Transcript: Podship Earth Episode 59: YORICK


JARED BLUMENFELD: Welcome to Podship Earth. This is your host, Jared Blumenfeld. From as early as I can remember, my dad has always wanted me to call him Yorick. He reasoned that after all, it was his name and a good one at that. Now that my children are both adults, I realized how my parents are bridges to our shared history, a history of family and humanity. My Dad's now 87 and has lived a life full of adventure. Today's episode focuses on the earliest part of Yorick’s life, growing up on the run from the Nazis, which took him from Paris to a medieval French town to Marseilles to Morocco, where he nearly died of the plague and eventually his escape to New York. Let's start the interview.  I'm here with one of my favorite people, my father Yorick Blumenfeld. Welcome Dad to the show. 

 

YORICK BLUMENFELD: Thank you, Jared. I'm very pleased to be here. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Okay, let's start at the beginning. You were born in 1932 in Amsterdam, in the Netherlands. And then at three, moved to Paris, which was kind of all against the rising tensions that led to World War II.


YORICK BLUMENFELD: I had a strange youth in terms of moving from Hong Kong to France, and then later to the United States and the change of countries had a big impact. However, I think the economic situation of my parents was also very instrumental in this. I was often hungry, and I think I suffered from bouts of malnutrition, which was accompanied by lots of difference colds and viruses which lowered my resistance. The first two years in Paris were very poverty stricken, then things turned and were all right for a while until World War II started. And then again, there were periods when we had very, very little to eat. And I feel that people who today are much too finicky and fussy about food and that they should have more respect for the foods that is available. There should be much greater tolerance and appreciation of food than there is today. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: And do you remember the war breaking out?

 

YORICK BLUMENFELD: Very well, my parents being confined to a small village outside of Burgundy because my father was a German, and therefore an enemy alien and we were kept in this little village. And then my father ultimately was able to join us when he fled from Paris and the war started. But the interesting thing was that the people who owned this place and ran it were actually Germans, and after the war, they were shot for having undermined the French republic.
 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Was there a lot of fighting at the outset of World War II or what was it like?

 

YORICK BLUMENFELD: The beginning, the first stages of World War II and there was no real fighting anywhere. We said that we couldn't stay in this hotel anymore. Could we go to Vézelay? And the police said, sure, you can stay there as long as you report to us regularly. Vézelay is a magic medieval town. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: How old were you then?

 

YORICK BLUMENFELD: I was nine years old. I had no friends at all my own age. I had my brother and my sister, my mother and my father. Very close family time. 

Yes, indeed. We were also told not to eat any candy we found on the streets or in the countryside because they said that the Germans were dropping the poisoned candies to kill children. And we heard a lot of airplanes. Of course, there were motor driven airplanes flying overhead. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Why did you leave Vézelay? 

 

YORICK BLUMENFELD: Because the Germans were advancing through France. By that time, my father had been sent to a French detention camp for the criminally insane and my sister was just over 18, and as such was declared a German citizen, so she was sent to a woman's detention camp in southern France. So, that left just the three of us. I was being stoned in the school yard by children who called me dirty German. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: They just picked up stones and threw them at you?

 

YORICK BLUMENFELD: Yes, they threw them at me. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: How did that stop?

 

YORICK BLUMENFELD: By my not going to school anymore at that time, but everything was breaking down. I mean all of France was breaking down, you have to understand that it was a chaotic time.

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, how did you begin your long escape to New York?

YORICK BLUMENFELD: My mother had been in telephone contact with my uncle and her first cousin to come down to Vézelay to pick my mother, my brother and me up, and then we would drive south. When Hans came, we then rented a car down the main route. And then we were bombarded, and machine gunned by German planes, this was at the end of May 1940. And so, we had to get off the roads and take byways, and we were lucky not to be hit directly by any bombs that the Germans threw on the main roads. We were in the country, towards the middle of France and we ran out of petrol. There was no way to go any further. So, we were in this a little community, a farm community where the man was very kind and said we could sleep in the barn, and that was a good experience for little me, my brother and my mother. And we were very lucky because we were three miles south of the demarcation line between where the Germans had stopped and we were in Vichy, France, which was a not to be occupied by the Germans at that time. And so, we were extremely lucky. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: That's where you ran out of gas.

