– Lowell Politics and History

The Holocaust through a child’s eyes by Marjorie Arons Barron


The entry below is being cross posted from Marjorie Arons-Barron’s own blog.

MichaelGruenbaum©DennisDarlingIn 1990, my husband and I visited Prague, including the old Jewish section – the synagogue, the cemetery, and the tiny adjacent museum displaying drawings done by Prague children during their imprisonment in Terezin, the Nazi concentration camp outside the Czech capital. The children signed the drawings, and scribbled their ages – nine or 10 years older than I at the time, but close enough to me to make a huge emotional impact.  “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

Michael Gruenbaum was one of those children. He was born in Prague in 1930. The Nazis killed his father who, it was later rumored, had been torn to death by dogs specifically trained for the purpose.  As a child, he didn’t know the details and was simply bewildered by his beloved father’s mysterious disappearance when Michael (Misha) was just 11 years old. In 1942, he, his older sister and his mother were herded up with other Jews and taken by rail to Terezin, which the Nazis called Theresienstadt.

The story, captured in his memoir “Somewhere There is Still a Sun,” is told not as an adult looking back but from his perspective as a child.  The simplicity of the telling heightens the impact of an already riveting story. Take, for example, his complaint from a distinctly innocent nine-year old that “in a moment they’ll be talking about Germany and Hitler and the Nazis, which is all any adult seems to talk about these days. So boring.” That was early in 1939. Later that year, when the Nazis deprived his father of his job, Misha was ecstatic because it opened up the possibility of weekday hikes together. The family was forcibly moved to a much smaller apartment in downtown Prague, which had been turned into a ghetto.

The boy would later have to turn in his violin because Jews were forbidden to have musical instruments. Schools were closed to Jews, and he would resort to picking up cigarette stubs to fashion new cigarettes he could sell on the street. Life in the ghetto became worse and worse, with the Nazis inciting the residents of Prague to ever-more violent acts of anti-Semitism. But it wasn’t until late in 1942 that Misha, his sister and mother were sent to Terezin,  where they were imprisoned for two and a half years.  Terezin was better than most concentration camps because the Nazis used it as a show camp, propaganda to dupe the International Red Cross that conditions were humane.  Activities even included plays, operas and concerts put on by the prisoners.

Misha lived in a bunkhouse with 40 boys.  It was a life of extreme hardship, hunger, filth, disease, terror, brutality and even friendship. Friendship with the nesharim, Hebrew for eagles, under the stern leadership of an older boy, Franta Maier, who made sure the nesharim boys kept themselves clean,  checked for bedbugs, cleaned the toilets, and participated in the “program,” (makeshift classes because school was forbidden.)  They even had a ragtag soccer team. The structure kept them alive. And so did Franta’s exhortations that “you are all brothers now.”  They would not let the Nazis separate them from their humanity. “Not their insults, not their edicts, not their camps. Our duty here is to survive, and survive as human beings.”

Some of the images are indelible. Misha having to retrieve a soccer ball on the other side of a fence, only to discover scores of sick and dying old people, lying on stained sheets or on the ground, emaciated and putrid. The smell is indescribable. The now-14-year old grabs the soccer ball and climbs back over the fence. The Red Cross had just concluded its inspection of the for-show parts of Terezin and never saw this small example of the Nazi’s crimes against humanity.

Young readers will be drawn to Misha as he and his friends fight for survival, growing in awareness of the worsening world around him, coming to understand that “people who stuff other people into train cars…don’t care about any of the things you’re supposed to care about.”  The transports to “the East” increase in frequency, with 5,000 prisoners  at a time being carried away, never to be heard from again.

In October, 1944, Mother, sister and Misha came perilously close to being transported, saved only because Misha’s mother’s work at Terezin included sewing teddy bears for an SS Officer’s family and friends.  Her immediate supervisor intervened in her behalf, and, at the last moment, the family was spared the trip to Auschwitz .  The reader can feel Misha’s heart pounding.   “I don’t think I ever understood what praying is. But I’m asking, begging for something. Please, don’t let them come and take us…. Please.”

