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Queen Elizabeth’s (and our) . . . legacy?

I am not opposed to the British monarchy. I am not in favor of it. I, like many Americans, simply don’t understand its attraction. This does detract from my admiration for the late Queen Elizabeth for reasons that the British have put much better than I could.

I am attracted to this: the question of the Queen’s legacy. Here it is, the woman is not even buried, and already I read that many countries are asking whether they still want the British monarch to be their formal head of state. I think I read that there are 14 countries of which she is officially the head.

One would think that a person who served so long and so well and who is not yet buried would be spared the specter of the derogation of her “legacy.” I put the word in quotation marks because the very idea of legacy in the non-financial sense is actually an illusion.

Obama wondered what his legacy would be. Ditto, virtually every world leader these days. Ditto, virtually everyone else these days. The obsession with legacy is a sad commentary on life these days. If one lives life to the fullest, does the question of one’s legacy even arise?

On the more prosaic level, the idea of legacy is, as I say, an illusion. Those who, upon death, seem to have changed the world so decisively and positively that they will be long and well remembered, often meet a far different fate.

Take three assassinated American presidents: Lincoln, McKinley, Kennedy. Lincoln’s legacy has soared. McKinley is altogether forgotten.

Kennedy’s legacy seems to be directly proportional to the number of people who were alive when he was killed. Those born later don’t put much stock in Kennedy. But when each of these men died, they were, by and large, feted as larger than life, destined for a great historical afterlife. “Legacy” is unpredictable.

The same holds true for those who seem not to have made any notable impact, decisive or otherwise. They may later be resuscitated and gloriously remembered.

Take Irena Sendler, a Polish Catholic. When WW II ended, she faded into the woodwork, so to speak, just one of countless social workers in Poland. Perhaps she was especially capable, I don’t know. But either way, she was just another professional out there making a living and, by the nature of her profession, probably doing a lot of good. But who noticed?

Certainly not any historian, filmmaker or reporter.

Sendler’s years before the end of WW II were heroic. She convinced the Nazis in Warsaw that she could detect typhus. The Nazis, whose brutality knew no limits, feared no one — but they did fear typhus. Their brutality and weaponry were no match for it. So Sendler, a nurse, was able to move into and out of the Warsaw Ghetto pretty much at will.

She rescued Jewish children. Rescued? Meaning: She convinced Jewish parents to turn over their most precious possession, their very own children, to a stranger. They asked Sendler whether she could guarantee their children’s survival. She could not, But she could say, “I can guarantee this: If you do not give me your children, they will definitely die.” (For the rest of her life she remembered the screams of the mothers as they handed over their children.)

Not only did Sendler save 2,500 (!) Jewish lives, she recorded and preserved their names, so that if and when the madness would pass, she could reunite the children with whatever parents may have survived.

Sendler risked her life daily. If she were caught smuggling out a child, her cover would have been blown and her life ended by a Nazi bullet, on the spot. In the end she was arrested and tortured to coerce her to reveal the names and addresses of her fellow righteous rescuers. She never broke. Her life was saved only by a massive bribe by her cohorts.

When the Warsaw Ghetto was destroyed, she first needed much time to recover from the wounds she sustained under torture. Then she worked to prevent the disclosure of the hiding places — and the hide-ers — of the Jewish children she rescued.

Then: May, 1945.

War over.

Irena Sendler went to work.


Until 1999.

At which time, of all people, three non-Jewish high school girls in Kansas “discovered” her and brought her to the attention of the world. She was eventually nominated for the Nobel Prize for Peace. Her story is told in an unbelievably moving book, Life in a Jar (she hid the Jewish children’s names in a jar she buried under a tree).

Mrs. Anonymous Irena Sendler has a legacy!

Mr. President of the United States McKinley does not have a legacy!

It’s all unpredictable.

Don’t let the gorgeous and unending stream of praises for Queen Elizabeth fool you. Maybe she will have a gorgeous legacy. Maybe not. It is impossible to know.

Values change.

What is admired and what is condemned change.

What is deemed superior now may be deemed inferior later. Look at the “legacy” of the statues of Robert E. Lee, or at Britain’s own Cecil Rhodes.

My, how values and posthumous reputations change.

We can know this: Queen Elizabeth seemed to live in a way that what counted to her was not her personal legacy but her institution, the monarchy.

Will the Queen be remembered as the best embodiment of a critical institution? Will she be remembered as a relic of a retrograde institution?

What is its legacy?

It may go on forever.

Or, those who would begin to dismantle the monarchy even before the Queen’s funeral may succeed.

No one knows.

It is not worth worrying about one’s “legacy.” All we have for sure are the moments we live now. It is worth living those moments to the fullest.

That beats “legacy” any time.

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