Mourning the death of my friend Don Singer
by Monika Winkelmann
Don Singer has died! I almost want to say that he died « suddenly and unexpectedly ». For me!
For me, the death announcement came out of the blue.
For himself maybe not at all, maybe he had seen it coming, the death, maybe sometimes wished for it – and his relatives and friends: Maybe they are a little happy and relieved because Don did not have to suffer so much. I don’t know, I have no idea, hadn’t heard from him for a while, and of course, again missed the time to just write a letter that might have been read to him. Because, when I thought of him, it was like this: I don’t think he’s well, he’s so not making an appearance anymore, and you don’t hear anything about him either. At least, I don’t. For some Zen teachers, and rabbis, you can still pray, how I would have liked to do that. We hear something from our teachers on Facebook, sometimes they even « post » something themselves. But often they go discreetly and are withdrawn in this way of increasing decrepitude. They or their relatives do not want to burden anyone and perhaps do not want to be bothered with (too many) questions and requests that can hardly be taken care of.
To write ABOUT Don is like writing TO him. He and the friendship with him come very much alive once again. I never felt I had to put my words on the gold scale, which would have made me biased. On the contrary, rather. Don had the ability to let the childlike spontaneity come out in me – and I believe in every human being he met. So also a simple, relaxed language was used. Whether I lamented, mourned, or was indignant, whether I let him take part in how I was living and how things were with me. Whether I cried or we laughed together – and we did that very often! – everything was fine, life immediately seemed easier, the burden of loneliness had clearly disappeared, and the lamp shone brighter – because Don always called when it was dark in Germany.
We got to know each other in Poland, during at least two bearing-witness-retreats in Auschwitz, perhaps three, and I especially remember our last meeting, in 2014, where we also walked through Krakow, before and after the retreat. I had no regrets or heartbreak in saying goodbye. Not really, as I usually know this from myself. Friends part like that, they know they are connected, come what may. I was never afraid or worried that I had said something wrong, as I already said. On the contrary, Don basically welcomed everything, and took away my fear and shame, and anger – how did that work? He made everything seem completely appropriate and normal, sometimes getting upset with me because some XY had not appreciated my commitment to some project (now I am able to laugh about that!). Another one had reprimanded me for singing too loudly in Birkenau. Oh, my goodness, Don shouted meaningfully, please, Monika, sing as loud as you want and can! Don did not seem to be frightened by delicate issues, I was not the first German descendant of Nazis (I can hardly have been the only one, as it sometimes seems) with whom this big-hearted rabbi befriended, and not the last either.
Nothing human was alien to him, literally. Cheerfulness and being one shine out when I think of my friend who told me, among other things, about Thomas Mann, with whom his father was friends, or rather the whole family.
One lived diagonally across the street, and I will never forget Don seeing Thomas Mann in his pajamas. For us post-war Germans with a Humanistic education, Thomas Mann came right after Goethe, Schiller, and Lessing. The Singers were on a first-name basis with the Manns, and I was amazed and immediately bought the poet’s thick volumes of « Joseph And His Brothers, » from which the rabbi quoted, took one of them to Poland in 2019, but then read only that one. To read Thomas Mann, I have to be on holiday and read every day, because one is so drawn into it, and one also must be willing to commit to this plunge. Don, on the other hand, knew all the volumes, he was exceedingly well-read.
I also bought a book by Martin Buber that he recommended, and we began to talk about it. We probably would have continued to work on it if I hadn’t been so sore that winter, through the separation from Reiner, my now ex-husband, who looked for and found his own apartment in January and moved out of the apartment we shared, in February or March. Of course, all this was terrible and painful, but these feelings were not allowed to live in fullness at that time. Don knew this better than I did and made himself available as a trusted friend and the HOLY LAUGHTER for a few months.
Once he called from the car, it was summer in Santa Barbara, the sun was blinding the screen, he was waiting for his wife, where was she, and with the apartment was something strenuous, which I did not understand exactly. Anyway, it seems that he often met outside, on park benches, with the people of his community. He also talked about his wife, just like a friend, so that I could and was allowed to love her with him. One evening, when he came late to call – I think he was very busy, but never complained – I was already so tired. Then he sang softly into my ear. Tears ran down my cheeks. No one had ever sung so intimately, gently, and healingly into my heart, at least no man. I think Don’s art was to sing of every sorrow, but especially the superfluous varieties of sorrow, in such a way that they realized it was time to go.
Sometimes I have nothing in my pockets, no money, or just bills I don’t want to give away. Then I’m already within a few meters of Pützstraße, the center of our unexcited neighborhood, and the first homeless person comes into my field of vision. So I have been practicing for years not to overlook these people at the bottom of our streets – which, by the way, they find the worst, to be overlooked – but to greet them in a friendly way as if I were seeing my best friend, my only child. Often a certain cheerfulness even sets in, and I greet out of it. I know some of them by name, the nice one from Romania, for example, who speaks German so well and is extraordinarily polite. He wouldn’t want to live anywhere else but on the street, he entrusted me.
The icing on the cake for this attitude was given to me by Don. Namely, not to greet necessarily in gloom because we think it is proper to do so while walking the camp of Birkenau. No, I often greet people beaming, in the best of moods, as if my counterpart was the most beautiful thing I would see that day. Of course, I am not a saint, sometimes I cross the street in order NOT to meet a certain person, because of an inner lack of freedom. But on the good days, I felt helped to practice joyful giving by Don, who saw G’d, the Exalted, the giving G’d everywhere, including, of course, and especially in the person he was meeting. And, let’s face it; if we knew that we would have to give our lives away tomorrow: Can we then really doubt that the Exalted One is PRESENT NOW AND HERE, in this relationship? No, we can’t.
Don is not dead, I feel him in my veins and between us. Death must have been Don’s friend, as alive as he was. Thank you, friend and Rabbi Don Singer. –