Guiding Lights in My Life
Thanks to the exceptional individuals who gave light and direction to my early life
When thinking about my early life, from childhood through adolescence and on to an established existence, certain moments of light come to my mind. Those were moments when the world suddenly appeared better, when new perspectives or new opportunities for a more fulfilled life opened up. Those moments were always related to some person who projected a new emotion or a new mental direction into my life that allowed me to go forward. I am deeply grateful to those individuals and would like to leave this story as a small memento for them.
My parents, my light and guides in early childhood:
I gratefully remember the contribution my parents made to the light and strength of my life. My father had a strong personality and a wide mental horizon. He allowed me to participate in increasingly challenging activities and showed me the beauty of nature. Many conversations with him contributed to the development of my mind. His support gave me strength.
My mother, the heart of the family with her warm emotions, had an always positive spirit in her contact with or judgment of others and in coping with life in general.
I should write much more about both of my parents, but I consider my family a private matter, and I would like to ask the reader for understanding while I continue writing about other, nonrelated individuals of positive significance in my early life.
Mr. Behr, the teacher of my first class in grade school:
At the end of a wonderful summer in Berlin, at age six, the day came for me to go to school. As was typical in those days, I carried a backpack with a slate board, a chalk pencil, and a small sponge attached to a long string—all to use for writing, drawing, and correcting. We were directed to a classroom where a tall, thin, and energetic teacher waited for us. He bade us sit behind the standard school desks of that time and demanded absolute quiet and silence. Then he talked for a while.
The boy next to me, who had been fiddling with his slate board, suddenly dropped it with a loud clatter, and the whole class laughed. The teacher came over holding a slender bamboo cane in his hand and touched the boy’s fingers, telling him to sit quietly. In my mind, the teacher had hit the boy, and I was shocked by this expression of violence. The next day, a short distance from home on the way to school, I could not walk any further. I stood there, frozen by fear, until neighbors called my parents to come and take me home.
Within a few days, I was enrolled in a different school. The teacher there, Mr. Behr, was a bit older and had a somewhat rotund figure. As we arrived in the morning, he took a violin out of an old case that was lined with blue velvet and played some wonderful music. Then, he had several of us tell him what we had done the day before and what we wanted to learn, while he listened attentively.
Later during the school year, whenever one of us had a birthday, Mr. Behr would bring a small cake and candle and would play a special tune just for that happy child. No question: we all adored Mr. Behr and did everything we could to please him. The strange world away from home became beautiful. Learning became a delight. We began to move out into our own lives.
Thank you, Mr. Behr, for saving me and for opening a joyful path for my life!
A boy named von Zastrow and the “Waldstein Sonata”:
When in my early teens, I found myself in a boarding school in Davos, high in the Alps of Switzerland, at that time the European center of sanatoriums for lung diseases. For the first time, I was separated from my family and all my former friends. It was at that age that I began to experience desolate loneliness, which became a theme of my life.
There were youngsters with tuberculosis or severe asthma. But there were also some bullies and some wild ones. Only one in our class appeared to be a wimp. He was always friendly, but he did not participate in any group activities. His only interest was in playing the piano.
In the evening, after finishing my homework, I would go to bed early, so as to be in the dark by myself, in loneliness and sadness. The window of my room opened onto the schoolyard. On the other side of the yard was the classroom building that contained a music room. That was where Zastrow went quite often to practice the piano in the evening. I must confess that I had refused to learn the piano while still at home and had rather cut classes at that time so that I could go sailing on a small boat on the lake. Now at boarding school, Zastrow’s music—the endless finger exercises, études, or the wild music of a strange composer—disturbed me.
The deep darkness and loneliness of a particular night in winter was especially hard on me. My thoughts were interrupted by the beginning of Zastrow’s music. It started wild, as always. But this time, in the second movement of his playing, the adagio harmonies felt somewhat warmer to me, yet still quite dark. Then, all of a sudden, a wonderful melody with tender sounds wove into the course of that sonata.
