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I produced and hosted over 600 author and community events at Barnes & Noble. There were dozens of events I loved and cherish the memory of, but this one was the most unforgettable.
As the community relations manager for Barnes & Noble in Philadelphia, my job was to create live content compelling enough that people would leave the comfort of their homes to attend them in person.
I brought the community into the store and the store into the community by partnering with hundreds of different organizations throughout the city to tap into both their audiences and expertise. With around 100,000 books on the shelves as the backdrop, I conceptualized and produced inspiring, educational, motivating, and fascinating live events. Each month, my calendar was bursting with unique offerings city dwellers couldn't find anywhere else.
In the course of my work, I spoke with dozens of people a day. From city officials to university professors to nonprofit executive directors to publishers to authors, there were few people or places in Philadelphia with whom I didn't connect.
I talked to hundreds of people. But this voice was distinct.
The man on the other end of the phone had an Eastern European accent. He said, “I need to meet with you about an author.” Other than his inflection, this was nothing new. I got the same phone call from authors, publishers, and PR people every day. But this man was polite, insistent, and unlike most PR people, this was deeply personal for him.
We met the following day in the store’s cafe. Piotr was in 70-something, wore a suit, and had an air of urgency. He started his pitch by showing me an article in the New York Times that recounted a story about his hometown of Wlodzimierz-Wolynski in Poland. Piotr said he came across the article by accident and that a woman featured in it was a classmate of his from his youth. It shocked him to learn she was still alive because he thought everyone from his town was dead. During World War II, Germany occupied the city and exterminated the Jewish community.
Everyone in his hometown was murdered.
Piotr explained that whenever friends talked about their schools or family reunions, he would grieve silently because he would never have such opportunities to reunite with loved ones. Soviet and German forces killed everyone he knew. He escaped to the U.S., married, had children, and was safe for decades, but they had murdered everyone with whom he shared his earliest, formative memories. In essence, they erased his childhood.
Elated by the news that his childhood friend survived, he reached out to the Times writer and got connected with his former classmate. The two talked for hours. During their conversation, Piotr learned that another classmate, Janusz Bardach (pronounced Yah-noosh Bar-dock) also survived and she had his number. He then called Janusz, and they stayed on the phone for hours.
By now, I was spellbound and all in for whatever he needed.
All he wanted was that I host a reading at the store for Janusz Bardach as he had written a memoir called Man Is Wolf to Man: Surviving the Gulag. Piotr could have asked me to throw a parade for Bardach’s book, and I would have agreed.
Janusz lived in Iowa with his wife and was coming to visit Piotr and his wife in Philadelphia. Piotr wanted to annex his trip into a book tour and was eager to arrange all the publicity himself to ensure there was a large audience for his friend. His excitement and devotion were moving.
The day of the event, Janusz and Piotr arrived early, so I took them to the cafe for refreshments. It delighted Janusz when I offered him coffee and a pastry. His eyes lit up like a kid at a carnival.
The simplest gesture of hospitality thrilled him.
The event was standing room only. Piotr had done my job for me and reached out to every Polish American association with probably the same polite insistence with which he had charmed me. The room was electric. Janusz took the podium and thanked Piotr and me for arranging the reading.
His presence was humble, yet still commanding.
He described the inhumane conditions of the camp, the unyielding freezing Russian climate, the cruelty of the guards, the work they were forced to perform despite being starved and skeletal. I asked him, "Why didn't people kill themselves?" He said, "Only the insane did that. The will to live is too strong."
He survived by telling the camp officers that he was a doctor. They sent him to work with the camp physician who quickly discerned that Janusz had no medical training. But the doctor kept the young inmate’s secret, taught him medical procedures, and let him work with him. After the war, Janusz went to medical school and became a doctor.
It might have been in a chapter he read or perhaps it was a spontaneous comment, but Janusz relayed his experience standing in two feet of snow with other prisoners, barely clothed in a camp lineup. He and the other prisoners would spit into their hands then wipe their faces with them to clean themselves. Their desire for some scrap of dignity was so moving, I was overcome with emotions. Tears streamed down my cheeks. I’ll never forget that moment or those exceptional people.
Hearing Janusz' story, I was so happy that he and Piotr were reunited. They shared an unbreakable bond born from surviving unspeakable atrocities. I was blessed beyond measure to have the opportunity to help them tell their stories. Of the hundreds of events I hosted, the ones about the Holocaust were the most touching and indelible. Piotr and Janusz Bardach’s event gave me a view into a time and world that changed my heart.
It was an honor to help authors tell their stories and reach new audiences.
The events at B&N connected the lives of so many people and communities in a way that was only possible in person, and only in an environment that had an ongoing dedication to helping people explore new ideas. People found love, friendship, purpose, and connection at 1805 Walnut Street. I knew it was special at the time, but in the context of today's online-centered world, it was downright remarkable. I don't know if that kind of face-to-face community bond will ever exist again. It was a blessing to create and contribute to it.
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