July 11, 2002
Dear Seeds family,
As many of you may now know, yesterday at 3 p.m, my father, John Wallach, died. He was the Founder and President of Seeds of Peace. Most of you knew him personally. I am slightly overwhelmed right now, but I hope I can convey to you how deeply he loved each one of you, and how passionately he believed in you. Each of you knows him from Camp in your own way, and in the way that we shared him—as the inspirational leader, the man who insisted you work harder, reach out more, and believe more deeply in yourself and in your friends. He felt this with his whole being. He had no regrets after spending time with you, after speaking to you, after building this program. He knew that you were his dreams come true.
My father was not always a peace activist. He was the son of Holocaust survivors, who had escaped from Europe only by the smallest margin of luck. He used to share the story of my grandparents’ escape with me, always ending it with the phrase “it’s amazing that we’re alive!” If you think deeply, you will recognize his voice in that sentence for yourself. My father used to tell me that when he was little, he would lay awake in bed, sneaking the radio under the covers. Late at night, listening to jazz, he would wonder how amazing it was that he was here. He would think to himself about all the people in the world who had died, about all the adults who had been killed before having children, about all the children who had never grown up to be parents. He told me many times how he wondered what he’d done to deserve his chance on this earth.
He didn’t want to be a journalist at first. He wanted to be an actor. He gave everything he had to performing the role of King Lear in one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays. A big New York City director named Elia Kazan watched him, stopped everyone, and said, “that man is going to be a great actor someday.” Six months later, he was kicked out of drama school. They said his head was too much in control of his heart. Perhaps that’s why he approached his life with so much heart. He had a radio show where he pretended to be on an airplane with the people he interviewed, and made the airplane noises himself. He had an antiques store in Washington, D.C., and sold antiques to a young woman lawyer named Madeleine Albright. Not long after, he became a reporter, and his first big story almost got him fired. He had heard that the American President, Lyndon Johnson, had considered stopping the Vietnam War, but had decided against it. John wrote a front page story. Johnson, the President, was so upset at the bad press that he asked the head of the newspaper to fire him. “Get rid of that whippersnapper,” Johnson said. I don’t think it was the first mischievous pro-peace thing my dad did, and it certainly wasn’t the last.
Later in his life, more presidents, and the CIA wished he had been fired. In the 1980s he broke a newspaper story in America about how the U.S. government had illegally shipped weapons to the Contras in Nicaragua, and how the CIA had secretly mined Nicaraguan harbors. It was called the Iran-Contra Scandal, and for his reporting, he won the Overseas Press Club Award.
In 1985, my father began working for peace in a different way, starting a dialogue program between U.S. and Soviet diplomats, and an exchange between American and Soviet artists. It was called the Chataqua Conference, and thousands of Soviet citizens came to a small town in New York to meet Americans for the first time. Together, they listened to bluegrass music and talked about the future, and shook hands for the first time. Soon after, my father started a newspaper called WE, which was the first paper published in both the Soviet Union and the United States. To raise publicity for the paper, he brought American jazz artists to Moscow. People were so excited that they filled the thousand-seat auditorium night after night. I remember them singing—I was 14 as I stood in the back of the theater. They clapped in unison in Moscow, but by the end of each show, their hearts had been so touched by the message, and their excitement so built-up by the music, that they stood on the seats of their chairs cheering, screaming and demanding more. Seeing that was the first time I ever cried out of happiness.