In January, 1945 the tide of war is turning. Auschwitz is liberated.  A train arrives at Terezin from the opposite direction as the transports had gone. Now the trains were carrying still-living cadavers, dressed in dirty blue and white striped pajamas. Others started arriving on foot, from places with other strange names like Dachau, Mauthausen and Bergen-Belsen, bald and so emaciated that you couldn’t tell the men from the women.  What teeth they had left were rotting in their mouths.  The smell, thought Misha, reminded him of the summer their refrigerator broke down, the smell of rotting meat.

But the ragged prisoners of Terezin, starving in their own right, brought water. They boiled and mashed potatoes so the newcomers had life-saving nutrients. It was then that Misha and others learned of the gas chambers.  Struggling to comprehend, they couldn’t even talk about it.

It would take weeks before the end of the war, and their return to Prague, which thankfully had not been bombed. Of the 80 boys who lived in Room 7 over the 2 1/2 years, just 11 survived.  They did better than Terezin as a whole, and Terezin couldn’t even compare to Auschwitz, for which so many thousands of Terezin prisoners were fatally destined.

The title of the book comes from a letter written by Michael’s mother just days after liberation from Terezin and captures that tiny sliver of optimism that defies everything she and her family had been through. It also resonates with the strength, determination and brotherhood of Misha’s small band, under Franta’s leadership.

Somewhere There is Still a Sun,”  written with writer Todd Hasak-Lowy, who helped Gruenbaum reconstruct his experiences, will be published later this month by Aladdin, a Simon and Schuster division for young readers, age 10-14. It evokes for me “The Diary of Ann Frank, which I read as a child.  Misha’s story spoke to the young person buried in all of us, and, as an adult, I could not put it down.

I welcome your comments in the section below. To be alerted when a new blog is posted, click on “Follow’ in the lower right portion of your screen.

Lowell Week in Review: August 2, 2015

We’re all about walking this morning . . .

Bob Forrant & Kim Butler lead 119 people on Abolitionists in Lowell walking tour

Lowell Walks

The Lowell Walks summertime downtown guided walking series resumed yesterday with UMass Lowell History Professor Bob Forrant and one of his students, Kim Butler, leading 119 of us around downtown Lowell and telling us about the Abolitionist movement in Lowell in the decades before the American Civil War.  Among the many stops were the Market Mills Courtyard, Central Street at the Pawtucket Canal, the Kirk Street Mill Agent’s House (now the National Park Visitor Center), and St. Anne’s Church.

One of several objectives of Lowell Walks is to bring people into downtown on Saturday mornings for the tours and then to urge them to shop and dine at downtown businesses.  Nearly 90 minutes after the completion of the tour yesterday, I still encountered small groups of tour participants emerging from restaurants or carrying shopping bags so the program is having some success in that regard.

Here are the walks that have been held so far this summer with the number of people attending each:

  • June 6, 2015 – Preservation Success Stories with Fred Faust – 81 participants
  • June 13, 2015 – Lowell Public Art Collection with Paul Marion and Rosemary Noon – 107 participants
  • June 20, 2015 – Inside Lowell High School with Brian Martin – 86 participants
  • June 27, 2015 – Literary Lowell and the Pollard Memorial Library with Sean Thibodeau – 76 participants
  • July 11, 2015 – The Irish and the Acre with Dave McKean – 125 participants
  • July 18, 2015 – Green Lowell with Jay Mason – 43 participants
  • August 1, 2015 – Abolitionists in Lowell with Bob Forrant – 119 participants

That’s a total of 637 tour participants thus far for an average of 91 per tour.  That’s a lot of people coming into downtown Lowell on Saturday mornings.  Here are the remaining tours:

  • August 8, 2015 – Hamilton Canal District with City of Lowell Department of Planning and Development
  • August 15, 2015 – Natural Lowell with Jane Calvin
  • August 22, 2015 – Lowell Artists, Past and Present with Jim Dyment
  • August 29, 2015 – Lowell Monuments with Richard Howe
  • September 5, 2015 – Trains and Trolleys in Lowell with Chris Hayes
  • September 12, 2015 – Renewing the Acre with Dave Ouellette

Besides those on the Lowell Walks tour yesterday, there seemed to be quite a few others roaming around downtown yesterday.  I’m guessing that last evening’s Gordon Lightfoot performance at Boarding House Park as part of the Lowell Summer Music Series was the draw.  The Music Series’ model encourages attendees to show up early – like 12 hours early – and place a lawn chair in Boarding House Park to save a seat.  While those who live in Lowell just go back home, I suspect that some coming from far away just stay here for the day.

