Staying Positive

by Luke Adams

The bags are packed, outside darkness engulfs Breslau. The family is all together, everyone is ready to leave. They hug Amanda, my great-great-grandmother; she is an old woman and staying behind because of it. They say their goodbyes and flee into the night. That was the last time they saw Amanda; she was killed by the Nazis.  

That was in 1933. Eighty-four years later I was sitting outside a Starbucks in Palo Alto with my great uncle Robert Adams, or as I call him, Uncle Bob. Amanda was his grandmother.  Bob was smiling and laughing as he was telling the story of his family’s escape as Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany in the early 30s. His family left Germany in 1933, moving to Italy to avoid a rising Nazi party under the new Chancellor, Adolf Hitler. Bob was born in 1936 in Italy to a mother, father and two brothers; his older brothers were twins, and the older twin, Gerard, was my grandfather. My great-grandfather, Walter, kept his family in Italy until Mussolini forced all Jews out of Italy in 1938. The then Weissenberg family fled to England, where they stayed for less than a year, living through a number of bombings in shelters. In 1939 their ship arrived in New York. They moved to Saginaw, Michigan, and changed the family name from Weissenberg to Adams to hide their Jewish heritage. Uncle Bob has very few memories of his time in England and none of Italy. Most of the information he shared with me was passed down to him as a story or from his work to edit and publish my great-grandfather’s autobiography.  

It was a sunny, breezy day as we sat in the shade of a few small trees outside of Starbucks. Behind Bob, a traffic light flashed and cars roared by. To my right was a group of middle-aged women wearing workout clothes relaxing and chatting over a cup of coffee. Bob is an elderly, happy man with a white mustache and a big belly. He is the sort of man who would make a great Santa Claus. His constant cheeriness is infectious and he loves to talk. That day, he was wearing a baby blue collared shirt as he leaned back in his chair. Bob had been a professor of economics at UC Santa Cruz for 35 years, where he was a founding member. He had just finished telling me a full history of my family from 1776 to the present day. I learned more about my family from an hour and a half with him than I had in my previous sixteen years. I told him about my literature of witness class and the interview project in a greater detail than I had previously explained over the phone.  

He leaned back in his chair, thinking for a second before he chuckled a bit, and looking up, he said, “I guess I’m a witness in a funny sort of way.” Not yet understanding what he meant by this, I was afraid I would get caught in another one of his famous tangents. The man can talk for hours.  

I pushed forward asking the first question. “So what are some challenges you faced in the process of leaving?”

He seemed to be caught off guard by my first question and asked, “Our family?” I nodded and he thought for a moment before saying, “Challenges?” Another pause. “The challenges anybody faces when they leave in a period of two weeks with no job, and no money, and not familiar with the language. And not knowing where to go; with my father it was nuts, let me tell you, he was irrational.” A faint smile appeared on his face. He continued, smiling, “He decided to go to Italy because he liked the warm weather and the art, he wanted to see the art, he wanted to see Italy.” He thought for a second before giving me a counterexample. He used Otto Frank, Anne Frank’s father. Otto and my great-grandfather Walter never knew each other but fled Germany within the same month. Otto went to Amsterdam to family and business contacts, which did not end well for him. Walter, on the other hand, had no business connections. Bob switched back to his family’s story saying that his father went to Italy, “almost on a whim, crazy.” He paused and broke eye contact to look past me as he continued, “But, I often think of what would have happened if my mother had close Jewish friends in Amsterdam. I mean, you know what happened to the Franks.” He believed that given the option, his dad made the right choice. He looked back at me saying, “I’m just telling you sometimes in life you make choices that aren’t particularly rational to other people, but they work. Had [my father] been totally rational, had he had a business contact, he might have taken us the Frank route, which was a disaster.” His words trailed off into silence. After a few seconds he apologized and asked me to continue.  

I nodded and looked down at my paper for the next question. Looking up I said, “So you don’t have many memories of fleeing or your time in London, but how were you treated, what was it like when you first got to America?”

He put down the drink he had just picked up for a sip and quickly began, “Ah well, I was just a kid, I can’t tell you much except that we weren’t treated very well and did not have a lot of money.” He told me about his experience going to a welfare camp in upstate New York with his mother, only to discover it was a scam and the organizers were overcharging and keeping profits. A couple with a baby sat down at the table next to us to my left. The couple’s relaxed manner with their baby made me think about my childhood and how much easier it must have been compared to Bob’s. Bob continued, “I remember always having fights, for quite a while I remember having  to deal with people.” He looked left, pausing as the baby shrieked when his father picked him up. He continued, “I think that was because to people in Saginaw we were from Germany! Not everyone in Saginaw liked Germany in 1941, so we were enemy aliens.” He hesitated for a bit. “I think I had some uncomfortable moments that way, but I would say I never saw them that way. I just grew up in a family that does not have a lot of money,” he let out a small chuckle, “and that was true of a lot of people in Saginaw.” He chuckled a little louder, “So I never felt I was getting any type of special negative treatment, and it was during the war, there was nothing going on anyway.” Looking me in the eyes he continued, “It was not a question of me going to little league. Those options were not there for anyone, for anybody, so it wasn’t like I felt like I was missing something. There was no candy, milk was rationed, you got meat maybe once, twice a week, it was war time. The thing about war is everybody gets treated equally badly.” Here he did not chuckle. Instead, he laughed and soon quieted down as he waited for the next question.

Looking down and reading from my paper I asked, “You mentioned that you were born in Italy. Do you remember much from your early years?”

