JUNE 2000. Martin Cohnstaedt lies in a bed at West Park, a continuing care hospital in Toronto, surrounded by photographs and other memorabilia. He holds my right hand in a firm grip, his blue eyes alive as I talk about Canadian politics, the weather, children. Only when he lifts the large, stuffed, black and white cow he holds in his left hand to his mouth and tries to eat it is it evident that I’m talking to a man who has Alzheimer’s.
Martin doesn’t know that the stuffed cow isn’t food any more than he knows that the woman standing on the other side of his bed is Joy, his wife of thirty-two years. There are many ironies in Martin’s story, not the least of which is that he has achieved through disease a condition that many of the rest of us can only aspire to: the ability to live not in the past or in the future but in the moment. For Martin, at the age of 82, there is only an endless now. The photographs that surround him are slivers of memory frozen in time.
1924. Martin has just celebrated his seventh birthday turned seven when his family is photographed in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. (His namesake, Luther, had nailed his manifesto to the church door 400 years before his birth on October 12, 1917.) Martin smiles at the camera. He’s finally coming into his own after years of sickness. The malformed feet he was born with had to be broken and reset; he spent months recuperating. He’d also been slow learning to speak. Now, at last, he is going to school and quickly catching up with his peers.
Martin’s father, Wilhelm, wears a three-piece suit and a stern expression. He is a respected senior member of the editorial board of the Frankfurter Zeitung, an influential liberal daily, the German equivalent of the Manchester Guardian. Wilhelm’s father, Ludwig, a practising Jew, created the paper’s independent economic and financial pages, an accomplishment for which he had been awarded an honorary doctorate by the kaiser.
At Wilhelm’s side is Else Gobel, his wife, a non Jew. Theirs is a secular household. A sophisticated woman, she teaches French, Italian and English and has travelled widely. Her circle of friends includes artists and writers, among them G.K. Chesterton, who dedicated a poem to her. Else is a vegetarian, as are all three of her children until they leave home. She’s a student of Rudolf Steiner and deeply interested in organic farming.
Wilhelm fought at the front during the First world War was away during the First World War — he was a decorated artillery officer — while Else stayed home, looking after their two older children, Ruth and Hans Jacob, and Martin when he came along. They were well-to-do, and the only hardship visited on the family during these years was the occasional rationing of milk.
When Wilhelm returned from the war, he threw himself into the struggle to create a democratic Germany. He helped frame the Weimar Constitution (1919), a document that embodied, as the American historian Louis Snyder has written, “the best features of the British Bill of Rights, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, and the first ten amendments of the American Constitution.” It also contained the seeds of its own destruction. In Article 48, the president was given the power to abrogate temporarily, wholly, or in part, the fundamental rights laid down in the Constitution. It would come to be known as the “suicide clause”. The document that Wilhelm helped breathe life into would eventually lead to his own death.
Hitler’s accession to power on January 30, 1933 — and his subsequent invocation of Article 48 — had an instant effect on the Cohnstaedts. Wilhelm, a political specialist at the Frankfurter Zeitung, knew the paper’s future depended on his writing a conciliatory editorial. He would not. “I cannot write the editorial that will guarantee we publish tomorrow,” he told colleagues. “The editorial I would write would guarantee our being shut down before evening.” Another editor wrote the appropriate words, and Wilhelm resigned.
When he learned from a friend in the police that Hitler’s storm troopers were about to arrest him, he fled to Paris, where he began making plans to evacuate the rest of the family to the United States. But instead the family spintered. Ruth, then twenty, and active in the Communist party, was herself arrested. With the help of influential friends, she escaped to Italy. Hans Jacob, eighteen, was sent to England, where he worked in a bank; within a year he moved to Chicago to study accounting.