 

YORICK BLUMENFELD: The second night we were there in this farmhouse, we heard artillery fire and things in the distance that we felt the Germans were going to be there. And then suddenly in the middle of the night, everything fell silent. And that was the end of fighting in France for the time being. We were able to first pick up my sister, then all four of us went to pick up my father and get him out of there. I was just quite horrified. At first, I didn't even recognize my father when I saw him. He had lost so much weight and he looked like a skeleton for himself. And so, I was, I was quite terrified just to see what this happened. Friends and family were reunited, and you know, it was a very chaotic time and we were all together. We were eating again. My father was coming back to more normal self. I remember spending time looking at the wonderful water snakes in the river below where we are staying, which were splendid wonderful water snakes. The armistice had been signed and France was divided in two. And the Germans were in control of most of the northern France. And my father was desperate to get out of Vichy, France, and that was going to be very difficult. If we'd stayed at about six months later, in 1941, at the end of ‘41, the Germans started to come into the unoccupied area and started rounding up Jews and doing other unpleasant things. When we went to Marsailles, my father had gone before us, and made certain arrangements and had made the contacts with underground people who were able to sell him passage on a ship going to a Martinique in the French Caribbean. There were queues around the block of people wanting to get American visas. And without the visa you couldn't go to America. And even so, we couldn’t get a visa to go to America basically, only a visa to go to Martinique. It was a really all frenetic at the last minute and my father didn't get the ticket until the morning that we departed and we didn't know whether we were going or not on that boat, and the man who gave the visas to us was shot the next day. He was killed. We were on the cargo ship and there were about 150 people, mostly Jews, but not entirely Jews, who were fleeing Hitler and Germany, Hitler's Europe. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Did you feel Jewish? I mean, did you know that you were Jewish? 

 

YORICK BLUMENFELD: No, I had no idea. I mean, I heard people talking about Jews and Judaism and so forth, and my parents saying that so-and-so was Jewish, but that had no impact on me. I mean, I had not gone into a synagogue until I was about 12 years old. I never had been in a synagogue. My father was interested in the beauty of the architecture. He was not interested in the religion at all. And both my parents were not religious. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: And then why did you end up in Morroco? 

 

YORICK BLUMENFELD: Well, because pestilence broke out on our ship after we were there for two and a half, three weeks on the harbor, and we weren't allowed to leave the ship. The pestilence broke out from the rats that were there. And they began to get nervous about the rats carrying the plague over to the servicemen on the ships. And so, we were divided into two groups. The A-M was going south to a little detention camp called Azamore, just about, I would say 18 miles south of Casablanca, a very secluded place. And we were guarded by French Senegalese guards because they didn't want anyone else to get sick. I had recurrent fever by that time, so I was close to death, and I was very lucky I didn't die. A number of the little children died. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: What is recurrent fever? 

 

YORICK BLUMENFELD: It's the plague. My sister’s teeth were loose, my mother and father had big-

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Welts.

 

YORICK BLUMENFELD: Not welts, they were sort of pus growing things. They were quite frightening, because they carried the marks of them for the rest of their lives. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Those seem like just unbelievably frightening times.  But somehow you miraculously all survived the plague in that hell hole outside Casablanca and managed to find your way to the U.S.

 

YORICK BLUMENFELD: We went back to Casablanca and took a ship from Casablanca to Lisbon and Lisbon to New York- it was one ship. And once I was on the ship, it was terrific because I was able to put as much sugar as I wanted in my tea, and I would put half a bowl of sugar in a glass of tea water and drank it up with the people, the Portuguese, looking at this and they couldn't believe their eyes. I don't think I recognized how serious my condition had been. I mean, I knew I was very sick, but I didn't know I was, you know, on death's door.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Yorick, thank you so much for sharing that traumatic part of your childhood with us. Just to fill in the story before we move on. You arrived in New York speaking absolutely no English. You worked extremely hard in school and were then accepted to Harvard to study Russian history. You then join the U.S. army to fight in the Korean War. You meet my mom Helene in a bookstore in New York when she's at Columbia, and then you become a writer in Washington D.C. for Congressional Quarterly. Together, you and Helene moved to Paris where you join Newsweek and eventually become the Bureau Chief of Newsweek's eastern European office, run out of Vienna. This was the 1960’s and it was the heyday of being a foreign correspondent.