Immediately I felt wide-awake. Moments later, the melody returned—a bit clearer, lighter, and more forthright than before. My heart began to feel joy. As that melody returned again and again, I had found a new light in life. Life could be beautiful and worth living.
After the music had ended, I fell asleep and enjoyed a wonderful night of internal harmony. The next day I talked to von Zastrow. He told me that he had played Beethoven’s “Waldstein Sonata,” the piece he liked most. We talked for a while, and I found that he was just a youngster like me, but with greater sensitivity. Music was his way of coping with life—and now it had become a source of light in life for me.
Thank you, von Zastrow, for showing me a path out of the darkness within me.
Mr. Gerber, a high school teacher of Greek:
Mr. Gerber was a somewhat older, Swiss teacher of small stature and always very correct behavior. He could have been a bureaucrat, but instead he was our teacher of classical Greek in my junior year of high school. Endless were the lectures and hours of homework dedicated to irregular verbs and the difficult grammar of that ancient language. Boring were the hours of line-by-line translation of classical texts, proceeding in small sections.
Then came the news of the end of World War II. The carnage had stopped, but what was left? At that age, we had little understanding of the new situation and what it meant for us, since we had been living securely in Switzerland. However, Mr. Gerber, who had a wider view of history, knew. He must have seen that the true winners of that war were the United States and Russia. Germany had come to its moral and physical end. France’s cultural leadership of Europe had yielded to that of America. England’s mercantile and colonial empire was beginning to crumble. The other countries of Europe had become marginalized. Europe as we had known it had come to an end. Would its spirit survive in the West? Could something new arise from the ashes?
One morning, Mr. Gerber came to class as usual. We sat there with our grammar books and Selected Reading texts open, ready to go to work. He told us to close all those books. He had decided to tell us what the importance of the Greek spirit and of classical Europe had been.
Over the next hour, Mr. Gerber presented a fantastic world to us, one that we never had envisioned behind those rules of grammar and tedious translations. He spoke to us about the birth of our culture, about the opening of the human spirit to mental inquiry and clarity, and about the meaning of freedom in democracies based on law, the beginning of our Europe. He read a beautifully translated passage from the Odyssey, then the famous Pericles speech about the great spirit of Athens, and, finally, from some Greek philosophers.
As he spoke, he grew from his modest appearance to appear a great spirit and educator himself.
When the hour was over, applause arose from our class, something I had never heard in high school before.
Mr. Gerber walked silently out of the room, soon to end his modest career in retirement.
That day, our minds grew beyond the level of high school. That day we began to realize that a higher path was asked from our lives.
Thank you, Mr. Gerber, for letting us see what Europe and the West meant and what our task and opportunity would be to pursue!
Dr. Ludwig Lippmann, my mentor in difficult years:
Dr. Ludwig Lippmann grew up in Berlin and served as an aerial photographer in World War I, taking pictures of the front lines from small planes with open cockpits and without parachutes. Later, he became a well-known chemist. Dr. Lippmann, member of a highly regarded Jewish family, emigrated from Berlin to Ascona, Switzerland, at the last moment before the Nazis began the annihilation of the Jews. My father, Dr. Lippmann’s best friend, helped him to safety and to transfer his financial resources.
When my family could no longer support me in boarding school, I ended up in a Swiss camp with many other foreign youngsters in trouble after the war. As soon as Dr. Lippmann, by then in his sixties and living in modest circumstances, heard that I was in a camp without a school, he took action. Within a short time, he relocated me to a refugee children’s home in Ascona, where a chance to finish high school appeared likely. For the next few years, Dr. Lippmann—“Uncle Ludwig,” as I had called him from childhood on—became my mentor.
We met about once a week for dinner. The meals were simple; the conversations were the essence of our meetings. The topics ranged widely from the sciences to politics, the arts, philosophy, and human nature. Dr. Lippmann had remained a German patriot—I should say he had remained an admirer of and continued to identify himself with classical German culture, of the times of Goethe, Schiller, the Humboldts, and other great philosophers and scientists. He hoped that the nightmare of the previous twelve years could be overcome and a new culture and spirit could arise again in Germany and in all of Europe. But what new culture was it that he was striving for? What could it be in our now changed and more modern time? That was the subject of many of our discussions.
