Can you hear the sound of the violins this Holocaust Remembrance Day?  It is another kind of miracle that these once loved violins are traveling to the capable hands of musicians who love them and play them for audiences .

Hitler liked the idea of live musicians to greet the new arrivals at concentration camps like Auschwitz.  The newly arrived prisoners were briefly heartened and comforted by the beauty of the music.  The melodies mixed strangely with the black ashes coming from the smokestacks.  The musicians who played were sometimes able to live a bit longer than those who had no musical talent.

The Jewish culture had a long history of loving violin music.  Violins could happily accompany weddings, cry at funerals, and run the gamut of just about any emotion.  Practically speaking given the unrelenting history of Jews and persecution, violins were small enough to run away with.

Most of the musicians themselves died in the Holocaust, but amazingly some of the violins themselves that had survived found their way to an Israeli violin maker and his son.  They lovingly and painstakingly nursed the battered and tattered pieces of these violins until they literally came back to life.  Because no two violins feel exactly alike, the sensitivity of talented violinists who have touched these precious violins can feel a kinship to the owners who once loved and nurtured them, and then died so terribly.

Although Hitler tried his best, the Jewish culture has survived.  Israel has become a stunning example of a vibrant Jewish country.  And the Jewish violins that survived the ravages of war and hate are playing again.  Their music is sweet.

The death of a friendship is quite different from the death of a friend.  The death of a friend is permanent, and not in your control.  The death of a friendship is also permanent, but voluntary.  Both require a certain time for mourning.

Why did we lose what had bonded us?  If this instead of that, could it have been prevented?  Was I the one who changed?  Or, was she the one who changed?  Why hadn’t I seen a hint that she was carrying grudges for the 20 years since we had last seen each other?  What could we have done?  What should we have done?  Was there anything that could have saved our friendship?

And now that we are no longer friends, will never see one another again, will never talk with one another again, what to do with the memories?  Enshrine them?  Discard them?  Try to forget them? Gnaw on them to figure out what happened and who was to blame? Keep the good things and throw the rest away?  Put them in a “once upon a time” space?

I had hoped to gain a greater, wiser perspective in the weeks that have followed our much awaited one-week visit. But I understand it all no better than I did before.  I have accepted the sad ending without figuring out the whys.


Catching Up

26 Feb

I’m back after taking a long break from adding blogs to my website.  What was I busy doing?  I was continuing to live life in my busy retirement village, exercising, taking classes, and writing a column for a newspaper in my community.  And, for two years,  I was researching and writing my third book.

Actually, I didn’t intend to write a third book after I completed my second book, “Out of Step:  A Diary To My Dead Son.”  But the niggling challenge in my brain kept saying, “You’ve written two non-fiction books, but you haven’t tried a fiction book yet.”

It took me awhile to convince myself that I wanted to start another book, and a fiction one at that.  What would it be about?  I decided to write a book of philosophical science fiction.  You might wonder what genre philosophical science fiction is.  I’m not sure, but it described what I thought I wanted to write.

I’ve been a member of our local Astronomy Club for many years.  I knew I was fascinated by the thought of “out there” even though I didn’t understand much about it.  Outer space is a very complicated place!  I also began doing some research to catch up with the world through a well written weekly news magazine called “The Week.”  Although I had vague memories of the first Star Trek tv show, I knew nothing about the series that followed — “Star Trek:  The Next Generation.”  Fortunately, there were frequent re-runs on tv to help me catch up.

Slowly, I began to enter two rather new worlds to me — science fiction, and new ideas and discoveries taking place in technology, astronomy, and neuroscience.  I was excited about all the new (to me) information flooding into my brain.

In the meantime, life went on with its ups, downs, and detours.  For 2 years, I researched and wrote rather regularly. In the third year, I got stuck.  For over one year, the book kept reminding me it was waiting for me, but I guiltily ignored it.

Eventually a writer friend gave me a helpful push along.  I began writing again and the ending of the book just popped into my mind.  I have just completed my first draft of “The Old Lady and the Alien.”  A first draft isn’t the end draft, but it’s a reasonable start with a complete plot — and to my astonishment, a possible lead in to a sequel.

