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In The Constant Choice, Peter Georgescu offers a ...
In The Constant Choice, Peter Georgescu offers a gripping narrative of his journey from childhood captivity in a Romanian labor camp to his role as CEO of the world-renowned advertising agency Young & Rubicam. His traumatic youth—his parents’ exile from their homeland, his grandfather’s murder in prison, his neighbors’ betrayal of one another—led to a lifelong struggle to grasp humanity’s moral nature. Despite his conviction when he arrived on American soil that he had reached the land of the good, he discovered a more subtle evil at work all around him. Yet he also thrived through the generosity of one benefactor after another. Goodness, he found, isn’t inherent; it evolves from daily choice.
Through decades of reflection on human behavior, as well as philosophical and spiritual exploration, Peter arrived at a new perspective on the significance of our habitual choices. Every decision we make alters our biological nature, for better or worse—a model that has been confirmed by recent science.
The Constant Choice reveals a path for changing who we are and the future of humanity. It’s up to each of us to become activists for good.
THE DAY THEY TOOK MY FATHER AWAY IN 1941 MUST HAVE felt like any other day. I was a little two-year-old, full of fun, living with my brother, Costa, and my grandparents in the Romanian village of Lipova in Transylvania, where Romania shares its border with Hungary. My parents, still in Bucharest, the capital of Romania, had sent us there for our safety. So when the police arrested Rica Georgescu at his home, I was far away, probably playing with toy soldiers in my grandfather's enormous library or helping my brother water the rose garden. On that particular day, I likely felt safe, happy to be living in that little village. By sending us to Lipova when World War II began, my parents had hoped to shield us from Hitler and the Romanian fascists. As it turned out, they kept us from seeing our father being led away to prison.
So, in a strange way, the day of my father's arrest may have been quite happy and pleasant for me. Soon enough, I was told about it, and the long puzzlement of my life began. But my first thought, when our mother described how he'd been taken to prison, may have been that I couldn't immediately see any difference in my world. My father had been gone from my life already. All of this took place in 1941, when the war was just getting started, and Costa and I had been living without him for weeks, maybe months.
According to my mother's recollection, she arrived from Bucharest and sat us in the kitchen to say our father had been arrested. Even at that age, I must have felt my mother's warmth and charm. When I was older, I recognized how extraordinary she was with her intelligent eyes, a penetrating gaze, and a talent for immediately seeing into another person's character. She also had a gift for conversation, and she used it to help my father many times while he was in prison. Obviously, at that age, I was blind to her heroism. I can recall my mother now from my encounters with her as a teen and an adult. Looking back, I know my impression of her, then, was of the woman she became as she rose to the challenge we all faced.
"Did he do something bad?" Costa asked.
"No. He's a very good man."
"But if he's been good, how could they take him away?"
I didn't know it at the time, but I would keep asking that question for the rest of my life.
"Because they are bad people," she said. "Don't worry. He'll be fine. He'll be free someday."
Even though I was too young to understand my father's arrest, I believed her. And she was right, although at that age, my hopes had a shaky foothold. As I got a little older, I had a simplistic, youthful assurance that good and evil were easily recognized and that eventually God would intervene, in this world, on behalf of the good. Therefore my father would be saved. My faith foretold a happy outcome for my family because we were good. I didn't see that my father was persecuted because he was good.
These earliest experiences of the darker side of human nature were showing me one of its most subtle and significant characteristics: evil is often hard to see, especially when your personal life doesn't appear to be immediately disrupted by it. Evil can be at its worst, and most dangerous, when you don't even know it's changing you and your life. In a sense, my first encounters with evil were in situations where it was reorganizing my world and I wasn't even aware of it—a situation I was to face again and again both in Europe and America. It's a fundamental challenge of human life: to choose against evil, you first have to recognize it.
