I’m a person with very few regrets. I make decisions quickly and easily, and rarely wonder what might have been. But in my almost fifty years on the planet, there have been exceptions.
In the fall of 1989, my parents and I drove the four hours from our house in northern Westchester to Ithaca, NY, for the start of my freshman year at Cornell. I remember little to no fanfare associated with that day, especially as we pulled up to my dorm, a big brick boxy thing that was the definition of “nothing special.” A couple hundred kids were stuffed into carefully planned “units” which, when taken altogether, formed a giant cauldron of undergraduate life. Its name reflected its sophisticated vibe: Low Rise Six. Years later, Low Rise Six — along with its lookalike neighbor called, yes, Low Rise Seven — was singled out by the New York Times as one of the worst individual dorms in the country.
The dorm was a solid forty-minute walk to central campus; the odd patchwork of residence halls on North Campus were akin to what my Brooklyn-born dad used to call girls from Queens: Geographically undesirable. Most freshmen, and most of the action, were all the way down at the base of Cornell’s famous slope. But life moved a little slower at Low Rise Six and it suited me. A fellow Low Rise Six-er and I became fast friends and, as it turns out, life-long best friends. Ten years after we met, he signed my ketubah.
My prospects for a quiet, anonymous move-in were dashed when my dad locked his keys in the car and campus security intervened to deal with our hermetically sealed Jeep Cherokee. I calmed my nerves by setting up my room. I spread out the navy quilt my mom had made and covered the far wall with a pale pink tapestry and my treasured Annie Hall movie poster. On the desk, I plugged in my fancy state-of-the-art word processor and placed a pencil cup decorated with pastel sand art, a farewell gift from my five-year-old cousin.
Before my parents took off, there was one last task. They said we had a cousin on the Cornell faculty who lived only about a mile up the road from Low Rise Six. His name was Ephim Fogel, a highly respected poet, literature professor, and former head of the English department. He and his wife Charlotte — they actually went by Ep and Chip to my endless teenage amusement — had invited us over for coffee. This wasn’t completely out of the ordinary, as I had cousins up and down the eastern seaboard. My grandfather came from a large close family whose journey mirrored the familiar Eastern European Jewish experience. Born on the Lower East Side to Russian immigrants, grandpa was the youngest of seven. He squeaked through public school, raised his family and his business in Brooklyn, then, thanks to hard-earned successes, enjoyed later snowbird years. He passed away on Christmas Eve 2000. My grandpa was beloved, and our extended family – Grandpa’s three surviving sisters, plus all his siblings’ children and grandchildren – was always present in our lives. But Ep was grandpa’s cousin, not his sibling, and, as such, on a slight off-shoot of the broader Oringel tree. The few times I heard grandpa talk about Ep and his brother Robert, he used one word: Educated.
I became quickly engrossed in every facet of Cornell, except my studies. I didn’t stay in touch with Ep and Chip, and I didn’t once visit for Shabbat.
It was a sunny, gorgeous, and decidedly un-Ithaca-esque day, as we took the ninety-second drive from Low Rise Six to the small, tidy Fogel house. Greeting us warmly at the door was Chip, a short, vivacious woman with close-cropped dark hair and a simple dress. Chip (or Chippie) resembled the archetype of the Jewish grandma, as she beckoned us inside for coffee and cake. We were seated in the living room when Ep joined us. He was soft-spoken with white hair and kind eyes. A Russian immigrant himself, Ep and his parents left Odessa for New York when he was just a toddler. His brother Robert was born eight years later. Both boys were stellar students and, after a stint in the army, Ep joined the Cornell faculty back in 1949 and helped rebuild the English department post-war into one of the finest in the country.
I wish I could say that I had a deep and meaningful exchange with this amazing man; that he gave me a single piece of advice that I carried with me throughout my academic career and writing life. Or that I think of him whenever I hear a certain word. On the reply card for my bat mitzvah, my grandpa wrote that he wouldn’t miss such an “auspicious” occasion. I didn’t take anything “auspicious” away from that day with the Fogels. Instead, I remember being thrilled that it was relatively quick. My parents were thrilled that Chip asked me to stay in touch and invited me to join them for Shabbat dinners.