Of course, the newspaper was such a radical step forward that the KGB began to grow worried, and soon the Soviet editions ended because “Russia had run out of paper.” In 1993, after the Soviet Union collapsed, he was invited to Moscow by Mikhael Gorbachev and given its highest award, the Soviet Medal of Freedom. As Gorbachav got off the stage, my dad pulled him aside and opened up his coat. Inside were five baseballs! Yes, he had hidden five baseballs in his pockets. Strangely, he asked Gorbachev to sign them. I sat in the back of the room watching. “What are you doing?” I asked. I was incredibly embarrassed for me and my father. “Oh, I have this friend in Washington,” he said. “He loves baseballs, and I owe him a favor because he gave me money to help start a new project I have …”
That new project was Seeds of Peace. In the middle of a cocktail party, he had chimed his glass, stopped the chatter, and publicly asked the Israeli, Egyptian and Palestinian ambassadors if they would send him 20 kids each to meet the other side. My father had written three books about the Middle East, and he knew that to get some real progress he was going to have to put people on the spot. Embarrassed in front of the crowd, but trusting my father, they one by one said yes. He didn’t want them to even consider taking back their commitment, so he wrote a story in the newspapers about it the next day. Not long after, he met Bobbie Gottschalk, and then Tim Wilson. That first year, they put together Camp with 45 kids. That September the kids were on the White House lawn. Yitzhak Rabin said, “Witnessing these young people standing here together gives me hope that one day we will have peace.” As Rabin and Arafat walked by, my dad, in his usual way, jumped out and stuffed Seeds of Peace t-shirts in their hands. Before they knew it, Yitzhak Rabin, Yasser Arafat and Bill Clinton were standing together holding Seeds of Peace t-shirts, poster boys for peace. Bill Clinton grew to know Seeds of Peace and my father very closely, presenting him with a peace award in 2001.
In 1994, my dad had to make a decision—he couldn’t continue his career as a journalist AND run Seeds of Peace. It was one or the other. He had been a journalist for 26 years. It gave him a good salary, with benefits for when he got old. He was a member of the White House press corps, at the top of his profession. His articles were printed around the country. Important people like Henry Kissinger and Vice President Bush spoke to him about their opinions.
Seeds of Peace was just a summer camp with 45 kids. But it had heart. It promised something that nothing else in the world could—a chance to end killing, to end generations of sadness, to give people hope. He chose Seeds of Peace.
For the past 10 years, he has worked night and day to make Seeds of Peace a reality. He called hundreds of his friends, asking if they could help in any way. Some people donated sports items, some people donated paintings, some people donated time to live in their homes, so my dad created auctions for people to buy the gifts and give the money to Seeds of Peace. Slowly, he built up enough funding to run the program every year. Every June and July, we would have Camp. Every September, John would go back to his friends and ask for something more. Slowly, his friends began to rally around his efforts, and Seeds of Peace grew to be more and more secure. The auctions grew bigger and bigger. Musicians began to donate their time, and soon we had concerts and shows to support Seeds of Peace. For the last three years, Seeds of Peace has sold out Carnegie Hall—a 2,000 seat auditorium—in what is probably the biggest American pro-peace rally each year. And Seeds of Peace, of course, has grown and grown.
With each one of you coming to Camp and meeting kids from the other side for yourself, another spirit entered the dream. Who could say now that my father wasn’t following his heart? Every summer, hundreds of young Seeds stood in Maine, side-by-side in green t-shirts shirts, singing the same songs, playing the same games, trying, for the first times in their lives, to discuss the conflict with people from the other side. How did it feel? You tell me. For my father, it was the most exciting moments of his life.
He had seen the violence up close while he was a journalist. I remember meeting one of his friends who had had his arm blown off in a letter bomb. And I remember getting a video tape from the FBI about how to open the mail in case someone wanted to attack us. But now, thanks to your courage as well as his, my father was looking out at Israelis and Arabs standing next to each other, playing ping pong, swimming in the lake. When he said “look around, think how lucky we are to be here,” he really meant it. Now, think how much those days mean. Take some time to think about how lucky WE were to be there, with him, thanks to him—thanks to his belief that we have to live with heart and with courage. We simply aren’t awake if we don’t. As my dad got older, he grew to understand this idea more and more deeply. He repeated his idea to make one friend a thousand times, because he knew that if you open your heart to someone, then you will see life in a whole new way. You will cherish your friend, you will cherish the grass, you will cherish the lake, the songs—even the food. Most of all, you will cherish the short time that you have with the people around you, whether at Camp, or at home, or anywhere you are in the world.