Martin was now a tall, healthy, good-looking young man of sixteen. With his blue eyes and blond hair, he could easily be mistaken for a young Aryan. At first he remained in Germany with his mother. Then, in the fall of 1934 she enrolled him at a Quaker boarding school in Reading, England. (Among Else’s many interests was a fascination with Quakerism.) It must have felt like something of an adventure to the teenager: living in a foreign country and receiving letters from his father, a political refugee, and his mother, the only remaining member of the immediate family left in Germany.
A few weeks into his first term, Martin received an urgent summons home. The news would quash any notion that this was an elaborate game. Ruth had secretly returned to Germany from Italy and, despairing of what she found there, had hung herself in the sunroom of their grandparents’ apartment. Several weeks later, Martin’s grandfather would die of natural causes.
Wilhelm, who had since moved to New York, couldn’t risk returning home to attend the funerals. Bereaved by the deaths of his daughter and his father, missing his family, he nevertheless tried to carry on with his work, writing the occasional article and book review for the New York Times and the New York Herald Tribune. He spent his days at the New York Public Library, reading everything he could, desperately trying to understand how his beloved Germany could have gone so wrong. Wilhelm had been given a $5000 advance by Knopf for a book he had tentatively titled The German Republic: How It Happened, Struggled and Disappeared. He had completed 200 pages, but English was his second language; sentences did not flow easily. Depressed and weary, he resorted to his daughter’s solution. On October 3, 1937, his body was found in a hotel room in Philadelphia, empty pill bottles by his bed.
Although Else had made regular trips to visit Wilhelm in New York, she had delayed moving to America. She had been looking after an elderly relative. And, like millions of others, she kept hoping the madness in Germany would end. Having finally decided to relocate permanently, she was en route when Wilhelm killed himself. In his last brief message to her, he said that he hadn’t wanted to burden her with his troubles. But he wanted her to know, “I’m not what I was…”
1941. Martin stands in a garden outside a residence at Rutgers University. He has attended the New Jersey school for four years, studying agriculture. The photograph captures him on his graduation day. He is wearing a gown and else is at his side.
Martin had been a student at Rutgers only a few weeks when he heard of Wilhelm’s suicide. Although he rarely spoke — then, or ever — about the deaths of his sister and father, their influence on him is clear. From his father, Martin inherited a keen interest in agriculture (much of the elder Cohnstaedt’s early writing had dealt with farming and land use practices.) From his sister came a commitment to social activism. Combining these concerns with Quakerism — which Martin had embraced after immigrating to the U.S. — produced in the young man a strong moral centre.
This strength would be tested a year before the photograph was taken, when Martin landed in the pages of the New York Times. He was a serious student, and he worked hard, struggling with statistics and English while holding down part-time jobs to help pay expenses. But when Alph Zeta, a national agricultural fraternity, asked him to join its ranks, Martin refused membership — the fraternity excluded non-whites. “When I came to this country thirty months ago,” he wrote the fraternity, “my greatest desire was to serve the country of my choice, to give it everything I have in return for its willingness to open its doors to me….But how are we to serve the cause of agriculture in this country if we lose what we esteem highest: character and tolerance? I lost home and friends due to a denial of tolerance. Prejudice may be human. But if we do not master it, what may become of our good works?”
This strength would be tested a year before the photograph was taken, when Martin landed in the pages of the New York Times. He was a serious student, and he worked hard, struggling with statistics and English while holding down part-time jobs to help pay expenses. But when Alph Zeta, a national agricultural fraternity, asked him to join its ranks, Martin refused membership — the fraternity excluded non-whites. “When I came to this country thirty months ago,” he wrote the fraternity, “my greatest desire was to serve the country of my choice, to give it everything I have in return for its willingness to open its doors to me…. But how are we to serve the cause of agriculture in this country if we lose what we esteem highest: character and tolerance? I lost home and friends due to a denial of tolerance. Prejudice may be human. But if we do not master it, what may become of our good works?”