Taking a bite of his bagel he chewed, swallowed, and responded, “Not really, I was just a kid in Italy, but I do remember a bomb shelter from London.” I asked him to describe what little he remembered. “And all of a sudden the sirens go off, and my brothers grab me. I’m kinda thinking what the hell is going on? Why are we sitting down here, why can’t we sit up there?” I leaned in to hear as the traffic light turned green and traffic roared by. He continued, “I was too small, but I will tell you, these things affect you.” He paused again quickly before continuing, “As a neighbor told my mother in Saginaw, this was a few years later, but every time a plane flew overhead I would run around the house screaming, “The bombers are coming.” He paused for a second and looked up at a passing plane overhead. He said, “I will honestly tell you until I was 20 if I was sitting here and heard a siren, maybe a police siren or something, I would get cold chills. That’s about it, nothing too dramatic.”

He took another bite of his bagel. I tried to move on and said, “So have you ever been back to Italy or London, or even to Germany for the first time?”  

He nodded as he replied, “Oh yes, of course, many times.” I asked how it felt, and putting down his bagel he said, “I have no problem with it, I understand what happened. I understood when I went through [Germany] for the first time in 1959.” He sat back in his chair and continued, “I grew up with the language, I grew up with my parents, my family was German, I absorbed a lot of that, I also moved, but there were a lot of Germans who moved.” He looked at me and kept going, “A lot of people who lived [in Germany] suffered badly because of the war.  They didn’t necessarily have any bad feelings towards Jews or anybody else. But the Nazi takeover was so quick and so ruthless, there were people who lived there, who did nothing out of fear they would be next.” I pushed my phone forward on the table to ensure that it was recording his words. Bob said, “I also understand that there are Germans who are bad, there are people who are anti-Semitic, there are people who contributed to the deaths of millions of people. But I don’t feel any different than I do about Germans than I feel about any country.” He smiled as he kept talking, “Part of this attitude comes from my mother. After the war she wrote the Red Cross and said she wanted to help some German kid who was not from a Nazi family. She did that and I still see them regularly and consider them my extended family.” The smile from his face faded a little, “I understand, yes there are nasty people, but look around! I am not uncomfortable in Germany at all; I think that if you look at the German national anthem, the first stanza talks about freedom and equality. That’s the part of Germany I think that still exists.” I nodded, and not knowing the German national anthem I took his word for it. He thought for a moment before he added, “And they have an Alt Right too, [they] just got into parliament. I mean, that’s always there too.” This reminded me of the rising Alt Right movement and the resurgence of anti-Semitism in America. It was never fully gone, but it has finally been unearthed. Bob’s words are meaningful to both him, the refugee, and others like me because it is the sharing of history that prevents us from repeating it. Especially in today’s political sphere, it is important to remember history. We need to be sure that travel bans here, and “ethnic cleansings” elsewhere, do not mature into a modern day Holocaust or genocide that are anywhere near the scale of past genocides. This is why witness literature is important. The roar of a loud motorcycle passing by dispersed my thoughts so I pressed the interview on.

 I asked Bob, “So I know that your father was baptised as a Christian, but do you still identify as a Jew?”

“No.”

I asked, “Not at all?”

He nodded saying, “No, I was raised as a Christian. I recognize my ancestry, I have no problem with that, I mean Gia (his daughter-in-law) calls me up, says come down for Shabbat, I go, ‘Shabbat?!’” He cracked up and continued, “But no one said anything about Judaism to me, there were practically no Jews in the Midwest anyways. I grew up in a Congregational church, know more about pilgrims than I do Jews.” He let out a full sounding laugh, and I joined in.  

After a moment I pushed further asking, “But growing up, did you know about your Jewish background?”

He nodded saying, “Vaguely, I mean my father was trying to get away from it and my mother was not interested in it. It wasn’t of any concern to her, and they went to church together every Sunday.” He put the bagel down without taking a bite and wiped a small bite of cream cheese off his fingers with a napkin. Looking at his hands, he continued, “All the years I knew him he was a very go to church on Sunday guy, and I think my father had some spiritual conversion with all this. For most of my life it has been a nice thing, I don’t hide my identity, I have many Jewish friends who are kind and accepting of me.” A smile appeared as he kept talking, “My attitude is you can choose to see me however you want, but I know who I am, so it doesn’t matter.” He took a bite of the bagel, getting a small bit of cream cheese in his beard. I nodded, agreeing with his point and taking a sip of my drink.  

Next I asked him, “Has your experience changed your outlook on life that much?”

This response was not as quick as the others; he sat back, deep in thought. After around 45 seconds, still looking down he said, “Yes, fundamentally.” He looked up at me and said, “I am profoundly impacted by the fact that individual acts of human kindness can have an impact way beyond anything you ever dream when you do them.” He paused to think, “So it’s not just a question of helping by putting money in the Salvation Army red pot.” He quickly added, “It helps, it helped me.” So as to not take away from the importance of donating, he continued and said, “But it is just individual people, who, out of kindness, just because they wanted to be helpful were helpful to my family, just on the day to day stuff. And I realized that,” another pause, “you are a little pebble, but when you drop in the water,” he paused for another second, “you know, you can have a big impact,” he said as he leaned back in his chair. “It certainly has affected me that way. You would be amazed in how you can change the world by just the little things you do, that’s one thing that impacted me.”He paused as again the child shrieked. He smiled, looking at the child before saying, “I think the other thing that impacted me is understanding just how precarious society is.” The smile faded a bit from his face. “You and I can sit here comfortably, but I understand there are forces of evil in this world, and that there will always be.  Anti-Semitism isn’t going away, it is here and it is in the United States.” He moved his chair forward and said, “Racial attitudes and all that kind of stuff is here, and if you let that virulent attitude wild, we can have our own disasters. And, you know, occasionally we have done it, we rounded up the Japanese in 1941 put them in internment camps.” He seemed to shudder at the thought. He adjusted his posture and looked at me, then he said, “My message always is: Yeah, it happened in Germany, it was terrible, don’t think that was a one of a kind occasion, and don’t think it is only the Germans that can be the meanest guy in the valley. We have that potential too.” Slowly he continued, “I look with a great deal of concern at what is happening in our country right now. That goes back to my history experience, you know, it doesn’t take much for evil people to do wrong stuff.” I nodded in agreement and he said, “And it is easy to ignore, you know, it is easy to go back to Cupertino, say it’s alright.” He chuckled lightly and ended abruptly as he leaned back in his chair before saying, “I can’t guarantee you that I’m a nice guy and that I’m always doing nice things, but I do know that occasionally I have an opportunity to help an individual person, that doesn’t necessarily mean with money or with anything else, that was part of what I enjoyed about being a professor, and when those occasions occur, sometimes you don’t even know you are doing it, it’s just a form of giving back.” I looked up from my notebook to see the large smile on his face, a contagious one that quickly spread to mine. Smiling, I thanked him and switched off the recording on my phone.

