Yesterday, I read a beautiful story shared by a Facebook friend about the role of Bonne Maman, the french producer of sandwich jams, in the second world war.
The story described how the founders of the company hid Jews from the Nazis and their collaborators. An extremely risky and dangerous act, as that discovery would have led to the immediate execution of the people who hid them. According to the story, this act of defiance and resistance was the reason why an old lady, seen rummaging through the aisles at Costco, still buys Bonne Maman jam today.
My grandfather, so my mother had told me, did the same thing. He never spoke about it, ever. But as I grew up, I started to question why a lovely and generous “aunt” didn’t seem to have any resemblance or lineage to the family. The “aunt” was one of the Jews hiding in my grandfather’s cellar. With no family left of her own, my grandfather, the majestic patriarch of the family, adopted her fully into ours post-war.
My grandfather happened to be one of the cofounders of van Melle, the maker of Mentos, the minty candy you can buy in every store in America today.
The reason I write about this now is how reading the story about Bonne Maman yesterday completely arrested me. For the first time in my life, I realize who I am. A descendant of someone who without any direct benefit to himself incurred incredible risk to better the opportunity for all of humanity, regardless of sex, creed, or race.
The risk of getting shot “en place” by the Nazis was not enough for my self-made well-off grandfather to deny the protection of the unjust. The risk of me losing everything I have in life, including my life, is not enough for me to let the mass indoctrination and misguided evolutionary compass of humanity’s failing societal constructs go unchecked and pass me by. I am like my grandfather, I just realized.
That realization explains why despite having made a little money in Silicon Valley, I feel little accomplishment and cannot simply submit to the rat race of yet another gig that fills my pockets. It also explains why my ex-wife of twenty years never understood why I do what I do. Instead, describing my efforts to reinvent humanity’s operating system as narcissistic grandiosity. Going as far as to “rat me out” to her friends, like the neighbors of my grandfather could have.
My “new” ready-to-live-the-high-life girlfriend, probably my ex by now, has shown a similar lack of patience and respect for my plight. Very few are truly invested in what they pretend to strive for or who they want to be with.
In all fairness, until today, I never realized where the hutzpah came from to spent so many years developing a fundamentally better way for humans to live. I now realize my unrelenting determination and risk-taking are part of my DNA.
Undiagnosed and unspoken, I should not realistically have expected an understanding or appreciation from people around and dependent on me. In the words of Jewish descendant and psychologist Esther Perel, I can only imagine how my grandmother must have felt as she became an actor in a very risky play she did not audition for.
The compass of systemically righting the many unnecessary wrongs in society, rather than merely surviving another day in blissful ignorance, lives deep inside my soul. And, like my grandfather’s implicit defiance to the explicit threat from the Nazis, I will keep at it until someone or something puts a proverbial gun to my head and kills me.
The excellence of humanity, and the future of my daughter beholden to its excellence, is that precious to me.