This is the season when we look for inspiration. Whether a year in its waning days was good or bad, whether the coming year will be relatively worse or better, the transition nurtures reflection. We might plan the new year with confidence in our abilities to succeed, yet we know that no matter how meticulously we try to chart the future, there are circumstances beyond our control.
So, mixed in with our pragmatic approach to our lives and businesses is a measure of wishful thinking, possibly prayer and some vague yearning for stories that demonstrate that no matter how difficult life becomes, something positive can result.
Mike Stolowitzky has one of those stories.
It's possible you've met Stolowitzky. He owned a tour operation that worked with churches to bring Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land, started another tour company that operated in the Eastern Mediterranean, then became a director of international business development for American Express.
After retiring from Amex in 2002, he served for five years as president of the American Tourism Society, which promotes travel to emerging destinations, particularly in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
Now in his 70s, he still works for Amex-owned Travel Impressions as a consultant.
You might be familiar with his 40-year industry resume, but it's likely there is much about him that you don't know.
Stolowitzky was a boy of 3, living in Warsaw, when World War II broke out. His family, like many Jewish families at that time, didn't realize the extent of the danger they faced until well after escape had ceased being easy. His father ultimately perished in a concentration camp, his mother while on the run from the Nazis.
Most of the heroes of Stolowitzky's Holocaust story aren't Jewish. One, in fact, is a Nazi SS officer.
A book, "Gertruda's Oath" [Doubleday 2009], has been written about Stolowitzky's escape from Warsaw, his life on the run in Eastern Europe, his tense journey to Israel on the ship Exodus and eventual settlement in Israel before his emigration to the U.S. The writer is a best-selling Israeli author named Ram Oren, and it reads like the well-crafted suspense novels for which Oren is known.
The Gertruda of the title is Gertruda Bablinska. She was Stolowitzky's Catholic nanny, and she promised his mother on her deathbed to get him safely away from the Nazis and raise him as her son. The book is the story of how she did just that.
"Gertruda's Oath" has more hair-raising close calls than one would expect, even given the subject matter and the book's 300-page length. There is no shortage of betrayers and villains, but an equal number of heroes arise. Above them all stands Gertruda, who put her own life at risk countless times to protect the young Stolowitzky.
Gertruda comes across as both real and saintly, and the backdrop of threat and violence prevents the narrative from slipping into sentimentalism.
The book also chronicles Stolowitzky's frustrating efforts to recover what's left of his family's fortune, but it does not quite end there. His gratitude for Gertruda's sacrifices -- when he becomes a man, he takes care of her as lovingly as any son would care for his mother -- provides a satisfying conclusion.
Alex Harris, co-founder and honorary chairman of the American Tourism Society, was a teenager in Poland when World War II broke out. He has also written an inspiring book, "Breaking Borders" [iUniverse, 2008], about his experiences. Harris' autobiography contains a long section directly related to his travel industry experiences, whereas in most of "Gertruda's Oath," Stolowitzky is a small child.
Yet both men were clearly shaped by their experiences in ways that have benefited the industry. Through their work at the American Tourism Society, they support destinations that inform and broaden a traveler's perspective of the world.
Moreover, that both men are Jewish yet devote time and effort to encouraging travel to the Islamic Middle East is a testament to the fact that experience obtained on the receiving end of discrimination and hatred can transmute to wisdom and understanding.
If you find yourself in need of inspiration -- or want to spread it -- at this time of year, I can think of no better way than through these books.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.