Jewish World Review March 22, 2005 / 11 Adar II 5765
On a fast train
My sister in her inimitable way said it on some family occasion when we were sitting around trying to figure out if a character actor from the 1940s was still living. It was irritating, not being able to remember whether we'd read his obituary. "You never know," she complained, "who's here any more."
Long before Einstein, most of us realized time was relative. As you grow older, it picks up speed till it's rushing past like a freight train. Or rather a passenger train hurtling through the fast passing days and nights and years. And you can't always remember who's still on board.
Somewhere on the list of passengers are all the personages, celebrities and, yes, character actors you grew up with and feel you know even if they don't know you. They may be up in the sleeper or back in the club car, or eating off white linen in the diner while you're stuck in coach trying to remember who's still here, but you're all traveling together.
The passenger's interest in who's still on board and who got off at the last stop seems to increase with age. But even when young I found myself paying avid attention to the more prominent obituaries in the paper. I'm not sure why, but they exerted a powerful fascination, as if I could arm myself with a knowledge of the past for what awaited in the future. After all, those who've come before us know the lay of the land. They should; they shaped it.
Maybe that's what the ancient sage meant when he said it is better to go to the house of mourning than the house of joy. Ends are so much more educational than beginnings.
If the obituaries don't offer the suspense of other news stories, they're richer in lessons. It's like looking at history through a rear-view mirror, after the shocks have been absorbed, instead of having it loom ahead.
Now I don't just read obituaries but write them. And the challenge is to sort through the facts for the unique significance of each life. And for what each has to say about the times, theirs and ours.
We both shape and are shaped by our times. Consider those two giants of American nuclear research, Hans Bethe, a recent subject of the obituary page when he died at 98, and his colleague Edward Teller, who got off the train back in 2003.
Both refugees from the Nazis, they collaborated on the creation of the world's first nuclear weapon at Los Alamos, helping win the race for the atom bomb against their German colleagues.
But then they parted ways dramatically. Hans Bethe led the school of thought in the scientific community that opposed the arms race with the Soviets, while Edward Teller became the leading scientist in favor of winning it. Bethe opposed the development of the thermonuclear H-Bomb, while Teller became the Father of the H-Bomb.
Bethe and Teller were just as divided over the wisdom of developing anti-ballistic missiles, creating space-based weapons, and the usefulness of arms control treaties. Both remained ardent advocates of the peaceful use of nuclear energy, but that was about all they had in common in their later years.
What was the root of the postwar differences between the two? Maybe it had something to do with their origins:
Bethe was from comfortable, civilized Strasbourg in Alsace-Lorraine, and knew first-hand the threat to civilization that the Nazis represented, but he'd had no personal experience with Communist tyranny.
Teller, born in strange, cosmopolite Budapest during the twilight of Emperor Franz Joseph's long reign, had experienced both fascist and Communist rule in Hungary, and learned to fear and detest both. As a young scientist, he had sought refuge, believe it or not, in Germany before having to leave there in turn when Hitler came to power.
Bethe didn't feel Communism's danger in his bones, the way Teller did. Which may explain their different attitudes toward the arms race with the Soviets. After the Axis powers were defeated, Hans Bethe returned to the classroom with only occasional forays into nuclear weaponry.
In contrast, Edward Teller would spend the next half-century making certain America won the nuclear arms race, no matter how hard he had to politick as well as experiment. For that he was called a Dr. Strangelove, while Hans Bethe was hailed as a saint, which he certainly was. (Communism loved the saintly; it grew fat on them.)
The moral of these very different, much alike, and thoroughly intertwined lives might occur to any close reader of the obituaries: Experience, or maybe just geography, is politics.
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