What I didn’t realize that third year was that I had entered a rather deep depression. Sometimes it works like that for writers.  The writer writes the book, but the book tells the writer what’s going on in her mind.

So, now I’m more and less back emotionally, refining my first draft, and planning the rest of my life.


There is a truly very happy whale of a tale in the recent news.  Determined activists worked long and hard to save the whales once again — this time not from whalers killing them for their oil, but from the adoration of  audiences in the three U.S. Seaworlds that made a lot of money on the misery of the magnificent orca whales.

Following a particularly gory death of a Seaworld whale trainer before spectators in 2010, a movie called “Blackfish” was released on television.  The scenes in the movie haunted viewers like me who sat hypnotized watching the film each time it was shown.    Having spent 12 years of Sunday afternoons as a docent at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach watching other volunteers care for sick and injured seals and sea lions, I felt close to the subject.  From volunteering there, I even knew one of the former Sea World whale trainers who appeared in the film.

One thing all the volunteers at our center had in common was the love of their connection with helping sea creatures.  But the former Seaworld trainers in the film expressed deep pain and regret for having been a part of basically torturing the massive marine creatures they loved.

One of my strongest memories of seeing the majestic orcas was at San Diego’s Seaworld.  As most people, I was so awed by seeing these dramatic creatures up close that I also did not immediately think of their pain at being captives.  What I did notice was that what should have been a proud, upstanding dorsal fin on the back of the orcas was flopped over.  Because I was taking a course in Oceanography, our class got some behind the scenes looks, including watching sperm being coaxed from the male orcas.  Very impressive.

Seaworld fought back against “Blackfish,” pointing out the inaccuracies and bias of the documentary.  For safety, the authorities forced Seaworld to keep all the trainers out of the water.  No longer would the athletic trainers suddenly appear balancing on top of a fast-moving whale.  It had been exciting to watch, but was it right?

No amount of rebuttal from Seaworld could make the lives of the whales seem anything but cruel.  What looked like massive pools to us were but mere bathtubs for these creatures that have oceans to roam.  And the handsome black and white massive orcas audiences grew to love were made to perform repetitive, somewhat silly antics that belied the high intelligence level whales possess.  Whales are very social creatures that live within pods, but these whales had been either born in captivity or put in with strangers.

As Seaworld’s attendance plummeted, they took a new look at what they had wrought.  Seaworld had brought these whales to us, and we loved them.  But we no longer wanted to see them living in unnatural environments and doing silly tricks for laughs.

So, Seaworld has announced that there will be no more captive breeding.  There will no longer be “theatrical encounters.”  Because the “Free Willy” scenario of merely sending them back to sea doesn’t really work with orcas that have had a very limited life in the wild, the orcas still living in the three Seaworlds will live out their natural lives being well cared for and used for “new educational encounters.”

It’s a start.  Will others follow?


A Rainy Day

6 Jan
Today is a rainy day.  What can I do on a rainy day – especially since there have been only a mere handful of not-so-rainy days for over 4 years?  And especially since southern California is in the worst drought ever.  And especially since there may not be much more rain this rainy season.
I can listen to the rain.  Sometimes it is a staccato plop-plop. Sometimes it makes a gurgling sound as it goes through the drainpipe and out the other end.  Sometimes it is as steady as a drum beat demanding to be heard.  Sometimes it is a pleasing, tinkling splish splash that gladdens my heart.  I can hear the playful swish and swirl of the water on the road as the cars go by.
I can watch the rain when it drips drops that delight the thirsty plants, trees, and grasses that haven’t completely died yet.  I can see a literal shower curtain of water as it pours down my patio roof.  I can watch the clouds temporarily turn off the faucet when they’ve run out of water, and I wait expectantly for it to gush down again.
I can wonder at the power of rain as it refreshes, renews, and creates life.  And I can respect its ability to drown, kill, and destroy.  I can imagine its anger at humans for the myriad ways we have attempted to reconfigure, refine, block, divert, rearrange, buy, sell, and pollute it.  What humans aren’t yet willing to accept is that water will be the eventual victor in this human technology vs. nature power struggle.
I can touch its wetness.  While I can’t guarantee its purity, I can at least be grateful that it isn’t the black sooty rain that came down on me in other countries.  It is not only life-saving rain, but it is also cleanses the air around us.
What can I do on a rainy day?  I can DANCE to the rhythm of the rain!