My interview with my Uncle Bob helped me bear witness to the horrors of the Holocaust and its personal impact on my family. It is important to make these personal connections so that I can understand the refugee crisis happening today. It helps me identify with the boat people from Syria who are drowning in the Mediterranean. Seeing photos of dead immigrants every morning in the newspaper who drown trying to flee with their lives, it makes me think, this could have been my family, my grandfather. Curiously, Bob’s testimony bears witness to the incredible power of the human spirit and small acts of kindness from strangers. While Bob never truly witnessed the horrors of the war, he is still a witness. For all the horrible things that happened to Bob while escaping from Nazi Germany, his overriding life philosophy is to be happy and enjoy life and the people around you. There’s no anger . . . there’s no resentment, just a feeling of let’s make sure it doesn’t happen again.   

 

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Las Nacionalistas, Los Republicanos, y Abu

by Andy Cacho

My grandmother lives in the Philippines. She does not come to the United States often, so I never got to hear some of the great stories all of my cousins and my mom talk about. So when I asked my mom if she knew any witnesses to a war or genocide, I was surprised to hear that my grandma had gone through such an atrocity. She was a teenager during the war. My mom told me, “She has told me this story before. If I remember correctly, the food she had to eat was so rotten, there were maggots crawling inside of it. You will have to ask her when we call her.”

Some background about the Spanish Civil war: The two main groups who were fighting were the Republicans and the Nationalists. The Republicans were composed of left leaning, moderate capitalist people to anarchists who hated the other left leaning people, but fought against the other group anyway. The Nationalists were Fascists. The fighting went on with minimal support for the Republicans, but lots of support from countries like Germany for the Nationalists. In fact, many countries like the US and Great Britain signed treaties that stopped them from intervening. In the end, due to more resources and help, the Fascists won, putting in place one of the most oppressive governments ever. It was so bad that if a soldier heard someone speaking in Catalan (the other main language of Spain), that person would be enslaved or killed. The new government wanted complete unity and order in the country, and did anything they could to achieve this.

My grandmother speaks English, but my mom and I felt that it would be better to have her talk in Spanish because she could get her ideas across more clearly. My mom translated what she said to me so I could type it up. My mom was there the whole time helping me with this. My grandmother and I usually have phone conversations every couple weeks or so, so after we were done chatting like usual, I asked her if I could interview her. I was in my parents’ bedroom with my mom, my brother, and my dog. During the whole interview, my brother and my dog were playing around on the bed. My mom had to “Shhh!” them a couple of times so we could understand my grandma. My grandma was excited and told her story in great detail. I call her Abu which is short for Abuela (grandmother in Spanish).

I first asked her, “Abu, can you describe your day to day routine during the Civil War?”

She paused for a moment and explained, “So there was a shortage of food so we had to go to distribution centers where you had to form lines and stand for hours on end.”

In the background, I could hear her sister, Quina, yelling at my grandma about more information to tell me. After listening to her sister, Abu said, “Ah, yes, Quina. Sometimes, after waiting so long, food would run out right before your turn came up, and we would have to rush to another food line and start the wait all over again. The people in line would usually patiently wait until someone would inevitably try to cut it and fights would ensue. We did this day after day. You have to realize that in 1936 at the start of the war, I was only fourteen years old, and your Aunt was thirteen.” I thought it was crazy about how young they were going through such a horrible situation. I couldn’t imagine having to go through this when I am 30 let alone 14.

Compared to what she had to do when she was fourteen, I am thankful that I only had to worry about my little league baseball the next day.

She continued, “We were so malnourished your Aunt Quina developed a terrible condition in her mouth that gave her painful sores, and she was issued a certificate to get two litres of milk to help alleviate her problem. Our diet consisted of potato and vegetable skins and garbanzo beans infested with larvae that would turn the beans black. If you tried to remove the bugs, the garbanzos would fall apart, so we would have to eat them as is. It was awful.” I shuddered when I heard her say that. I looked at my mom who was next to me and her eyes said it all. I could tell that her skin was crawling, and even though she had heard this story before, she was absolutely disgusted.

Abu explained, “There was no hot water, only cold water.  We would have to bathe and brush our teeth with laundry soap. We had ulcers in our legs from the cold as we had no heat or warm winter clothes. Our father would take our coats and exchange them in the villages for rice, oil, and beans. He had a wife and two daughters to take care of, so he did what he could to get necessities.”

“Did you have to relocate?” I asked.

“Yes, we did. There was no shooting in the streets, but certain areas would be targeted by the Nationalists. Eventually we had to be evacuated from our home at a certain point as the fighting got worse and moved to a safe zone where bombing was not allowed. My family moved in with another family upon the recommendation of family friends we had in common,” she told me.

“What did you take with you?” I inquired.

