On Thanksgiving, gratitude for ‘beautiful things’ and a call to action

Mary Sheehy Moe

SEVENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO, a young couple huddled on a train, whispering words of love to one another. Priska was pregnant for the fourth time. Her previous pregnancies had ended in miscarriage. They were about to be separated and did not know what the future would hold.

“Stay positive,” Tibor told her. “Think only of beautiful things!” Then the train lurched to a stop. The doors banged open. Auschwitz.

After two weeks, Priska was transferred to a labor camp in Freiberg.  She weighed perhaps 70 pounds when she gave delivered Hana on the factory floor. Within days, the Freiberg “workers” were transported to Monthausen, a death camp.

But for once, time was on their side: American soldiers arrived shortly after they did. A medic took one look at Hana – filthy, lice-ridden and covered with oozing sores – and whisked her to a nearby hospital. Surgery and a new drug, penicillin, saved Hana’s life. Priska took her back home to Bratislava, hoping to find Tibor there, but hope is a thing with feathers. Tibor had died of hunger two weeks before the war ended.  

FIFTY-FOUR YEARS ago, Alfred Hill dreamed of leaving northern England. He’d been working “down the pit” since he was 14 years old, but the mining industry in England was dying. Ohhh, America! He could find well-paid work in the mines there. His newborn daughter, Fiona, would be considered equal to any other child there. But his mother needed him. He stayed put.

CONTINENTS AWAY, Shantha Krishnamurthy had firm ideas about raising girls. Opportunities for women in India were sparse, but she wanted her daughters to dream big. At the dinner table each night, she assigned Chandrika and Indra to deliver campaign speeches for positions like prime minister or president, competing for her vote.

Nonetheless, Shantha, like most Indian women, believed that the first priority for her daughters was marriage. So when Indra was accepted into Yale’s School of Management, Shantha balked. “Get married,” she insisted. “Then you can do whatever you want.” 

Fortunately, Indra had at least two things going for her: Her father thought she deserved the chance a son would have, and her older sister, Chandrika, showed no interest in getting married.  It would have been unseemly for the younger Indra to precede her. 

Today, Indra and Chandrika are both Americans by choice. Chandrika recently sidelined an award-winning career in management consulting to become a Grammy-nominated musician. Indra resigned this year after leading Pepsi/Co for 12 years as its first female and first immigrant CEO. Forbes repeatedly ranked her among the world’s most influential women.

Alfred Hill never realized his dream of coming to America. His daughter Fiona did. As he had feared, her déclassé wardrobe and accent made her an object of ridicule when she applied for admission to Oxford. Years later, Harvard’s graduate school had no such qualms.  The coal miner’s daughter became an American by choice in 2002 and wowed the world last week as a woman of unwavering integrity, impressive expertise, and a class wealth can’t buy nor pedigree bestow.

Hana left Czechoslovakia during “the Prague spring” in 1968, determined not to raise her child in a strife-filled country. After acquiring her doctorate in Israel, she came to the University of Chicago in 1977 as an organic and natural products chemist and became a United States citizen in 1983. The baby whom American liberators saved with a miracle drug devoted her career to developing new drugs to  ease others’ suffering.

“Think of only beautiful things!” Tibor told his wife 75 years ago, and beautiful things kept her alive through the Holocaust: winter trees silver with hoarfrost; the round eyes of children she passed on the march to the factory; and especially the kindnesses of local people who saw her hunger and gave her bread, heard her baby’s cry and gave her their own babies’ clothes, felt her fear and stifled their own. 

NEARLY FOUR CENTURIES ago, Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving, determined, like Priska, to focus on the positive. They had just weathered a terrible winter that had claimed half their number. As with Priska, locals who could have looked the other way helped them survive.

Today we continue that tradition. In gratitude, we think of beautiful things. But “gratitude” is just a word unless you pay it forward. We are even more a land of immigrants today than we were 400 years ago, and we are immeasurably the richer for that fact. And today in detention centers throughout this land, terrified people are whispering encouragements to the ones they love. 

Oh, America. Stay positive. Dream big.  And don’t just think of beautiful things. Do them.

Mary Sheehy Moe is a Great Falls city commissioner, former state legislator and educator, and contributor to Missoula Current.