Walter Cronkite carved 36 seconds into the brains of millions include a nine year-old child fifty years ago today. He announced that the President was dead. He died 38 minutes earlier at 1pm Central Time, November 22nd 1963.
Everyone listening right now who was alive back then and not a toddler, every single one of you knows exactly where you were, your mind paralyzed by the news flash. Every one of you remembers how people around you, parents, grandparents, neighbours, and teachers, reacted to the news that the leader of the free world was murdered and just like 9/11, when the bastards attacked the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, we had no idea what tomorrow would look like. November 22nd 1963. The day they ended the life of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
We make the public personal on this broadcast. That is our commitment to you. There is much about the personal aspect of this day that I have not wanted to talk about in 50 years. But I won’t go back on my pledge to you to make the public personal. November 22nd of 1963 was the first day my eyes saw one iron-tough woman crumple and sob like a child. She was 29 years old. And while her face was still young and vital, her heart had too much scar tissue for a 29 year-old. It would have been too much even for 89 year old. Like so many other children who survived in the ashes of World War II Europe, she suffered far too much loss. Too many members of her family were murdered for having the wrong heritage in the wrong place at the wrong time. She never knew her father, because the woman who gave birth to her, lost him while she was pregnant. He died in a small village where health care was not the best, and when he got the fever, it was over. He was in his early thirties, a tailor. The young widow my grandmother Elizabeth named her baby, my mother, Rose. Elizabeth traveled to the big city of Budapest, where she felt her baby would be safer in case she ever got the fever. Moving away from the family and friends and farm was in the young widow’s mind all about survival. But less than nine years later, the young widow was arrested by Nazis for the crime of being alive while Jewish. Her existence was seen as a threat to the state.
There was only one reason why my mother was not taken away. It was because of a handsome young man from Sweden who had the courage of a lion and managed to protect some of his cubs. He found a way to give thousands of residents of the Jewish Ghetto of Budapest Swedish passports, and that gave them protection. This Swedish Lion was adopting these unwanted, dispensable people as his cubs, and protected them as much as he could. My mother and thousands of others were afforded his Christian compassion, his generosity, courage and sacrifice. My mother was nine years old when her childhood was terminated by World War II, the Holocaust, and her separation from family members including her mother. There was only one man that stood in the way of her and a bullet or a gas chamber. His name was Raoul Wallenberg, may he rest in peace. If there is a heaven and I am permitted to spend some time there, I want to meet Mr. Wallenberg and kiss his ring and thank him for sparing Rose’s life.
Permit me to fast-forward to nineteen years later – November 22nd 1963. A 29 year-old Rose Adler, battle hardened by the life no child should ever experience, just wasn’t ready for the battle inside her brain that began the moment the assassin got inside the brain of the young President. It didn’t matter that his name was Kennedy and not Wallenberg. In my mother’s brain it was the same man. The man who rescued her and thousands of others when she was nine, the only man that stood between her and certain death, was now gone. The muzzle flash in Dallas forced her brain to feel the flash of 1944 in Budapest, when many children her age were marched to the Danube River in front of the Public Safety Building and executed. A year ago I visited that riverbank and saw the shoes. It’s a sculpture of shoes, too many shoes, made of cast iron permanently attached to the river bank as a memorial to those who were dragged down there, ordered to take off their shoes, and then shot, their bodies falling into the river to be taken away by water. No funerals. No burials. No tombstones. Forced to disappear by the darkness of the Danube. My mother knew there was only one man who stopped those forces from ordering nine year-old Rose from removing her shoes. But she knew of several others who were not as lucky as her.
Those of you listening to my voice, who have witnessed great loss, know that surviving rarely makes you feel lucky. More often than not it makes you feel guilty. Why did they take her or him and not me? My mother had survivor’s guilt. It’s never been treated and I hope if she ever hears that I said this that she will forgive me for saying, it’s never retreated. It’s the dark stranger that never goes away. And so even when good things happen, the dark stranger does not allow you to have the joy that others may experience. You have your so-called life. But you are rarely lively for more than a few seconds because when joy breaks out, the stranger breaks in.