My dad was basically James Bond with a tuxedo and cool cars. As you'll hear in today's episode, my dad is really a big picture thinker. After my brother was born, you moved to England to a small village called Grantchester where you create a house full of artwork from New Guinea and a wild garden. You become a freelance writer for all kinds of glossy magazines from Life to Geo to Washington Post. And as soon as I could take pictures, you brought me with you, which is very brave, and we'd be a father and son team with you writing and me taking photos. You wrote an international bestseller called “Jenny, my diary about a woman living in a nuclear fallout shelter.” You've edited a series of about 20 books for Thames and Hudson on the future. And to this day you write an amazing blog on your views of current events, big and small trends that are shaping the planet called yoricksblog.com. Okay, so that brings us up to speed. So, the arc of your life really maps incredible changes in human history. When you were born in 1932, there were two billion people on the planet.  It’s taken millions of years to get to 2 billion people living on the earth, and now we have 7.6 billion. There's just been literally so much change that you've witnessed. 

 

YORICK BLUMENFELD: I think change has been increasingly a worrisome matter. When the first bombs were dropped on Japan, I felt that was an enormous change for mankind. I used to have nightmares because I lived in the New York City that all of Manhattan would disappear in one big cloud.  The whole existence would vanish. I also wonder about the population increase in the world, which is something that's really, I do find quite frightening because it's still going to arise from its current level to probably a 9 billion people by the end of 21st century, and I think too much of the earth as being covered in concrete and in buildings and pollution and all the rest of it. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: You spent most of your life that I've known you researching the concept of Utopia. At the beginning of the 1960’s, created your own Utopian community outside Christchurch in a little community called Nelson. What does utopia mean to you and, and why did that, hold such a powerful sway of your imagination and life?

YORICK BLUMENFELD: Well, I think I was motivated by a variety of forces, but at the top of all of these was that we could try to experiment in forming a different mode of living. I wasn't quite sure how it was going to come out and how it was going to end, but I thought that getting together a group of people who had a similar desire to improve the world and to try new forms of political association was worth the effort, and I was really motivated by that as well, I must confess the area chosen, the South Island of New Zealand was that it seemed like the most likely place to survive if there was a thermonuclear war, which we came somewhat close to with the Cuban crisis in 1962. And so I was not that far off the mark, but I had the experienced leaving Europe and coming to America, Nazi Germany and this forces, I saw the next danger was not the Nazis but the bomb.
And so I thought that New Zealand would be a good place to try such an experiment because it was underpopulated and we could be fairly free of too much intervention from the outside world. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: What's been the secret to your good health? 

 

YORICK BLUMENFELD: The answer is definitely not sugar. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Really? Hmm.

 

YORICK BLUMENFELD: Maybe honey. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Okay. Sweet things though. 

 

YORICK BLUMENFELD: Sweet things help. I don't drink any alcohol. Don't smoke, so those have helped. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: You take a nap? 

 

YORICK BLUMENFELD: I take naps, regular naps which I enjoy doing. I think the fresh air in Grantchester is most helpful.

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, why did you move to Cambridge? 

 

YORICK BLUMENFELD: I left living in the big city. My whole life had been spent first in Paris, then the New York for almost 17 years, then in Boston. I was in Tokyo for a while. Then, back in New York and Washington, D.C., then ultimately as a correspondent, then Vienna. And I was tired of the big cities.  I wanted to be somewhere where it was green, and I could breathe well. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, that's another thing that you do that we have to add to the list of healthy living, which is you spend a lot of time gardening. 

