The story you don't know

From history to the present. Food. And 7 other things worth your time.

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Today’s story starts on March 18, 1929, when a Jewish boy named Samuel Pisar was born in Białystok, Poland. He was 10 when the Nazis and the Soviets invaded his country.

His entire family was killed, and he spent five years in concentration camps: first at Auschwitz, and then as the Allies advanced, at Majdanek, Dachau, and others.

Many years later, he recalled the death marches toward the end of the war:

Salvation somehow seemed closer —yet we also knew that we could be killed at any moment. The goal was to hang on a little longer. I was almost 16 now, and I wanted to live.

We marched from camp to camp, day and night, until we and our torturers began to hear distant explosions that sounded like artillery fire.

One afternoon we were strafed by a squadron of Allied fighter planes that mistook our column for Wehrmacht troops.

The Germans took cover. Another prisoner yelled: “Run for it!”

And he did.

Pisar sprinted into the forest. The Germans killed almost everyone, but he and five others survived. He escaped and laid low for weeks, until one day he heard a tank outside an abandoned barn in which he was hiding.

“I peeped through a crack in the wooden slats,” Pisar recalled years later, in remarks that are now in the Congressional Record: “Automatically, I looked for the hated swastika, but there was none. Instead, I saw an unfamiliar emblem — a five-pointed white star.”

Pisar ran toward the U.S. tank. An African American soldier jumped out, pistol in hand. Pisar said the only three words he knew in English — “words my mother used to sigh while dreaming of our deliverance: ‘God Bless America!’”

Pisar stayed for two years in postwar Germany, then went to France with an aunt, then stayed with uncles in Australia. He got an education, became a lawyer, immigrated to the U.S. and had a lot of success.

He was an adviser to President Kennedy and French President Mitterrand. He wrote a memoir, got married twice, raised children and stepchildren — “a new family that has resurrected for me the one I had lost,” as he once put it.

“I never spoke about the real horrors — not even with the Germans, Pisar told the New York Times a decade ago. But, he added, “I remember every detail. But I don’t suffer from it. … It helped me in life. And tragic as it was, it was a positive experience. I would never have been the way I am.”

Pisar died five years ago. And we’re sharing his story because this week, his stepson, Antony Blinken, was named as Joe Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, the third highest office in the land.

Amazing story, right? (Thanks to Kathleen Schatzberg, an Understandably subscriber, who first told me about it.)

Now, maybe you don’t have something quite so dramatic in your ancestry. Or else, maybe you do—but you don’t actually know the story.

Maybe there’s something your parents never told you. Perhaps there was an ancestor who almost didn’t survive, or who nearly missed out on something big—things that if they didn’t happen, you might not even exist.

Anyway, it’s Thanksgiving, which has turned into Gratitude Week here on Understandably. So as food for thought, what about being grateful for whatever giant experiences, tragic or not, that might have made your life possible in the first place?

Even—maybe even especially—if you don’t have any idea what they were.

Bit off more than I could chew

Speaking of food for thought, remember I asked yesterday for Thanksgiving recipes?

I got quite a few — and staring at them, I realized, maybe it wasn’t so smart to suggest I was basically going to compile an entire cookbook in a single day.

So, I scaled back a bit, and I pulled out 10 of them, here — ranging from “healthier cranberry sauce” to pumpkin pie, if you’d like to see what a few of your fellow readers will be eating this week.

The gratitude responses are fantastic. I’ll share them tomorrow, for Thanksgiving.

7 other things worth your time

  • Speaking of baby booms—actually, the opposite. Researchers are predicting a “baby bust” nine months after the pandemic. I’d kind of been expecting a “boom,” since so many people are spending so much time at home, and well, you know. But for a variety of practical pandemic and economic-related reasons, couples are having a lot fewer babies. (The Atlantic)

  • New Zealand now ranks first among countries in terms of fighting Covid, according to Bloomberg, then Japan and South Korea. Among our readers’ most common locations: Australia is #7, Canada is #13, the United States is #18, Ireland comes in at #20, the United Kingdom is #28, and Mexico is #53. I don’t think this is really related, but Bloomberg also has a story about an increasing number of wealthy Americans trying to get second passports. (Bloomberg, via Irish Times; Bloomberg Quint)

  • A “homebound nation goes all out with lavish Christmas decorations.” Probably even more so after Thursday. (WSJ)

  • “Bruce,” the last remaining shark from the Jaws movies spent 25 years in a storage bin (actually some places say a “junkyard”); now it’s been moved to a new Los Angeles museum. (KALB-TV)

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