Saturday, December 27, 2008

A Christmas Greeting for Jacques Sandulescu and Annie Gottlieb

Jacques Sandulescu and Annie Gottlieb

Some readers may recall that I've posted several times on the remarkable man Jacques Sandulescu, who was grabbed as a 16-year-old boy from a Romanian street as he headed for school on a winter's day in January 1945 and was taken to the Donbas region of the Ukraine to work as a slave laborer in a coal mine but managed to escape from that Stalinist labor camp despite terrible injuries to his legs from a coal-mine cave-in.

Eventually, he found himself in America, where he succeeded as a boxer, a martial arts expert, a restauranteur, a published author, and -- among other things -- even as an actor. He appears in a memorable scene in the film Moscow on the Hudson as a Russian truck driver eating in a deli who confronts the exiled and self-pitying Russian musician played by Robin Williams.

The image above comes from Sandulescu's visit to a high school in Eugene, Oregon to talk with high school kids who had read his book and had invited him to come and talk with them about his experiences. In the photos from that visit, he is already an old man but still strong and vibrant.

Everyone declines with age, however, and Sandulescu is no exception, even if he still looks remarkable at nearly 80 despite difficulty walking:

His wife, Annie Gottlieb, takes care of him in his old-age infirmities, but she sometimes could use a word of encouragement and is occasionally disappointed with old friends who no longer contact her husband, friends "who professed their devotion to J over the decades and now can't be bothered even to keep in touch with him -- whose 'friendship' has basically been reduced to the office of waiting for the news of his death, so they can wax sentimental over what an unforgettable character he was -- when he is still very much alive, isolated, disoriented, bored, and lonely, and can be brought to life for hours by a phone call that reconnects him to the mainland of his life."

I read those words by Annie Gottlieb and felt moved to write:
I only learned about Jacques and his story because of your blog, which motivated me to order the book.

Such a man deserves better friends than those who never even call . . . but in you, he has a woman wonderful enough to have made even his time in Donbas worth the ordeal since his escape led him, eventually, to you.

I'm paraphrasing his own words from a blog entry that you posted some months back after watching a television program about Hitler and WW2, so perhaps you'll recall.

Anyway, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, or whatever . . . Happy Holidays, at any rate.
She replied, "I'll take 'all of the above,' Gypsy Scholar! And Merry Christmas to you." I felt good to have provided words of encouragement, but I also felt that I ought to offer more than an easily posted comment, so I asked my wife if I could call them for Christmas. Sun-Ae agreed, and I wrote Annie asking for her number:
Since you don't get enough phone calls, I'll give you a call for Christmas. Just let me know your phone number (area code and all), and I'll give you a ring.

Not like the ring that I gave Sun-Ae, but this'll still ring in the season.
Annie provided her number, and I called them on their Christmas morning around 9:15. Although I had warned her that "I'm a terrible conversationalist, especially on the phone (which explains why I've never called you before)," Annie was so easy to talk to that I didn't find myself tongue-tied at all. She has a rich, warm and friendly voice and sounds as if she could be 35. I also got to talk to Jacques, whom I at first called "Mr. Sandulescu" until he said to call him "Jacques." His voice was hoarse but also warm, and even surprisingly gentle for such a tough man.

The three of us talked for only about thirty minutes, perhaps fewer, for the hour was past 11 in the evening of Christmas day, Seoul time, but we still spoke about a number of things -- for instance, Annie's current writing projects and Jacques' past acting career -- but especially his book on how he escaped from the labor camp. Apparently, the conversation had a good effect on Jacques, as Annie relates on her blog:
[H]e came all the way out of a groggy half-sleep to be lucid and grand, the old J, with someone who expressed appreciation for his story. I virtually smacked myself in the forehead ("I coulda had a V8!") -- I have a complete manuscript of his, the story of his immigration to the New World and his brief boxing career, on the computer, ready for editing, lovingly typed onto a disc almost three years ago by a Feldenkrais friend's son during a spell between employments. How is it that I haven't edited and published it?? Seeing how J comes to life when recognized as a storyteller and writer, I feel almost criminal for fatalistically sitting on that. Somehow, among all the things I have to do, I have to bring that one to the front. Kick me if I don't, will you?
I won't do any kicking because I might get kicked back, and Annie's a martial arts expert, but I did post a comment, referring to her as "Amba," her online persona:
Thanks, Amba. I really enjoyed the conversation even though I usually avoid the telephone. I did get a cellular phone about a year ago, though, and that has actually worked out rather well because no one ever calls me on it.

I'm still a hillbilly at heart, I reckon, a sort of natural-born, untheoretical Luddite.

With you and Jacques, however, I felt at ease despite the technology between us, so we'll have to do this again next Christmas.

Jacques mentioned some books other than Donbas, so maybe he and you are operating on the same wavelength and will together get those works published.
Let's hope that she and Jacques do manage to get more of their works into print. Meanwhile, if any good readers wish to visit Annie's blog and offer words of encouragement as a post-Christmas treat, feel free to do so.

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