I usually prefer a book version to its movie version, but not always.  Such is the case with the newly released movie, The Martian.  I read the book over a year ago.  Even though I am not in the least a technical person, I couldn’t put the book down until I finished it.  What made the book even better was that it was written by a first time author, Andy Weir, who had been turned down by several publishers.  So, he self-published.  And the book quickly soared up to a best seller.  Of course, then the publishers wanted it.  And then came the movie deal — and now the movie. I love success stories of self-published authors making it BIG.

Since the reviews of the new movie are quite good, I went to see it.   Although two hours seems to be my tolerance limit for watching movies, the 2 hours and 22 minutes were put to good use.  Even the author said that the visual impact of the movie is greater than can be described in just words.  Matt Damon catches the humor of his unenviable situation of fending for himself on Mars for over 500 days.  His calm pursuit of staying alive while coming up with ingenious techniques of survival keep the audience’s attention while NASA officials scramble to help him stay alive and bring him back to mother earth.

While this movie was not filmed on Mars, and does have some inconsistencies with reality (the radiation on Mars does not allow long walks even in a spacesuit, and the wind on Mars is very weak because of its atmosphere), it comes off as remarkably plausible.   Mars, mostly filmed in Jordan, is hauntingly beautiful, and the artistry of how he gets rescued at high speed in space is a true tribute to the writer’s imagination, the movie maker, and what we already know about space travel.

Prior to going to Mars, I went into a store near the theater.   It was called “Gaming” and I had no idea what that meant other than Las Vegas gambling.  I saw three rows of young men and boys sitting in front of computers with earphones on.  Occasionally, one of the older boys would yell out something, often including swearing, to encourage the other players.  Everyone’s screen had the same video on it.  It looked like what we see on our evening news covering Iraq, Afghanistan, ISIS, or any other war.

I thought of the early Pac-Man computer games where a simple round blob with a mouth tried to gobble up whatever it could as fast as it could.  Now the blob shapes have become images of people, but the purpose is still to kill as many as quickly as possible.

There were also very large screens with sofas in front where two people comfortably sat while hitting buttons that killed other types of images.  I’m sure there is some skill involved, but I prefer the excitement of the old pinball machine I played over and over in my grandfather’s rundown old hotel many years ago.

I quietly watched the players, and then spoke to the person in charge to try to understand the attraction of the strange new world I had wandered into.  I can’t claim I really understand either gaming or Mars.  However, of the two worlds I visited last night, I prefer Mars.


I go to the sea like others go to their gods — for peace, for comfort, for beauty, for timelessness, for renewal, for mystery, for connection to the unknown and the unknowable.  Whether on holidays, in times of sadness and grief, or of ebullient joy, the sea draws me.  Although I mysteriously lost my sense of smell in 2009, every other part of my body senses the sea as I come closer.  Perhaps it is because I was born by a sea, grew up by another sea, lived close to other seas, and retired by yet another sea.

Today the Pope celebrated Mass in the U.S.  Today Jews bare their souls, ask forgiveness for their sins, and remember their dead.  Today some Presidential wannabes argue whether Muslims should be U.S. Presidents. Although religions up to the present time divide humans much more than unite them, there is actually rather little that differentiates one from another.  A pity really that all the human race has the same basic needs for religion, but use religion to distance “us” from “they.”  But the seas connect us all.

Even though it’s a Wednesday on the first day of fall, there are more than just old, retired folks at the beach.  Why aren’t the young people at work?  Why aren’t the children in school?

I notice with some frustration that I can’t walk the beach as far or as quickly as I used to.  I climb the stairs holding onto a railing instead of easily ascending to the next level.  Ah, but it’s still so good to be by the sea.

I always want to stop at my special resting spot.  One sunny day long ago,  I fell asleep there.  In that in between of sleeping and waking, I saw the tall palm trees overhead, the green of the grass, the light blue of the sky meeting the incredibly deep blue of the water.  I was sure I was in heaven.  And so I was.