This was to be the first in a series of public showdowns that pitted Martin’s convictions against institutional or state powers. Just months before his graduation in 1941, he learned that as an “enemy alien” — as German citizens living in the U.S. were deemed — he was required to register for military service. In England, like other young idealists, he had set out to fight on the side of the left in the Spanish Civil War. But on a train carrying him south to a way station for volunteers, he realized that he couldn’t do it. His fighting would have to take non-violent forms.
As fellow Quaker and professor emerita, Ursula Franklin, wrote in an 80th birthday tribute to Martin, he became a Quaker because he was a pacifist rather than the other way around. “Martin understood more astutely than many Friends that pacifism should not be interpreted solely as an approach to war. Pacifism is a way of life; it dictates the pacifist’s response to power, be it when exercising power or being subjected to its external demands. The orders to kill are, of course, the final and most horrible demands of power but Martin saw clearly how many other demands of power need to be resisted as a public witness.”
As required by law, Martin registered with the U.S. authorities but stated, “Conscience…commands loyalty… to the truth as it is revealed to me…. In the spirit of good citizenship… I have registered today in fulfillment of the government’s request…. [But] any compromise assignment would imply a bargain with militarism, which I believe to be utterly wrong.” He was classified as a conscientious objector and, with the approval of his draft board, was allowed to serve out the war travelling through rural Virginia testing milk.
From Rutgers, Martin entered a master’s program in resource economics — his thesis dealt with the soybean — at the University of North Carolina. His thoughts about a career were still evolving. Although the idea of farming continued to be “alluring,” he wrote to a friend, he wondered if he could overcome his “exclusive urban heritage.” His background, he told another, demanded more of him. In the end, he chose the life of an academic and accepted a job as an instructor in economics and rural sociology at a college in Kansas.
By now, he had married Rebecca (Becky) Boone in 1943 and they had two sons, William and John. He had been in the country nearly a decade and decided that America had become his home; he would apply for citizenship. In makng his application, he again declared his pacifism. “I do not believe in this country engaging in armed conflict for any reason and I cannot contribute anything to be used solely and directly in furtherance of armed conflict.” In response to his application, Martin was required to appear in a district court; the government wanted to determine his “attitude toward bearing arms.” The only service he was prepared to give, he told the court, was “any relief of suffering, or any effort of a constructive nature which [does] not require entering the armed forces.” His application for citizenship was denied; Martin had not “established attachment to the principles of the Constitution and favorable disposition toward the good order and happiness of the United States.”
With the assistance of the American Friends Service Committee and the American Civil Liberties Union, Martin took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. On February 20, 1950 in a 5-3 vote, the Supreme Court overturned the Kansas Supreme Court decision. Martin, who was in the process of completing a Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin at the time, was now an American citizen. Ironically, his citizenship coincided with his adopted country’s obsession with “un-American activities.” In a letter to friends, entitled, “Thoughts on Becoming a Citizen,” he wrote wistfully, “America has changed so much since 1937 that I have questioned at times if I had any right to assume the role of a citizen of a political state which is rapidly turning more and more towards authoritarian controls.”
Martin would later see the same authoritarian controls in the powerful, right-wing John Birch Society. He denounced its members at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Los Angeles in 1963. The Los Angeles Times reported: “The Birch Society and other American rightist groups have their origins in the same kind of confusion and emotionalism that led to the rise of Hitlerism in Germany,” a noted Quaker sociologist said here Tuesday. The noted sociologist, of course, was Martin Cohnstaedt.
1967. It should have been clear to those who hired Martin as acting chair of the sociology department at the University of Saskatchewan that he was neither an experienced administrator nor particularly interested in the practice of sociology as a narrow academic discipline. Martin’s career after the Supreme Court decision had followed a traditional trajectory. He had taught at four different colleges and universities, completing a Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Wisconsin along the way. He’d moved through the ranks from instructor to associate professor until he got the job at the Regina campus.
