The Man in the Watchtower

Some years ago, my sister wrote from Milwaukee to tell me that Lauren, the daughter of a friend of hers, was going to be interning for the summer in Washington and asked if I might look after her. The girl is a brilliant mathematician, and the program offered her housing, so she spent a very short time with us. But the following summer, after her freshman year in college where she was a classmate of my son's, she stayed with us while enrolled in another program at NSA.

We corresponded from time to time with her and her parents. Lauren, today a scientist of note, is now married with three children and living in Texas. One sister lives in San Francisco; another is finishing college. Her parents, both professors, remain in Milwaukee.

After her parents bought a new, larger home in Milwaukee, her mother kept inviting us to visit and stay with them. This summer, back there for my fiftieth high school reunion, I stayed with my sister but visited Lauren's parents.

Their home was breathtakingly lovely. The house is sited on the shore of Lake Michigan. All the back of the house is glass, giving an uninterrupted view of wide, green, beautifully landscaped grounds that dip down to the shore and a beach house on the sand.

Lauren's grandmother is one of the few concentration camp inmates who still survive. She lives not far from her daughter. As we sipped beverages and enjoyed the view, I said that in those dark days of her youth, it could not have been possible for Lauren's grandmother to imagine that her descendants would enjoy such wonderful lives and live in such beauty.

Decades before, I was engaged as a lawyer with the Department of Justice's Office of Special Investigations hunting Nazi war criminals. I mentioned that when I interviewed survivors, I was struck by how often their stories involved the almost miraculous and certainly inexplicable intervention of a mysterious stranger at a point critical to the narrators' survival.

Lauren's mother looked at me and put down her drink. She seemed taken aback by that.

"It's odd you should say that," she said. "Something like that happened to my mother, too.

"She was alone in the camp, freezing and starving, and she had contracted typhus. It's a horrible way to die, typhus, and she had finally given up all hope. There were electrified fences around the camp, and prisoners who had given up all hope would just walk up to them and lean against them to commit suicide.

"My mother decided that's what she would do. She used her last strength to approach the fence. Suddenly, a man in the watchtower who guarded the camp, yelled out, 'Halt!' startling her into compliance. He yelled to someone in charge -- maybe a capo -- to bring her a blanket and warm milk, and his order was followed. Somehow she recovered and survived until liberation."

Who was this person? Why did one of the thousands of suffering prisoners touch him and compel him to act to save her life? Could he ever have imagined -- could she ever have imagined -- the outcome of that act of inexplicable charity? Of the children and grandchildren who live along with her because of it?

But there we were on a beautiful summer day, watching the whitecaps on Lake Michigan, our hearts full of silent thanks to the man in the watchtower.
Some years ago, my sister wrote from Milwaukee to tell me that Lauren, the daughter of a friend of hers, was going to be interning for the summer in Washington and asked if I might look after her. The girl is a brilliant mathematician, and the program offered her housing, so she spent a very short time with us. But the following summer, after her freshman year in college where she was a classmate of my son's, she stayed with us while enrolled in another program at NSA.

We corresponded from time to time with her and her parents. Lauren, today a scientist of note, is now married with three children and living in Texas. One sister lives in San Francisco; another is finishing college. Her parents, both professors, remain in Milwaukee.

After her parents bought a new, larger home in Milwaukee, her mother kept inviting us to visit and stay with them. This summer, back there for my fiftieth high school reunion, I stayed with my sister but visited Lauren's parents.

Their home was breathtakingly lovely. The house is sited on the shore of Lake Michigan. All the back of the house is glass, giving an uninterrupted view of wide, green, beautifully landscaped grounds that dip down to the shore and a beach house on the sand.

Lauren's grandmother is one of the few concentration camp inmates who still survive. She lives not far from her daughter. As we sipped beverages and enjoyed the view, I said that in those dark days of her youth, it could not have been possible for Lauren's grandmother to imagine that her descendants would enjoy such wonderful lives and live in such beauty.

Decades before, I was engaged as a lawyer with the Department of Justice's Office of Special Investigations hunting Nazi war criminals. I mentioned that when I interviewed survivors, I was struck by how often their stories involved the almost miraculous and certainly inexplicable intervention of a mysterious stranger at a point critical to the narrators' survival.

Lauren's mother looked at me and put down her drink. She seemed taken aback by that.

"It's odd you should say that," she said. "Something like that happened to my mother, too.

"She was alone in the camp, freezing and starving, and she had contracted typhus. It's a horrible way to die, typhus, and she had finally given up all hope. There were electrified fences around the camp, and prisoners who had given up all hope would just walk up to them and lean against them to commit suicide.

"My mother decided that's what she would do. She used her last strength to approach the fence. Suddenly, a man in the watchtower who guarded the camp, yelled out, 'Halt!' startling her into compliance. He yelled to someone in charge -- maybe a capo -- to bring her a blanket and warm milk, and his order was followed. Somehow she recovered and survived until liberation."

Who was this person? Why did one of the thousands of suffering prisoners touch him and compel him to act to save her life? Could he ever have imagined -- could she ever have imagined -- the outcome of that act of inexplicable charity? Of the children and grandchildren who live along with her because of it?

But there we were on a beautiful summer day, watching the whitecaps on Lake Michigan, our hearts full of silent thanks to the man in the watchtower.

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