Even if English were my mother tongue, I would not be able to express the sadness I felt when I got the news that Harry Markowicz is not with us anymore. I knew that his health was deteriorating, I knew about his time in home hospice care in the last few weeks, but the news was still devastating.
I identify people in my life as one who belongs to one or another group depending on what role they play. Family is self explanatory. Friends are those I maintain regular two-way communications, emphasis on “regular” and “two-way.” Maybe it’s my age, maybe it’s the culture I spent the first half of my life in, but I always cringe when someone is bragging about their 1,000+ Facebook “friends.” I myself have 1,000+ acquaintances: the people I have met in the course of my 79 years on this planet. Finally, I have the people in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum survivor volunteer group who are dear to me for reasons words cannot describe. If you read these musings of mine, I hope you know where you belong too.
Although my relationship with the members in our survivor group is different from one person to the next, I love each of them without reservation. They are all special to me for one reason or another, and there is not one reason that is better than the other. Harry is special for reasons that tell as much about him as they do about me. I always admired his mild manner. Even when he disagreed with someone, he framed it in a way that the person never felt attacked or brought down. The soft tone of his voice was so soothing, I often wondered how he would sound when he was angry. Probably he had never been.
His eloquence when he talked and that of his writings made him unique and loved by many. During Echoes classes he gave the most thoughtful comments and suggestions. His encouraging words helped me to overcome my initial reluctance to attend the class and later even submit my own writings. We had been a kind of mutual admiration society when it came to our essays, but his writings were far superior to mine. Not to mention that I bet Arlene, his wife, did not have to correct his grammar and typos like mine does. I love Harry’s writings and, in my last email to him, I encouraged him to submit something even if he cannot personally/virtually attend the class.
My respect for Harry only grew when I learned that he was a professor of English at Gallaudet University. I have been struggling with English as a second language and he mastered it as his third one, all the way to being a professor of it. This is just mind-boggling for me, knowing that he also became a world-renowned expert in American and French sign language. One of my most cherished memories of Harry is when he approached me with trepidation to practice the Kaddish with him. Last year he was asked to recite the traditional Jewish mourner’s prayer at the Holocaust commemoration at the Museum. I guess he asked me because the year before I said the Kaddish in the Capitol. Rabbi or cantor I am not, but I was flattered by his trust. He did it perfectly on the first try!
The special connection I felt with Harry might have been the result of what some people jokingly said: that Harry was my long-lost twin brother. Maybe it was the hair, or the beard, maybe the glasses, it does not matter. I certainly will miss him like the brother I never had.
I first experienced Harry’s gentle spirit when, early on, I kept calling him Henry and he corrected me almost whispering ”Harry.” It was hardly audible, so I kept calling him Henry for a while because it was more French-sounding and relevant to his years hiding in war-torn Bruxelles. This came to a full circle when I read one of his best essays submitted to the survivors' Echoes of Memory class. Actually I had the privilege of hearing him read the piece, titled “The War Is Over (Or Is It Ever?),” in which he wrote, “As a child between the ages of five and seven, I had a secret identity; my survival depended on passing for someone else. Was my name Harry or Henry?” Maybe this was the special connection between us, not that we looked alike.
If you have never met Harry Markowicz, it is too late now. But if you really want to understand who he was, watch his First Person interviews on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website and read this paragraph from his essay.
“So many difficult decisions for a boy my age about what to do or not to do, what to say or not to say, without knowing the consequences of these choices except that the wrong choice could lead to some unimaginable punishment for all those who were closest to me. The safest thing was to do or say nothing. More than 70 years later, I can still hear a voice whispering in my head:
‘Keep your eyes down; don’t attract attention.’
Yes, the war was over; however, inside I was still that child in hiding.”
May Harry’s memory forever be a blessing and an inspiration for his family, his friends, and for everyone who knew him, and for all who will get to know him through the powerful words that he left behind.
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