Maybe you’ve had this experience: One day, you’re going about your business and spot a mundane object. In my case, it’s a bowl of hard candies. And there’s something about this object that moves you in an unexpected way. All of a sudden, that bowl of candy stands for more than a sweet snack. It becomes something bigger. In my case, it’s kindness.
My neighbors across the hall, Mr. and Mrs. Beach, keep an ongoing supply of hard candy outside their apartment door. What a nice, neighborly gesture, I always think.
And then I learned that Mrs. Beach’s father was part of the medical corps that entered Auschwitz at the end of World War II.
Suddenly, the candy took a symbolic place in my mind: goodness unto others while expecting little in return. I walk by that bowl probably half a dozen times a day, and I often think to myself: A doctor who witnessed one of the grimmest moments of modern history has taught his daughter that small acts of kindness still matter.
Whether or not Mrs. Beach actually keeps the candy dish in the hall because of her father is beside the point. In fact, Mrs. Beach and I have never talked about her motivations for offering the sweets. But we have spoken about her father. In my mind, the candy and her father are connected, linked by kindness. And I do not want that illusion to be shattered.
I guess you can say Mrs. Beach’s father — his name was Dr. Paul Traub — holds a symbolic place in my mind, even though I never met him. In fact, he died more than 20 years ago. What happened to him after World War II is a reminder of the fickleness of life, and how easily memories — which are meant to be passed down through subsequent generations — are vulnerable to our fate.
One day in 1967, after operating in the morning, Dr. Traub returned to his house along the Hudson River near Newburgh, N.Y., and worked outside, trimming a tree. There, a massive branch struck him down. As a result of the accident, a man with extraordinary memories to share suffered severe brain damage. The memories were lost. Dr. Traub was about 60 at the time, but, according to Mrs. Beach, he had the cognitive capabilities of a toddler. She never found out what her father witnessed — and the miracles he no doubt conducted — during his service.
But this we know: As a child, she asked her father what he did during the war.
“I played cards,” was his only answer.
But Mrs. Beach said she never once saw her father play cards, and she knows — perhaps as only kin can — that the statement wasn’t true.
As a girl, Mrs. Beach played in the family attic where her father kept his World War II memorabilia. The items included glossy 8x10 photographs of Auschwitz prisoners in 1945, since Dr. Traub entered the concentration camp with news photographers.
In the 1970s — before the Holocaust was taught in schools; before the movie “Schindler’s List” was made; and before the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum was built — Mrs. Beach threw out her father’s Auschwitz photos. It’s something she feels guilty about today. Yet we all do things we need to do in the moment.
Which brings me back to the dish of candy. Some take the candy on my floor. Others don’t. Either way, it’s a personal connection among those who pass by the Beaches’ door in a world where human experience can be impenetrable even to those closest to us.
Hinda Mandell is an assistant professor in the department of communication at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.