City Council Meeting – Walkability Focus (or lack thereof)

There were a couple of discussions that touched on walking during last Tuesday’s City Council meeting that I found perplexing.  One was the “presentation” by the State Department of Transportation official on the changes to be made to the intersection of Bridge Street and the VFW Highway.  In the gentleman’s defense, he seemed to have gotten late notice of his assignment to be at the council meeting, at least that’s how he explained his inability to explain the project or to answer any questions about it.  From what he did say, it sounded as if the job is simply to repave the intersection as it exists now with a slight modification to the adjacent Lakeview Ave/VFW intersection but otherwise with no meaningful changes.

Councilor Kennedy asked about the operation of the pedestrian crossing lights and the DOT official seemed to say that whenever a pedestrian pushes the crossing button, all traffic lights will turn red, freezing vehicular traffic, and allowing walkers to cross.  That seemed to dismay Councilor Kennedy, mostly because the increased waiting time for those in vehicles and because the proposed change will do nothing to alleviate the major traffic backups that now plague that intersection.  I concur with Councilor Kennedy, not because of the inconvenience to drivers but because I am of the belief that the “all red lights to let pedestrians cross” doesn’t work for walkers, either.

The Cambridge, Massachusetts Department of Traffic, Parking and Transportation has a great explanation of its street-crossing policy on its website.

This is very important stuff, so I’ve reproduced almost the entire thing below.  Please continue reading, because it gives an excellent, concise explanation of the considerations that should be followed in setting a street crossing policy:

Concurrent Pedestrian Signals

This page explains the Traffic, Parking and Tranportation (TP&T) Department policy on operation of pedestrian traffic signals.  It explains the two types of operations and why concurrent operations is preferred in Cambridge

Types of Pedestrian Operation

The WALK and DON’T WALK signs, also called pedestrian (or ped) signals indicate the best time during the signal cycle for pedestrians to cross the street.  We can choose one of two methods of operation, as explained below.

Exclusive Operation

Pedestrians have exclusive use of the intersection.  All WALK signals illuminate at the same time, while all the vehicle signals are red.  (Some call this a “Barnes Dance,” named for the legendary New York City traffic engineer Henry Barnes.)  The obvious advantage of this operation is that pedestrians do not have to share the road with turning vehicles (provided that none are turning right on red, legally or illegally).  Second, fast walkers can cross the intersection diagonally.

But there are some less obvious but important disadvantages.  First, in an urban environment with congested intersections, we can spare only the minimum time (as defined by engineering standard) of seven seconds for the WALK interval because the lines of vehicle traffic continue to grow while all the intersection lights are red.  In addition to providing a short window for people to start crossing the street, pedestrians must wait for an intolerable period before finally getting their turn – sometimes a minute and a half or more.  Many pedestrians are not willing to wait nearly this long.  Traffic engineers usually install buttons to push to activate the WALK signal, which adds more wait time.

Concurrent Operation

Vehicles are permitted to turn right and/or left across the crosswalk while a WALK sign is showing.  Drivers must yield the right of way to anyone in the crosswalk, just like they do when turning onto a side street where no traffic signal exists.  When vehicles and pedestrians can use the intersection at the same time, we can leave the WALK sign on for much longer.  Further, pedestrians wait far less time for the WALK sign to come on.  Finally, the WALK sign comes on every cycle without needing to press a button.

A Head Start

Recognizing that turning vehicles can put pedestrians at a disadvantage, Cambridge intersections give pedestrians a head start.  Engineers call this a Leading Pedestrian Interval, or LPI.  Our LPIs are a minimum or 3 seconds and are longer for larger intersections.  While this may not sound like much, it is plenty of time for pedestrians to walk several feet into the crosswalk and establish control of the space.  By the time the first turning car reacts to the green light, several pedestrians are well within view, giving the driver adequate time to react and stop before finishing the turn.

