To Save a Life

To Save a Life

From A 4th Course of Chicken Soup for the Soul

To Save a Life

It’s good to remember that we aren’t helpless.

There is always something we can do.

Carla Gorrell

In those chaotic years of the late 1940s, just after World War II ended, an immigrant family in New York tried to contact their surviving relatives in Hungary. Communications were sporadic, the mails untrustworthy, records destroyed or inaccurate or lost. It could take many weeks or months for letters to travel to Europe and find their way to recipients and just as long for replies to return. Reliable information was hard, if not impossible, to get.

The immigrant family wondered if their relatives were still alive. Had they all survived the war? Where were they living? It was so hard to tell. Then, they received a letter, in Hungarian, from Uncle Lazlo in a small town near Budapest. Yes, some of the family had survived the war. The letter was tantalizingly incomplete in the news it offered. But it was clear that they were hungry and hurting. Food and other necessities were in very short supply. The black market was operating in full force, the currency was inflated and nearly valueless. It took all their energy and wit to survive each day.

The New Yorkers were appalled at the story of devastation and deprivation they could piece together by reading and rereading this crumpled letter, written on the tissue-thin paper of the airmail of that time. Grateful to be able to read again in Hungarian, the older members of the family translated for their American-born children. They argued about the translation of this phrase or that. But it was clear that they could be useful to their far-off family.

They determined to send survival supplies to their cousins, aunts and uncles. They tried to imagine what would be needed and appreciated, but, not having directly experienced war themselves, it was not easy to come up with a list of things to send. They included canned meats and vegetables and chocolates. Necessities like toilet paper and bandages made the final list, too. In the end, the package grew to several cartons, stuffed to the brim with many items. Little spaces in each carton were filled with whatever odds and ends were at hand: candies, handkerchiefs, writing paper and pencils.

At last, the cartons were sealed and painstakingly wrapped with brown paper and stout string to help endure the long and chancy journey overseas. Brought to the post office, the cartons began their journey undramatically.

And that is all the New York family heard for months and months. They wondered if the packages had gone astray or been stolen. Had something terrible happened to their family in the confusion of post-war Europe? What irony it would be to have survived the war itself and be killed or injured in its aftermath. The family worried. At every dinner, at every gathering, the talk circled around the packages and the family in Europe.

One uncle, sitting at the table at Thanksgiving dinner, recriminated, “You should have included money for postage! Perhaps they can’t afford to write us!” He was met with angry stares. “Well, I don’t care what you think, I am going to send them some money for postage.”

“Better you should send enough money for them to come over here!” someone retorted.

“Big shot!” he replied. “It’s easy for you to spend the money I don’t have, isn’t it? Listen, there are quotas for immigration. It’s not that easy to get on the list for America, money or not.”

“Maybe we didn’t send the right things they needed,” someone else contributed. The discussion continued, back and forth. The content was unimportant. They were just expressing, again and again, their worry and concern and their feeling of helplessness. How could they really help?

The silence from their distant family was depressing, especially in the light of the newsreels they saw at the theater (television being very uncommon then) showing emaciated Europeans walking dispiritedly through rubble-strewn streets, dodging bomb craters or being deloused in long lines by Gimedics. Headlines fueled their worries as newspapers wrote about the Marshall Plan and the need for much help in rebuilding war-ravaged countries. Stories circulated about people starving to death. News of an historically severe winter in Europe and shortages of food and fuel upset the family even more.

Although far from wealthy, the family sent more packages, almost every week, off into the void, unsure as to whether or not they were received by their loved ones. More silence ensued. It was maddening.

Finally, another letter arrived from Uncle Lazlo. It had been bent, wrinkled and torn at the edges, but it was still readable.

“My Dearest Cousin,” the letter began formally, as Uncle Lazlo was in the habit of writing. “We are in receipt of three packages you sent us.

“We are forever in your debt for these good things. You cannot know how timely was their arrival. Food is so scarce here and Anna was sick all the time with fevers. This food has meant everything to us. I must confess that we sold some of the things you sent us on the black market in order to get money for our rent.” The letter went on to discuss almost every item in the cartons and the uses to which they had been put. Then came a mystery.

“We also cannot ever thank you enough for the medicine you sent. It is so difficult to get any medicine at all and often it is of poor potency and doesn’t work at all. Cousin Gesher has been in continuous pain for several years and your medicine has miraculously cured him! He was walking only with the help of a cane. His knees were so swollen. These medicines make him almost normal again. My back pain is completely gone as are Lizabeta’s headaches.

“America is great and its science is great. You must send more of that medicine as it is nearly used up.

“Again, thank you. We love you all and pray for when we might see you once more.”

The family read and reread Uncle Lazlo’s letter. What medicine did we send? They racked their brains to recall but, shamefacedly, had to admit to each other that they had omitted sending any medicines at all! What was Uncle Lazlo talking about? Was some medicine accidentally included? If so, what was it? After all, they needed to send some more right away. The mystery couldn’t be solved. A letter was drafted to Uncle Lazlo asking him to provide the name of the medicine he so urgently required. The envelope was brought to the post office. The clerk was asked for advice on how to send the letter by the fastest route possible. There was, at the time, nothing faster than regular air mail, express services being as yet only a dream. He did suggest including an international postal reply coupon which would pay for return postage and that was done.

The family waited again, relieved that their packages had been of help but puzzled by the “mystery of the unknown medicines.” Two months passed and then another letter arrived.

“My Dearest Cousins,” began Uncle Lazlo, “we are grateful to have heard from you again. Since the first three packages, another two have arrived, and then your letter. Again, you sent that wonderful medicine. It did not come with instructions for use but we are guessing on the dosage. And translating from English to Hungarian is very difficult for us since only young Sandor has studied it in school. Lucky for us he could translate the name of the medicine. It is ‘Life Savers.’ Please send more as soon as you can. Love, Lazlo.”

The filler, in several cartons, had been rolls of that well-known American candy, Life Savers. A literal translation transformed America’s favorite candy into a source of great hope.

Hanoch McCarty

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