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Entry Date: 04/16/2007

Remarks at UNC Center for Jewish Studies Dinner April 14, 2007
Charles van der Horst, MD

The initial paragraph is directed to my friends who are here. You might be asking yourselves, why did Charlie want to sponsor this dinner and why did he invite me? As to the second question, the answer is that I wanted to thank all of you as well as some who could not attend who were so helpful to Laura and me while my mother was ill and then during the mourning period. I vividly remember those of you who set your alarm clocks early so that we could have a morning minyan everyday. One couple, Trudy Abel and Noah Pickus are completely confused. In their case I invited them for all the good their wonderful young children, Mira and Micah, did for me and continue to do for me. Thank you so much and thank you for joining us tonight so I could thank you in person.

The other reason I wanted to have this dinner is to put a face on my parents for the Board and Faculty of the UNC Center for Jewish Studies. After all other than the wonderful article in the News and Observer for which Jane Stancil won an award, there is not much information about them available. There is also no connection between them and UNC so I wanted to bring them to life for you a little, to make them real.

First, I think it is important to know that my parents were not saints. They were both extremely complicated people, scarred in many ways by events in their respective childhoods. The great tension in my life was that I desperately wanted them to be ordinary.

In some of Joyce Carol Oates novels, a singular event happens in the protagonist’s life which forever transforms and shapes them. For my mother, that event was the Holocaust. For good and bad the way she responded to the world around her and to her children was through the lens of the Shoah. In August of 2006 before her October diagnosis of a glioblastoma, in a moment of striking candor, she told me that her happiest times had been with her mother back in Tarnopol. That forever ended on a cold day in November 1943 when her mother disappeared. She told us that she wanted the words, Survivor of the Holocaust with all its connotations, chiseled on her grave stone.

For my father, it was never entirely clear to me the event or events that led him to become the often withdrawn man he was.

Somehow though they found each other in 1945 amid the wreckage of the war and together they developed themes throughout their lives that helped me and hopefully my siblings to see the Professorship as a fitting memorial. Certainly, number one was a belief in the importance of education, the life of the mind, and scholarship above all else, both for themselves and their children. Our living room book shelf had all the great authors of the world represented……..in their original language: Nabokov in Russian, Gunter Grass in German, Proust in French, Cervantes in Spanish. My father, a chemical engineer by training, would translate archaeology journal articles for fun from English into Russian and vice versa or French or German. When he wanted to work in Japan at age forty, he taught himself Japanese. They respected others not for their looks, their skin color, their educational level or their physical prowess but for their brains and how they used them.

Naturally, this almost religious belief in education and the life of the mind carried over to their desires for their children. As European immigrants to the US and unfamiliar with the US university system they wrote letters to the Deans at Harvard and Yale asking them what they as parents should do to prepare a bright young ten year old girl for entry to a US university. That ten year old was my older but younger looking sister, Tanja. They continued to do that for each of their children. Even in the days when there was no money in the family they sent their four children to private schools on scholarship, never buying a new car or taking vacations. My mother would always buy hamburger over roast beef when times were rough, we could see through the floor of the successive cars to the road underneath as their bottoms rusted through. I vividly remember trying on a pair of underwear that were too big but on sale and her telling me in that thick accent with the bemused salesman looking on, “You’ll grow into it!”

Of course, there were the wacko parts of this as well. The idea of either of my parents playing catch or tag with me or even coming to watch a swim meet was a complete anathema to them, but they wanted to know about my most recent paper or report card in minute detail. In our house each of us were required to learn a language at home with my father, either French or German starting in the first grade as well as piano. Practice on these subjects was closely observed by my mother with any mistakes, should we chose to slip over them, pointed out with the word “Spot” bellowed from the kitchen. When I came home with my first grade school report card from Miss Brown, my mother would pull out Tanja’s report card from the same period and compare my grade to Tanja’s, course by course. When I complained that she always focused on the negative, my A minus for instance, and that Joey Hughes mother gave him a quarter for every A or A minus he received. she looked at me sternly and said, “Joey Hughes is not my son!” When I wanted to drop one of my two majors at Duke, namely chemistry, and focus on a history honors thesis, both of them called and wrote telling me I was throwing my life away! So I hope you get the idea that using my mother’s reparations to educate young people in perpetuity is entirely fitting and would please them both.

My friends, family and I began this evening with an afternoon mincha service on the balcony of the hotel. The tradition is to study the Ethics of the Fathers or Pirket Avot afterwards and it also provides an opportunity to say kaddish twice. How appropriate that we should begin this evening in honor of my parents by studying.

Both of my parents were liberal Democrats, ardent civil rights activists and civil libertarians. They loved the United States but most importantly, they loved the United States Constitution. After all it was the United States that had liberated Europe and opened its arms to them. During the Viet Nam War my father headed the local American Field Service Program. A young woman had been selected and then came to notice when she refused to stand up during the Pledge of Allegiance. The Board wanted to take her award away but my father said, “when I became a naturalized citizen, the judge did not ask me to respect the flag but to respect the Constitution”. They hated the John Birch Society, refused to buy Welch’s grade juice because the founder was a right wing nut. They belonged to the NAACP and my father was the Western New York State fundraiser for the United Negro College Fund. In the 1970’s when the South was opening up, my parents invested in an integrated apartment house in South Carolina, a social engineering investment, long before it was fashionable. Most of us children still give to the same charities that they gave to including the American Civil Liberties Union, Southern Poverty Law Center, NAACP Legal Defense Fund, United Negro College Fund. So, how does that tie into Carolina and the Chair. Well, this is a public university. One of the more fun activities that I do as a professor at Carolina is mentor undergraduate students in the Carolina Covenant program. These are students, accepted to Carolina both from in and out of the state, whose families earn less than twice the poverty level and graduate debt free. Most of them are the first person in their families to go to a university, many of them children of immigrants. That is just one example of why this chair went to a public university.

We children all knew that my mother was a brilliant financier but we had no idea, how brilliant. Again, this was part of the yin and yang of this story. After she died, I went through her house and through out there were little yellow stickies with the amount of capital and the income in her accounts and my father’s trust accounts. She needed to reassure herself that she had enough to live on.

My mother directly and my father indirectly were involved in this decision. When we told mother that her estate tax bill would be quite large and I told her the number, she said, “Oy, I’ve got to lie down.” By then it was too late to preserve that money but she did have the opportunity to decide who would get the money. We suggested several options, the US Holocaust Museum, Beth El Synagogue, the Professorship, the Simon Wiesenthal Center. She chose the Professorship. Originally, we wanted it to be in Holocaust Studies but there already was a Kenan Chair held by Chris Browning and the University suggested a chair in history from the destruction of the second temple to the Inquisition. Given that the Nazi’s goal was to not only eradicate the Jews but their culture, a large chunk of which was from that period, and more importantly, a period that my father studied for fun, we all thought that was an appropriate area of focus, including my mother.

I can’t guarantee that I’m going to let this be the last time I speak to you about them, to remind you of their wonderful qualities and their flaws over the years. I don’t want them to be a simple picture on the wall or a name on a page. We are proud that our Mother made this decision and that our parents money will educate thousands of North Carolinian students over the years.

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