Safety in Numbers

Multiple studies along with our own experience in Cambridge shows that pedestrians are safer in larger groups.  Visibility is the most important element of roadway safety in an urban environment and a crowd is easily seen by drivers.  In other words, it is best when all pedestrians use the crosswalk at the same time.

Voting With Their Feet

TP&T staff learned long ago that Cambridge pedestrians are clearly comfortable crossing concurrently with the green light no matter what the pedestrian signal indicated.  So when traffic signals were set to run exclusive, most pedestrians crossed with the green light.  Others pushed the button and were not willing to wait for the WALK sign and crossed with the green light anyway.  A few waited for the WALK sign.  As a result, pedestrians used the same crosswalk at different times.  Drivers did not know when to expect to see pedestrians in the crosswalk.

Since pedestrians want to cross with the green light, we designed our traffic signals to accommodate them.  With concurrent pedestrian operation, drivers know when to expect pedestrians to be in the crosswalk.  And since they are all crossing at about the same time, the large group of pedestrians will be highly visible.

Department Policy

In 1997 TP&T made concurrent pedestrian operation with LPI official Department policy.  Since then crashes involving pedestrians have declined.

As noted in the Policy, there are some exceptions to this policy.  Most notably, at T intersections, where all vehicles are turning either left or right onto the main street, concurrent operation is not feasible.  Second, where the number of turning vehicles is very high, we may choose to use exclusive operation.

 The above Cambridge policy lays out the reality of pedestrians and street-crossings in a rational manner.  That’s something that was lacking in Lowell Tuesday night during the discussion of three motions filed by three different councilors that touched on the topic of jaywalking.  Now I get just as aggravated as the next driver when someone wanders aimlessly out into the road in front of me when I’m behind the wheel.  I don’t justifying that behavior, but to think that the offenders who cross streets that way are going to curb their behavior because of the threat of a fine – be it $1 or $20 or $200 – is ludicrous.

Why no council motions about drivers who fail to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks?

I’d prefer the council spend its time discussing ways to make downtown streets safer and more convenient for all walkers.  As Jeff Speck said expressly and as the Cambridge policy says obliquely, walkers want to walk and if you expect them to stop walking and wait for several minutes for a crossing light to go on, they will not wait for the crossing light.  As someone who walks a lot in downtown, that observation has the ring of truth to it.  Those who suggest otherwise ought to get out of their cars and use their feet for transportation more often.

If they did that, they would understand that much of downtown Lowell is inhospitable to walkers.  Part of that is a function of poor design (Dutton Street and the Lord Overpass) and part of it is a driving culture that is antagonistic towards pedestrians.  The driver behavior problem should be addressed through increased enforcement of those who violate existing laws and ordinances intended to make the streets safe for walkers.  Between drivers fiddling with their cell phones and those who are oblivious to rights of pedestrians to safely cross streets, walking is often a life-threatening activity.  More often than not when I’m crossing a downtown intersection when the pedestrian light signals me to do so, I have to dodge either cars turning in front of me or insults hurled by those drivers who have to stop to let me pass.

Drivers in Lowell don’t believe that a pedestrian with a white crossing light takes priority over a car with a green light

As for the problem of design, that might be improved by those who want Lowell made safer for walkers pressing elected officials and city planners to adopt more walk-friendly designs in future projects.  An opportunity to do just that will occur at the City Council meeting on August 11, 2015.  That night at 7 pm, the Council will hold a public hearing on a Complete Streets Policy.

Here is the first paragraph of a pretty good Wikipedia entry on Complete Streets:

Complete Streets is a transportation policy and design approach that requires streets to be planned, designed, operated, and maintained to enable safe, convenient and comfortable travel and access for users of all ages and abilities regardless of their mode of transportation. Complete Streets allow for safe travel by those walking, bicycling, driving automobiles, riding public transportation, or delivering goods.

Sometime after the August 11, 2015 public hearing, the Council will vote to adopt the city’s own Complete Streets Policy.  I think it’s critically important that everyone who wants Lowell to become more walker-friendly show up for the public hearing.  I don’t know what it was the prompted three councilors to file motions last week to make life easier for drivers but I would guess it’s because a certain number of drivers lodged complaints about jaywalkers with the councilors.

