Contemplating Life and Death in Puerto Rico

Benjamin B. Ferencz

In 1969, on arriving at the airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico, I was carried off a plane on a stretcher on instructions of an unknown doctor who entertained the notion that I might be on the verge of death. It was a rather severe winter and I had promised my wife and our 15 year old daughter Nina that we would take a little vacation. By the time we arrived at New York’s Kennedy airport, the snow was coming down hard. Soon the field was completely closed down. We had a choice of accommodations: we could freeze in the seat of an unheated plane or we could freeze on the airport floor. For two days and nights the new PanAm terminal was jammed with irate passengers sprawled over every available space. No planes or rescue helicopters could land. Soon, all eating facilities were stripped as though by famished vultures. I tramped through deep snow searching the airport for food for my hungry family. When, after three days, the order finally came across the loudspeaker that our plane was ready for takeoff, the passengers would have let out a cheer, if any of them had any strength left.

The flight, loaded with weary passengers, was uneventful until we began a turbulent descent into San Juan. A man in the seat in front of me signaled a stewardess that he was feeling faint. Fortunately a passenger in the adjoining aisle announced that he was a doctor. After a brief examination he concluded that the passenger needed no further attention. Seeing all this, I informed the good Samaritan doctor that I too was not feeling well. He felt my wrist, looked very puzzled, then frantically told the stewardess that he was unable to find my pulse, that I was possibly having a heart attack, and I should be rushed to a hospital as soon as possible. Remembering our descent into Berlin by parachute (that might have been the subliminal cause for my anxiety), I guess I should have been grateful that I didn’t have to jump out the rear door. I had read somewhere that a patient having a heart attack should not move since even the slightest motion might prove fatal. I did not stir a muscle. As soon as the plane touched down, medics rushed in and whisked me into the waiting ambulance. From there on in, my immobility was so precise that it might have been taken as a preview of my next life.

My poor wife and anxious daughter were crowded into the ambulance with me. I provided so much entertainment that no one thought about our luggage. I was soon unloaded at the nearest hospital. I had no reservation. They had no room. The Intensive Care unit was also completely occupied. The best they could do was to put me on a gurney in the hall. They did provide a young Puerto Rican nurse to ensure my presence among the living by keeping her fingers on my pulse. I guess that if it stopped beating she was to make the gurney immediately available for somebody else. It was nightfall. My wife and daughter had no luggage, very little cash, and no place to stay. I had the credit cards. They finally found a small motel nearby, and the only thing left for me to do under the circumstances was to try to get some sleep and hope for the best.

In the morning I was feeling fine. I knew there was a waiting list for the Intensive Care section, so I talked to my attending physician and urged him to release me so that I could rejoin my family who were concerned about my health and their luggage. He finally agreed to release me on parole, but I had to promise to stay close to the hospital in case another emergency should arise. My wife found space in a very nice hotel next door to the hospital. The next two weeks were spent lolling in the sun, chatting with my family, and watching the waves. I spent the time on Candado Beach contemplating life and death, and the possibility that my time had run out; and perhaps I had been given another chance.

The Puerto Rican experience may have been the last straw needed to push me toward a clear conclusion about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Perhaps it was just a case of mid-life crisis. I decided that life was too short to spend it doing things that provided no satisfaction. I don’t mean that every moment must be filled with pure joy, but one should look forward to going to work in the morning knowing that the time will be spent productively in pursuit of a worthwhile goal. Despite inevitable and unavoidable frustrations, I mostly enjoyed my work on behalf of the victims of crimes against humanity. Now, having spent over two decades as a pioneer in those endeavors, I felt I should gradually turn the reins over to others. I did not wish to stay on to scrape what seemed to me to be the bottom of the barrel. Our four children had all received a good education and were growing increasingly independent. By living frugally, we had managed to save some money which we had invested cautiously. I had no fear about striking out in a new direction. But what should it be and how to go about launching a new career at age 50?

It seemed to me that I should try to build on what I already knew. I had seen the horrors of war. I learned about the mentality of unrepentant mass murderers who were prepared to kill large numbers of innocent people in order to achieve their own misguided goals. I knew about war crimes trials and the rule of law. I had witnessed the suffering of humankind and I knew something about the new ideas called “Human Rights.” Most important of all, I recognized how inadequate were the means available to curb the evils that continued to dominate human society. I considered it quite hypocritical to condemn genocide and other crimes against humanity as long as there was no court to try the offenders. It seemed an enormous tragedy to denounce war as the supreme international crime, yet allow wars to flourish. If I could harness my experience and my legal training to help fashion a more humane and peaceful world, that would be a goal worth pursuing. Even if the goals could never be attained in my lifetime, it would still be worthwhile if some progress could be made. How does one man begin?