I became quickly engrossed in every facet of Cornell, except my studies. I didn’t stay in touch with Ep and Chip, and I didn’t once visit for Shabbat. When Ep retired the following year, I was living in my sorority house, the only location on campus closer than Low Rise Six to his house. Still, I didn’t reach out.
Then, later in my senior year — and a whopping three miles away — my parents heard from Chip that Ep had passed away. He was 71. Ep wasn’t in particularly good health when we had met, and, in my teenage-centric universe, he was an old man. I don’t remember hearing about or certainly not attending any kind of memorial. I’m positive I didn’t give it much thought.
After graduation, I willed myself into a writing career, but the next decade and a half was a blur. I started adulthood as a freelancer in a thin-walled studio, then became half of a couple in a fifth-floor walk-up the size of a dog crate. Soon, we were a family of four in a little red house in the country. I learned new words like mastitis, escrow, breast pump, sump pump. I was fortunate and depleted.
As I approached my forties, and our two kids achieved some semblance of self-sufficiency, I started asking myself where I wanted to focus my creative energy. My husband and I were raising Jewish daughters in a non-Jewish town in a very non-Jewish world that was becoming increasingly hostile to Jews. The answer was clear. I became immersed in the world of Jewish media. I wrote culture pieces for the Forward and served as editor of an independent literary Jewish publisher. I felt a connection with the people I met and the subjects I studied. I particularly leaned into hearing and documenting Holocaust stories and even considered pursuing a master’s in Genocide Studies, which my daughters proclaimed to be the single most depressing thing they’d ever heard. I disagreed. We converted our formal dining room into a library and installed a pocket door in the mudroom which became my office.
Then, a few years ago, the Cornell Adult University program released its summer course schedule. Teaching a week-long class on Modern Jewish History were revered history professors Glenn Altschuler, a Cornell institution unto himself, and Ross Brann. I enrolled immediately and in mid-July headed back to North Campus. This time my temporary home was a brand new, high-end set of dorms. The huge glass buildings dwarfed Low Rise Six and rendered North Campus unrecognizable to my middle-aged eyes. My older daughter decided to join for the week with one of her dearest friends, who, in a beautiful bit of symmetry, was the daughter of my old Low Rise Six ketubah signer.
Unsurprisingly, I was the youngest in the class by a solid three decades. This was actually part of its appeal. In my writing and personal life, I am naturally drawn to older generations and have spent many hours hearing, recording, and sharing their stories. I find their experiences fascinating. Not many other people I know would prefer to work in an assisted living residence than a kindergarten classroom.
On the first day of class, Glenn stood in front of the classroom and delivered clear instructions that we were not to interrupt with questions until the end of each class — a directive I ended up disobeying only twice, much to my endless pride. He also laid out the curriculum for the week ahead which included lectures with titles like “Jews and Baseball,” “Woody Allen,” and “The Immigrant Experience.” I was absolutely enthralled.
As part of one of the post-World War II lectures, Professor Altschuler referenced a specific reading, as he often had throughout the week. It was a poem known as one of the most important, and earliest, literary responses to the Holocaust.
It was called “Shipment to Maidanek,” by Ephim Fogel.
Somehow in that moment I managed to adhere to Glenn’s no question rule. Ephim Fogel? My cousin Ep Fogel had written this seminal work of Jewish literature? I interrogated Glenn after class, longing for more information. And quickly struggled to piece together details from that single one-hour visit in 1989. Glenn had actually been quite close with Ep and his family and told me how respected he was by students, as well as internally among Cornell faculty. I was floored, elated, profoundly moved, and more than a little wistful. If only a seventeen ‑year-old me had known that forty ‑something me would want nothing more than to talk to Ep about this poem, his experiences, and his life. An entire relationship that “could have been” was imagined, then scuttled in a matter of moments. I had no choice. What a loss.
So, with pride, and enormous regret, you can find the poem “Shipment to Maidanek” by the late Ephim Fogel here.
Amy Oringel is a communications consultant for risk advisory firm K2 Integrity, as well as a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, BusinessWeek, and The Forward.