“We had to leave our house quickly. We were only able to take the clothes on our back and not much else. From our apartment, we were able to save our mattresses, dining set and an armoire, which were stored in a separate place. Our home was eventually hit by a rocket and destroyed. Everything was gone,” she said. I could hear the emotion in her voice when she was recounting the story to me, how one day they’re living in their house, the next day it gets hit by a rocket, everything is gone. I can’t imagine that pain of losing everything, but also the relief they felt that they were not in the house.

I next asked, “What do you remember most from your experience?”

“The most vivid thing I remember: the pit in my stomach from being hungry all the time and the cold, the terrible cold we had to endure in the winter. There was also an element of fear. Neighbors would turn you in for no reason and accuse people of being rebels. Men would literally be taken away at night to a place known as ‘La Checa del Cine Europa’ never to return.” She paused for a moment because I could hear her becoming emotional. She continued, “One day my father was captured and taken to that place. As luck would have it, a man of influence must have recognized my father from the neighborhood grocery store that he owned and knew he did not belong there, whisked him away from the line, effectively saving his life.  Don’t know how we would have survived without our father. We thank God every day for that man and what he did. He must have been an angel, as we never could figure out who he was to this day.” I couldn’t imagine the thought of possibly losing my father forever, especially if he is the one keeping me alive. In her situation, if her father got taken away forever, her family would have no way of getting the essentials they needed.

My follow up question was, “How did what you witnessed affect or change you?”

She took a minute to ponder and told me, “We did what we had to do to survive. We were young and hopeful and made the best of a bad situation. We had many friends our age and made a game out of running from one line to another. We were out of school for three years, and we had nothing except each other, so we made do and kept ourselves busy surviving. We may have lost everything, but we were alive and full of hope. Perhaps being young was an asset as we were oblivious to many things happening around us and were just happy to be alive.

“It scarred us physically and psychologically. Being hungry was so tough. When you are starving anything tastes better than nothing and could spell the difference between life and death. My sister and I find it hard to leave food on our plate to this day. We polish our food and never leave a morsel. We serve ourselves a little at a time and prefer to go back for seconds rather than have leftovers. It is not in us to waste as we know what it feels like to be hungry.

“When school once again resumed, we poured ourselves into our books and were eager to learn after so many years of disruption to our education.  We are both into our nineties, but we never stop learning and we still read a lot. I guess we are still making up for lost time.”

I was amazed at her positive outlook to such a horrible situation. Even up until now, she remembers the good things that happened during the war.  Usually, the good things blur away and only the painful ones stay behind.

My last question was, “What do you hope people learn from your story?”

“People should learn to be grateful for what they have and learn to appreciate life and all it has to offer, i.e. family, health, friends, freedom. When what you have is taken away, be adaptable and learn to live with less. We did it. We are stronger, resilient, and are truly survivors….Look, I’m still alive at 93!” she said, laughing.

I am very happy I got to interview my grandma about this tough topic. There were many scars left over from the war, but she found a way to make it somewhat positive. This story is so important to tell because there are not many people left in this world who went through the Spanish Civil War. It happened almost 80 years ago. Even though she didn’t see any actual combat, there were still hardships that she had to face ,especially being a bystander to such a gruesome war. People don’t realize that the lives of the civilians in nations that are going through war feel it as much as the soldiers do. My grandmother learned things that she will never give up, and this experience that she went through changed her life forever.

Passing on the Story

 

by Rachael Miller

“The most important part for those who also survived, is to try to teach what happened and teach people to remember. It’s the only way to avoid it.”

I had been thinking about this interview all week. The room I was in was quite small. All it consisted of was a desk, chair, and bookcase. I prepared my questions on my computer and waited to call while I examined the lamp on the table next to me. It was a small lamp with a translucent green shade.

My father had set me up with his business partner George to interview.  I had done my research on the man; I knew he was born in Hungary, lived through the Holocaust, had been part of the Hungarian revolution, and migrated from Hungary to America. He is now a very wealthy man and donates a lot of his money to various charities. In the pictures I had seen, he was an elderly man, probably in his eighties, with gray hair on the sides of his head. His appearance, however, seemed to have a youthful glow. My dad spoke very highly of him. I was very interested in learning about him, but I couldn’t get over the fact that I was about to ask extremely personal questions to a stranger.

This interview was very meaningful for me. I consider being educated on world events, especially the harrowing ones, to be essential to any education. Without education such as this, those of us fortunate enough to be distanced from tragedy will do nothing to stop it or prevent it in the future. Additionally, it is important for people to continuously try to understand the truths of these events, keeping in mind that they will never be able to completely comprehend what the witnesses had to go through. 

I watched my computer clock turn to 4:30 and my stomach fluttered. My dad came into the room on the phone with George and handed the phone to me. I sat there holding the phone to my ear for a second, not sure how to start. I heard him on the other end of the phone waiting for me to pick up.

“Hello,” I awkwardly greeted.

“Hi, how old are you Rachael?” he replied, not wasting any time.

“I’m sixteen.”

We spent a minute speaking of his grandchildren and my father until I finally mustered up the courage to begin the interview that we were here for. The first thing I noticed when he greeted me was his Hungarian accent. It was reminiscent of the Benedictine monks at my school who also migrated from Hungary. This along with his small talk eased my nerves.

I finally directed the conversation back to the interview. We briefly spoke of his childhood in anti-Semitic Hungary and how Judaism had played a role in his everyday life. So far the discussion was very casual, and I wondered how he would continue to speak in this way when we got to the more personal questions. I knew he had been interviewed a couple of times before; maybe he eventually got desensitized to his own story.

“How did the Holocaust affect you and your family?” I asked.