No councilors are filing motions to make the streets and sidewalks safer and more convenient for walkers and bikers because too few walkers and bikers are making their wishes known to councilors.  This August 11 public hearing should not be just about Complete Streets, it should serve as the kickoff of a grass roots walkability campaign that lasts throughout the summer and fall – right up through the city election, in fact.  A large crowd sends a strong message so please make every effort to be at the council meeting on August 11.

What kind of animal would kill this lion for sport? by Marjorie Arons Barron


The entry below is being cross posted from Marjorie Arons-Barron’s own blog.

cecil 2Walter Palmer’s pleasure in life is apparently  hunting and killing large animals, legally or illegally. In the last few days, millions of people around the world have come to know that the American “sportsman” has slain Zimbabwe national treasure Cecil, a magnificent 13-year-old black-maned tiger, whom tourists came from far and wide to see.

Palmer’s guides illegally strapped animal carcass on their vehicle  to lure Cecil outside the Hwange protected reserve, enabling the 55-year-old Bloomington, Minnesota dentist to hit Cecil with a bow and arrow, (also a violation of Zimbabwean regulation).  It took 40 hours of suffering till they tracked, shot and killed him.  This wasn’t about putting Cecil out of his misery; it  was presumably about getting a specimen to mount for the wall of the dentist’s den or entertainment center.  What kind of person does that sort of thing?

Someone who can ante up the $50,000 to pay his guides for the “sporting” trip. Someone who can claim with bald-faced indifference that he thought what he did was legal. Someone who in 2009 had run afoul of the law in the United States for illegally killing a bear and had been fined for his indulgent transgression.   I can’t say I feel bad that the good dentist has been forced to close down his dental practice because of what he did and the international outrage he has provoked.

According to the National Geographic, Africa’s lion population has been reduced from 200,000 to just 30,000 due to poaching,  destruction of habitat, conflict with farmers,  and desertification. Cecil wore a collar, put on him by Oxford University researchers  tracking him for data on lion conservation.   (It is also illegal to hunt a lion wearing a collar.) Despite (or perhaps because of) the declining lion population, this feline population understandably  attracts tourists to the country.  Zimbabwe, with its nominal regulation of trophy hunting, still enjoys the $20 million a year (3.2 percent of its tourism revenue) brought in.

Under the repressive leadership of President Robert Mugabe, (who ate baby elephant at his 91st birthday) Zimbabwe exacerbates this problem. For 35 years, his has been a government of rampant inflation, corruption, intimidation, cronyism and egregious human rights violations. Mugabe’s disastrous land management has impoverished Zimbabwe’s farmers, pitting them against hunters and driving some of them into poaching for their own survival.  As MinnPost reporter Mark Porubcansky observed, “Compared to many of the human residents of Zimbabwe, Cecil the lion had a pretty good life.”

Thursday the United Nations General Assembly called for global cooperation in curbing the poaching that has decimated world wildlife, from lions to the elephants and rhinos sought for their ivory tusks and horns. According to the NY Times’ Katie Rogers, President Obama reportedly discussed it in his visit to Kenya last week.  He is also seeking to introduce bans on commercial trade in ivory in U.S. treaties, including the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership. Under a 2013 executive order a tightening of the Endangered Species Act, The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has created some limited exceptions to its rules, including certain musical instruments (the tips of violin bows and piano keys, for example, and furniture pieces containing fewer than 200 grams of ivory, which are not deemed to have contributed to the current poaching crisis. Unlike Australia, the United States doesn’t ban imports of illegal bounty like Cecil’s head.

As the world was reacting to the good doctor’s savagery, rangers in Kenya’s Tsavo West National Park discovered the handiwork of poachers who had just killed a mother elephant and four children.  The elephant population is even more at risk than the lions. As reported by the Washington Post’s Kevin Sieff, their tusks were hacked off, torn out of their heads.   According to Sieff, poachers  killed more than 100,000 elephants between 2010 and 2012.  Illegal wildlife trade, he notes, accounts for between $7 billion and $10 billion a year.

