LeoDamski

Leo Damski was born 100 years ago this month.

It was a memorable time in history, including both World War 1 and the Russian Revolution. Blacks and women were stepping up their efforts to seek equality, asking that the US constitution actually applied to all Americans.

My dad loved history and he got to experience so many memorable events first hand. He was born in Lithuania but grew up mostly in Berlin, Germany. His father Paul was not interested in the family lumber business in Kaunas and instead ended up managing world heavyweight champion Max Schmeling.

Paul’s worldliness—he spoke 7 languages and promoted fights around the world—led to a sophistication that enabled him to get his wife and two kids out of Berlin three years before Kristallnacht, when it became incredibly clear that Jews were not welcome and in grave danger if they couldn’t find refuge elsewhere.

Oh, and before that, when Leo was 12 years old, there was a worldwide depression.

Yet, when Leo came to New York City he felt at home, especially in his Yiddish speaking Manhattan neighborhood in Washington Heights.

Leo was highly intelligent and an avid reader but he wasn’t able to go to college because he needed to work to help support the family. He was a very sweet man without a bitter bone in his body and he very rarely spoke of the hardships he had experienced.

All of Leo’s relatives who stayed in Lithuania were killed during the holocaust and I am proudly named for my Uncle Max. But Dad was determined to raise us with American optimism. My folks did not want us to speak German because they wanted us to blend in with the children of all of the war veterans in our neighborhood.

On the surface, Leo and I did not have much in common. He constantly had a Michener or some other historical novel on his bedside table. He did the Sunday New York Times Crossword puzzle in ink as if he were filling out an application. He had no interest whatsoever in sports.

In contrast, I’ve always had trouble sitting down to read anything longer than a daily newspaper. I struggle with even a Wednesday New York Times puzzle and I’ve always been consumed with sports, as a participant and a fan.

But as I get older, I realize that Leo had many admirable qualities that I could emulate. He had a world view shaped by personal experience and a sense of internationalism. Yes, he knew there was great evil in the world and horrible tragedies happening every day to innocent people in all corners of the globe, and yet he woke up every morning with a positive attitude and an inherent kindness.

Having just listened to another evening broadcast of BBC World News, I can say that there is still a great deal of intolerance, inequality, corruption and unspeakable violence in the World.

Yet, my lesson from Leo is that there is also so much to be hopeful about and so much to be grateful for and we must accentuate the positive and hold ourselves to the highest possible standard.

Dasmkifamily