“Well, it was very terrible,” he said, “most of my family was killed.” Then there was a long pause. This was the point that I started to hear a hint or pain coming through the phone. From then on his voice slowed and he paused more frequently between sentences, seemingly contemplating and choosing his words more carefully than he had in our small talk. He finally continued, “They were taken to Auschwitz, and I was actually supposed to be on the same train, but a very brave Christian friend of our family rescued me. It was a very scary time. I remember most of the time being sacred. I wasn’t sure what I was scared of. And only a few of us survived the Holocaust, so after the war, it was a very different world and even then what I remember most is fear. It was only my mother, my sister, and I who survived, and I think it was 17 members of my family that were killed.”

George provided me with not just facts and data, but also a window into what his life was like seventy years ago, thus revealing a truth that I could never have experienced otherwise. The books and documentaries I had watched prior to the interview did not come close to providing the same amount of complexity.

“How do you want the Holocaust and World War II to be remembered in history books today?” I asked.

Again he took a long pause.

After about fifteen seconds he finally said, “Well, I think that the most important part is to remember. You know I am involved in teaching Holocaust in high schools. I know for example, eighty percent of American high school students have never even heard of the Holocaust.”

“Wow, really?”

“Yeah, it’s pretty shocking.”

I was very surprised by this and honestly, questioned its validity. However, credible or not, as long as I could remember, I had known about the Holocaust. Maybe it was because of my family’s relationship to it, but I still believed it to be common knowledge. It’s strange to think that there are students out there who haven’t even heard of it. Thinking of this made me more grateful for people like George dedicating his time to such an important cause. By teaching kids such as myself of his story, George is doing us a great service. This interview has value because others who read it are able to catch a small glimpse of truth from his story, and hopefully just enough of it to stick with them and drive them to take action to prevent it in the future.

He later told me, “I actually wrote an autobiography, and I might decide to publish it. I wrote it primarily for my children and grandchildren so that they can have the true story because that is one way to try to get them to remember the story. It’s a very important story.”

George helped me understand the importance of witness literature for the readers and society as a whole. It forces us to not only acknowledge the harrowing past and plan for the future, but it also helps us to recognize the people suffering in silence around us right now.

“Correct me if I’m wrong,” I said, “but you helped in an armed rebellion against the Soviets in Hungary?”

“Yes,” he replied, “I was a part of the Hungarian Revolution, the first time there was an armed uprising against the communist regime.”

“Why did you initially decide to risk your life to fight the Soviets in the revolution?” I followed up, trying to get him to elaborate more on the experience.

“Well, you know there was no such decision,” he explained. “I was at a university that had some unhappy people because we didn’t have our own student association; we all had to belong to the communists.” He explained that they had a march to the parliament building, demanded that they accepted their new association, were shot at by secret police, were given access to the armories by the Hungarian government, shot back at the Soviets to take back control of Hungary. “The decision was made for us. It was not that we made the decision,” George explained.

The way George told the story made the scene, that was so unlike anything I had ever experienced, make sense. Even from the dated redwood desk in my mother’s office, I understood how the abruptness of the events caused him and many others to do things they would not normally do because they had no time to think.

“Is that what caused you to leave Hungary?” I asked.

“I left because we lost. We took control of the country for about 12 days, but then the Russian tanks came in, and I remember the huge tanks coming across the Danube, and I looked at my machine gun and it was very clear that that wasn’t going to hurt the tanks and I had to run, and I did.” Later those who took part in the revolution were caught by the Soviets and punished. This was the point that George and his family decided to leave Hungary in hopes of a better life in America.

“There were minefields at the border so that nobody could escape. We found a local peasant who seemed to know where to go, and he helped us cross,” he said. I was astonished. I remember similar stories about the monks at Priory, but it was different hearing the experience straight from George.

I was surprised by the ease of the transition that George explained once they arrived in America. In most stories I had heard, migrants seemed to have a lot of troubles when they reached America whether it be lingual, economic, or stemmed from xenophobia; however, his story was one of welcoming and more or less a smooth transition. The way he spoke of his new life in America was so grateful and joyful it reminded me how I take my life in America for granted on a daily basis.

After coming back from my thought train, I asked, “Have you been back home to Hungary since then?”

“I’ve been back, in fact, I was back in August,” he replied and paused.“I wouldn’t call it home. When people ask me here ‘where were you born,’ my joke is, I was born in America only in the wrong place.”

We both laughed. I could tell he had thought about that a lot. It made me think about what made someone American or not. Of course, there are citizens and noncitizens, but when he came to America, he felt at home for the first time in his life, and that is what makes him American.

As if he had read my mind he added, “Hungary was never my home because they hated us. My family lived in the same village for 200 years, yet we were still considered strangers there was such strong anti-Semitism. And it still continues today.”

“Yeah, it is very important,” I said and then asked, “Over time do you think you have forgotten parts of your experiences?”

“I think so. I try to.” I hadn’t thought about this before. He has done so many interviews and dedicated so much of his time teaching children about his life yet still wishes he could forget it. His pain did not end the day he arrived in America; in fact, he still feels the pain of his childhood today, yet he doesn’t let that stop him from educating the next generations. “You know the whole conflict carries with it terrible cries, and most of us survivors have some mental and emotional problems, and I recognize that I had some of that and I unfortunately see it in my daughters too, and it’s sad, but unavoidable, and now most of our philanthropic work is to try to help people who have problems,” he said.

My interest in the subject caused me to stray from my original questions. “Oh yeah, speaking of that, my father told me you’ve invested a lot of money helping people who have had similar experiences. What are some of the things you have done to help them?” I asked.

“Well, we’ve done a lot,” he said. And he was right. He is part of the International Refugee Committee, and helps refugees from 31 countries find new homes, and invest in medical research to aid emotional trauma, and provide free cataract surgeries, and provide medical aid to people in Tibet and Nepal. It was very inspiring to see someone so affluent, ambitious, and acclaimed, using his fortune to help others.

This led me to my last question, “If you had the option to change your past, would you?”

