David Rothkopf

Lessons My Father Taught Me About How to Live on a Dangerous Planet

Remembering a survivor.

Zoltan Kluger/GPO via Getty Images
Zoltan Kluger/GPO via Getty Images

My father’s father was from Poland. My father’s mother was from Hungary. My father was born in Vienna, Austria. A few months after my father’s 12th birthday, Adolf Hitler annexed Austria in what is known today as the Anschluss but was also known at the time as the blumenkrieg because of the flowers with which thousands of Austrians greeted the Nazi troops who marched into their country to make it part of a greater German reich. The diplomatic world effectively yawned. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain pronounced on the floor of Parliament that the response to the events called for "cool judgment," which meant almost none at all and even less in the way of action.

Eight months later, weeks before my father’s bar mitzvah, his synagogue was one of the thousands that were burned, and his father was among the 30,000 Jews arrested on the night of Nov. 9, known as kristallnacht for the broken glass of vandalized shopkeepers’ windows. My father, who did not outwardly dwell on his experiences during the Holocaust and the war, sent each of his children and later also his grandchildren notes each year on Nov. 9 to remind them of what happened that night.

During the course of the years that followed, almost three dozen of my father’s aunts and uncles and cousins were murdered by the Nazis. One aunt and her family had the particular misfortune of living in the town in Poland that we in the West call Auschwitz. But my dad was fortunate in that his father’s brother was living in the United States and had connections and resources sufficient to engineer an escape for my grandparents and my father. The circumstances enabling him to secure entry visas for the family of three have always been clouded in some mystery, but suffice it to say that the response of the United States to these refugees was, as it was to many others less fortunate, hardly welcoming. Getting them in took persuasion and something rather different from luck.

My father arrived in New York after a harrowing escape from Austria and a hungry trek across Italy to the port of Genoa in December 1939. He wore his only pair of long pants on the voyage across but the pants, which were made of wood fibers, shrank terribly when exposed to the spray of the ocean crossing. He noted the Statue of Liberty as they sailed into New York harbor, but just as great an impression was left by the sign towering in the distance, over Brooklyn, I think, that advertised Wrigley’s gum.

Within five years, he was an officer in the U.S. army returning to Europe. He fought across Italy with the 88th Infantry Division, the Blue Devils, commanding a battery of 105 mm howitzers. He served briefly in the military administration of a small town near Trieste, Italy. There are rumors of a secret mission too, near the end of the war, when he was somehow involved in American efforts to liberate the Crown of St. Stephen, the national symbol of his mother’s country, Hungary. He then went to search for records and remnants of his family and friends, but the Nazis had been brutally efficient and few remained. The world and virtually all the people of his youth had been destroyed.

In the 1950s, he went to college on the G.I. Bill and became a scientist. His response to the ravages to which he had been exposed was to focus on education, and specifically on understanding how people learned. Working with the military, he experimented with using early computers to help support training programs. He became a pioneer in the use of technology in education, joining and ultimately leading the department focused on learning and instructional research at Bell Telephone Laboratories, where he worked for more than three decades. In the 1960s, he collaborated in a project to help use satellite television to bring education to Gujarat in India. In the 1980s, after the breakup of AT&T, he joined Columbia University to serve as the Cleveland E. Dodge professor of telecommunications and education at Teacher’s College. He won the Thorndike Award for his contributions to educational psychology.

He wrote prodigiously. This past year, he was published in a journal in which he had first published an article half a century earlier. It was the longest period between first article and most recent by an author in the history of the publication.

Like many of the great men I have known in my life — and of course, for me he was the greatest of them — he translated the formative experiences of his youth into a lifelong dedication to work that at times seemed obsessive. As a boy, I would walk into his study late at night to find him, baroque music playing in the background, wearing a djellaba, a robe from the Maghreb he had somehow come by in his travels and that he often donned to ward off the cold as he wrote into the wee hours. The work paid off. He helped develop our fundamental understanding of the way human beings acquire information. Mathemagenic behavior, he called it, from the Greek meaning "birth of knowledge."

My father’s reaction to dislocation, prejudice, war, and genocide was not to give up on human beings or to turn bitter or angry but rather to invest in the idea that the solution to our problems lay in knowledge. He was energized by the promise that new technologies offered in bringing facts and insights — once available only to elites — to people everywhere, and thrilled at the idea of using technology to create super-empowered workers. He argued that countries ought to measure what he called their GKP, their Gross Knowledge Product. What he meant was that as important as economic output might be, it was itself dependent on the knowledge produced, stored, and made accessible to the population at large.

This was his answer to the world that had so often tried to snuff out his life in his early years. It wasn’t war. It certainly wasn’t diplomacy. It was science. In recent years, he remained utterly baffled that we possessed – but did not take real advantage of — the tools to remake education altogether, to break out of models of instruction that were developed a thousand years ago, to link students anywhere to teachers anywhere, to create new, interactive, national or international curricula, to save the world in the only way possible, through better understanding of what it really is. Efforts to cut educational funding or resist change infuriated him. Waste and cant and the folly of debasing science with superstition and politics were the enemies about which he most often railed during the last years of his life.

My father died early Sunday morning. And though I miss him terribly already, I draw great comfort not just in what a rich life he had but in how well he lived it. We talk too easily of "the Greatest Generation," as if their primary contributions were in fighting a great war or building America into a great superpower. And indeed, there are lessons in the Holocaust that underscore that sometimes force is necessary to stop the spread of evil. But what the best of them have done is work as they could with the tools they had to make wars and errors like those by which the world was nearly undone less likely. What the best of them have revealed was that what makes great nations great is always measured not by how much we spend on or our militaries or the edifices of our states but by what and how we invest in our classrooms and our laboratories and in the minds and futures of our children.

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