Requiem for a Zionist: Remembering Joseph Eaton

Requiem for a Zionist: Remembering Joseph Eaton

As I was reading in the Chronicle about the recent death of Professor Joseph Eaton, it became apparent that for some people a list of their many life achievements, although well intended, can never give the reader a sense of who they really are. Joe Eaton was fortunately one of those people.  It’s true that Professor Eaton was a world-renowned scholar.  However, he was much more.

Sometime in about the mid-1980s, when asked to help organize a Zionist political trip to Washington, D.C., I was advised to work with Professor Eaton, who, myself being a recent arrival in Pittsburgh, I had never met.  Although a physician, I do have a good knowledge of the Middle East, and for that reason, I already knew of the highly respected reputation of Professor Eaton.  And also for that reason when an appointment had been set up to meet him for lunch at some private dining room for university professors, I found myself quite anxious about meeting a scholar of such magnitude.

Within minutes it became apparent that Joe possessed an inherent logistical ability, a great gift in utilizing his “vault” of invaluable knowledge.  Although a man of rather short stature, it became also quickly apparent that his height belied the greatness of the man.  No, I’m not referring to his knowledge (though nearly limitless); I’m referring to his humanity.  

Joe made me feel like he really cared about me.  He made me feel that I was, even within his own specialty of study, equal to him.  

As the years went on, working together on several Zionist political meetings, I got to know Joe Eaton a bit better.  I remember telling my wife about his amazing knowledge and logistical abilities, adding, “you know, with a name like Eaton, I feel pretty confident he’s probably from some upper-crust British family, you know, one of lineage.”  I told her he fit the picture of a Churchill — energetic, smart, strategic, and as determined as ever and, of course he had that historic name.

Then one day, on a car trip to Washington, Joe saw a CD sticking out of my player and asked me about it.  I told him it was the news from Europe.  Since I like to know how other people interpret the news, I get the news on a CD from a few different countries each month.  Joe told me to play it.  I told him that would be pointless, but he insisted.  Then I told him it was in German.  He stunned me by telling me to start playing it.

Minutes later, I was beyond stunned — not only did Joe speak and understand German fluently, he began a detailed discussion about the person being interviewed.  The man, Stefan Heym, was one of Germany’s most respected modern writers.  Joe knew the man personally, since they were close friends who had worked for the Allies in World War II, disseminating anti-Nazi information to German soldiers.  Actually, Heym was an East German Jew, whom Joe often visited there, when he gave lectures.  It was mind-boggling. You play a CD and what do you get? You get what I learned more and more to expect — extraordinary experiences from the life of Joe Eaton.  

Later, Joe told me of his scholarly travels in the Middle East — not just in Israel, but in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, frequently traveling alone.  Try to imagine this short American Jew traveling alone in the most hostile places on Earth.  Yes, besides Hebrew, Joe spoke Arabic.  Still, that wasn’t what kept him alive, and in addition allowed him to acquire many Arab friends.  Joe was protected by that humanity which superseded even his extraordinary erudite self.  

Finally, one more little story about Joe, maybe:

Twenty-five years ago, I had the honor of dining alone with an elderly Italian woman in a small restaurant in Rome.  She had been one of the heads of the Roman Jewish community immediately after the war.  She really liked me and I liked her; that is, until I couldn’t help asking her about Rabbi Eugenio Zolli, who had been the rabbi of the Roman Jewish community before and during the war.  I have forgotten — and rest assured, always will — the terrible words from her mouth as the elderly woman turned redder (it’s true) than a lobster.  You see, Zolli was Rome’s chief rabbi and at the time, one of the most eminent rabbis in the world.  However, immediately after the war, he announced his conversion to Catholicism.  Except for his own autobiography, nothing had been written about him.  No one anywhere, even in Rome, seemed to know he ever existed.  Then about 10 years ago, realizing that if anyone would know anything about Zolli, it would be Joe Eaton, I approached him at some function, and found some way to bring up the name, Zolli.  Joe knew so much about the man; you would think he knew him personally. Who knows, maybe he did.  Anyway, while he was highly empathetic regarding the pain Zolli’s conversion caused the Roman Jewish community, Joe was also empathetic toward Zolli, whom he believed was sincere, a man torn by conflicts of conscience.  

Until reading Joe’s obituary, I knew nothing about his childhood and certainly did not know the Nazis murdered his family.  Here was a man who visited friends back in Germany, East Germany, possibly the most dangerous tyranny in the world only decades after some of these very people wiped out his family.  Here was a man, a Jewish man, who visited Arab friends in the most dangerous places for Jews in the world.  

And what about Zolli? That night at the end of my dinner with the elderly former head of the Roman Jewish community, the owner of the restaurant walked by our table.  Immediately, by complete chance, the two recognized one another.  When he was a boy, his father and a village priest in a town not far from Rome during the war drew up bogus baptismal certificates for this woman and her husband, hoping never to need them.  However, Nazis did enter the village and one Italian betrayed the couple.  As the Nazis were taking the couple away, the village priest presented the papers to the young Catholic Nazi, who accepted them, freeing the woman and her husband.  

When I read Joe’s obituary, it was this story, first and foremost, that came back to me.  The elderly woman, whose family was saved by a priest refused to forgive or even try to understand Zolli, but Joseph Eaton, whose family had been wiped out by the Nazis, could forgive and understand the “betrayal” of the rabbi.

(Bradley Levinson lives in Cranberry Township.)