November 22, 1963, Rose’s only child, and that would be me, is dismissed early from school. The principal tells my Grade 4 teacher that the children are to be sent home immediately and will not say why. When I climb the stairs of that firetrap we were living in, I see Rose doing something I have never seen before. Her eyes look sucked out and she is sobbing while crumpled up on the floor and I don’t what to do. I never had to comfort her before so I was ill prepared. She is the tough ass in the family. It’s never warm or fuzzy. It’s just tough. I’m utterly confused and naturally ask what’s wrong. And her voice is barely audible when she says he’s dead. They killed him. He’s dead. I don’t speculate about who the he is that she’s referring to. I assume that somebody killed my father. That somebody walked into the store and robbed him and killed him. These things do happen. My nine year-old brain is aware and I assume that I have lost my father. So I too try hard to cry. But it doesn’t come naturally. The survivors raised me not to show weakness. Crying is somewhat forbidden. I go to the only place in my head where I can find sanity, and it’s on my trusty transistor radio. I put my earpiece in and turn it on and become quickly aware that it’s NOT my father who was killed. It’s a man who my mother relates to as her father, her most important father figure. No he’s not the Swede who saved her. But in the spaces of the mind where the feelings live, where the trauma resides, these days we call it post-traumatic syndrome, in that space where the dark stranger visits frequently, that’s what happened. And after I try to talk about what I am hearing on the radio and the way I am hearing it, Rose tells me that this is the beginning of World War III. She says the Communists killed him. She’s not interested in details of who pulled the trigger. She’s got her mind made up that the war that nearly began over the Cuban missiles a year earlier has now begun. And she tells me that she was separated from her mother during the last war when she was nine. You are nine she tells me and you do not have the luxury of being a child. They don’t care, she said, about children. You do whatever you have to grow up because when they take me away I don’t know who will take care of you. Do you understand?
After November 22nd my desire to play with kids was pretty much over. I spent most of my time alone in libraries where nobody would pay attention to what I was reading. I stopped reading children’s books and focused only on history, politics, religion, ethics, law, and philosophy. I needed to know where evil came from, and how to resist it, how to protect others from evil. I needed to become useful to adults. I need to have knowledge of things that mattered and an ability to communicate the knowledge. I needed my mother to know that I could be independent as quickly as possible. There were many things I did in the weeks after November 22nd to acquire knowledge and skills, and money. Yes, I learned how to become a trader of things – comic books, ashtrays, washing machines. I would find out what people needed and I would get it for them. I was one-man flea market in the body of a child, and I learned how to be a voracious reader, a persuasive communicator an effective salesman.
There was no doubt in my nine year-old mind that some day I would be the man on the radio delivering the news and explaining it. November 22nd was the day they shot a handsome young President, made a 29 year-old mother re-experience the horrors of a not quite distant past, terminated my childhood, and set me on a path that brought me to you. For some people the most important day of their lives is December 25th. For others it is their birthdays. For me it’s November 22nd of every year. It’s a solemn occasion for me. I think about the young President, who was so brutally attacked, of his wife Jacqueline, who was on the back of that limo trying to retrieve her husband’s brain matter hoping against hope that could matter to his improbable survival. I think about the President’s young son John John saluting his dad as he lies in a casket being drawn by Six White Horses on the Streets of the Capital of the Free World and I think about my nine year-old eyes watching that funeral and vowing to God that I will never be a child again, that I will grow up and do whatever it takes to take care of my family and as many families as possible to protect them from the Assassins.
November 22, 1963 is the most important day of my life. I don’t know how many more November 22nds you and I get to share. But I will treasure each one. Thank you again for allowing my conscience to visit with yours.
I’m Charles Adler