publication date: Nov. 2, 2018

Conversation with The Cancer Letter

Waksal: Reflecting on the Tree of Life shooting and new American anti-Semitism

Sam Waksal 

Samuel Waksal

Founder, ImClone Systems Inc.

Kadmon Pharmaceuticals, and Meira Gene Therapy

 

Paul Goldberg:

I am not calling about biotech or oncology, not directly at least. After watching the synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh, I didn’t want to dismiss it just because it’s not a cancer story, but I didn’t want to just move on.

So, I thought I would seek wisdom from someone who has had direct exposure to fascism, someone for whom it’s not an abstract construct. And since you were born to survivors of the Holocaust, waiting to get to America, I thought you would have a unique perspective.

Samuel Waksal:

It’s interesting, because it is something that touches those of us who have those ties.

And it’s also interesting, because recently I went with my father—he wanted to go back and retrace his steps—and we went to where he grew up in Poland, we went to where he fought in the underground during the war, and we went to the concentration camps, where my mother was, in Auschwitz; and then we went to Germany, where he had worked after the war with Americans and others to capture German war criminals, and then we went to Paris, where he spent time working with my mom’s family, and where I was born.

So, we went on this trek, and it was interesting to watch him go to Poland where he grew up, where he saw the end of a people. He was very uncomfortable, he was very unhappy, and he was very nervous.

Then, we went to Germany, where he had lived with my mom, and he was more alive, and with a memory of what had happened, trying to rebuild lives… and on to Paris.

So, when the Pittsburgh event occurred, I called him immediately, and he said to me, “You know, with all that America is, and it is a lot, with all that you’ve gotten to do in America—I went from academic medicine to building some great biotech companies—he said, with all of that, look at what happened: a 97-year-old woman who survived the Holocaust, survived Hitler, gets shot to death in a synagogue in America. That was frightening. I never thought I would see that. She survived Hitler, and didn’t survive to die naturally in this country.” [According to early news reports and social media posts that were later corrected, one of the victims, Rose Mallinger, was a Holocaust survivor.]

So, it was a situation where one certainly has to take a step back and say, “Wow… simply because they were Jews…”

It made me step back and think that things can happen anywhere, and when they happen, it certainly makes one take pause and think, life is fragile in that way as a Jew anywhere, and anti-Semitism has been more in the news than it ever was.

And, by the way, in Europe it’s at its height. It’s awful even in Germany today. It’s awful in France. It’s even awful in Great Britain. One sees it everywhere. And when I was with my father in Poland, we went to where there was a cemetery, and there was a building there, and he couldn’t believe that they had removed all traces of—alive and dead—of a people.

It was a terribly unnerving set of events, and I don’t believe it unnerved me as much as talking to him about what happened in Pittsburgh.

 

PG:

He lived nearby. You grew up in industrial Midwest.

SW:

I have to tell you, I am right now standing at the airport in Cincinnati, Ohio, not far from where I grew up, and I came out here last night, because a colleague asked me to look at a gene therapy product that is being developed at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital of the University of Cincinnati Medical School. I came, I smiled, “Wow, I grew up not far from here, in the middle of the Midwest, where things are supposed to be sort of normal. And they aren’t.”

 

PG:

You could have been at the Tree of Life Synagogue, so could your dad. And so could I.

SW:

Absolutely. And you know, when I built Kadmon, I have a commercial facility in Pittsburgh. Kadmon is there. We could have been there—absolutely. We could have just been there to be there at the naming ceremony that morning. Absolutely.

 

PG:

How old is your dad?

SW:

My dad is 93.

 

PG:

I can see how he would be completely devastated.

SW:

Devastated. When I watched him in Europe, and I thought, here is this young man who had survived—when we were in some places where there was a forest where he had fought—and he lay on the ground, eating grass to survive, eating mushrooms to survive, and how much fear he still expressed in his eyes, when he thought of the people that he knew. His brother, who had been shot by the Nazis as they were running away.

And then to listen to him say, “It happened here.” It just isn’t supposed to happen here. It just isn’t.

