How do you hook your kids into history? Make it personal. If you are here now that means you are a survivor. Your bloodline is rich with stories of hardship, perseverance and resilience that can be woven within the context of history.
Recently, I gave a presentation about my grandfather at the Rey Cultural Center in New Hampshire. This is the former summer home of the authors H.A. and Margret Rey of the iconic Curious George books. The following is a somewhat slightly modified version of what I had shared..
In order to prepare for this event, I needed to revisit both personal and world history to create a bigger picture and have a better understanding myself. I am very lucky to have poetry from my grandparents where they wrote about the holocaust, the war, suicide and death as well as family, love and hope.
Six years ago, my almost three year old son was in love with Curious George and I read the books so often that I had them memorized. One night I googled the authors and I learned the story of the Rey’s was similar to my grandfathers. They were also German Jews who escaped the Nazis and I knew I had to drive the six hours to visit their summer home with my children.
Everyone is familiar with the iconic Curious George and the man with the yellow hat but what most people are not familiar with is the story of hope that George and his curiosity represents. In June of 1940, the German Jewish couple Hans and Margaret Rey had been on an extended honeymoon in France when the Nazis had occupied Paris and northern France. They fled with their manuscripts in their front basket along with a little food and the clothes on their backs. They fled with millions of other refugees fleeing south while Nazi aircraft flew overhead. Like many Jews, they hid in farmhouses and stables until they were able to board a train in Spain and eventually reach the neutral country of Portugal. In 1935, they had left Germany for Brazil in order to escape the increase in antisemitism and the Nazi Party so they had received dual Brazilian citizenship while living and working there. This made them lucky and it enabled them to get a Visa to travel by boat from Portugal back to Brazil where they waited for a month until they sailed to New York in October of 1940.
The Rey’s were artists and writers. My grandfather was passionate about photography and hiking, especially on Prince Edward Island. I’ve often wondered how many of those six million Jews and an additional five million people who were gay, or gypsies or disabled, or too young or too old were also artists or writers or doctors or gardeners or teachers or someone’s sister or best friend since they were all just regular people like my grandfather and the Reys who had their own gifts to contribute to the world but they were wiped out. Six million people murdered because they were Jewish.
My family is Jewish. My grandparents were Jewish yet noone in the last two or three generations has actively practiced Judaism. My father had gone to temple as a kid but when I was growing up I had never stepped foot in a temple or done anything religious. My father had been very clear that he was raising us atheist but always maintained his Jewish identity. I don’t remember my grandparents ever attending temple or doing anything “Jewish” outside of the holidays yet they always identified as Jewish. I think being Jewish is much more than a religion, it’s a culture and a language, there’s Hebrew and Yiddish and there’s also a shared history that continues to shape lives.
Last year, I had thought it would be great to find out what my DNA said about me. I was hoping for something I would never have imagined like I’m secretly a descendent of a princess from South Africa. According to those results, I am 99% European Jewish and one percent Israeli. The places that the DNA tests were referring to was Russia, Belarus and Lithuania and was the home of many Ashkenazi Jews who would eventually settle in Poland, Germany, Austria, Romania and the United States as a result of organized violence against Jews first in the form of pogroms and then the Shoah which is also known as the Holocaust. Anti-semitism and hating Jews is known as the world’s oldest hatred and unfortunately this hatred is once again on the rise.
My family is typical of many Ashkenazi Jewish families who came here in the first large waves of Jewish immigration during the 1880s through the turn of the century mostly through Russia because of Pogroms. Everyone with the exception of my paternal grandfather immigrated to the United States during that time.
What were the Pogroms?
The pogroms that began in 1881 were years of organized attacks sometimes with government and police encouragement against Jews that included raping and killing tens of thousands of Jews. The pogroms of Tsarist Russia was much like Nazi Germany with economic, religious, social and educational restrictions against Jewish citizens. Jews were being blamed for killing Jesus, in addition to the blood-libel myth that Jews killed Christian babies and baked their blood into matzah, the false rumor that Jews were somehow connected to the 1881 assassination of Czar Alexander II, the cause of economic difficulties and problems of the country and Russians used this as a justification to murder tens of thousands of citizens. After the craziness of the pogroms my great great grandparents had been thrilled to be given the opportunity to move to Bonn, Germany. My grandfather’s father had fought in World War I like a 100,000 other German Jews for Germany. He thought his service with the military would protect him but instead the Nazis shot him in the head and killed him. His wife, Rebecca arrived in the US two years after my grandfather. Afterwards, he became a professor at the University of Bonn. They lived a secular middle class life intertwined with Jews and Christians and they had two children, my grandfather and his sister. While they were teaching their kids to walk and talk Adolph Hitler was plotting his revenge against Jews who he blamed for the loss of WW1. The German government later proved that false. Hitler had blamed the jews for all of Germany’s economic problems and he used anti semitic propaganda to convince the German people to support his ultimate goal of the Jewish solution. His Jewish solution meant the complete eradication of Jews from all of Europe and the world where Germans could rule as a “pure” race. Hitler believed he was part of a “pure blooded master race” known as the Aryan Race that was at the top of the human “racial” hierarchy while Hitler placed Jews at the bottom and the lowest form of “humans” and classified them as “non-Germans” even with most Ashkenazi Jews having German surnames like my grandfathers. My grandfather’s family name Meyer is the equivalent of the surname Smith in the United States. It is still the third most common surname among German citizens.
