It’s not always about you. People who are pushing toward a goal want someone who can push with them, not be off on a tangent. Good ideas and energy that contribute to the goal are generally welcomed and rewarded. Ideas that favor the individual may be viewed as self-serving and draw more suspicion than praise. If you don’t like the goal of your organization, change organizations.
As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Douglas Wellman.
Douglas Wellman is the author of A Teenage Girl in Auschwitz: Basha Freilich and the Will to Live. He is a former Hollywood television producer-director and assistant dean of the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. For over forty years he has been a historian and researcher of the 20th Century, particularly World Wars I and II. His primary interest is exploring and relating the lives of people caught in conflict. He is also a licensed Christian minister who currently works a few days a week as a hospital chaplain in Utah.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I grew up in a middle-class suburb of Minneapolis. I had a very good life in an area where people were experiencing what we used to call the American Dream. There was very little drama in the lives of my friends and myself, and we were a happy group.
From my youngest years, I was drawn towards comedy. I took the position that I would rather laugh than not laugh, and as soon as I learned to read, I was reading comedy. That could be anything from Mad Magazine to the works of some pretty famous writers.
As a pre-teen, being forced to sing in a school choir on a local TV show, I became very interested in television production and set out to figure out how to fulfill my interest in comedy in the television medium. I studied broadcasting at the University of Minnesota, worked in a couple local TV stations as a director and then moved to Los Angeles with the intent to get into the world of comedy TV. I managed to do that. My first job in comedy TV was as a production manager on a sitcom called The Facts of Life. It was the only series I ever did in which everything and everyone was nice. Other series followed, and then I moved back to producing and directing.
When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?
I enjoyed comedy and cars. They merged when I was ten years old in the pages of Mechanix Illustrated magazine. I’m sure MI, as it was commonly called, was never noted for its literary excellence, but they had an automotive columnist named Tom McCahill who had a wonderful way with words. My pre-teen interest was sparked by his ability to arrange them into engaging and humorous sentences–using metaphor and simile–to make his description of something as mundane as an automobile transmission sound memorable. He was noted for quotes, such as, (regarding the 1954 Desoto,) “It’s as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar, and just as fast.”
My next literary “mentor,” while I was still a teenager, was the noted playwright and essayist, S.J. Perelman. I may have been the only teen in my city who ever heard of him, and I have no idea how he hit my radar, but he was another master of words, particularly arcane ones. His work was somewhat dated even back then, but it was his style that caught my attention. His humor was top shelf, and frequently made the pages of The New Yorker in his day. I was interested in the way he wrote things, not necessarily what he wrote.
The third influence of my youth was Damon Runyon. I probably latched onto him after seeing the movie Guys and Dolls on television. His style was definitely not to be copied by the likes of me, but I found it hilarious. His descriptions of the Broadway milieu of the ’20s and ’30s was like nothing I had read before.
While still a teen I learned that the way something is said can often be more interesting than what is said.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Fairly soon after arriving in Los Angeles, I managed to snag Jackie, a comedy literary manager. Jackie had started as a comic in the Catskills resorts and worked his way through the ranks to New York and Las Vegas, eventually opening for Elvis Presley. Tired of touring, he became a manager. Some of my sitcom spec scripts weren’t getting the responses I felt they deserved, and I expressed this to Jackie. After listening to me gripe for a while he said, “Doug, if three people tell you you’re drunk, lay down.” Lesson: Maybe, just possibly, I’m not always right.
When computers were fairly new, I bought one. It had a tiny green screen, which I could read without glasses at the time, and as a portable the size of a suitcase, it only weighed maybe 40 pounds. Cutting-edge stuff. I used to write in the middle of the night. One night, or morning, around 4am, I was hard at work on a script when I decided I needed to step outside, get some fresh air, and wake up. By habit, I turned off the light with the wall switch, and stepped out by the pool. When I returned to resume work, I remembered that the outlet to which the computer was plugged was connected to the wall switch. The computer did not automatically save things. When I turned out the light, I lost everything I had been working on. Lesson: Pay attention to what you are doing. Everything has consequences.