But by now he had come to see sociology as a tool to help people organize and take control of their lives. And as a Quaker and academic, he had taken on a more activist role. In Martin’s previous job at Antioch College in Ohio, and with the encouragement of his department, his research had consisted of working in the black community as an organizer in the War on Poverty (a government initiative), helping poor blacks claim their rights to health care, education and food. In the summer of 1966 he wrote to a Quaker friend, “The experience of organizing poor Negroes in Dayton… has become the highlight of my life so far…. In spite of all the successes, I am pessimistic and see a dark future. I hope I shall be proven wrong.” Elsewhere in his letter, he noted, sadly, that Martin Luther King’s “symbolic power” was waning and a more militant black leadership was taking its place.
From the moment he arrived in Regina, he was at odds with the faculty and administration. He informed the students in the sociology department that henceforth they would participate in all decisions of the department, including hiring and curriculum. A front page article in the student paper, The Carillon, quoted Martin saying, “We can’t run… universities the way we ran them when we were students…. Consumer participation is the key to future democracy.” And he added, “When faculty stop learning, [they] ought to get fired.”
His colleagues were incensed. In theory they subscribed to the notion of participatory democracy. But their radical new German-American chair, who with his bushy beard was now looking more and more like an Old Testament prophet, was proposing to give students power before they’d even asked for it. Faculty had only recently acquired a measure of power themselves. Nor did they think much of Martin’s research activities; he was doing social work — helping aboriginals and low-income single mothers to organize.
Bravely or naively, Martin then suggested to his colleagues, many of whom could be described as armchair Marxists, that the sociology department be run on good Marxist principles (if pressed, Martin would have described himself as a democratic socialist). He proposed that he and the other members of the department pool their salaries and then divide the money according to need. Those with children or elderly parents to support, for instance, might need more than those without. Martin was serious; his colleagues were appalled.
Martin himself now lived alone. He and Becky had divorced in 1961. Their different values had come to affect every aspect of their lives. Martin’s belief in simplicity included owning no property. Becky wanted a house. Martin wanted the boys to attend public schools; Becky enrolled them in private schools.
His status as a bachelor changed the first fall in Regina. Martin met Joy Rowe, a high school art teacher, at a public lecture sponsored by the University. At the end of the evening, they went for coffee. They met again not long after at a conference on the north and community development. Despite their age difference — Joy was twenty-four; Martin was fifty — they shared common values. Both were pacifists and believed in empowering people.
They married in April of 1968 in a modest Quaker ceremony, followed a day later by a civil ceremony. They moved to a rental property on a hill overlooking the town of Lumsden in the Qu’Appelle Valley, not far from from Regina. Joy and Martin came to love the place, with its view below of trucks and railway cars hauling grain to and from the elevators. So when their landlord tried to evict them a few months later, they bought the house for $5,000, despite Martin’s reservations about owning property. Martin had grown a bushy beard and looked like an Old Testament prophet. Joy wore her hair and her skirts long. Puzzled neighbours referred to them as “those hippies.”
They furnished the home with what they affectionately called “the family burden,” heavy and expensive German oak and cherry pieces that Else had brought with her to America. (That was all she was allowed to bring.) Living in Lumsden energized Martin. His interest in agriculture was revived; he met with farmers and others to promote chemical-free agricultural practices, something of a heresy in the late sixties and early seventies. Later he, Joy and three others financed and ran a small dairy on a homestead near Yorkton; they supplied the neighbouring area with goat’s milk, cheese and meat.
1969. While Martin’s home life was in order, his colleagues at work had had enough of his talk of organizing communities and empowering students. Two years after he took his post, they charged him with incompetence. The university established an Internal review committee, which concluded that the criticism was unjustified. Regardless, the administration had lost confidence in Martin and relieved him of his responsibilities as acting chair.
His departmental colleagues, however, wanted to be rid of him entirely. Unfortunately, Martin had tenure. In the absence of just cause, the only ways to get rid of someone who has tenure is to make things so unpleasant that he or she chooses to leave. That became the strategy. In early 1970, Martin was shifted out of his office and into a windowless, narrow cubbyhole.
