There is no place like the Chautauqua Institution, as historian and author David McCullough has observed. “No resort. No spa. Not anywhere else in the country, or anywhere else in the world. It is at once a summer encampment, and a small town—a college campus, an art colony, a music festival, a religious retreat, and the village square. It is all of these things and it’s none of these. There’s no place—no place—with anything like its history.”
My husband and I set out for a two-week stay at this idyllic environment, on the western shore of Chautauqua Lake. It’s quiet and peaceful, with few cars; the minibus or tram takes those who want to hitch the ride from where they are staying to the program, lecture or event they want to attend.
There are beautiful residences along the lake shore and charming, smaller homes lining the narrow village streets; porches are a big deal. There also are gardens galore, tiny parks, chirping birds, dog walkers. Chautauqua abounds in friendly strangers with whom we chat while waiting for the lecture, the concert, the author brown-bag lunch, the recital or master class, the play, the religious service, and those we exchange “good morning” with while out walking.
Since 1874, Chautauqua has been dedicated to the exploration of the best in human values. Susan B. Anthony, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and countless other renowned thinkers and leaders have spoken from the stage of its spacious amphitheater.
But on the morning of Friday, Aug. 12, the amphitheater became the scene of a violent, devastating attack.
We were among the audience of more than 2,000 who witnessed the assault on writer Salman Rushdie as he was being introduced. We saw a man run across the stage, then there was chaos and bedlam. We didn’t understand what was happening, except we knew it was bad and it was frightening. Six men from the audience rushed the stage; with their combined strength, they were able to pull the knife-wielding assailant off Rushdie. Doctors and nurses in the crowd also hurried the stage to stabilize Rushdie until an ambulance transferred him to a waiting helicopter and he was airlifted to a hospital in Erie, Pa., where he was treated for multiple stab wounds to the neck and abdomen.
We all just stood there in disbelief, in shock, in profound sadness; watching, until a senior Chautauqua staffer took to the podium and asked us to be calm, to take a breath, to gather our belongings, and to quietly and efficiently evacuate the amphitheater and the immediate area.
To witness this horror was chilling, unbelievable, and yet, believable at the same time. It made me realize that my husband and I are now part of the thousands of people around the world who bear witness to violence and hate in real time. In a way, this experience felt like JFK’s assassination, like 9/11—it was that raw, that horrific, that unspeakably tragic.
That evening, only seven hours after the attack took place, a community vigil was convened at Chautauqua’s Hall of Philosophy. Imagine a wood roof with Greek columns on all four sides, with rows and rows of long white benches, surrounded by specimen trees, birds chirping, occasional dogs barking. The space and the grassy grove adjacent were filled; so many hundreds attended.
When I arrived, I took in the scene of a group of four at the raised platform in a circle facing inward; hands clasped, heads bowed, standing still, in meditation, silent. Forming the circle were Chautauqua president Michael Hill, an imam, a rabbi and the season pastor. Witnessing that solidarity and shared grief and pain—it brought tears to my eyes.
There were a few solos: a piano, a cello; we sang Amazing Grace. Hill’s words were eloquent and poignant; the imam and rabbi each offered prayers for healing and hope. The pastor asked us to be with our immediate neighbors in quiet silence. A new friend and I sat shoulder to shoulder, holding hands. It was a powerful and tender community-building time to begin the healing process; the calm after the storm of the morning. I will cherish the memory of that precious hour.
Saturday night, we were back in the amphitheater, which felt a little unsettling—it was hard to see the stage and not visualize the previous day’s atrocity. When Hill came to the microphone to introduce the evening (the Washington Ballet with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra), the audience of more than 1,000 erupted into a long, sustained standing ovation. Again, his words were so beautiful, reminding us that love and action triumph over hate. He expressed his gratitude for the cleaning staff who sterilized the stage floor (there was a lot of blood); and to the Department of Religion, who came to bless the stage. And he reminded us that what this place stands for will triumph over those who wish to destroy those who pen the written word, those who stand for freedom of expression. Sitting there, watching the lovely dance performance, I felt the power, the purpose and the strength and enduring beauty of this unique and incredibly special community.
On Sunday, a new week at Chautauqua began. The theme was “New Profiles of Courage,” rather timely given the incredibly courageous men and women who selflessly defended and tended to Salman Rushdie and his interviewer, Henry Reese.
I was ready to greet the week ahead, certain that the magic that is Chautauqua would re-emerge. The community had suffered a kind of loss of innocence, to be sure; but the Chautauqua spirit is strong, as is the dedication to preserving and sustaining that which defines this uniquely special place.
Mona Friedman Kolko, a retired social worker, is a community volunteer in the Rochester area. Photos of Chautauqua by Paul Ericson.
The Beacon welcomes comments from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name.