Playing cards: A bridge between worlds

Ben Kasstan writes: Having been my family’s Uno champion for the last six years running, I fulfilled my 2013 resolution to play Bridge – tutored by Holocaust survivors and refugees of the Nazi regime. I smugly turned up to my first lesson in January armed with a beginner’s guide, after all, how hard could it be? Or more precisely, how wrong could I be. Two months later I am learning more than how to play a (real) card game; I am gaining an education in every sense of the word.

Like always, the cards are dealt and the bids are made. But this time I naively ask the table how they all came to play Bridge, the common language in the room. My partner’s eyes flicker between her hand and the cards on the table, her smile growing as she defiantly trumps a king of spades with, of all things, a two of hearts. It was a way to feel human again, civilised, after what she suffered and saw in ‘the camp’. I don’t need to ask which one, her arm says it all; the numbers are etched in her skin and the memory of Auschwitz is immortalised.

There is a gracious 90 year old to my left, she takes her turn, clears her throat and softly responds, “When I left Austria as a domestic worker in ’38, I wasn’t quite ready to give up my middle class and Viennese ways. It meant I was able to make friends quickly”.

I then learnt that the player to my right was 15 when she came to England from Germany on the Kindertransport, and was adopted by a family who needed a fourth player. They ask me how it feels to be a good 60 years younger than everybody on, and probably including, the table. In one word, I tell them insignificant. After all, what does a degree mean when you’ve survived a genocide?

Against the odds, we (I of course mean my partner) win, I say well done and shake her hand. Inside I can’t help but feel that Bridge is a perfect metaphor for these Holocaust survivors; when the cards you’re dealt are no good, it’s how they’re played that make all the difference.

After four hours we pack the cards away as I prepare to take the long train back to Durham. I pen this short article and realise how extraordinary these people are and how something as ordinary as playing can bring us together. When I attended a tutor-tutee formal last Tuesday, I introduced myself and told the group of my regular trips to London to play Bridge with elderly people, when one fresher smirked and asked if it was worth the bother. I told him it was a priceless experience; that a degree is not a lesson in life, and there are things that must be learnt before it’s too late.

Ben Kasstan is a medical humanities postgraduate student in Department of Anthropology at Durham University and writes regularly for the Centre for Medical Humanities Blog.

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3 Responses to Playing cards: A bridge between worlds

  1. Lovely metaphor Ben, and a nice sense of how you as an anthropologist. Thank you!

  2. Pingback: Playing cards: A bridge between worlds | benkasstan

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