar with Passover, it recounts the story of the Jews escape from Egypt.  Throughout the evening, there are references to various symbols.  The matzo, the bitter herbs, the egg (that I cannot eat, but that's a whole other story) the wine or grape juice, it all ties to the story of the Jewish escape and ultimate triumph over the tyranny of the Pharaoh. 

Then today was Easter.  It is the celebration of the resurrection of Christ.  As Monseigneur Parizek said during the homily, "Christ was busy going to the world of the dead and releasing the souls of the innocent."  (Or words to that effect.)  As I looked around the church, I saw that the sincerity of Msgr's message was resonating, at least to some degree, with the congregation.  

Later today, my Dad came over and before we grilled out there was an Easter egg hunt for our youngest daughter, Carly.  Cassie, our oldest, and her friend set it up and Carly was quite proud of her haul.

Then she saw the true motherload, compliments of her Grandpa.  Please see the photo below...

The Chocolate Bunnies from Grandpa, photo by J. Berta

Needless to say, by this point in the afternoon, we'd moved beyond the spiritual and straight into the commercial/secular aspect of the holiday.  With all the candy, it's like Halloween, except during daylight.

Later this afternoon, as I was doing a bit of yard work, I thought about other celebrations or observances of these two holidays.  Being a "hobby historian," I have a tendency to view things from the past and/or dates that have significance.

As I thought about Easter, I wondered when was the "first" celebration?  As it took the early Christians a while to be up and running as an organized religion, it was not until several hundred years after Christ's death that the feast of Easter was held.  I found this image from the 5th century on Wikipedia (I know, I know, not a valid source for scholarly matters, but this is my blog) and thought it was worth posting.

The  Rabula Gospels Crucifixion, public domain, full cite below in credits.

As for Passover, I learned today that one of the Nazi concentration camps was liberated on Passover, 1945, April 4th, to be exact.  This place of death and horror was Orhdolf, a sub camp of Buchenwald.  I've got a link to the story below that tells how one GI who was there was the great uncle of our Commander-in Chief.  I've also got a link to a story from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.  It's a hard, yet important read.

Photos taken by American Soldier Henry Raymond Malenfant at Ordruf Concentration Camp, given to The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, fair use/public  domain claimed.
I have to wonder when the Americans walked thru the gates of Ordruf if there was anyone there of the Jewish faith who had the strength or mental clarity to realize it was Passover.  As was Nazi SOP, when a camp was "evacuated" prior to U.S./Soviet troop advance, most of the camp prisoners were force marched.  Only the most sick and weak were left behind.  It is likely they were focused on their next breath, not on the Jewish calendar.  

And yet, I like to think that for those who were alive when American troops entered the camp, they knew, were convinced, that they had been delivered.  Been delivered from slavery, been spared the passing of the Angel of Death.  For some, perhaps only a few, next year might have been in Jerusalem.  

So as this Easter Sunday concludes and with it the third night of Passover, it is good to reflect on our own individual meaning of either one or both of the holidays.  Even if you're not religious, I hope you get a kick out of kids chasing after plastic eggs full of candy.  If you are a person of faith, I hope your observance brought you a measure of peace and joy.  And if you're somewhere in between, then I invite you to create your own definition, your own interpretation, of what the event means to you.  I don't think you have to dwell long on it, just enough to answer your own question.  

You'll know when you have an answer.

Be well my friends,


Sources:, public domain,
Crucifixion from the Rabula Gospels (Florence, Biblioteca Mediceo Lauenziana, cod. Plut. I, 560)., includes phot, fair use and/or public domain