Stripped of administrative duties, Martin turned all of his attention to his research and the classroom. He loved teaching. His approach, like his approach to community development, was deeply rooted in his democratic and Quaker beliefs. Learning, to be meaningful, had to be a broad and shared experience. What Martin and his students might choose to read and discuss and work with could never be described a priori in a traditional course outline. Sometimes it reached into the community or turned on the particular background or personal experience of individual students. Martin encouraged one student, John Ferguson, a teacher with an interest in adult education, to meet the language requirement for his BA in Cree rather than, say, French or German. This was groundbreaking. And it raised some eyebrows.
Martin feuded with the new chair of the sociology department about his approach to teaching. Terse memos flew between their offices. At issue was whether Martin was fulfilling his obligations to the university. In February 1971, in a fresh attempt to oust him from the university, Martin was suspended from teaching.
Although he remained on salary, the university continued to treat him as a non-person. He was shunned by colleagues. Martin applied for a Leave Fellowship from the Canada Council to do community research. In a letter to an academic friend in Maryland, asking him to support the application, he wrote, “I have been kept busy with local troubles. These tribulations have been made bearable by our becoming the parents of three lovable children — all in nine months time. Robert (10) and Dolores (8) walked into our home in October 1970…. We did not know then that we were pregnant with our 16 month old youngest… Lina Nicolette (Nicci).” Martin didn’t explain what he meant by “local troubles” — it wasn’t his nature — or that Robert and Dolores, the children they’d taken in, were Métis children who had already been shunted from foster home to foster home.
Another professional colleague, Herbert Blumer, of the University of California at Berkeley, supported Martin’s Canada Council application, but added, “The only significant shortcoming in the candidate… is a deficiency in his ability to express clearly the nature of some of his more original thought. He can be obscure, sometimes at crucial points. In no way do I regard this shortcoming in exposition as implying a fuzzy mind. Instead, I think it is a case of dealing with an uncharted area in which one has to grope for new ways of formulation and presentation.” Martin’s application was unsuccessful.
Another review committee was appointed, this one outside the university. It advised the university that Martin had been treated unfairly and should not be dismissed. not to seek Martin’s dismissal. As a result, Martin and the university signed an agreement which entitled him to continue as a member of the sociology department until July 1, 1974, when he might be assigned to another department. He would continue to teach. In exchange, Martin agreed to apply for early retirement when he turned sixty at the end of the 1977-78 academic year.
But Martin wasn’t assigned teaching responsibilities in 1972 or 1973, nor was he assigned to another department in 1974. He simply continued doing his community development work with non-status Indian and Métis peoples in northern Saskatchewan. A grant from the Kellogg Foundation enabled him to hire two community organizers he’d worked with in the U.S., Miles Horton and Tom Ludwig. Martin’s goal was to help the leadership of the native communities take control of their own living conditions; it included helping them organize opposition to uranium mining.
While the trials at work continued, Joy and Martin acquired a second, neighbouring house — just as rundown as the first — and shared it with people in need. At various times it was used to house a graduate student and his wife; as part of “green relief” program, which provided vegetables to low income families in Regina; and as home to an immigrant Vietnamese family sponsored by the town. They also had a large garden of their own. “Every year they gardened with such bounty,” says Nicci, their younger daughter, now twenty-nine, “that by the end of the fall harvest, I was standing on street corners trying to give produce away.”
Because the university hadn’t lived up to its agreement, Martin launched legal action in 1975. Another agreement was drawn up in May 1977. It stated that Martin was to be assigned duties by the Dean of Arts and the Dean of Social Work. His performance would be re-evaluated after April 30, 1978. If the deans judged his performance to be “inadequate,” he would required to retire effective June 30, 1978. Again Martin wasn’t assigned any teaching or other responsibilities. He simply continued doing his community development work with non-status Indian and Metis peoples in northern Saskatchewan, which took him to such places as Sandy Bay, Ile a la Crosse and Cluff lake. A grant from the Kellogg Foundation allowed him to hire two community organizers he had worked with in the U.S., Miles Horton and Tom Ludwig.
