My father's story
"YOU HAVE TO BE ABLE to recognize a good story, Toby," Dad told me, just days before his death in 2004. His words--which seemed part self-analysis and part guidance -- resonated with me.
My father certainly recognized the significance of stories in his experiences as a young man in Germany in the 1930s, as leader of a Jewish youth group, as a young person who argued with his friends (one a Communist, another a Nazi) about politics, as a student and worker thwarted in his goal of becoming a pharmacist, as a son who saw his father lose his profession and his livelihood with Hitler's rise to power in 1933.
My father was the Mannheim chairman of the Jewish youth group, Bund Deutsch-Jüdischer Jugend, and after 1933, he received a special permit from the Nazi Party to take groups of Jewish youth to visit various sites in Germany. His audio taped recollections include an interesting story of one of the young people reciting Jewish prayers in the cathedral at Cologne, even as S.S. guards stood nearby.
The photo above, right, shows my father at a festive gathering of Jewish youth group leaders in 1934. But by May of 1936, my father was writing to the organization's leader, expressing dismay that an emigration training program accepted only those below 23 years old. "What should I now advise all my "old" comrades to do??" he asked. . . "I can conceive no future, none at all, for the majority of my friends here, insofar as they have not discovered an 'Uncle in America.'" (in Jewish Responses to Persecution, 1933-1938, By Jürgen Matthäus, Mark Roseman, p. 228)
My father in Germany, 1933 -- the year Hitler came to power
MY FATHER'S IMMIGRANT ID marks the day he entered the U.S.: March 17, 1939
MY FATHER ALSO UNDERSTOOD the power of repetition. Countless times he told the story of his escape from Nazi Germany, of his appointment with the U.S. Consulate on the day after Kristallnacht, of his St. Patrick's Day arrival in America (which I wrote about here) until his experiences were seared into my memory.
To tell the truth, when I was growing up, I didn't always want to hear so much about Nazis -- again! -- and about the relatives I'd never met, the ones who weren't so lucky to find refuge in America.
Though I loved celebrating St. Patrick's Day with my father in Chicago, it wasn't until I was nearly 40 that I really began to appreciate the levels of meaning in my father's stories, and to ask him to tell them once again. I started to listen in a different way, to recognize that this was an oral history with details that were surprising and unexpected and real. And it was personal. I learned about my grandparents--who lived just two blocks away from us in Chicago, but had come around the world in 1940, barely making it out of Germany in time. I heard about my father's attempt to rescue Tante Frieda, his mother's sister; about the town of Freudental, Germany where my grandmother was from, and what had happened to the Jews who had lived there. I began to realize that my father's experiences were an indelible part of my life too.
AS MY FATHER APPROACHED 80, I asked him to record his stories on audio tape. He did so, over a period of a couple years, with my mother asking questions (she only got in a few!) and my father talking for about two hours.
When I was writing my book Shared Sorrows, about the experiences of Sinti Gypsies in Germany during the Nazi period, I drew on my father's testimony -- the cassette tapes, letters from him and other interviews I'd done with him --to examine the similarities and differences in Nazi policies toward the two groups.
Some twenty-five years after the tapes were first made, I had them digitized so I could donate them to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. You can listen to my father tell his story here.
MY FATHER'S STORIES and his dedication to telling the truth about what happened to his family laid the foundation for the Grey Folder Project, and the documents he saved for some 65 years launched the project itself. Where would it all lead?
MY FATHER CELEBRATED St. Patrick's Day, the day he arrived in America, every year from 1939 until his death at age 93.