Thursday, September 24, 2015

Harry the poet -- yes, he was that, too

How long do you save old letters and poems from others? (Or emails in today's world.) When I started this blog in May 2015, several of Harry's friends told me they would look for the poem he'd written in their honor, "if I can find it," they said. One of these friends was referring to a 61-year-old poem (shown below, to Alice). 

Sure enough, I found a copy of their poems in Harry's files. He saved them all -- poems he'd crafted for countless family and friends on a variety of occasions (birthdays, anniversaries, retirements, fundraisers), for submission to publications, and for folks in his workplace, where he was dubbed the "Pentagon Poet Laureate."

I discovered in Harry's keepsakes that he wrote poems as far back as 1945, so it’s likely he rhymed even before then. Below are six of the earlier poems; I’ll post others in the coming weeks -- but be forewarned, he saved hundreds.

This first one was in a pile of yellowed, delicate news clippings, in a folder with Army memorabilia.

September 1945 
USO Newsletter – G.I. Journal

Harry, winter 1945
Written by Pvt. Harry Zubkoff

When I was a civilian,
And it seems so long ago
I always used to wonder
Where the soldiers used to go.

And then I used to wonder
If the folks who didn’t know
Were doing all they could
To help some G.I. Joe.

The average civilian
Original newsletter, fragile and torn
Is the same as I was then.
He really doesn’t understand
But he wonders now and then.

But there are some civilians,
A special kind I guess,
For whom I call on God above
To cherish and to bless.

They didn’t stand and wonder
The way some others do,
If a soldier had a place to go
Or anything to do.

Harry and Jeanette, November 1945
No, they arranged a place,
Where all G.I.s could go;
They arranged a darn good place
And called it USO.

So, I no longer wonder
The way I used to do,
If soldiers have a place to go
Or anything to do.

For whenever we’re in town
And have no place to go,
We know we’re always welcome
At the SA-USO.

And of one thing I’m certain,
This I surely know,
There’s a special kind of Heaven
For the FOLKS of USO!

December 19, 1949 (Details unknown)
A Toast to All 
Oh, I'm working on a message,
That is full of hope and cheer,
But I can't get in the spirit,
Not without a glass of beer.

Mr. Noble says make merry,
For the Yuletide Season's here.
Harry with Jeanette and Earl, 1949
But as sure as my name's Harry,
How can I, without my beer!

I suppose I ought to wish him joy,
But how can I revere,
Anyone who won't allow a boy
To have a glass of beer!

Oh, I wish I had a nickel now,
for everybody here,
Who will celebrate this Friday,
But without a glass of beer!

Now if Mr. Noble's bosses
Are the kind of men I think,
First winter in Greenbelt, MD
They will celebrate this Friday too,
But not without a drink.

They will bring enough fine liquor
For a battleship to sink,
Then they'll lock their office doors and,
They will have themselves a drink.

They will make the rounds like gypsies,
And at everyone they'll wink,
Then they'll ship into their offices
And have another drink!

They will hang around the mistletoe
Like Romeos, they think,
Then with every kiss they manage,
They will need another drink.

They will put away enough, you know,
To fill a pair of floats,
I don't wish them any harm,
But may it stick inside their throats!

For while they're behind their office doors,
All dishing out good cheer,
We'll be celebrating Christmas dry,
Without one glass of "Beer"!!!!


Lament of Harry Z. (Undated, though likely the 1950s, long before I noticed that my father was a proponent of equal rights for women.)

The zaniest girls you'd ever see
Harry (far left) at an office celebration, 1950s
have organized to comfort me.
They fetch my coffee, milk or tea,
They smile so very prettily.

And when I'm blue, or seemingly,
They cheer me up so beamingly.
And when we're busy, flappily,
They follow orders snappily.

And when I think, so fleetingly,
They treat me so entreatingly,
And when I'm gazing ceilingly,
They hold my hand so feelingly.

And when I'm scared, so fearingly,
They soothe me, so endearingly,
And then, of course, occasionally,
They also do some work for me!


December 1954
Alice C. (Brown) Price

In each one's life there comes a time
To bid his friends farewell,
To leave a job, a place, a gang,
And tell them it's been swell.
It's not Alice, but here's Harry with associate, circa 1954

So now the time has come for you,
To say your sad good-byes,
And we won't look if one or two
Small tears get in your eyes.

We know you'd rather not depart
This citadel of strife,
And yet, you're eager now to start
A wonderful new life.