“Well, it was terrible,” George explained, “but I have to tell you that some good came out of it. I think I became a more sensitive and caring person because of the Holocaust experience and probably more compassionate for the caring of others,” he replied. It is amazing that he looks at the positives in situations like this. He realizes that if he had gone through so much, he probably would not be as good of a person as he is today, would not be contributing so much philanthropic work, and would not be helping people all around the globe.

 

Unbreakable Spirit

 

BY: JACK SMITH

An ancient Vietnamese proverb states, “ăn quả nhớ kẻ trồng cây,” or in its English equivalent, “when eating a fruit, think of the person who planted the tree.” While most linguists claim this to mean that one must have gratitude for those who provide for him, I have come to realize that my own interpretation is that one must look beyond the superficial surface of a certain circumstance and acknowledge the journey that led to its realization. During the course of this project, I myself “thought of the person who planted the tree” when I interviewed Vietnamese refugee Khoa Ngo.

My connection to Khoa is that he is an older brother of my stepmother, who moved with him in 1980 to the United States to flee oppression in Vietnam along with the rest of their family. Before the commencement of this project, I hadn’t the slightest inkling of how they had come to arrive in the United States. I had assumed that they had simply boarded an airplane in Hanoi and flown to their new home in San Jose, as my naïve, American mind was inclined to think. Furthermore, I hadn’t ever considered the reasons for which they fled Vietnam; I had simply thought they moved for personal reasons. The Ngos, an accomplished and successful family, had only shown me kindness and exuded positivity and happiness whenever I had been around them. As I was to soon find out, there were years worth of sadness, destitution, and perseverance behind this that took place to help them arrive at their position in life.

The day of the interview, I sat on the plush, navy comforter of my bed. The grey Sunday sky casting a melancholy ambience over the entirety of my neighborhood was visible through my windows that faced the empty street. I eyed the baby-blue clock adorning my wall, watching its hands inch closer and closer to 3:00, the time I was to call Khoa, with a meticulous tick, tick. With each passing tick, I grew increasingly anxious. Although I had known his family for close to six years, I had seldom spoken to him. I originally wanted to interview my stepmother, with whom I was much more comfortable talking, but being only five years old at the time of leaving Vietnam, she had little to no memory of the ordeal. Alas, I had to break free from routine and interview Khoa. Finally, I gathered the courage to dial his number, reluctantly letting my fingers fall on the keys of my phone’s luminescent glass screen.

Seven sharp rings greeted my ears, until the robotic tone of an automated message sounded to notify me that I was being sent to voicemail.

Why is he not picking up? I thought irrationally. Does he not want to talk anymore?

I waited for fifteen more minutes, each minute slipping past more and more rapidly. I finally picked up my phone again and punched his number into the keypad. Pressing the cool glass against my ear, I heard the same succession of grating rings, expecting the call to be sent to voicemail once again. To my surprise, after the fourth ring, I heard the soft, subdued, yet powerful voice greet me from the other line.

“Hello?” he answered in a hushed tone, each word accented slightly by the language of his homeland.

“Hi, Khoa, it’s Jack. I’m calling about the interview?” I responded timidly, unsure of myself.

“Oh, yes! I’m glad you’ve called,” he responded with genuine enthusiasm. My faith in the interview began to grow.

“Shall we get started?” I asked slightly more confidently.

“Yes, let’s get started.”

“How old were you when you moved from Vietnam?”

“I was nine years old, so very young.”

“What drove you from Vietnam?”

“The communists, the Viet Cong, were oppressive. They controlled our lives. Everyone was poor, and my parents wanted freedom and a better life for the family. There were just more opportunities in America.”

Khoa did not mention much more beyond that, but prior conversation with my stepmother about the communist government of the Viet Cong revealed their brutal practices. They promised freedom to the downtrodden Vietnamese, but instead delivered a regime of oppression and subjugation. They set up “reeducation camps,” or concentration camps where those who even slightly disagreed with their practices were jailed. Hundreds of thousands sent to these horrific prisons perished as a result of heavy labor, torture, or murder. As a communist government, the Viet Cong confiscated citizens’ possessions, leading some to take extreme measures to protect items of sentimental value (Khoa’s parents, as it turns out, were forced to swallow their wedding rings as a convoy of Viet Cong soldiers approached their home). Freedoms that are taken for granted in the United States, such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press, were non-existent. The Vietnamese experience was one of misery and cruelty, forcing thousands of citizens to rightfully seek refuge in peaceful countries. This led to the mass exodus of the Vietnamese “boat people,” a group under which the Ngos were included.

“How was your experience coming to America?” I asked, delving into a subject I feared would be traumatic for Khoa to answer.

“It was quite a horrible experience. My family, including my mother, father, five siblings, and I, all packed into a boat that had about 114 on board. We were at sea for fourteen days,” he recalled. A faint tinge of woe began to be evident in his voice.

“Where were you headed?”

“Our boat was going toward Thailand, although we didn’t know exactly how to get there. We had to rely on our uncle, who could read the stars to guide us. Unfortunately, one night, the water was rough, and he was taken away by a large wave as he stood near the edge of the boat.”

From my experience with the Ngos, I had come to understand that Vietnamese culture considers the bond between family members to be incredibly intimate, possibly more so than the average American family. The loss of even one relative has the potential to put an entire family in a permanent state of mourning. However, motivated by the prospect of a better life and future in the United States, the Ngos persevered in the face of their loss.

“I’m so sorry, that’s terrible,” I apologized somberly.

“It was. Our family was very sad,” he agreed. “We also had to deal with pirates from Thailand who sailed in the sea. They would cut off the engine and steal everyone’s valuables. They would also bring guns and fire warning shots to scare us. One time, they accidentally hit my father’s leg while he had my baby sister resting on his knee. It was horrible.”