Neil Simon’s brother, Danny, was a comedy genius. He and Neil worked together on the early Sid Caesar series, so he had been around for a while. He was the only person I ever met who could look at a piece of comedy writing, or analyze a comedy scene, and tell you exactly why it was funny. That may sound simple, but it’s not. He selected a small group of young comedy writers to work with, and I was one of them. I still have his notes. Initially, we met at Danny’s home, but he decided to give a break to a few more young writers he thought had talent and ended up having to rent a small space for us to meet. It didn’t occur to me until Danny brought it up, but I was the only non-Jewish writer in the room. He pointed this out one night when we were discussing a piece of work. He turned to me and said, “Okay, now let’s get the white bread opinion.” Everyone broke up laughing and I probably laughed the hardest. It became a running joke. Lesson: Pay attention to those around you.
Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?
I have three goals for this book. The first is to add to the historical record of the Holocaust and the concentration camps. There are many academic volumes on the subject, and quite a few personal testimonies, but very few from the perspective of the children who were sent to the death camps. Basha’s story stands out because she was a child with a perfectly normal life who was suddenly thrust into an experience that most of us would consider totally hopeless and inescapable.
Basha’s response to her plight is the second thing I want to bring out. I firmly believe that we all have emotional resources deep within us that we never tap. Most of us don’t have to. Basha’s situation required her to reach deep within herself, even though she was unlikely to understand that is what she was doing, and push on far past the limit of what she previously felt she could endure. My wish is that others will understand that those resources exist in them as well, and utilize them now, before crisis.
Finally, most of us in the United States have lived a reasonably comfortable life. We haven’t been trampled over by armies during wars, faced total economic disruption and starvation, or severe political persecution. Because we haven’t faced it, we may be lured into the incorrect assumption that this type of thing could never happen to us. Throughout history, this has been the attitude of many, leaving them completely unprepared when catastrophe occurred. I hope people will occasionally take a moment to analyze what is going on around them. I hope people will realize that everything done, even by political leaders, isn’t necessarily done with the welfare of the people foremost in their minds. I hope that people will realize that just because something is said by someone of authority, or in the media, it doesn’t automatically make it true.
Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
Basha’s incredible emotional and physical resilience is revealed on virtually every page of the book, but one particular experience strikes me as being a true example of her will to live. She was sick and wasn’t sure that she would be able to join her work party. However, if she didn’t join her work party she would be sent to the crematorium. She believed that if she tore up one of her blankets and wrapped it around herself, she might have enough warmth to be able to get through the day. Tearing a blanket was a major offense in Auschwitz, and she was caught. This resulted in a severe beating, and she lapsed into unconsciousness. When she awoke, she found herself in a water-filled ditch. She could tell by the position of the sun that it was almost time for the truck that took prisoners to the crematorium to arrive. Beaten, with no realistic hope of survival, she had to decide whether to lie there and wait for the truck, or to crawl away and hide. She felt ready to die but chose and fought to live. She managed to crawl to the latrine and hide under a pile of dirty laundry. She had promised her mother she would live, so she didn’t quit. Despite everything, she reached deep inside herself for the courage and stamina to go on living.
What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?
Basha left us her postwar testimonies of her own experience. I found her speaking in her own words through the USC Shoah Foundation interview which was recorded on video. I’m no shrinking violet and I can withstand a lot but watching Basha tell her story–looking at her face as she told it– that took a lot out of me. The interview recording is two or three hours long, but I broke it into multiple viewing sessions, simply because I reached the point where I said to myself, I think that’s all of this I can take for a while. I knew then this story had to be told to a wide audience.
Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
My father. He was a trial attorney, intelligent, articulate, and forceful. He told me that I’d better be prepared to work hard for anything I really wanted in life. If I truly wanted to succeed, I would have to work longer and harder than the next guy. He was right.
I arrived in Hollywood during the 1980 actors’ strike. There was no work for me in television, but I picked up a reasonable non-TV job. When that ended, I found myself in a very bad financial situation. I scraped up enough money to pay my rent, but that was it, I had nothing left. There was an ad in the LA Times for an assistant at a recording studio–basically a secretary– but it was the only thing even close to my normal field. I went down to interview and found myself at the end of a line of about twenty applicants. I had nothing else to do, so I sat there and waited. The owner of the studio was taking his time interviewing each applicant. I waited over two hours. When it finally came my turn to interview, he looked at my resume and told me I was totally overqualified for the job. However, he was thinking about establishing a video production company and wanted to know if I thought I could do it. I said yes, of course, and found myself with a very good job. While starting the video company, I also ran the recording studios.