And if you miss us now and then,
Remember this - and smile,
We'll remember you, my dear,
At least a little while! ! ! !

So pass once more, your office door,
And walk on down the hall,
For always and forevermore,
We love you, one and all! ! ! ! !

Harry and Alice stayed in touch for life. 


Vintage photo of the pool in Greenbelt, MD
An article in memory of Harry, in the June 5, 2014 Greenbelt (MD) News Review, displayed the next poem. According to the article, “… vandalism by local youth was a recurring problem in Greenbelt’s early days and Zubkoff was particularly provoked by random acts of destruction. In addition to editorials bemoaning these occurrences, he expressed his ire and wit in columns,” such as this one in 1950.


This is to advise a guy
In no uncertain terms,
Harry with Jeanette and Earl at the pool, 1950
That I will catch him, by and by,
And feed him to the worms.
For pranks are pranks, and jokes are jokes,
And boys are always boys,
But you will agree, won't you folks
That clotheslines aren’t toys?
Yet every time we look around
(It’s happened once or twice)
We find our clothesline on the ground,
I ask you, Is that nice?
I am sure that everyone in town
Will wish me all the best,
The day that I catch up with,
And eliminate this pest.
This I say and this I mean
And you can mark it down,
That someday I will catch the guy,
Who cuts my clothesline down!

 Does anyone know if they caught the bandit?


This poem (actually two on the page, titled I and II) was one of many saved on thin carbon copy paper (who remembers that?)! Harry’s penciled note on the bottom of the paper says: Sat. Eve. Post 9/2/55


Harry and Jeanette in new Jewish Community 
Center in Greenbelt, 1955 (Photo by Mike Ratzkin)
I cannot see why it should be,
I cannot understand it,
Your constant use of clamjamfry,
Must be because you planned it.
How frequently, increasingly,
I find upon these pages,
Incessantly, distressingly,
No “wisdom of the ages.”


A pseudo-dialectologist
Appears with regularity,
A semi-semasiologist
Who deals in slangularity.
And magazinistic essayists
Who dabble allegorically,
Discursive dissertationists
Who write commontatorially.
While readers and semanticists,
Reject them categorically!


Harry's talent for poetry rubbed off on some of us. Yes, I'd written many to him, as well as to others. So, too, his granddaughter, who says it was easier to write poems to eulogize her grandparents than to write the ordinary way. And, his grandson, who penned lyrics for his movie musical score, and so on. I think you'll agree when you've seen more, however, that Harry's poems are in a league of their own -- and some might blow your mind.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Yom Kippur reflections on our place in the world

Here (and below) is Harry on a day in 2011
A friend of Harry’s said she knew he was an intellectual and Zionist from his columns on Israel and Judaism in their synagogue newsletter. But she didn't know the other facets of Harry's life revealed in his writings on this blog. On the other hand, some of you knew Harry as the sweet family man and friend who sent you surprise packages, or the community activist, or the military news analyst. But you didn’t know that Harry wrote articles about Judaism. 

So, here’s a look at the latter – Harry the writer about Judaism and Israel, or as I like to think, “My dad, the authority on Israel.” Since most of us didn't see the article below in his October 2011 synagogue newsletter, it may give us thoughts to ponder on this Yom Kippur.

No, this was not on the day of Yom Kippur.

The introspection and meditation during the Yom Kippur period in October gave us a chance to reflect once again on the truly remarkable achievements of the Jewish people and their contributions to humanity. One of the primary goals of Judaism is to help “repair the world” following the principle of Tikun Olam, and in this sense the Jewish people have tried throughout history to fulfill their destiny. Thus, it came as no great surprise that of seven new winners of Nobel prizes recently awarded, five were Jewish. The statistics are worth reviewing once again.

On the world scene right now, Jews account for 0.2 percent of the total world population. That’s two tenths of 1 percent. They amount to only 2 percent of the US population. Yet, between 1901 and 2010, 22 percent of all Nobel prize winners worldwide were Jewish and 38 percent of all US prize winners were Jewish.

In some disciplines the statistics are even more impressive. In the field of economics, for example, 42 percent of the world total was Jewish, as was 55 percent of the US total. In physics, 26 percent of the world total and 37 percent of the US total were Jewish. In chemistry, 20 percent of the world total and 27 percent of the US total; in medicine 28 percent of the world total and 41 percent of the US total.