“How did you end up reaching Thailand then?” I questioned, still shocked at Khoa’s answer to the previous question.

“We were at sea for a few days, and nobody could find the shore. Finally, we were spotted by a US Navy ship, and they towed us to Thailand.”

Khoa’s account of his journey was jarring. Having grown up in the United States, it was unfathomable to imagine being uprooted from my home and forced to make an arduous journey to a new life. After all, the most difficult journey I had ever taken was getting stuck for a few hours in the heavy traffic of Highway 101. While I had faced the high-pitched trill of honking horns as cars attempted to merge, the Ngos had faced the angry hollers of pirates as they robbed them of all they owned and threatened their lives, leaving them with nothing as they continued to travel across the rough waters of the Gulf of Thailand. All of my supposed “problems” in life started to appear trivial.

“So, once you arrived in Thailand, where did you go?” I pondered.

“Well, we went to a refugee camp, where we applied for asylum in the United States and waited three months.”

“That’s quite a long time,” I responded, naïvely unaware of the realities that most refugees faced.

“Yes, but we were lucky,” he asserted. “Most people stayed for two years or more.”

“What was it like to be in the refugee camp?”

“It was nice, but we were just waiting there until we could leave. There was a beach right near it, which I loved playing in as a young boy. The people who worked there were all very nice to my family too.”

Until that moment, I had neglected to remember that Khoa was just nine years old when he left Vietnam. It was uplifting to hear that there was one moment of carefree joy throughout his grueling journey, which must have been especially traumatic for his young psyche. I was also touched that after years of maltreatment and injustice, the Ngos were finally being given the respect they deserved at the camp.
“How did you leave?” I asked, becoming increasingly invested in his story.

“We had cousins who had fled before us and settled in America, so they sponsored us to move there. Soon after, we left and settled in San Jose.”

Despite having already endured incredible hardship, the Ngos’ journey was still far from over. They had to start their lives from scratch and assimilate into a new culture, a new language, a completely new way of life. They had to learn to be Americans while still holding on to their beloved Vietnamese culture.

“We had to look for housing, and my dad had to find a job,” he explained with a tense sharpness in his voice, obviously the effect of revisiting such a stressful time. “He eventually found one selling goods, selling anything, actually. However, he and the rest of us also could not speak English, which made communication difficult.”

“Since you were so young, how was your experience adjusting to a new country?”

“It was difficult at the beginning. We all had to go to school, and none of us spoke English. We had to spend a lot of time on our homework because we had to learn English at the same time. Myself, I had trouble making friends. Some kids made fun of me for my race at school, which was quite intimidating and scary.”

Khoa’s comments on the language barrier struck a nerve with me. In that moment, I was mentally transported back to a Vietnamese New Year celebration a few years prior at the Ngo family residence. It was a joyous occasion, marking the beginning of the lunar new year. Cherry-red envelopes containing crisp, freshly printed ten dollar bills were handed to the children of the family, who squealed with glee at their newfound windfall. Adults and older teenagers cheered jubilantly from the room over as they played the popular Vietnamese gambling game bầu cua cá cọp. It seemed as if every surface was covered with steaming plates of bánh tôm, phở, gỏi cuốn, or any other of the countless delectable, traditional dishes that had been prepared for this occasion. Often, when I attended events at their home, they spoke English, but most of the conversation that night was in Vietnamese out of respect for my stepmother’s parents. As the rising and falling tones and hard consonant sounds that so characterize Vietnamese greeted my ears, to my dismay my brain could make no sense of them. I had no knowledge of the language, so I felt like an awkward outsider present among this cheerful chatter. This example is certainly incomparable with Khoa’s story, but I realized that this must have been exactly how Khoa and his family felt after moving to the United States: they were witness to the extravagance and excitement of American life, but the barrier of English presented a large enough challenge that they were unable to partake in it.

Despite his tumultuous beginning in the United States, it soon became obvious that, according to Khoa, the benefits of his journey turned out to be worth the struggle.

“The United States has a lot of opportunity, much more than Vietnam. Everything we needed to succeed was provided to us. The government had programs to help us get set up. We lived in public housing, and we were on food stamps. That didn’t exist in Vietnam.” I found his perspective interesting, as I’ve regretfully witnessed many Americans look down with disdain upon those who use government services such as food stamps and public housing. This leads the people who need these services the most to be ashamed of their decision to do so, even though it may mean the difference between survival and eventual vitality or a life of permanent destitution. Instead, Khoa took pride in the fact that their new country was providing help to his needy family, which, in my personal opinion, should be the viewpoint possessed by every American.

“Would you ever say that you regret your decision to move here?” I asked, almost positively knowing what his answer would be.

“I was a young child, so I didn’t have a choice, but I don’t regret the decision at all. My family is incredibly grateful to be here, as many people are incredibly desperate to come here. It’s a blessing to be in America.”

Our interview ended on that positive sentiment, as Khoa had nothing more to say. I pressed the crimson-colored button on my phone’s screen to hang up the call and set it down on my bed. I lay down and regarded the off-white, cracked ceiling just above my head, attempting to fully process all the information of Khoa’s story. Suddenly, a wave of guilt washed over my body and mind. In the six years I had known the Ngo family, I hadn’t once heard the story of how they arrived in the United States. Khoa’s account of their journey, which in a matter of twenty minutes made an impact on my heart and my soul, completely changed my view of the Ngos. I realized that they are the single most enduring family I know, as even though they experienced incredible hardship, they escaped their situation with an indescribable combination of grace, love, hard work, and perseverance.