 

YORICK BLUMENFELD: Indeed. I have a wonderful garden and it is more than I can handle all on my own, but I enjoy being there and working in, bending over and pulling up weeds and things like that. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: I especially appreciate that you garden in a tweet suit. It's very gentlemanly of you. 

 

YORICK BLUMENFELD: Thank you. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Do you still consider yourself American? I mean, you were born in the Netherlands and you've lived the majority of your life in this house. 

 

YORICK BLUMENFELD: I think of myself as half American and half European, and I'm somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic. I'm between the two. I'm very interested in what is happening in America because I think it's terribly important.  I'm less interested in what's happening in England. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: When you watch American news, what does it make you feel? How do you view it with your life experience sitting here in England?

 

YORICK BLUMENFELD: It's a dreadful stage that America is going through and I think it's a very divisive, contentious time with very little collaboration and cooperation as not as like the public interest have vanished a completely from America. So, I look upon that with a degree of horror and hope that it will change. That's why I watch the news because I at any time hope that things will alter dramatically. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, talking of being both the British resident and a European and an American, I remember Remy was very shocked and surprised when you said that you were for Britain leaving the European Union during Brexit. Has your view changed? 

 

YORICK BLUMENFELD: So, I was hoping that the, that Europe would change its perspective on the horrible events surrounding the migration of millions of people being treated abysmally. And I thought that that and the way the European community was dealing with economic crisis in Greece was most undesirable. Unfortunately, I didn't really see how limited the perspective of the people in the United Kingdom were about immigrants. They really took a strong dislike to people trying to come to England and establish themselves here and their views were so narrow and limited that I thought, no, this, this is not what Europe needs. This is an England that is a strongly anti-immigration.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, Yorick writes a blog and you can find out by looking at Yoricksblog.comand it's really great. I encourage everyone listening to look at it. One of the areas that you spent time researching and thinking about is the impact of capitalism as a system. 


YORICK BLUMENFELD: I do feel that we need a complete overhaul of the economic system, that money must be extinguished because people will always want to have more and more and more. And if one can only alter the needs that we can have fulfilled for food and warmth and the clothing and a much simpler life, we can do without the capitalism, which has been a phenomenal in changing the world. But we must stop this rapid change. We have to get to something that is calmer and that calm can only come when we get rid of money.

JARED BLUMENFELD: Are you an advocate of a basic income, this concept that people should, irrespective of their circumstance, be entitled to income that provides for shelter and medical costs and food?

YORICK BLUMENFELD: I'm most enthusiastic about basic income. Everybody who was born deserves a certain basic substance payment, which will permit that person to grow up and study and see what direction in life they would want to take. I think the production of goods and so forth are generally over-rated, and we are in this state now where production is so successful that there is no longer than the need for people to work in factories around the clock, as for things that they don't like doing or are useless to them. Much of this society that we live in can be almost run on a voluntary basis that people can help each other.

JARED BLUMENFELD: Oxfam came out with a report saying that the top 61 income earners in theworld make as much as the bottom 50% of humanity. So more than three and a half billion people. What would seem that just as 61 people could work very happily, and they could give that money to three and a half billion people. That seems like a good idea. 

 

YORICK BLUMENFELD: Yes. And I think under the basic income that would be perfect. I mean, why can 61 people hold half of the world's money and the other half have almost nothing by comparison and this becomes like a really a question of a much greater equality would of course hurt the people who have all the money at the moment. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, in your Yorick’s blog, one of the ones that directly relates to what we're talking about is one from last year called, “what kind of world do we want to live in?” And this is a quote from it: “So where are we headed? Do we really want to transform human nature so that in the 21st century consciousness will be uncoupled from intelligence? Harari, the popular writer philosopher suggests three more mundane developments in the 21st century which are likely to overwhelm our human experience on this planet. One, humans will lose the economic and military usefulness. This will lower their value in economic and political terms. Two, the human collective or retain its value but not as unique individuals, and three, a new elite of upgraded humans will arise. 


