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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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.