Jewish women are also well represented among prize winners in these various disciplines, accounting for 38 percent of the world total and fully 50 percent of the US total. Such achievements by so small a segment of the world’s population are more than noteworthy, they are positively miraculous and in keeping with the words of Isaiah: “You shall be a light unto the nations.”

The latest group of Nobel Laureates announced shortly before Yom Kippur included Adam Ross and Saul Pelmutter, American Jews, in the field of physics; Daniel Shechtman, an Israeli, in the field of chemistry; Ralph Steinman (posthumously) and Bruce Beutler in the field of medicine. Now, as more and more intellectual and technological marvels emerge from Israeli scientific institutions such as Technion and the Weizman Institue, the Jewish contribution to mankind's well-being can only multiply. 

In view of all this, it is difficult to understand the kind of anti-Semitic fervor that would motivate a group of Swedish academics to call for an academic boycott of Israeli institutions. They would actually boycott a number of Israeli scientific advancements that would benefit all mankind, a number of which are on display right now at the Bloomfield Science Museum in Jerusalem.

Harry wrote about the Bloomfield Science Museum in a post on this blog titled Inventions on Display. And, can anyone name the Jewish Nobel Laureates for the years since 2011?

Thursday, September 10, 2015

An emerging piece of American-Jewish history

Raise your hand if you received regular emails from Harry concerning Israel and Judaism? I bet at least 50 of you raised yours (in your mind). Harry seemed to feel an innate responsibility to educate his family and friends about Jewish history, politics, and culture – and email gave him the perfect means. He often began these emails with the words “Read and remember” or Things we should know.
So, in the spirit of Harry’s emails -- and on the
occasion of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year -- here’s an article on a piece of Jewish history, which he wrote for his synagogue newsletter column in 2012. He may have emailed the article to some, but many of us haven't seen it. In the fitting words of one cousin: Harry is still teaching us things.”

Here (and in the other photo) is Harry on a day in 2012, around the time he wrote this story.

First, a word about history. Of all the events that transpire in any given period, only a few are presented to succeeding generations as history. Most of what happens is quickly forgotten. But records exist, though they do not enter the general body of knowledge unless someone digs them out and discloses them. So it is with the Holocaust, that unfathomable human tragedy of the 20th century. Now, two and a half generations later, facts about it continue to emerge from the mists of history, bringing us to the realization that what we know is only a fraction of what actually happened.

This is the story of the so-called Bergson Group, which is credited with helping to save several hundred thousand European Jews from certain death. It started in 1940 with less than a dozen young Jewish men, some from Europe and some from Palestine, who started raising money in America for the Irgun, the Zionist militia in Palestine. Their leader was Hillel Kook, a member of the Irgun, who used the pseudonym of Peter H. Bergson.

The Group wanted to finance Jewish immigration into Palestine, which had been prohibited under England’s arbitrary ruling. They also wanted to raise an Army of Palestinian Jews to defend against the continuous attacks by Arabs. Their goals took on much greater urgency in 1942 when reports out of Germany disclosed that the Nazis had killed two million Jews and were starting a systematic program to exterminate all the Jews in Europe. The news of Hitler’s murderous rampage was largely ignored by the media, including the NY Times and the Washington Post, both of which claimed to be newspapers of record. 

Without media to push for government action, the Roosevelt Administration seemed indifferent to this Nazi atrocity and, even more infuriating, the Jewish community in America did little to generate a government response. Indeed, the Administration made it clear that the military objective in Europe was to win the war, not to save European Jews. (Still, there were those then and some to this day, who charge that America was pushed into the war by the Jews, completely ignoring the fact that Germany declared war on us.) 

In the face of America’s passive response to the German policy of genocide against the Jews, the Bergson Group launched an all-out campaign to lobby Congress and to pressure Roosevelt to support the rescue of European Jews. They ran full-page ads in the NY Times. They got many celebrities to sponsor ads and public events; they arranged shows around the country, all publicizing the plight of European Jews being slaughtered by the Nazis. They even got a group of Orthodox Rabbis in the traditional black hats and cloaks to march on the White House, something never before seen in Washington, or since, either.

This went on for almost two years until Henry Morgenthau, Jr., Secretary of the Treasury, finally persuaded FDR to issue an Executive Oder establishing the War Refugee Board. As a direct result, more than 200,000 Jews were rescued. 