It looks much the same as it always has since then except that most of the grass is more brown than green.  The sea is filling up and California is getting drier and thirstier.

Some waves unfurl tantalizingly slowly.  Others smash their way through and crash noisily on the rocks.  Little children screech in excitement and fear as the waves get closer.  The waves roll in, the waves roll out, carrying my disparate thoughts with them on this sunny Yom Kippur day.

Tonight is the eve of Yom Kippur, the holiest of Jewish holidays.  The chanting of Kol Nidre draws me.  I look for the old audio tape my father made so long ago.  My aged Walkman no longer works, but I remember one other combination CD and audio tape player I can use.  I slip in the tape, plug in the Yahrzeit remembrance candle, turn out the lights, turn on the tape player, and settle into my comfortable chair.  I wait expectantly as the sounds of the shofar fill the room, and then feel a comforting sense of familiarity as the music and first words begin.

As I look at the remembrance candle, tears for my dead son, brother, parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles fall.  These are the tears of the last branch of our Wiseman family tree; of the senior who is now older than all her living relatives.  My mind imagines me walking into Auschwitz with my friend Ruth, and the numerous relatives I never knew.  If my great-grandparents hadn’t moved to the U.S., I would have suffered the Holocaust with them.

I cannot say I’m religious, but I am very Jewish.  My Jewishness is not by choice.  It is in my genes.   My Catholic Girl Scout leader introduced me to Jewish services when she took our scout troop there.  I was so moved by the service and the singing that I volunteered for the next few years to make the tea and put out the cookies for all the oneg shabbats after Friday services.  After that, I was a regular member of Jewish teen groups and learned more about Israel and Jewish history.  I fell in love at 13 years old with a wonderful 15 year old Jewish teen in my hometown who became my husband 7 years later.

At the age of 40, I began my years of being the proverbial wandering Jew, starting with immigrating to Israel.  It was in Israel that I met the Sephardic Jews of eastern countries, the Ethiopian Jews who were then being brought into Israel in large numbers, and the Arabs both inside Israel and the surrounding territories.  A few years later, I signed up to work in a program to promote peaceful coexistence between Arabs and Jews living inside Israel.  I lived for 18 months in a small Arab city called Shefaram that held within it Arab Muslims, Arab Christians, Druse, and one Jew – me.  That ended with the Intifada of 1988 when my car was bombed one dark night while I slept.

I loved so many things about Israel, but in the end I was not strong enough to live in the tension of daily life.  I wanted to believe that Arabs and Jews could coexist, but didn’t believe deep inside me that it would ever happen. Although I kept looking back at Israel, I left and continued my wandering years mostly in Asia.

I may have been the mother of a black child, and become the grandmother to 7 Chinese children, but the wailing words of Kol Nidre still deeply affect me.  Jewish prayers are often sung like crying.  Perhaps that is because most of Jewish history has been sad.  Kol Nidre helps me remember not only the sadness, but also the joy of being Jewish.  The Jewish New Year offers renewal and that elusive word – hope.

Tomorrow, on Yom Kippur day, I will take my thoughts and go to the sea close to my home.  The depth and beauty of the sea is the holiest place I know.

After teaching English in China and Taiwan, I was attracted to Macau with its mixture of Portuguese and Chinese cultures, which gave it an unusual European flavour Continue Reading

  • Author: Suellen Zima
  • Category: Travel

I went to the funeral of my 95 year old neighbor yesterday.  Only 6 weeks before that, I had gone to the funeral for his 91 year old wife.  Rolf was German; Armida was Mexican.  A lovely large, lively photo of Armida and Rolf as they were in their 50s was displayed.  The family had found it tucked away in a closet.

My most frequent memory of Armida and Rolf was seeing them walking the streets of the Village.  They made it a point to walk, walk, walk several times a day.  I only knew them for the last 14 or so years of their lives.  Beautiful music often poured out of their home because both of them had been professional musicians.

Rolf had the misfortune to be born in Germany during Hitler’s rise.  When the scouting program for youth turned into Hitler Youth, Rolf refused to participate and he was thrown out of the scouts.  But it wasn’t as easy to keep from being drafted into Hitler’s army.  He was eventually able to use his cunning, and his knowledge of Russian, to desert his army unit.  He literally ran away from the war.