YORICK BLUMENFELD: Regrettably, people don't spend enough time looking at where we are headed because people are afraid to do so. They are also geared to looking at the short term and the whole capitalist world is a short-term proposition. That's not a long-term proposition. Do we want to send people to the moon or Mars or somewhere else? Is that really where we want humanity to go? Aren't the many things that we can do on this earth, which is a wonderful place, incredible place, and try to save that from the pollution that threatens us and the long-term pollution.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: We are a speck in the universe. And we act as if we're the center of the universe that everything important is happening on us. 

YORICK BLUMENFELD: Yes, of course we are. We are at the center of our lives. Why should we spend all that energy and money resources getting somebody on Mars, it's not going to be that welcoming a place. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Where should we put our money in our resources and our thought and attention.

YORICK BLUMENFELD: I think the environment and the state of the earth is what we should really be looking at and making sure that we can survive on this earth.

JARED BLUMENFELD: You're a big nature lover. We're just outside today. You, last time I was here you were talking about the collapse of bee colonies and today you were mentioning that there's no more starlings that you see flying around.

YORICK BLUMENFELD: The reason that we have no bees or very few bees here in Grantchester is that the fields around us are sprayed with chemicals which distract the bees so that they can find the colony back. The population of insects generally has fallen dramatically in this area. And we, we do the things without thinking about the consequences. I mean, yes, the fields produce more corn or whatever, but it also destroys the land in which these new crops are grown. The frogs and the pools that used to be quite frequent are now gone.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, when you say gone, they're just not there at all? 

 

YORICK BLUMENFELD: They're not there anymore. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: No, that's horrific and very sad. 

 

YORICK BLUMENFELD: It is. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: They were your friends. 

 

YORICK BLUMENFELD: Yes, they're are my friends. I tried to bring spawn back from France and other places, but none of that has been successful. And as far as the frogs are concerned, there are viruses. There's poison. There are all the things that are killing a species, which, I think basically are very important because the frogs used to eat mosquitoes and these are now more prevalent, even coming up from Africa and living in the United Kingdom because the temperature here is arisen slightly and it prevents all these mosquitoes from being killed off. Some survive and form new species, and they're treacherous.

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, given this calamitous state of affairs, where do you feel positive?

YORICK BLUMENFELD: I feel positive in the sense that in this very changeable world, some good things happen as well as unfortunate ones. I think we are learning the importance of controlling our ways and being more equal. I think also the awareness that now exists about the environment and that will in the short while transform itself into politics in the United Kingdom as well as the United States.

JARED BLUMENFELD: You've been married for more than 50 years. What's your secret to success? 

 

YORICK BLUMENFELD: I think it's depends very much on finding the right partners. If people have very little in common and get married for other reasons, sexual attraction or whatever, this may not be sufficient for them. On the other hand, if you're married with a partner who is the intellectual and mental equal, we will be successful. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Okay. But I mean you help around the house. You do a lot of chores as well. It's not all mental compatibility and stimulation. 

 

YORICK BLUMENFELD: There are rewards in helping another person live their life to the fullest as the other partner is interested in doing the same thing for you. And so, you know, at certain stages in one’s life, in the 80’s, these things start to change quite rapidly. So, you have to make way for the changes and accept them willingly. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: you had any doubt where I got most of my moral and other convictions. Now you know the genesis, Yorick. Thank you for being such a fantastic father and thank you for doing the interview. 

 

YORICK BLUMENFELD: Well, thank you for having me on this particular show.

JARED BLUMENFELD: A huge thank you to Yorick for talking with us today. Each year that I've known Yorick, he's gotten easier and sweeter to be around. Yorick walks every day on the Grantchester Meadows, eats his Palmer ham and other little delicacies and is in the best shape of anyone I've ever met at 87. He drinks four or five cups of tea a day with two big spoonfuls of honey. Maybe that's why he’s so sweet. Finally, a big shout out to Yorick for being such an enthusiastic supporter of Podship Earth from the very beginning. In the next episode, we talk with doctors who are taking on climate change. Thank you so much for being part of the Podship Earth journey. From the entire Podship Earth crew, sound engineer Rob Speight, executive producer David Khan, and from me, Jared Blumenfeld, I hope you have a week filled with pride.