My dad’s friend Bernie, who was a reporter with him, told me today that all the other reporters (including Bernie) were always a little bit jealous of John. No matter where they went in the world, John always knew more people the minute they got off the plane. Dad knew everyone, and he wanted to be friends with everyone. I even remember learning chess, when I was very little, from a Russian spy that my dad used to have over to the house for dinner. He had big thick hands which moved the pieces around. Vladimir was his name, and he always told me, “you can’t just think about one part of the game; you have to think about all the pieces, everywhere, all the time.” My dad told me, as he grew more reflective about his life, that he had always felt like he had a ticking clock inside him, that time was running out. He had felt that way since he was a little boy. Perhaps that’s why he fought so hard to do so much. “Just give me two years,” he kept saying, “just give me two years.”
He died exactly two years from his diagnosis with cancer. While the cancer grew in my dad, his sickness gave him an ever-deeper understanding of what it meant to act with heart. He said he always cherished watching Camp dialogue sessions, understanding that everyone needed to shout and to yell and to cry and cry and cry. “It’s a detox program,” he wrote, “to get rid of all the hatred that we have built up inside.” If only he could have cried away his cancer. Instead, that job lies with all of us. We are his life continued, and more than that, we are his dream.
As I grew closer to my dad before he died, I began to understand that the greatest gift he had given me was the ability to love. Slowly, effortlessly, he had taught me how to love a thousand things—how to love Shakespeare, how to love his favorite poet, Robert Frost, how to love newspapers, how to love acting, how to love the sky and the lake, and the trees. He taught me how to love Israelis, and Palestinians, and people from around the world. He taught me how to love taxi drivers by talking to them like old friends; he taught me how to love my mom, by seeing how deeply and passionately she cared for him; he taught me how to love Seeds of Peace, and he taught me how to love each of you. I’m not kidding. I wasn’t interested in Seeds of Peace when it started—it was only through my dad that I slowly came to understand what it meant to live a life with heart. I have forgotten a thousand things, I am sure, but the one thing I will never forget is John.
He didn’t need to teach any of us how to love him. It came too naturally. It is your job now to live with your heart. John can’t do anything for you but spur you on, the way he always has, by repeating, “go make one friend,” or “breathe deeply” or, “aren’t we lucky to be here, to be alive,” in your head. He can only urge you on, saying again and again to, “cherish your time here!” “You’ve only got three weeks!” How much he repeats those sayings is up to each of you now. And how much you live with your heart, taking chances with your heart, being courageous with your heart—those are all up to you.
If you fail, and the KGB says to you, “you have to shut down,” or the famous director tells you, “you were thinking too much,” then all you have to do is go back to your heart, or remember my dad, and think about what he might tell you. He wants you to do that. He wants to help. As he always did, he wants to be involved with life, with the most exciting, courageous, heartfelt thing he could think of.
When my dad fell very ill, we took him to the hospital. He could barely speak, and began fighting and fighting. Like each of you in coexistence, he didn’t want to be there, and he didn’t want to think about what he was thinking about. His body grew weaker and weaker, but still he fought and fought. He tried to get out of the bed 30 or 40 times, but his body wouldn’t let him. His body wouldn’t move. Yesterday afternoon, he fell into a deep sleep, basically unconscious. My mother and my brother and my dad’s sister watched him in bed, fighting in his sleep, dealing perhaps with all of the demons in the world, from the demons that haunted his parents, to the things he had seen happen in the Middle East, to the murder of his personal friends Anwar Sadat and Yitzhak Rabin, to the demons that decided to pluck him from the earth at only 59 and steal from us someone who loved with all his heart, giving him cancer in his lungs even though he never smoked.
But after a night of fighting and fighting, completely unwakeable and not answering to any shouts we made, somewhere in there, he chose to fight a different fight. He fought to say goodbye to all of us. This morning, on Wednesday, he opened his eyes just a little bit. He looked at my mom and me and his sister. His friends Bernie Kalb and Aaron Miller sat by his side. They spoke to him and he understood them. We asked if he was comfortable and he nodded that he was. We sang the Seeds of Peace song to him and reminded him of all of you. My mother, his wife of 26 years, held his hand and asked him to blow everyone a kiss. Softly, but as best he could, he blew four quiet kisses. I looked in his eye and saw a tear forming. I could tell how badly he wanted to say, “I love you” to everyone who had ever been a part of his life.
Keep going everyone. John is with you.
With all of my love, and all of John’s,