* * *
Living apart from one's parents was not an unusual arrangement in our family. It was becoming something of a tradition for us. We Georgescu men came of age through exile and separation from our families, against a backdrop of war and political turmoil. Much earlier, with social upheaval on the horizon in Romania, my father's own parents knew how vulnerable the Balkan states would be in the event of war, so they'd sent my father to a boarding school, Warwick Academy, outside London. His full name was Valeriu, but it had morphed into a more intimate Valerica, shortened eventually to the nickname Rica. He grew up in England, developed a British accent, and came to identify completely with the values of personal liberty and individual rights. He was raised to believe in freedom, alongside children of the British upper class. Although he spent most of his youth in Great Britain, far from his parents, he intended to return to Romania after the turmoil of the First World War subsided.
With some of the richest oil reserves in Europe, Romania then had a lot in common with Saudi Arabia today. As a student, my father knew he could use that oil as his ticket home, so he studied petroleum engineering at the University of Birmingham. When he graduated, he fulfilled his dream by taking a job with Standard Oil in Romania, assigned to manage oil fields in Ploesti. He commuted to his work from nearby Bucharest, a sophisticated metropolis known as the Paris of Eastern Europe. He hadn't been there for long before he met a young woman named Lygia Bocu, just back from the Sorbonne in Paris. At the time she was being courted by Prince Nicolae, the younger brother of king Carol II, who ruled the nation more or less as a figurehead, in the manner of British royalty. Even though, if she'd surrendered to this romance, she could have become something like the Romanian equivalent of Princess Di. She chose a life with my father, a mere oil executive.
A cynic might say she was a clever lady; she chose the real power. Others who knew her better would have recognized it as true love. My brother, Costa, was born in 1934. As a young man he would turn out to be serious, brilliant, bookish, and pious to the point of wanting to be a priest at an early age. I was something else entirely. Born in 1939, a skinny imp full of antics, a little clown, I was the one with the unruly imagination, the playful one my mother showered with love. When war began, my father's Romanian job with Standard Oil of New Jersey (later Esso and Exxon) kept him in Bucharest. My parents sent Costa and me to live with my maternal grandparents in Lipova.
My family, on my mother's side, was intimately connected to what was going on at the highest levels of government. We were virtually a part of the royal retinue, even though our mother's lineage traced back to peasant stock, not the aristocracy. We had deep ties with the Peasant Party, whose leader, Iuliu Maniu, had headed the Romanian government until king Carol II set up a dictatorship in 1937. As the second world war started, Ion Antonescu took over, supported by the Iron Guard, a fascist movement that assassinated its opponents and seized power just in time to align Romania with the Germans. Maniu went into hiding and established connections between members of the Peasant Party and the Allied forces, especially England and America.
Willingly drawn into the resistance, my father, with Maniu, helped set up a radio transmitter that became a key link between the British in Turkey and Romanian nationalists aligned with the Allies. That radio was crucial to an effort to organize an uprising. The transmitter looked like a pile of spare parts, but when certain wires were connected, it worked perfectly. But a Romanian girl who learned about the radio by sleeping with a British agent in Istanbul, had been sleeping, as well, with a member of the Gestapo. She tipped off the Germans about the transmitter.
My father was arrested and charged with treason, and he spent the rest of the war imprisoned at Malmaison—the Bad House—still working clandestinely with the OSS to defeat the fascists. He was, in fact, a resistance leader from his cell during those years. All of this may sound thrilling, but I remember only the great void of his absence—the withdrawal of someone who could have carried me on his shoulders, taught me to fish, play soccer, and then, later, to fly a plane and drive a car. He could do all of that and more, but we had so little time together when I was growing up that he had few chances to tutor me about anything. During the war years, I got to know him mostly from his photographs.
My mother, as well, became a distant figure, spending so much time in Bucharest, working secretly with my father to help free her people. It was the beginning of a pattern that never went away: The grand opera of my parents' life always seemed to take place somewhere far from mine.