A childhood pen pal correspondence with an American helped to get him into the U.S.  A letter he had kept from his Hitler Youth unit officially throwing him out of the movement helped him achieve U.S. citizenship.  His ability to play the viola helped him to play a concert right there in the White House near President Eisenhower.

He was also an accomplished photographer, and his little home displayed many of his keen-eyed photos taken around the world.  I felt honored when he particularly liked one of the photos I had taken.

They had married in their 50s, so there were no children.  They took several trips to Germany in the early years of being my neighbors.  They had lived there for 10 years at some point, and had both loved it.  But, looking toward the future, they decided they couldn’t live in a country that would not provide them medical care.

That decision ended up being a wise one since Armida began to develop medical problems.  A routine physical exam discovered Rolf had bladder cancer about 5 years ago.  He went through a grueling stretch of radiation.  Armida told me she didn’t want him to die of cancer.  He didn’t, but then Armida began to lose the strength in her legs and the years turned into being called upon to help her up when she fell coming down a slight descent on the way to their home.  Paramedics came regularly for calls to pick her up, take her to the hospital for tests, then bring her back.  It seemed almost like a nightly routine.  Finally, thankfully, they got caretakers to take care of Armida.  She still brightly smiled at me in greeting when the caretaker wheeled her back and forth and Rolf followed behind them, but I knew she could also be a tough one to take care of.  And then there was dementia creeping in.

After his wife could no longer balance enough to walk, I would see Rolf walking on his own sometimes, listing a bit to the side.  He always had a friendly smile.  And then there was the night at 1 a.m. when my doorbell rang.  A weak voice called out “help, help.”  I asked who it was, but there was no reply.  I asked what was wrong, but there was no reply except another weak “help.”  I called our Security to come, and kept asking who it was and what was wrong.  Without him telling me who it was, I didn’t think of Rolf because I knew there were caretakers for Armida.   What I didn’t know was that no caretaker stayed all night.  The Security guard had to call the paramedics once again to come for Armida.

I only heard that Rolf had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer when we went to Armida’s funeral.  One of her sisters had come, along with nieces, and other family members I had never met before.  Rolf was in a wheel chair during the funeral.  He was quite surprised and glad to see so many neighbors gathered around.

Rolf turned 95 the week after Armida’s funeral.  I sent him a card, along with an invitation for me to write up something about his unusual life if he would like.  He said he wasn’t sure, he would think about it.  And I told him I’d get back in touch with him after I returned from a long-awaited trip I was making back east.  But after I returned and had recovered from the change of pace of my trip, Rolf fell and was in pain.  I didn’t get to talk to him again.

Basically the same people gathered once again at the Catholic cemetery to bid Rolf farewell.  We all had different memories of him, but one group of people came who described Rolf as I had never seen him.  They were a German-speaking group and spoke of Rolf as an important member of their international organization that had started in the 1800s.  At that time, there were German Jews as well in the group.  It was a group that never spoke about politics, religion, or their day jobs.  They were interested in good humor and friendship.  A photo of a smiling Rolf among them all dressed in happy hats at one of their events graced the table next to the box holding his ashes.

Even at his funeral, Rolf wasn’t finished with humor.  The priest stood on a platform that was raised by pushing a button to reach the uppermost cubby where Armida’s ashes rested and awaited Rolf’s ashes to be beside her.  The priest solemnly put Rolf’s ashes where they belonged — next to Armida.  And then the worker pushed the button for the lift to come back down.  It didn’t move.  Two workers pushed and pushed, prodded, and looked over the connections.  It didn’t move.  The priest said this was the first time it had ever happened to him.  He had no choice but to just stand there looking slightly ridiculous.

The stand-off with the hydraulic lift went on for quite awhile.  It wouldn’t budge.   A low-tech manual ladder was brought and fortunately the priest was young enough to climb down the old-fashioned way.  A worker then climbed up the ladder to replace the front slab, close the crypt, and seal it.  Then, he pressed the same button that had refused to work so many times, and the lift quickly and dutifully made its trip down.

Smiles and chuckles all around.  We all knew this was Rolf’s last joke.

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