At home the day before the June 30 deadline, Martin, now sixty, received a registered letter. As his children ran about the house, excited that school was over and summer holidays had begun, he tore open the envelope. Inside, he found a note informing him that his employment with the university was being terminated as of the next day. At first he was in shock. He wrote the University, pointing out that the meagre pension he was entitled to left him no choice but “to look for immediate employment of some sort which would allow me to keep up my obligations to my family. I have no other source of income. At my age this will be difficult…. I shall be denied that opportunity which professors in retirement may normally expect: time and financial security in which to round out and refine those interests developed through a lifetime of activity in the academic world.”
A few weeks later, despondent, he tried to drown himself in Last Mountain Lake near his home. He swam a mile out, hoping he wouldn’t have the strength to make his way back; his death would look like an accident. He changed his mind midway and swam back. He told Joy, who was now the breadwinner in the family, that he felt as his father must have felt; he had become a burden and his family would be better off without him. But he had decided to fight the university for wrongful dismissal.
Early in the new year, he sued for wrongful dismissal. The trial took place in November 1981. In response to a question from his lawyer, John Beke, about the effects his dismissal had had on his health, he replied, “Rather severe ones which I wasn’t aware of until [later], when I had a number of symptoms physical and emotional, mental depressions and weakness, and my legs gave out, and I started having severe problems of memory, which still occur in an unpredictable fashion….” His doctor had put him on anti-depressants.
He lost that trial. It took years for an appeal to be heard. When it was, in 1986, the court ruled in Martin’s favour, awarding him a settlement of some $330,000 to compensate for the salary and pension benefits lost as a result of his forced early retirement. This should have been the end of it. But the University appealed the decision. Four more years went by before the appeal was heard. In early 1986, the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal upheld the lower court ruling. By now Joy and Martin were living in Winnipeg, where Joy was working as a deputy minister in the Manitoba government. In response to the news that his appeal had been upheld, Martin told the Winnipeg Free Press that he’d paid “a high price…. It’s placed a burden on my family, and the longer it went on the more debilitated I became.” Cohnstaedt, the Free Press continued, “attributed the longstanding conflict with his sociology colleagues to internal politics and differences in academic philosophy.”
But the University appealed again, this time to the Supreme Court of Canada. To further complicate matters, Martin was now engaged in a two-front war, both on issues of principle. He was active in Conscience Canada, an organization devoted to withholding tax dollars that would otherwise go for military purposes. The Department of National Revenue was demanding payment of the 12.2% of his taxes withheld in 1983 and 1984. Martin replied that he hadn’t withheld the money; he’d paid it “to a Peace Tax Fund in trust for the Government of Canada in accordance with the dictates of [his] conscience, to be used for non-military purposes.” He wasn’t going to pay twice. Revenue Canada was adamant; he had to pay. “I object to these efforts of collection….,” Martin replied, pointing out that Revenue Canada’s request contravened Section 2 of Canada’s new Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guaranteed freedom of conscience. He insisted that the government had an obligation to amend the Income Tax Act to conform to the Charter. Revenue Canada refused to budge and went after Martin and Joy’s bewildered tenants in Lumsden. “Martin was ferocious in his adherence to principle,” says Joy, “but when he saw that innocent third parties were being dragged in to the dispute, he gave in.”