As someone working for an American company, my father would have been killed if Antonescu, the Romanian fascist dictator, hadn't been so circumspect about all possible outcomes to the conflict. He represented himself as loyal to the Germans, but he hedged his bets by keeping my father alive. It was a shrewd way of showing the Americans how much he had sympathized with the Allies, all along, in the event of a German defeat. Meanwhile, my father continued helping the resistance with Frank Wisner Sr., an American OSS operative who would emerge later to become one of the four founders of the Central Intelligence Agency. My mother smuggled messages into my father's cell, on slips of paper hidden in cigarette packs and matchbooks, and then she memorized whatever he told her for delivery to Wisner and the Romanian nationalists plotting a coup against the German forces. It was an effort aided by the Allied intelligence network based in Turkey, led by Wisner.
Antonescu's shrewd intellectual duplicity reflected Romania's uncertain identity and position in the world. On a vacation in Syria a number of years ago, I finally achieved a clear, simple vision of Romania's predicament. Our guide was telling us about the fate of his country, how for thousands of years the Persians, Romans, Turks, Greeks, Crusaders, and the usual assortment of barbarians had all trudged through Syria on the way to somewhere else. As a convenient stop along the Silk Route to the Mediterranean, it became a kind of way station between East and West. Our guide summed it up: "Everyone goes through Syria to get to the sea." With few exceptions, the Syrians simply adapt to whomever has the most influence over them at any given time, because they are tiny and ill equipped to defend their borders from greater powers. Foreigners were welcome to fight other foreigners on Syrian soil. Who were the Syrians to say no?
It's the curse of the country at the crossroads, and I realized this was precisely Romania's curse. It was one of many countries in the world serving mostly as a route, a corridor, between empires. Antonescu, like others before him, was being realistic about his nation's situation. In his view, Romania didn't have the power to say no to Hitler or Stalin or—deeper into the past—the Austro-Hungarians and Turks. Romania was a pawn on a chessboard with powerful rulers installed on squares far from Bucharest, beyond its borders. Yet Romania was even more than a passage. It had something Hitler wanted to fuel his war machine: huge oil reserves.
So, without making excuses for the man, it is understandable that Antonescu may have had a reason to behave the way he did. At one point, he reprieved my father literally from a firing squad and, at another time, refused to surrender him, against Hitler's orders to deport him to Berlin for interrogation. Antonescu protested that my father was a Romanian citizen and Germany had no right to arrest him. That was Antonescu's privilege. He won that argument, and my father survived, yet again. All this time, with Antonescu's full cooperation, Germans streamed across Romania, pausing briefly, at their discretion, on their way into Russia. Antonescu was a master of realpolitik, and although he was loathed by many of the people, he may have simply been doing what he thought was in Romania's best interests.
When I was older and still a child in Romania, it seemed so easy to single out the bad ones: those people who mouthed destructive political agitprop, children who informed on their parents, and the militia who arrived in the night. Yet now, so many decades later, I look back and realize Antonescu himself represents the real conundrum of a human being's darker impulses: a man of so many mixed motives, good and bad, that he was easy to both defend and despise. In his brief rule over the country, he demonstrated how difficult and intractable evil can become, and how hard to escape, because it's so often woven into the behavior of someone doing things absolutely essential for survival. On one hand, in his mind, much of the evil he did may have been inescapable because it actually allowed Romania to survive as a sovereign nation. On the other hand, most of what he permitted was clearly evil. There were more than 300,000 Jews and Gypsies, who'd been destined for the extermination camps, to testify against him.
