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main index   © Jeff Matthews    entry June 6, 2012

Herman Chanowitz, Rest in Peace

In Sailing to Byzantium, Yeats says this:

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress...

I've never known anyone whose soul did so much hand-clapping and singing as did Herman's. His body aged on him, as it must with all of us, but his mind was never paltry. Never. He kept throughout his life the vital intelligence and curiosity of a ten-year old, and it got trapped in a 100-year-old body, that's all. He loved to tell you about the books he had just read, and he loved to laugh and hit you in the arm just before he told you! If the whole world were like Herman, we'd all have sore arms, but the world would be a much better place.

I don't know if it's possible for the whole world to be like Herman. We can hope. Herman was a truly good person—transcendently good, in the sense of being above harming others or even holding bad thoughts. It's not that he had not seen evil; he certainly had. Herman saw things that made some people ask, "How can you speak of goodness and beauty when there is such evil in the world?" I don't know—but you can. I have no idea whether good will eventually triumph over evil, or vice-versa, or whether it's a perpetual stand-off. At least I can say that the life of Herman Chanowitz makes me feel that Good stands a chance.


I'm not a particularly religious person, but Herman is enough to make me believe in angels, beings that are among us for a little while to show us how to lead a good life. If you are a philosopher or preacher and you have Herman around, you don't have to worry about telling people what divine rules to obey. You just point to Herman and tell folks to "Follow that guy around. Do what he does. Be like him." So, as in Hamlet, if flights of angels are singing Herman to his rest, one of them is probably saying, "Herman, buddy, where've you been? You broke up our game. I thought you were just stepping out for a second. I was holding a pair of queens, too. Anyway, a century? Nice going!" And Herman will pound him on the arm and explain that he is in the middle of this fascinating book...

I include my favorite picture of Herman—jaunty and about to head down the steps that lead to Sorrento, one of his favorite places, where they loved him—as did we all. I have also included a second photo that I suspect he must have posed for at some time. He and I walked by that statue one time, and I said, "Herman, that guy looks like you. He is sure acting like you!"

Herman said, "He's got hair."

Well, maybe that was long ago in another lifetime. That, too, gives me hope.

Rest in peace, dear Herman, and thank you for being such a good friend.



I shall always be grateful to Herman for his contributions to these pages. He was the one behind the WW II Oral History; he also shared his photos of Mt. Vesuvius and contributed other miscellaneous material.


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