1995. On his 78th birthday, Joy and Nicci helped Martin walk into the chambers of the Supreme Court in Ottawa to hear the final verdict in his case against the university (it was now called the University of Regina). He had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s soon after he and Joy moved to Toronto from Winnipeg in 1989. (Joy had left her position as a deputy minister in the Manitoba government to take over as dean of fine arts at York University. Martin’s condition had slowly deteriorated. One day he woke up and forgot that he’d smoked a pipe most of his adult life. Sometimes he would dress two and three times — pants layered over pants, shirts over shirts — forgetting he already had clothes on. When he could still remember his way home, he would walk to the store, buy some buttermilk for Joy, bring it home, put it in the fridge, and then repeat the whole exercise. The fridge would be filled with buttermilk when she got home. The government took his driver’s licence away, a decision that infuriated him. One day Joy came home to find him with two salesmen who had convinced him to buy a $1500 vacuum cleaner. Years before, she’d had to sneak a vacuum cleaner into the house in Lumsden, so opposed was he to owning such frivolous contraptions.
Gradually, Martin forgot everything: how to use the toilet, how to walk, how to stand, how to speak. Martin is a large man, over six feet tall. When he fell, his 200 pounds became dead weight; getting him back on his feet was no easy matter. At different times three of his children — John from his first marriage; Bob, the son he and Joy adopted; and Nicci, their youngest — gave up their lives in San Francisco and Vancouver to look after Martin at home while Joy was at work.
In the courtroom that day, Martin had no idea where he was or why, but Nicci and Joy thought it was important for him to be present. Twenty years after he first initiated legal action, the Supreme Court of Canada awarded him $208,872 plus costs. There were no further appeals although the University of Regina continued to assert that the “Cohnstaedt case” proved how difficult it was to get rid of a faculty member. To which Joy responds, “The fact that they breached two basic principles of university life — due process and academic freedom — seems to have escaped them.”
1997. Joy and all five of Martin’s children (and one of his six grandchildren are gathered on the grounds of West Park Hospital, to celebrate his 80th birthday. Martin sits in a wheelchair and delights in the birds being fed by his daughter Dolores. Those assembled share tributes from friends — including the one from Ursula Franklin — and from former students. Margery Robinson, one of the low-income single mothers he’d helped, wrote that she was glad to have been “one of his students… not in the classroom, but rather in the ‘school of hard knocks’ where the practicality of concepts were tested and not found wanting.” The most moving tribute was written by Nicci. “Dad never wanted to be a burden,” she wrote. “I know that he would rather be dead right now than living as he is. Suicide is common in the last generation on my father’s side. Not only is it common, in some ways it is a mark of honour. I realized that he decided against suicide because of the toll it would take on our family. It took me longer to figure out that his gift to me is his life. If I allowed myself to feel burdened by his living, he would have given his gift in vain. As my Dad has moved further from me, I have somehow felt closer to him. When Dad stopped speaking, I began to hear him.” At one point during the party, Martin said “Joy,” a word he hadn’t spoken in months and has never spoken since.
Martin never talked much about what he’d lived through. His closest friends and his children were unfamiliar with large portions of the story told here. His Quaker faith had taught him to accept whatever life dealt him and to look for the spark of God that was to be found in every human being, even those others might think of as enemies. Difficult though that ideal was, he tried to live up to it.
At some point Martin must have recognized the limits of what one person can do. Among his papers, I found this quotation by William James: “I am done with great things and big things, great institutions and big success, and I am for those tiny, invisible, molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many soft rootlets…which, if you give them time, will rend the hardest monuments of man’s pride.”
According to the Talmud there are thirty-six just men and women — tzaddikim — alive at any one time. They are the pillars of society, holding it up. No one knows who they are, not even the tzaddikim themselves. I didn’t know Martin Cohnstaedt when he was well. But when I’m in his room, I feel that I’m in the presence of tzaddik. Even when he’s trying to eat his stuffed cow.
I have lived with Joy Cohnstaedt since September 1998. I wrote this piece so that Martin’s children from his first marriage, the children he and Joy raised together, and my children will know the story of this remarkable man.
This is a slightly altered version of the article that appeared in Toronto Life in October 2000.