The owner had hired a president for the company sometime earlier and ceded control to him. The owner was young and focused on having a good time, without paying much attention to the business. I had been there about two months when I came in one Monday morning and found the place in chaos. The owner had started paying attention and fired the president for blowing through one million dollars with no results. For the rest of the week, the owner fired executive after executive, and I waited my turn. It came on Friday.
The owner walked into my office just before noon and said, since I knew the circumstances, what did I think he should do. I told him that I hated to say it, but he probably should fire me and focus on his core business, recording. This was not the time to start a new venture. He said nothing and left. At five o’clock I still hadn’t been fired, so I decided to go home. When I got downstairs, there was no one there except me and the owner. He was in the duplication room, running back and forth like madman. I decided to go in and see what was going on. He didn’t look at me or stop working. He told me he was making 1,500 duplicates of a McDonalds commercial that had to be sent to radio stations. The room was full of huge duplicating machines. One machine would play back the master recording at high-speed, and the others would record it at high-speed, stopping at the set point at the end of the thirty-second recording. Each recording machine had a twenty-inch pancake of ¼ inch recording tape and each duplicate ended up on a five-inch reel. The tapes had to be cut from the pancake with a razor blade and the reels boxed up for shipment. Then, the next round of empty five-inch reels were loaded onto the machines and the whole process started again. I asked him where the duplication crew was, and he told me he had fired them, and why. He intended to make the 1,500 dupes by himself. I felt bad for him. I took off my coat and tie and told him I didn’t know how to operate the machines, but if he showed me, I would help. For the first time, he stopped working and gave me a look like I had just dropped in from Mars. After a moment, he said okay and showed me how to do the job. For the next nine hours we made McDonalds commercials. At 2:00am he thanked me, and I went home.
Since I hadn’t been fired, I figured I’d better show up for work on Monday. I was greeted by a very somber accountant and assistant, the only employees left. The owner was in his office, but he didn’t acknowledge me when I walked by. I went upstairs to my office to wait, and he came in about an hour later. He said he had been thinking about what I had advised, to fire me and focus on recording. He said he felt that was a good idea, and what he intended to do, except he wasn’t going to fire me. He had decided that I was the guy to rebuild the core recording business. If I wanted the job, I would become the general manager. He offered me a good salary and said there was a company car waiting for me in the parking lot. I took the job.
Although I helped him make the radio spots because I felt bad for him, it was also an example of what my father taught me. Do what must be done, whether it’s your job or not.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
As with most issues, the real remedy resides in us as individuals. Assuming someone else will take care of things, or worse, assuming everyone else has our best interests in mind, is a surefire way for nothing to get done.
I hope my readers will take a moment to carefully look at what’s going on in their world.
Do not assume everything they hear is true and every smiling face is their friend. I wish I didn’t have to make that statement, but that’s the way I see things.
And more importantly, learn about the Holocaust from primary sources with historical context and first-person testimonies. The US Holocaust Museum has many resources where you can research facts not opinions.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
The first rule of leadership is that one must be prepared to make enemies. Not everyone has the fortitude for that. In the case of elected officials, their personal need for attention, and to get reelected, may supersede their desire to do the right thing.
A real leader determines a goal which they truly believe is best for their organization, not just for themselves. They move in that direction, hoping to persuade their followers that their goal is just and correct.
However, very rarely can you get an enormous mass of people to agree on anything. At that point, if the person who calls themself a leader really is a leader, they will push forward toward their goal no matter what people say about them. Hopefully, their goal really is just and correct. That is not always the case. Hitler is a classic example of a powerful leader who dragged his country in the wrong direction. It takes an equally powerful leader to push back. Very few people have what it takes to fight that kind of battle.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
Number One: You don’t have to start at the bottom and work your way to the top. That’s not necessarily a bad approach, since when you get to the top, if you get to the top, at least you know the nuts and bolts of how your industry works. The other side of the equation is that if you start at an entry-level position, say, production assistant in my media career, those above you may always view you as a production assistant, like you never grew up. Change companies. However, it is far better, in my mind, to analyze your business, come up with an intelligent plan to make something better, and get it to the person in charge. You may get nowhere, which is quite likely, but you have shown yourself to be a creative, thinking individual. Creative, thinking individuals are always in demand. Being outstanding at the bottom is the best way I know to shortcut the trip to the top.