In the end, the experience and learning from these discussions was not a solution to our mental question. Rather, I became acquainted with, and was guided by, a highly admirable old-line European individual’s coping with modern life. Dr. Lippmann’s intellectual rationality was superior—not only in his knowledge, but in his surprising mental associations, abstractions, and discovery of new perspectives. Equally important, his intellect was combined with a deep humanitarian empathy of the heart and a sense of personal responsibility. Then, too, there was his very fine and often complex humor. He gave short answers that could dissolve complex arguments in laughter, or he made impromptu observations that brought all haughtiness back to Earth or that were just plain funny. His humor was a reminder of the famous popular humor once found in old Berlin. A mental sovereignty resulted from this combination and gave him the resilience and strength to cope with his difficult life in a confusing world. Wasn’t that wisdom?
Thank you, Uncle Ludwig, for guiding me into a life of a questioning rationality, warm human empathy, personal responsibility, and a little humor.
Lilly Volkart, who founded and managed a home for troubled children:
Where could I have lived without any financial resources while hoping to attend high school in Ascona? Only at Lilly Volkart’s Home for Children on the “Collina,” the hill above the town. Lilly had founded the home to help children in trouble after very difficult years in her own younger life. The famous Pestalozzi had brought Switzerland a tradition of new approaches to education. Lilly may have exceeded him.
“My children,” as she called those referred to her by social workers in the larger or industrial cities of Switzerland, found harmony, self-esteem, and blossomed again. By the end of Nazi persecution of Jews in World War II, Lilly had accepted almost one hundred Jewish children in her home—all of whom had miraculously been transferred by their parents to Switzerland. Then Lilly accepted me, too, and leveraged her influence in that small town to have the local Benedictine monastery school admit me to its graduating class for that year. I am grateful to both Lilly and the Benedictines.
During the time that I stayed at Lilly’s Home, I worked endless hours to catch up with a new language (Italian) and a new curriculum, and then, there were also the chores for the Home that were expected of each child. The highlight of each day was the late evening conversation with Lilly. The older children and I surrounded her in her combination living room, dining room, and office. Talk flowed freely, from the various daily experiences of the children to questions about the Home to unique characters of the small town to the life of the community in general to stories from the past.
In the most natural way possible, Lilly let every one of the children talk about his or her life and, in so talking, develop his or her thoughts, perspectives, and goals—or report about his or her problems and probe for solutions. When talking about other people, she never allowed us to “tear them apart.” Talking about them was always a way of understanding them, while not necessarily condoning their attitudes.
Lilly had a penchant for spirituality, for seeing more in life than biology, psychology, and getting ahead. Was there not something higher in existence? Something that we did not yet understand, but that might be more meaningful?
What mainly counted for Lilly was what a person did in life that was good.
Wasn’t that also wisdom?
Thank you, Lilly, for giving to my young life some warmth, a search for deeper meaning, the attempt to understand others before criticizing them, and the always humble striving for doing good.
Dr. George Sichling, a very creative mind:
My first job after college was in a small laboratory of a large company. My task was to incorporate the newly developed transistors into the then rapidly advancing field of robotics and automation. The fantasies of the media predicted that, in the not too distant future, robots would run all factories and humans would lead lives of leisure. But in our laboratory, we had to struggle with the problems of reality, and there, creativity counted.
Dr. Sichling was my supervisor in those days. It turned out that he had the most creative mind I’ve ever met. There were a few unusual approaches in his creative thinking. For example, he said that when you are faced with a new problem, you shouldn’t go right away and read how other people have approached the problem or what existing solutions there are. First think about the problem yourself and write down your own ideas. Only then should you do an in-depth study of what other people thought. A newcomer often brings new perspectives to a problem and, hence, comes up with new ways to solve it.