While Khoa had relatively few words, his answers still conveyed a powerful truth: liberty and justice for all is unfortunately not universal outside of our nation’s borders. Beyond the United States, injustices and abuse are rampant in some nations, and many long for the freedom about which Americans don’t take a second thought. Furthermore, Khoa’s story demonstrated to me both the evil of humans and the unbreakability of the human spirit. It’s quite difficult to envision that such malevolence as that perpetrated by the Viet Cong exists in the world, but it’s an uncomfortable reality we must all face and have a responsibility to help ameliorate. However, even when faced with unspeakable travesties, such as those occurring in Vietnam, humans will stop at nothing to better both their own lives and those of their companions.

That night, I turned out the brilliant light illuminating my room and tucked myself under my warm, dry comforter. As I drifted into a deep slumber, I reflected on the interview. Khoa’s words, especially his sentiments of gratitude for being in the United States, echoed through my mind. In that moment, I felt more grateful to be an American than ever.

 

Drifting

BY: ALEX GAO

“I thought I was bringing my five children and I to our deaths,” she recalled, teary-eyed. Rosa was somber in her expression while describing the event that changed her very identity as a person. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, many Vietnamese fled the country to escape the newly installed communist government. Many resorted to fleeing to neighboring countries by boat or ship. This fleeing population was called the “Vietnamese boat people.” Their passage on sea was unpredictable as many died facing danger and hardship from pirates, overcrowded boats, and storms. From 1975 to 1995, it is estimated that 800,000 Vietnamese undertook the dangerous journey. Thong Thi “Rosa” Nguyen was one them.

I first got in touch with Rosa as she was the mother of one of my father’s co-workers. We had long known her family, but it wasn’t until recently that I discovered her former refugee status. Rosa was born in the Quang Ngai province on the eastern coast of Vietnam. In the years after the end of the Vietnam war, Rosa and her husband decided that the family was ill-suited to live in Vietnam. The new corrupt government had put many families, theirs included, in financial crisis, and anyone who spoke up against the government would be declared an enemy of state. Given that Rosa’s husband was a fisherman, they decided that the family would flee on his fishing boat. On the 18th of June 1980, Rosa, her husband and her five kids, ranging from five months old to five years old, boarded their tiny fishing boat in the direction of Hong Kong.

Rosa and her daughters were kind enough to invite my dad and me for lunch to conduct the interview on September 27th at noon. At our arrival at their house in Fremont, my father and I greeted Rosa. Despite the grim topic we were about to discuss, she smiled joyfully, happy to be in the presence of friends. I sat down at the dinner table with my dad’s co-worker who was ready to translate whatever Rosa said.

I first asked Rosa to explain what happened on the fishing boat in Hong Kong. She recalled, “We arrived in the port of Hong Kong but we were told we weren’t allowed to go on land because too many refugees were coming at once. We were left drifting on the sea for two weeks at the port with little food. Our motor had ran out of fuel so we couldn’t go looking for food.” Rosa’s face while describing this scene seemed hurt and regretful. She knew that there was a possibility that her whole family could’ve died during that period. It struck me that Rosa must’ve mustered unbelievable bravery to remain resilient and be optimistic on that boat.

When she said she had little food, I followed up by asking how they scraped by. “All the food we brought with us originally quickly ran out. Other fisherman boats would give us dry goods and rice because they felt bad. For my babies, we gave them powder milk with the water we brought,” Rosa explained while nervously fiddling her fingers. At this point, I realized how thankful Rosa must’ve been to be alive at the present moment and for being able to look forward to her next meal. It really emphasized how minor my daily first world problems were compared to hers at the time.

After those grueling two weeks were over, only male refugees were granted access to go on land in Hong Kong. I asked her to describe what she saw. She recounted the scene, “It was complete pandemonium. All the men rushed to immigration stations to get their paperwork as soon as possible. Many men, including my husband, wrote down wrong date of births and names of their children out of ignorance. Even then, food was difficult to come by as the government officials only gave each person two small portions of rice twice a day. After a couple of days, the families gained ‘refugee status’ in Hong Kong.”

“How were you treated in Hong Kong?” I asked curiously.

“Fortunately, the reception by the people was very positive. The people of Hong Kong were aware that we were refugees and were hospitable towards us. We were provided three meals a day, and jobs could be found if we showed identification,” Rosa replied.

I also asked Rosa about the negatives being in Hong Kong.

“There was a huge communication barrier. Since Vietnamese and Cantonese are drastically different languages, we couldn’t understand what each other were saying. It made it difficult for us to assimilate in their culture,” Rosa responded while making Chinese fried rice.

After a brief period in Hong Kong, Rosa and her family were given a loan by a refugee relocation organization to be able to move to the U.S. They were able to build their life in the San Francisco Bay Area where she raised all of her five kids. She is now a happy grandmother living in Fremont.

To finish off the interview, I asked her about if she had any regrets about leaving Vietnam. She immediately responded, “Absolutely not. Even today, Vietnam is a corrupt place that limits your freedom of speech. The government still neglects its people, which is why many Vietnamese are still emigrating today. If anything, I regret not bringing my extended family to America where the living conditions are much better.”

Since being in the U.S., Rosa has been happy despite the language barrier. She sends money to her extended family in Vietnam to support them, knowing the Vietnamese government can’t steal it. One day, she hopes that she can garner enough money to bring the rest of her family to America.

Rosa’s story is a common one between Vietnamese refugees. She and many others were lucky to be so well received by a foreign country. The Cantonese people demonstrated a great example of hospitality during their time of need and distress. Emulating what Hong Kong did should not be seen as a burden but as a responsibility, a fundamental act of human kindness. Countries that are able should always keep their doors open for the desperate or displaced or hopeless or those latching on to survival. Unfortunately even today we are struggling with this task.

It is important to remember what Rosa endured, as she was bearing witness to the refugee experience. Her testimony, intact and not lost, will be passed along generations throughout her family. Without it, the family is missing a crucial experience which formed their identities. Above all, people should keep in mind this event as whole so such a mass exodus never happens again.