Her name was Ellen Shoshany Kaim and she taught me the
secret to life while we were waiting for a park board meeting to commence.
A blizzard was pounding Madison, as wind swept across the
isthmus from what seemed to be every direction. It was the kind of day where
you wanted to sit home and do nothing. In my case, I had to work at the
newspaper and I was praying for a quiet night of making cop calls and writing
briefs out of the briefs bin.
For reasons past my understanding, the dayside editor had
received pressure from the upper management to get more work out of the
nightside reporters. In an attempt to appease someone or other, he had me
slated to cover a park board meeting.
Nothing of importance ever comes out of a park board meeting
and nothing of importance was expected to come out of this one either. My boss
had circled three minor agenda items and told me I could patch together a
byline story out of them. As I listened to him tell me what he wanted, I stole
glances out the newsroom windows, which were being buffeted by angry
The drive was about six or seven miles, but I was driving a
1991 Pontiac Firebird. This car took to snow like oil took to water. It had no
back end weight and often fishtailed out of control, despite the fact I’d
dumped my dad’s entire collection of weightlifting equipment into the trunk in
an attempt to improve the traction.
The snow had been falling for about two hours at a rapid
pace and the streets department wasn’t clearing the roads. The theory was that the
folks with the plows would wait until most of the snow had fallen and do one
good clearing because what kind of idiot would be on the road in this crap?
I got to the meeting with about ten minutes to spare, only
to find that no one from the board was there yet. The only thing in the empty
room was a microphone and a small, rumpled woman who looked to be about 900
years old. She sat quietly among the chairs in about the fourth row.
When I entered the room, she looked back at me with a smile spreading
across her wrinkled face. “Why are you here?” she asked me in a very thick
European accent that I couldn’t quite place.
I told her the newspaper sent me out here to cover the park
board meeting and I wasn’t sure if the meeting was still on. She explained that
the board members had an event or something downstairs that was still ongoing
and it had been delayed because of a ridiculous amount of snow. She said she
had taken the bus here much earlier in the day and had been waiting for the
“I came to talk about my rock,” she said.
Given the accent, I wasn’t sure I heard her right, so I
repeated what she told me. She greeted the response with a perfunctory nod of
pride and agreement.
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” I told her. “Your rock?”
Her eyes lit up as she realized I was a trapped audience of
one. She explained that she had saved about $30,000 and was donating it to the
parks department to create a memorial to the Holocaust. She was having a giant
boulder put into one of the area parks with a plaque on it to remind people of
what had happened all those years ago. Two benches would face the boulder and
would be dedicated to two men I had never heard of who, like Oskar Schindler, had
aided Jews in their survival.
She didn’t look like she had a pot to pee in or a window to
throw it out of. She also had taken the bus here, lived in an apartment in a
less-than-stellar part of town and seemed a bit off. The idea of her having
$30,000 and just giving it to the city for a giant rock didn’t seem plausible.
As a reporter, I’d heard all sorts of stories over the years and I had learned
to be wary of stuff like this.
As I was pondering all of this, she seemed to see a look of
quizzical doubt creeping across my face.
“I do this because there is guilt in surviving,” she said.
“You have to help people remember. We aren’t many left.”
She then told me the tale of how she came from a family of
well-to-do German Jews in 1930s Berlin. As Hitler rose to power, her father was
warned to find a way out of the country. A week before the military started
closing down the borders, she was ferried out of Germany along with the rest of
her immediate family.
They made their way to America, where she grew up and
eventually met a nice Jewish boy she wanted to marry. His trip to this country
had been sidetracked by a stay at the Bergen-Belsen Death Camp.
The camp took on many stages of use, ranging from a POW camp
to a “shoe” work camp. Eventually, the former leaders of Auschwitz took over
and converted it to a death camp. Although the camp lacked the traditional
tools of death associated with these facilities, such as gas chambers,
approximately 50,000 people died there, mainly due to typhus. The camp gained
notoriety in 1945 after images of the liberated camp become public and it remained
in the collective conscience when it became known that Anne Frank had died
She spared me the details I’m sure her husband shared with
her over the years. The one thing she did tell me was that she married him in
the late 1960s and until the day he died, he slept with his arms folded and his
hands placed on his shoulders. He never moved an inch during sleep. She
explained that was how he was forced to sleep in the camps and despite his best
efforts, he could never shake the habit.