My husband and I saw our first elephant in the wild on photographic safari in that same Tsavo West National Park in 1984. Their power and majesty, the intimacy of their family groupings, are indelibly etched in our minds.  So, too, the magnificent lions we saw in the Serengeti.

Zimbabwe’s government is seeking the extradition of Cecil’s slayer,  Walter Palmer, and the United States government is weighing how to respond to that request. The dentist is nowhere to be found. He has “gone underground,” possibly feeling endangered by the anger his actions have provoked. (Maybe he has shifted habitats to his winter place in Marco Island, Florida.) Perhaps he has learned a little something about what an animal feels like to be hunted.

One can  hope that the worldwide outcry about Cecil’s slaying will help generate sustained action on wildlife destruction and focus attention on the government of Zimbabwe, which crafts rules to protect animals but brutalizes its biped population. Those who are placing teddy bears and stuffed lions in a memorial to Cecil in the doorway to the River Bluff Dental Clinic in Bloomington should also feel more than a modicum of concern for the people of Zimbabwe.

I welcome your comments in the section below. To be alerted when a new blog is posted, click on “Follow’ in the lower right portion of your screen.

Lowell Real Estate: Week of July 27, 2015

The following real estate sales occurred in Lowell last week:

July 27, 2015 – Monday
375 Aiken Ave Unit G-8 for $86,100. Prior sale 2015 foreclosure
123 Third St for $313,000. Prior sale in 2004 for $265,000
154 Avon St for $165,000. Prior sale in 1966
17-19 Ellsworth St for $365,000. Prior slae in 1985 for $85,500

July 28, 2015 – Tuesday
428 Lincoln St for $220,000. Prior sale in 2003 for $242,000
9-11 Fulton St for $302,000. Prior sale in 2009 for $239,000
465 Parker St for $245,000. Prior sale in 1085 for $136,000
211 Mt Hope St for $195,000. Prior sale in 2013 for $185,000
31 Court St for $327,500. Prior sale in 2006 for $75,000

July 29, 2015 – Wednesday
33 Burns St for $118,400. Prior sale 2015 foreclosure
1461 Pawtucket Blvd Unit B11 for $122,000. Prior sale in 2002 for $120,000
18 Upham St for $165,000. Prior sale in 2015 for $79,000
15 Christman Ave for $190,000. Prior sale in 2005 for $185,000
225 White St for $170,000. Prior sale 1984 probate
900 Lawrence St Unit 9 for $186,000. Prior sale in 2008 for $193,500

July 30, 2015 – Thursday
144 Totman Rd for $183,902. Prior sale in 1995 for $99,000
1221 Pawtucket Blvd Unit 92 for $146,000. Prior sale in 2004 for $162,000
200 Market St Unit 612 for $195,865. Prior sale in 2001 for $172,900
3 Luz Dr for $275,000. Prior sale in 2012 for $225,000
281 Walker St for $230,000. Prior sale in 2010 for $159,500
1431 Pawtucket Blvd Unit B26 for $183,500. Prior sale in 2003 for $177,900
34 Elm Ave for $289,000. Prior sale in 1977
301 Mammoth Rd Unit 6 for $120,000. Prior sale 2015 foreclosure

July 31, 2015 – Friday
47-49 Temple St for $249,900. Prior sale in 2010 for $200,000
691 Stevens St for $299,000. Prior sale in 2013 for $256,850
29 Ottawa St for $235,500. Prior sale in 2004 for $190,000
95 Butman Rd for $425,000. Prior sale in 2009 for $350,000
107 Fairfield St for $245,000. Prior sale in 1990
66 Pleasant St for $212,500. Prior sale in 2010 for $143,000
11 Ecklund Dr for $249,900. New construction
606 Westford St for $283,000. Prior sale in 2010 for $242,000
97 Raynor St for $204,000. Prior sale in 2004 for $263,000
290 Geana Ln for $290,000. Prior sale in 1960
160 Merrimack St Unit D for $199,000. Prior sale in 2005 for $295,000
100-102 Hollis St for $329,900. Prior sale in 2000 for $205,000
7 Puffer Ave for $165,000. Prior sale in 1989

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