Number Two: It’s not always about you. People who are pushing toward a goal want someone who can push with them, not be off on a tangent. Good ideas and energy that contribute to the goal are generally welcomed and rewarded. Ideas that favor the individual may be viewed as self-serving and draw more suspicion than praise. If you don’t like the goal of your organization, change organizations.
Number Three: Be careful with the way you communicate. Be clear and precise when presenting ideas to leaders. What you say and what others hear may be two different things. This also applies to casual conversation. Know the personality of the people with whom you work. I am a jokester at heart. I had a very good job at a studio and would frequently make jokes in the presence of the vice president. For a long time, I was unaware that the man had absolutely no sense of humor. He looked at me with great curiosity occasionally, and that should have been a clue. I found out later that he took many of my humorous statements as personal insults. That was not at all the case. Unfortunately, I didn’t find out until he fired me.
Number Four: Not everyone with a smiling face is your friend. One of my smiling assistants at my very good studio job was frequently present during my joke telling or mini-comedy performances. He knew they were jokes. He knew the vice president had no sense of humor. He knew he wanted my job. What I didn’t know until years later is that he was going to the vice president with statements like “Why do you let Doug insult you like that?” and “I could do Doug’s job for less pay.” Then this same person would come back into our office with a smile and ask if he could help me. When I finally found out the whole story years later, I decided not to confront him. I felt that since I obviously had not been paying attention to what was going on around me, I probably deserved what I got. I chalked it up to a learning experience and got on with life.
Number Five: If there are people in your life who care about you, be sensitive enough to take the time to openly care back. Don’t assume they know you care. This was a big problem for me, and sometimes still is. Many times, I was completely wrapped up in my work, which left me totally unprepared and sometimes confused, when personal relationships disintegrated. That one took a while to learn.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I can’t remember the man’s name offhand, but he was a successful businessman, and in later life, an associate of Napoleon Hill who wrote the famous book, Think and Grow Rich. The man’s motto was, Do it Now! That seems pretty simple, but it is enormously important. Many great projects or ideas never come to fruition because they were put off to the next day, and the next day, and the next day until they were forgotten. I had a friend who was an inventor and held sixteen patents at the time of the following conversation. We were having dinner and he was paying no attention to what I was telling him, being totally involved sketching something on a paper napkin. I finally got annoyed and asked him why he was paying no attention to what I was saying. He showed me the sketch on the napkin and told me that with, whatever the thing was, it could be used to power the earth from a satellite. He put the napkin in his pocket, and we continued our conversation. About a year later, he called me one morning and asked if I had the Los Angeles Times newspaper. I said I did, so he told me to go to a specific page in the business section. There was an article about one of the major corporations using some kind of gizmo to power refrigerators. Jack, my friend, told me that was exactly what he was talking about during our restaurant conversation, only on a much larger scale. He concluded the conversation with, “I wonder where I put that napkin.”
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would like to speak with Elon Musk. He uses his fortune in a multitude of different ways on
different problems and products. He takes risks. Risk-taking is probably somewhat easier if one has enormous piles of money; I wouldn’t know about that, but his thoughts go in many directions and his money follows. I would also like to speak with Musk about something that is critically important to me. Freedom of speech.
When Musk bought Twitter, now renamed X, he stated that he was going to remove censorship from the platform. I firmly believe that in a free society, to ensure we always have access to the truth, everyone must be able to speak. Everyone. Sometimes inconveniently, that means liars, the hateful, and the stupid get to speak as well. You can’t have partial censorship because the censorship “line in the sand” will move depending on who is in control of it. When we have free speech, lies, hate and stupidity are countered with the truth and facts, but only if everyone can speak.
When Musk withdrew censorship from Twitter/X, as expected, the liars, the hateful, and the stupid spoke up, and they were met by the other sides with truth and facts. Anti-Semitism cropped up on the site and was met with counterarguments from organizations like the Anti-Defamation League. That’s the way free speech is supposed to work. However, the counterarguments of the ADL have apparently discouraged advertisers from the X site, and Musk has threatened to sue the ADL. This is another form of censorship–economic censorship. If we are going to have free speech, the public must accept uncomfortable comments, and people like Musk must accept that there may be some bumps in the road for them, as well. That is the price of freedom. I would love to engage in a conversation with Musk on this topic. I would love to learn if he is totally in favor of complete freedom of speech, or only when it suits his needs. That would be a very interesting discussion.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Social Impact Authors: How & Why Author Douglas Wellman Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.