June 29, 2006
Who We Are
Three times over the past six years that I've been editing this paper, I've come to work in the morning to find an old man waiting for me. A different man each time, though I remember all of them being thin and frail.
The men had walked past the receptionist and taken a seat on one of the upholstered chairs across from my desk. They had no appointment; they hadn't called me first. They came and sat, and waited however long they had to.
They all wanted the same thing, though every conversation was slightly different. One presented me with a book he had just published and demanded that the paper review it. Another looked up at me when I walked in -- to my office -- and said, "I have a very important story."
One of them, whose name I've forgotten, carried a photo. "I want you to see this," he said.
It was a photo of him and his closest friends, taken in Germany just before the war. The boys in it were young men, dressed in suits, handsome and confident. Only one of them had survived -- the one sitting in my office.
"You need to print this," he said.
We spoke for a while about his concentration camp experiences, about what he knew of the fates of the others. But he kept his eye on the ball: "So, when will you print my picture?"
I said I wasn't sure. The paper was divided into sections, I explained, community news, features, national and world news, opinion, singles, obituaries.
"I know," he said, "I read it."
I couldn't think offhand where a picture like his would fit in. We run a page showing people in nice clothes receiving awards or handing out checks, and we run a photo spread of people celebrating weddings, engagements, bar mitzvahs. He and his friends were clearly celebrating, but it was 60 years ago, and then all but one of them were murdered.
I asked our art director to scan the photo, and I told the man I would think it over. Then I showed the man from my office.
He called me almost weekly after that. He was more difficult to deal with than the other two visitors. The one with the self-published book had written a Holocaust memoir. Over the years, we'd received dozens of such tomes, and I told the man what I'd told others with similar works -- that we'd try hard to find a way to get something into the paper. I think we did.
The second man said that for months he'd been reading my column and figured it was time I listen to what was on his mind. I did, and he left.
But the man with the photo was relentless. Didn't I understand how important it was to publish it? It should really be on the cover. What was taking so long? Occasionally, like many contributors, he would point out that his photo was much more important than some other article we ran. The singles columns maddened him: "You have room for some poor girl's story about breaking up with her shaygetz but not for my photo?"
I got snappish. The singles column was for singles, I said. We couldn't very well run a picture of him and his friends in it, could we? And the rest of the paper was stuffed with real news, about terrorism and Israel and the local community. I mean, we're a newspaper, not the Shoah Foundation.
He hung up, and he didn't call after that, and I lost his phone number.
After a while, I started to feel awful. What right did I have to say no to a man like that? He survived the Nazis, he saw everybody he loved destroyed, and all he wanted was to insert a fragment of their ripped-away existence into the public record, to give his lost friends a flicker of recognition after such a brutal death.
And this editor, this pisher with a corner office, couldn't find space in any of those all-important sections to run a single, lousy snapshot.
So we ran the photo.
We put it among the photos of happy women and men in evening gowns and tuxedos attending charity banquets and handing out money and getting honorary degrees. Staring out from the midst of those penguin pictures, as we call them, are the faces of these vibrant young men from another era, who had also known a world of such wealth, and community, and acceptance, and then came face to face with its opposite.
It turned out the art director had written down the man's number. I called and told him to look for his picture in the paper.
"I saw it," he said. "I thought it could have been bigger."
Why tell this story now, in the issue that marks our 20th year in print?
I guess it's my realization -- not for the first time -- that a Jewish community paper is a different animal. We report on contemporary Jewish life, with its urgent or simply necessary issues, but our pages also can relate and even embody the joyful, self-satisfied or frivolous. And underlying every edition, every article, every word, is the understanding that we are rooted in something much deeper -- our faith and traditions -- and also something much darker -- our often tragic past.
This convergence of meaning and meaningfulness, this is what I love about this paper and my job. Sometimes it arrives literally in the form of an old man wanting his book reviewed, or an old man determined to get his point across, or an old man with a picture to share with the world.
But one way or another, each day when I come to work, it is all there, waiting for me in my office.