 

PG:

Let’s think about this Robert Bowers. He was ranting about this organization called HIAS [Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society], which I am sure brought you and your family here, and which I know brought me and my family here.

SW:

Absolutely! That’s absolutely true. They brought my family here, and it brought your family here.

 

PG:

They do God’s work. How can this be happening? This kind of nationalism and xenophobia; I don’t even understand where it comes from.

SW:

Look, in Germany, there are Germans. In France, there are French. In Italy—Italians. The difference is that in America, you get off the plane, and all you have to do is say, “I am an American,” and you are.

The problem is that right now, we are going through one crisis of identity and tribalism after another, and people are saying that the people who rarely cause us problems aren’t lots of different tribes, but there is one group of “cosmopolitans” that really are the issue—and that’s the Jews.

 

PG:

The term “cosmopolitanism,” or “cosmopolitism,” however the hell you want to say it, is completely bewildering. It comes straight out of Stalin’s anti-Semitic campaign.

SW:

I am glad you said that. But what’s interesting is that the Jews are at one moment a tribe, but at another moment totally universal, and that’s why Stalin called them cosmopolitans. Because they expressed a universal character of trying to change the world. Look, when I work on a gene therapy program or an anti-cancer monoclonal antibody, I do it thinking about curing the whole world. We don’t think about tribes.

When we watch this new form of nationalism or tribalism occurring, where someone can say, “I want to kill all the Jews,” you go, “Wow, it can’t happen in this day and age.”

But remember, it happened in Germany that was so educated with medical schools and Nobel laureates, and philosophers, and writers, and poets. And you would have said it could never happened there, because it was the most educated and sophisticated and cultured country in the world.

 

PG:

You’ve been in America longer than I—plus you are older.

SW:

Don’t rub it in, Paul.

 

PG:

You are older, you are older; it’s better than the alternative. You are in a position to compare anti-Semitism here from the fifties, sixties, and so forth. I can only go from the seventies up in the U.S. How is this different? What the hell is this?

SW:

Growing up in Dayton, Ohio, I knew anti-Semites. When there was something that happened, and event or a behavioral sign—something—there were people who would say, “Oh, look at those Jews.” And then they would turn to me and say, “You are not like them, right?”

It occurs today in a very different way. It occurs where I am sure—and this is a horrible thing to say—but there are people in America and other parts of the world—who would say, “So, he killed Jews, no big deal.”

And that’s what frightens me about what happened. I know people are going to say, “I know it was a one-of event.”

But I feel uncomfortable for the first time, because, as you said, either one of us could have been at the Tree of Life Synagogue.

 

PG:

Easily. There is something completely different happening here.

SW:

And, by the way, that’s why hundreds of thousands of Jews left France for Israel over the last few years, because there is something different happening there.

 

PG:

There is a certain bravado among American Jews. We don’t acknowledge anti-Semites. It’s almost like acknowledging our weakness, to say that this thing exists. We will prevail no matter what—screw them. Do you think that has to change? Should we call it out when we see it?

SW:

By the way, there is too often in America a feeling that when it does happen, it is so far outside the norm that we don’t have to worry about it. We don’t have to worry about it, because in this country it’s not going to affect us, certainly not like it affected Jews in the forties and fifties in America, where they didn’t get to go to medical schools in America—they had to go to medical schools somewhere else. That happened in this country, and then it changed.

I am afraid that we do have to call it out now, and we do have to worry about it, because there is in the world a rabid tribalism and nationalism, where there is a retrenchment to people who feel that Jews are real outsiders. It’s a strange time right now. I think it’s an inflection point right now. Things will go one way or another.

My dad said, either people will be so horrified that they will take a step back and say, “What’s going on…” Or we have to worry.

 

PG:

You dad has great insight on this.

SW:

Yes, because he lived in a world where people who were very educated—not just some peasants in the streets—could make a systematic attempt to wipe out all the Jews of Europe.

I grew up looking at the number on my mom’s arm, because she and Elie Wiesel had to do the death march from Auschwitz to Germany.

 

PG:

What was the number?

SW:

A15208. It’s seared in my memory.

 

PG:

Thank you.

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