The same applies when you are about to read a book about a new area of interest. First, think about that area and write down your own ideas. As before, you may have a new perspective that has been facilitated by your own experience and that could be different from what you are going to read. These ideas would become lost if you start by reading the thoughts of others.
Dr. Sichling always questioned the singular validity of any idea. He always looked for ways to find other, better, solutions. He greatly enjoyed getting involved in new fields of knowledge or study. In the course of his long life, he read about and discussed so many questions that, whenever something new came up, he found some interesting reference to completely different ideas or concepts, often resulting in very interesting creativity.
During my three years of working for Dr. Sichling, I accumulated quite a number of patent applications (all belonging to my employer). This led to my moving to California to become active in the field of aerospace electronics—the newest field of technical development and part of the wave that described innovation as the essence of America’s future. A few years later, it led to the start of my own enterprise in this field of innovation. This was the culmination of a long-held dream.
Thank you, Dr. Sichling, for opening my mind to creativity and to new ideas.
Dr. Winkler, an energetic industrial entrepreneur of high standards:
Dr. Winkler’s father started in the late 1800s as a door-to-door salesman of notions and ended as a significant textile manufacturer with factories in various parts of Germany. All of it crumbled in World War II. By then, his son, the young Dr. Winkler, had inherited one small spinning and weaving factory located on the Rhine, just north of the Swiss border. Within a few months after the end of the war, he had shirts— a precious commodity in those days—manufactured there. He could barter the shirts for more cotton from the French occupation forces. He also bartered for food for his employees.
As soon as Germany stabilized after the war, and its currency regained some value, Dr. Winkler began a long-term cooperation with the most advanced Swiss textile machine manufacturer for the development of ever more advanced machines providing increased productivity while retaining flexibility. Fashions had to be followed and costs had to be lowered. That was the name of the game in textiles. Dr. Winkler built his business on excellence in performance and on trust—with a keen sense for business results.
After shirts, the production of handkerchiefs followed. The handkerchiefs featured colorful borders. Soon, everybody bought Winkler handkerchiefs. Later came the production of suits “on demand” that were delivered within two days from order. The “on demand” feature allowed for the reduction of inventories for department stores.
Winkler worked very hard and was always fully alert, focused, creative, economical, and driven to a degree that I had not seen in any other entrepreneur. When he was not working, he collected art and enjoyed the company of interesting people.
I had known Dr. Winkler for six years, and he always encouraged me to realize my goal of starting my own enterprise. When I was ready to start my business in aerospace electronics in California in 1959, Dr. Winkler financed the start-up, in exchange for a substantial part of the shares, of course.
Running a business was new to me. I made mistakes and had to learn. To succeed, I had to persevere, be inventive, and overcome problems with the help of excellent associates and employees. Winkler remained a role model of mine in striving for excellence and in conducting business based on trust, always fully alert, focused, creative, economical, and driven.
Thank you for your support in realizing my goals, Dr. Winkler, and for remaining a role model when my early years came to an end and many years of life in industry followed.
Was life always a sequence of positive steps for me? Were there also individuals with a negative impact on my life? Certainly. More than I would have wished.
I had to learn to cope with them. I preferred to evade them, but occasionally I had to fight them. The reality of life demands the Darwinian prevailing. Our culture (and the example of my father in a naval encounter in 1915 at sea) offers decent and, I hope, humane ways of doing so.
Were there additional positive individuals also later in my life? Certainly. I am deeply grateful to many of those. The joy, fulfillment, or meaning of life often came from contact with such positive individuals.
Most of them are still alive, or their direct relatives are. Please understand, dear reader, that I refrain from writing about contact with friends who are still present in my life.
After writing about the positive individuals in my life, could it be my turn now to pass on some light or support to somebody in the next generation?
And now, at the end of all the short stories from my “Journey through Life,” let me express special thanks to Eva, my travel companion through so many fulfilling years.
In you, as in a golden mirror, I often found reflected my thoughts and the stories as they came to my mind, with all their colorful characters, letting them appear more beautiful and more humane.