The efforts of the Bergson Group were an embarrassment to the American Jewish establishment. Jewish leaders around the country denounced them, saying their blatant tactics would only lead to more anti-Semitism. Stephen Wise, the foremost Rabbi of that time, said that they were a “disaster to the Zionist cause” and to the Jewish people. Remember, this was the 1940s, when American Jews were not yet fully accepted in American affairs, and public demonstrations were not a popular means of civic activity. Demonstrations to influence public policy in America came during the Vietnam era, some twenty years later.

But the Jewish leaders of Israel, which was established in May 1948, also took issue with the Bergson Group. A month after the state came into being, the Group organized, financed and sent to Israel a ship loaded with weapons for the Irgun. This action violated an agreement with the state to stop independent weapons shipments, a function only the state could fill. Prime Minister Ben-Gurion therefore ordered his troops to fire on the ship, killing sixteen Irgun members. Hillel Kook (Bergson) went on to serve in the Knesset, but the Group soon had an ideological rift with their political leader, Menachem Begin, the Head of Irgun who later became Israel’s Prime Minister.

Never popular in the US, dissension with its own political group in Israel, always at odds with the Israel left wing Labor Party, which dominated Israeli politics for the first 30 years, the Bergson Group was simply ignored in the early histories of that period. Now, as additional Holocaust archives become available, and as more personal memoirs and biographies are published, the story of the Bergson Group and its impact is being reinserted into the historical narrative. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington has included a small exhibit on the Group since 2008.

Does the article spur memories of Harry's emails -- on any topic? By the way, more than a few of you said you still have not deleted some of his emails (neither have I). A recent article in the New York Times Magazine, My Digital Cemetery, helps us understand why.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Harry challenges the cost of text books

Harry was known (by his family at least) to get a little angry about things he found unfair. His story on this page illustrates an issue that bothered him at best, and how he tried to make a difference. He wrote it to his younger cousins who had children heading to college, when he was in his mid-80s.

Harry took classes here.
Talking about books earlier today brought to mind a memory I’d like to share with you. As you know, I retired in 1986 and the following year I started taking courses at the University of Maryland. The first few years it was free for senior citizens, but then they started charging a nominal sum, about 100 or 150 dollars a semester. When I stopped, about 15 years later, I think it was 2002 or 2003, it was up to about 250 dollars a semester. I usually took one or two courses each semester and in 15 years I had accumulated enough credits to … ah, but that’s another story. What triggered this one is the cost of text books.

While I was spending only 100 to 200 bucks for books, some of the kids were spending anywhere from 400 to 500 to as much as 800 dollars. Some were having a hard time, even buying used books at discount prices. Anyway, I got so mad about it that I wrote some letters – to the President of the University, to the Chancellor, to the State Legislature, and to the Governor. The ex-Governor, who had been out of office for several years and who had been teaching a course in government and politics which I had taken, told me who to write to and what buttons to push. He and I were the same age and had pretty similar life experiences, except that he became a politician while I became a civil servant. Anyway, we became good friends.

So I wrote all these letters complaining about the exorbitant cost of text books. Almost all text books are published by universities, which organize their own publishing companies and operate their own presses. Almost all text books are written by professors at these schools. When I began looking into the business, I found all kinds of people who had their fingers in the pot. In the book publishing business, most new books today run 25 to 35 bucks. In the text book business, most books today run 60 to 80 bucks, and some even more. That’s a national average. And it’s inflated beyond all reason, because too many people get a piece of the action and depend on it. It will take a revolution to bring the price down to reasonable levels again.

Well, my letters were discussed at a session of the state legislature, which only meets for two or three months a year, and for a while it became a hot subject for debate in the university system, but no politician took it up as a “cause” and after a while it just drifted away as an issue.

I truly believe that the cost of text books is a scandal that will someday explode on the national scene, but some smart politician will have to push it so the media will pick it up and start harping on it. For a while, I got some people to start thinking about it.

If anyone wants to pursue this issue, I’m sure Harry would be proud. Let us know what you find out.

In this 2006 photo, Harry and Jeanette waited in a University of Maryland theater lobby to see grandson Mark perform with Cornell University's improv comedy team. Harry felt at home on campus, where he took courses and volunteered for 15 years post-retirement. (Also, UMD was Jeanette's workplace for 20 years and granddaughter Sandy's alma mater.) Never mind that the cost of textbooks maddened Harry, he thoroughly enjoyed mingling with his young classmates, as he revealed in an earlier post on this blog: "The value of learning and journaling, according to this self-educated man"