The Nazis cost her aunts, uncles, cousins and more. As the
years went by, she found that more people showed more doubt about the stories
she shared and information that emerged. She kept saying to me that it was
important for people to remember and for the people who saw and experienced
these things to keep finding ways to remind people so it never happened again.
I found myself taking notes, forgetting all about why I was
there in the first place. I then asked her name and asked if I could tell her
story. After three attempts to have her spell her name for me and me screwing
it up, I handed over my reporter’s pad and she printed out “Ellen Shoshany
The park board had found its way into the meeting room at
this point and its members were shuffling through their paperwork. Mrs. Kaim
and I settled into our seat and got ready for the meeting to start. I was
looking toward the front of the room when I felt a tug on my arm. I looked down
and saw her gnarled hand.
She had a small twinkle in her eye and asked, “Would you
like to know what I have found to be the secret to life?”
She beckoned me in with a bony finger and I leaned in close,
as to not have her voice disrupt the meeting as it was called to order.
“Spend all your money on education and travel.”
I gave her kind of a strange look.
She answered my stare.
“Those are the two things no one can ever take away from
The meeting began and Mrs. Kaim took to the front of the
room, explaining the rock and her plans for it. The board passed it with no
trouble at all. I had to duck out of the meeting early to make my deadline.
When I got back, I explained to my boss what I had found and that, yeah, sure I
could do the three boring briefs or I could tell this story. She not only
agreed to let me do Mrs. Kaim’s story, but she managed to carve out a premier
spot for it. The story drew praise from the dayside crew as well.
About a year or so later, I got an invitation from the park
board to come to the unveiling of the boulder. I was about two weeks from
leaving the state for what would be a decade, so I skipped the ceremony without
much of a thought.
Still, I often found myself replaying that moment in my head
and her secret to life: education and travel.
I hated travel, but I did get about as much education as
possible. When my formal degrees had reached their end, I tried learning about
other things. I learned how to work on cars, small engines and other mechanical
items. I taught myself how to refinish furniture and how to cane chairs. I
learned how to use different computers and various programs. I also dedicated
myself to teaching people so that I could share what I had learned and maybe
find a way to help other help themselves.
Over the years, I’d bump into a copy of the story I had
written on her and the note my boss had scrawled across it, complimenting me on
a job well done. I could still recount, practically word for word how she
explained why she was giving the city a “rock.”
About two weeks ago, during a break in one of my classes, a
couple kids were yammering on about a chance to take an interim class on travel
photography and how cool it would be and how great it would be to go to all
these places and photograph them and…
“So go,” I piped up, drawing the attention of everyone in
the room. It was as if E.F. Hutton had shown up or something. “What’s the
The young lady shot back, “Uh… It’s called MONEY! I can’t
spend all that money on a trip for something like this.”
“Spend all your money on education and travel,” I told her.
“Those are the two things no one can ever take away from you.”
She paused. “What?”
I told her the story of Mrs. Kaim and the rock and the
secret to life. The kid paused and pondered and then said, “I wonder if I can
use some of my student aid for this.”
She then looked at me. “Whatever happened to that lady?”
“I really don’t know,” I said. “I’ll see what I can find
The rest of the day, I Googled the terms “Shoshany Kaim” and
“obituary,” figuring on her being dead. Nothing came up, so I started going
through various guides and online phone books. No luck there either.
I saw that her rock was listed on the website of a Jewish
community center near the park, so I emailed the office and asked for any
information on her. I received a perfunctory email about an hour later:
“Mrs. Kaim passed away a number of years ago.
If I can be of further assistance please feel free to
A follow-up inquiry directed me to an obituary in the paper
I used to work for. She died about four or five years ago. I hadn’t really
thought about her in years other than when that moment comes up to talk about
education or travel. Or when I want to tell kids about how sometimes a great
story can just fall right into your lap. Or when I have to explain how some
things just stick with you, like the image of a man sleeping with his hands on
Or on this Thanksgiving, where I realized that a park board
meeting and a chance encounter gave me the gift of perspective and a sense of understanding.
Good night, Mrs. Kaim. And thanks for everything.