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In Impossible Times Come Impossible Decisions

An honor guard soldier stands next to a monument in Bucharest, Romania, in Feb. 2012, that bears the names of Jews killed when the SS Struma — the ship they were on as refugees on their way to what was then Palestine — was sunk by a Soviet torpedo in the Black Sea. All but one of the 779 people on board died.
Vadim Ghirda
An honor guard soldier stands next to a monument in Bucharest, Romania, in Feb. 2012, that bears the names of Jews killed when the SS Struma — the ship they were on as refugees on their way to what was then Palestine — was sunk by a Soviet torpedo in the Black Sea. All but one of the 779 people on board died.

The Strumawas sunk by a Soviet torpedo in February 1942 as it sought to carry its cargo of Romanian Jews to safe harbor in what was then called Palestine by way of the Black Sea.

This terrible event isn't very well remembered today, but it marked the lives of my family. My father Hans Noë, who is now 86, shared this chapter of his story with me and my mother recently.

It's hard not to think of these events without recalling that similar struggles and traumas are confronted on a daily basis by the displaced people of Syria as well as other lands.

My father was a young boy living in the prison-ghetto of Czernowitz (Chernivtsi) around this time. Czernowitz is in Ukraine today but it was part of Romania back then (as a consequence of the break-up of Austria-Hungary after WWI). He and all the Jews of Czernowitz had been driven from their homes and confined to a single area of the city. As he recalls, there were about 20 people to a room in the apartment where he and his family were staying. The small house belonged to the Brettschneiders.

I asked my father about the Brettschneiders. Who were they? Did they have any choice about whether to let so many people into their home? Did they charge rent? My father only remarked that when there are thousands of people outside your door, you don't have a lot of choice.

Some mornings, my father remembers, the mattresses were pushed to one side and an Italian man named D'Andrea, together with his assistant, an appraiser, would arrive and set up a little table, with a little scale and a magnifying glass. They would sell tickets for the Struma. The Struma was a ship that, it was advertised, would take Jews abroad to safety.

During those times, my father says, there was always a question: Should the family stay together, or should it break apart? The family that stays together runs the real risk of dying together. Separately, at least some of them might have a chance.

But, then, how do you break up a family? Do you send the kids to safety? By buying them passage on a boat such as the Struma? What if you can't afford to send them all? How do you decide which child to send?

My dad, it turns out, had a ring-side seat to impossible deliberations of this kind. He sat there — it was his bedroom after all — while families lined up and begged and bartered for tickets. How many tickets could be bought for this watch, or this ring? D'Andrea's appraiser was quick to explain that the goods on offer were of little or no value. Fathers and mothers made hard choices. Is it worth giving up their only disposable wealth for a single ticket?

Periodically, D'Andrea would lean over to the kid who happened to have a box of matches. That was my father. He would put a match to the Italian's cigar. The bartering and begging and sweating would carry on.

My grandfather, I am told, never seriously considered booking passage on the Struma for his own family. It was too risky. You had to travel by land to the port, after all, and no Jew could travel legally. He was also unwilling to break up his family. In any case, my dad sat there while the Italian extorted his neighbors, a witness to a quiet little atrocity.

This all happened more than 70 years ago. But there's a question that, to this day, keeps my father awake at night. It brought him to the point where he shared it with me: What if you had sent your only child, or one of your two kids, on a ship that promised to bring him to safety — and he didn't make it?

What if you had chosen for survival the one you thought had better chances. Maybe you thought he was old enough, or smarter maybe, or simply more capable of dealing with being on his own, than his brother or sister. For whatever reason you chose him. And then he didn't make it; the boat meant to carry him to safety carried him and everyone else on board to their doom instead.

Suppose you had done that, that that was your son, your choice. How do you live with that?

You assume that you face certain death, my father says. So, you pick one so that he will survive. This is an act of reason. It is an act of sick reason. But this act of reason gets undone, reversed, made ridiculous by a simple fact: The boat sinks, the chosen survivor dies and those who had been condemned to death, we live. Or do we?

My father asks: "Is it possible to survive at all from these kinds of events? I try to understand who or what survived in my own life."

My mom and I talked with him and tried to understand his words, to appreciate what keeps him up at night.

"It's like an equation, he says, and there's no solution. Maybe I'm telling you so that it will keep you up at night. And I can get some sleep."

And, so, I'm sharing it with you. Impossible choices, insoluble equations of this kind, confront mothers and fathers, and affect children, in Syria and around the world right now.

For someone who has known what my father has known, nothing has changed.
What does it mean to survive events of this kind?

Alva Noë is a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, where he writes and teaches about perception, consciousness and art. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2015). You can keep up with more of what Alva is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alva Noë is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos and Culture. He is writer and a philosopher who works on the nature of mind and human experience.