Archives for posts with tag: family


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.



In my favorite picture of my older brother, he is sitting at the helm of his small sailboat, buoyant, knowing that every living moment is precious.

After a long illness, Fred passed away three months after 9/11 in 2001.

Losing my big brother at such a young age—he died the day before his 59th birthday—was the cataclysmic event in my life.

Fred contracted some kind of disease while serving in the U.S. Army in Texas.  He came down with a horrible fever which was never diagnosed or understood and eventually he developed lymphoma at age 49.

Capt Fred Damski ID

He managed to survive for ten more years, years that involved lots of examinations with lots of doctors who couldn’t solve the puzzle.  Meanwhile he got to see his two sons reach maturity and he got to hold his first grandchildren.

Last week I went to New Jersey to celebrate the Bar Mitzvah of my brother’s first grandchild, Yosef.  Fred was present with me the whole time—he wasn’t going to miss it for the world and neither of us were going to let the inconvenience of his way-too-early demise keep him away.

We had a running commentary because there was so much happening and there was so much to catch up on.  I was careful not to speak out loud to Fred lest some people in white coats would show up and throw me in a padded van.

Yosef hit it out of the park.  He has been raised as an Orthodox Jew so he had to learn a great deal of Hebrew and he just rocked it.  This is one smart boy, er, man, (as of last Saturday).

Fred took the greatest satisfaction in meeting all of his grandchildren.  Now there are seven of them—three living in New Jersey with his son Seth and his wife Leah, four of them living in Miami with his son Paul and his wife Laura.

The kids are beautiful and complicated and each one very unique.  One of them, Noah, looks just like Fred, which gave me goose bumps every time I looked at him.

On Saturday, I got lost trying to find the synagogue and Fred wasn’t that pleased with me, but it also gave us a chance to catch up.  A lot has happened in the world since 2001.

Fred was very surprised to hear that we have an African-American President, that gay marriage is becoming very acceptable in much of the country, that we have national health care and are on the verge of having comprehensive immigration reform.

Always the soldier and patriot, I knew he would want to know that the 9/11 attacks led to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that were winding down, and in future wars boots on the ground would be replaced by Drone attacks and cyber warfare.

I tried my best to describe a Brave New World where Americans had gotten both fatter and skinnier, richer and poorer, and a whole new generation was walking around with their head’s down looking at their smart phones.

He was thrilled to know that our almost 92-year-old mother was still kicking up a storm in Palm Springs, California.

When we finally met up with Yosef at my nephew’s house after the actual Bar Mitzvah, Yosef put on a command performance.  He set up a small lecturn in his living room and ripped through a section of his Torah portion in what seemed to me to be perfect Hebrew.

Afterwards, Yosef challenged me to a game of one on one basketball, because I was always bragging about what a star athlete I was.  There was no way I was going to let this 13-year-old punk show me up, especially with my older brother watching, and I pulled out all the stops and won 11-8.

Yosef pointed out that it was best two out of three, and Fred whispered in my ear that maybe I should go easy on the kid, and by the way, don’t you have two knee replacements and a back, neck and shoulder.

Yosef found his long-range jump shot and won the next two games and I stumbled back into the house, feeling strains in muscles I forgot I had.

It was a wonderful family reunion, and when it came time for me to say a tearful goodbye, I assured my older brother that we would meet up again next year in Israel at the B’nai Mitzvah of his son Paul’s two daughters.

Until then, Captain Fred.  Rest in peace.