Monday, July 12, 2010

The Amazing Mr. Feder's Incredible Luck

I often tell people that my studies of world history have convinced me that the overwhelming majority of Americans (well over 99%) have absolutely no idea how lucky they are to be living in America, and no idea of how unpleasant things can get in the real world. If I ever express that opinion to Mr. Arthur Feder, I suspect he might fondly pinch my cheek and say “Tell me about it, Mr. Mitchell, Tell me about it.” Mr. Arthur Feder was born in Feb of 1925 in a small village in central Poland where his father worked as a fishmonger. It appears to me that Mr. Feder has led a life of hard work blessed with absolutely incredible luck. In Sept. 1939, both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia invaded Poland and Mr. Feder’s village happened to be located in the Soviet zone within easy walking distance of Nazi occupied Poland. If that line had been drawn one mile further east, Mr. Feder’s life would have been a very short one.

Shortly after the Red army occupied his village, Mr. Feder applied to be trained as a railroad engineer, and despite some misgivings by his parents, he rode a train 100 miles to the east to an engineer training school. On weekends, he would ride back to visit his family. One bitterly cold Sunday in the winter of 1940/41, the snow in his village had fallen so deeply that he missed the only train back to engineering school and was absent for one day of classes. What happened next amazed me when I read it. For missing one day of school, the Soviet authorities sentenced a 16 year old boy to a year in prison. (There are people who derided President Reagan for referring to the Soviet Union as an evil empire. I have no patience for those people what-so-ever.)

If someone had told young Arthur at the time that spending a year in a youth prison was an incredibly lucky break for him, I’m sure he would have found that very difficult to believe. But that’s what it turned out to be. The youth prison was located in Kiev, another hundred miles from the school he had been attending. On Sunday June 22, 1941, Arthur Feder caught another extraordinary bit of luck. On that day, the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, and the prison authorities released all youthful offenders on the theory that they were needed for the war effort. If Mr. Feder had been home with his family that day, he would now be lying in an unmarked grave along with his parents and four older sisters. Within days of the invasion, SS troops massacred the entire Jewish population of Mr. Feder’s village.

Upon his release from prison, Arthur had the good sense to continue traveling to the east. This turned out to be an extremely wise decision on his part because a few months after the invasion, German troops overran Kiev as well, but by that time Arthur Feder was working at a collective farm far to the east of Kiev. Sometime after that, he worked for awhile at a munitions plant and then, shortly before his 18th birthday, he joined a division of Cossacks, where he managed to land a position as an aide de camp to the division commander. He fought through some of the bloodiest battles of World War II on horseback. Sometime in 1943, he was out in the open when a Luftwaffe aircraft made a strafing run and Arthur Feder suffered a terrible wound in his foot that cost him a couple of toes. Again, if someone had told him at the time that it was another incredibly lucky break, he might not have appreciated that fact. However he had achieved what many combat soldiers dream of: A wound serious enough to get them out of combat, but not enough to maim them for the rest of their life. In the American armed forces, that’s sometimes referred to as a million-dollar wound. After a stay in a military hospital, he was transported to Moscow where he and a great many other Stalingrad veterans received decorations from Joseph Stalin himself (and from everything I’ve read about Stalin, anyone who came away from a meeting with that tyrant alive should count their blessings). Mr. Feder’s good luck continued. In 1944 he met another sole survivor of a Jewish community and on New Year’s Day, 1945, they married. (Note to self: be sure to send Mr. and Mrs. Feder an anniversary card, although I suspect it will be difficult to find one for a 66th anniversary.)

Mr. and Mrs. Feder managed to make it out of the Soviet Union unscathed (more extraordinary luck), and spent a number of years in Israel where Mr. Feder fought in the Israeli War of Independence. This time he made it through without a scratch. Although he did rather well living in Haifa, he ultimately emigrated to the United States, at the urging of friends and family, where he started working as a waiter in Miami. I have often referred to Mr. Feder’s extraordinary good luck, but what happened next is a tribute not only to luck but also to a lot of hard work and extremely good planning. Many Americans might regard a job waiting tables as a drudge or a curse. Mr. Feder recognized it as a godsend. After what he’d been through, getting 15% in tips was manna from heaven. He was also smart enough to figure out that if he really applied himself to being an excellent waiter, he could find employment at progressively more expensive restaurants and provide a better life for himself and his family.

While working as a waiter, Mr. Feder happened to befriend the members of a family named Miller. Their son Arthur had achieved considerable fame as a writer. On one occasion, Arthur Miller informed Mr. Feder that he was going to be out of town for a while and he was concerned that his new wife Marilyn hadn’t been eating right, and he asked Mr. Feder to see to the matter. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Feder delivered room service to the new Mrs. Miller while she was still in bed. As she ate, Mrs. Miller indicated that she wanted to Arthur to sit down on the side o the bed next to her, so strictly speaking, Mr. Arthur Feder can claim that he once shared a bed with Marilyn Monroe.

I don’t want anyone to think that I would insinuate that Mr. Feder did anything improper whatsoever. Besides, I have seen a picture of Mrs. Feder. I seriously doubt that Arthur was going to settle for second best. (If anyone doubts my word, take a look at Arthur’s daughter Hedy sometime. She is an amazingly babelicious brainac.) In later years, Mr. Feder got into business and did very well for himself indeed. I had occasion to meet him earlier this year at the Bar Mitzvah of his grandson Alexander (a.k.a. Alexander the Great). I found it a bit mind boggling to reflect on what a dramatically different world young Mr. Alexander Glaser lives in compared to what his maternal grandfather went through.

Mr. Arthur Feder is a gentleman I am very proud to call my fellow American.

Post-Script: Considering Mr. Feder's lifelong incredible luck, and my dubious retirement prospects, I think maybe I'll send him a money order and ask him to pick out a lottery ticket for me.

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