At the time, in that chronic state of political crisis, these horrific events came to seem like ugly necessities to many Romanian people, as they had for the Germans who fell under Hitler's sway. The pressures of the day blinded people to the fact that the ends cannot justify the means, that establishing and maintaining political and economic order couldn't justify the evil of what Antonescu was doing. Another leader might have been able to see the prospect of ethnic cleansing as an atrocity and face squarely the challenge of maintaining some kind of political integrity at great expense, but Antonescu was focused primarily on his own power. And all those who went along with him were undoubtedly clinging to the benefits of milking the system he created. To do that, they had to blind themselves to the evil they were doing, to see it as simply an ugly necessity. The ugly necessity is never simply a necessity. It's a choice.
Antonescu may have sought protection from the Allies with his Machiavellian maneuvers, yet he proved his loyalty to the Germans with assassinations, persecutions, and cleansings. In one instance, he let the Iron Guard break into a prison where they seized and shot dozens of people suspected of plotting against them. Another time, they raided a Jewish ghetto in Bucharest and killed hundreds of men, women, and children, hanging their bodies on hooks in a slaughterhouse.
Meanwhile, my father was held under low security, thanks to his skillful manipulation of his captors. He arranged for the chief jailer's two girlfriends to obtain jobs in the oil industry, which gave him the freedom to operate while in prison. As the unofficial dean of the place, my father was able to keep books and papers, had a sitting room in addition to his cell, and had the ability to communicate with other prisoners—partisans, British Army officers, a whole crew of people sympathetic to the resistance. At one point, he had the company of sixty Americans who had been shot down over the oil fields. Almost all Allied prisoners of war were held at Malmaison prison.
My mother, working just as hard as an agent for the resistance, would visit him in prison as his courier. Early on, when she arrived, she had to endure intense interrogations. But as time went on, she brought fresh clothing and supplies to everyone, as well as pots of food and boxes of apple pie for the Americans. She was such a frequent guest that they would let her in and forget about her. She was able to smuggle news and plans and ideas back and forth between the prison and resistance headquarters in Istanbul. In 1943, midway through my father's imprisonment, our grandmother called us into the rose garden and said she'd just gotten wonderful news from Bucharest. That incident is still one of my most vivid memories from early childhood. Our mother had contacted a Gypsy fortune-teller in the mountains to ask about our father's fate. The fortune-teller had requested something owned by my father, and she'd dispatched a driver to deliver one of his handkerchiefs to the Gypsy. With it in hand, the fortune-teller phoned our mother and said our father would be freed on August 23, 1944. He would be alive and well, and we would be reunited.
None of us had any way of knowing the Gypsy would be right. Yet, as soon as I heard this news, I was overjoyed. Without hesitation, I believed it would come true. I suppose partly because my mother and grandmother and brother believed it, but also because it felt true. Absolutely convinced that our father would survive the war and be released, on a Sunday morning, we celebrated his freedom while he was still being held, sharing hot milk and special cakes our grandmother had baked. As it turned out, we were right to celebrate. A year later, on that exact date, our father was released.
Skeptics would dismiss our confident hope as a minor case of magical thinking. Yet our unquestioning faith in the good news even now strikes me as something more than that. It was a willingness to trust in something we couldn't explain or understand. We felt its veracity—something real had been communicated to us, and we accepted it as a gift. Even now, I don't think I was wrong to feel the joy I felt and still feel now, after all these years. I tell you about this particular event, not simply because the predictions just happened to come to pass, but because I still feel something more was at work.
Excerpted from THE CONSTANT CHOICE by PETER GEORGESCU DAVID DORSEY Copyright © 2013 by Peter Georgescu. Excerpted by permission of Greenleaf Book Group Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Why I Wrote This Book xi
Chapter 1 Seeing Evil for What It Is 19
Chapter 2 Our Uncertain Moral Nature 43
Chapter 3 What Really Matters Is Personal, Not Political 67
Chapter 4 Beware of Force 87
Chapter 5 Guarded by Angels 117
Chapter 6 The Constant Choice 149
Chapter 7 From Despair to Discovery 173
Chapter 8 The Real Origin of Evil 215
Chapter 9 Be Always Good 249
About the Authors 310
Posted September 21, 2013