Russia was not the beginning of anti-semitism and persecution of Jews which has been around at least since the Middle Ages. Initially, it had been about religion or Jews were blamed as the cause of the plague epidemic but then in the 19th centuries that was often replaced by a hatred based on erroneous race theories and the idea that the Jews were a separate race. Even Jews who had converted were still considered Jewish and different because of their blood line. Hitler blamed the Jews for losing World War I. There was a German myth at play stating that Germany did not lose the war on the battlefield, but through betrayal on the home front and Jews and Social Democrats were to be blamed. This was so far from the truth especially considering that at the start of the war there were only a half a million Jews living in Germany and 100,000 of them fought for Germany in the war is a significant number. Hitler’s “Final Solution” of the annihilation of all Jews was unique within antisemitism since it was the first time a country that was considered the pinnacle of culture and the arts and education decided as a nation to not just murder Jewish citizens in Germany but to completely obliterate them from the planet.
How does one plan for the murder of millions of people within their own country? How do you convince a population to turn against itself? You make your target population an “other”, an outsider and a repository for all of the woes and fears of a nation.
My grandfather’s story is his story alone. Yet his story is simultaneously the story of millions of Jews who did not have a voice because they were murdered too soon.
My grandfather was a very lucky man who was born on St. Patrick’s Day and he seemed to have the luck of the Irish in him when he survived not once but twice. First, he survived living in Nazi Germany and all of the hardships that it had entailed for a Jewish person all those years Hitler and the Nazi Party were in power. He survived and he escaped. My grandfather’s second round of luck was when he escaped to the United States and went on to fight in the United States Army in some of World War HIs largest and most significant battles as a heavy artillery gunman. He was one of only two hundred thousand other very lucky Jews who were allowed to enter the United States and therefore survive during that time period. Every person who survived was also very lucky, since lucky, was what made the difference between life and death.
Now my grandfather was not the type to say he was lucky or the type to tell his story or bring any attention to himself. When he wanted to convince my grandmother to marry him he didn’t just propose he offered to take her surname which was unheard of at that time. I found writing by my grandmother who described the political group that met at the YMCA as “young intellectuals” and something that she had joined because it was one of the only social or cultural activities available at the time to her. She described the time as extremely lucky since she “nabbed an eligible bachelor.”
My grandfather, Rudolph Raphael Meyer was born on March 17th 1908 in Bonn, Germany to Albert and Rebecca Meyer less than a mile from Beethoven’s family home. I don’t know much about his childhood since I never heard him talk about it or much in the past. My grandfather was the type who didn’t show a range of emotion outside of focused or angry and I think that was a big part of German culture-not showing emotions and not being very touchy feely. Many of the stories that I’ve heard about my grandfather or heard from my grandparents were stories overheard or pieced together by listening to snatches of hidden conversations among adults in other rooms when I was supposed to be sleeping. My father had told me that my grandfather had thought his family would be ok because his father had fought for the German army in WWI but he quickly realized he needed to get out after Hitler had taken power in 1933. My grandfather had been working as an insurance agent and my brother thinks it was family owned when Hitler took power. In 1935 the Nuremberg Laws which I will get more into later were established and put into effect revoking my family’s citizenship and their ability to attend school, have a business, or be in public locations and then there was the Night of Broken Glass Jews were being murdered by the tens of thousands and Jews were brought to the first camp in Dachau.
After four years of Nazi rule my grandfather fled first to England and then to New York City by ship with a friend and family member Alfred Gartner. His sister Ilse and her mother would arrive the following year. Alfred was married to Rudy and Ilse’s first cousin. My brother also found paperwork from the SS of the murder of another cousin from that family group. I didn’t know anything about Alfred before I had started looking into this and my brother found paperwork and records that looks like Alfred had left Germany the year before my grandfather and had established residency with his family in the US and then returned to get my grandfather and travel back with him from Germany and then Liverpool, England. I didn’t know about Alfred until recently and I’m going to try and find out more about him and his experience in the future. Once my grandfather and Alfred arrived in New York they stayed with Alfred’s family on the upper east side of Manhattan until my grandfather had moved into a YMCA. He had taken a ship to England and I am not sure if they traveled anywhere else before traveling to the United States. I am not positive but I think Alfred had returned a third time for Ilse but regardless of how she arrived here with her mother and future husband they all stayed with Alfred’s family on the upper east side. They also had other family who lived there who fought in WW II.
My grandfather and Alfred Gartner took the SS Samaria ship from Liverpool, England to New York City. His sister Ilse would take the same transatlantic ship the following year but she would meet her future husband on that trip. I find it amazing and incredibly lucky that they were among the only two hundred thousand Jews who had been allowed to enter the United States under the American immigration quota system that severely limited non-Nordic populations. It was common for men to move first to try and establish housing and work before bringing over their family and while Jews had been the victims of pogroms for decades no-one could have predicted the horrors of the holocaust.
In 1940 the ship Samaria that my grandfather had sailed the transatlantic on just a couple of years prior was now shuttling out British and Jewish children to family, friends and profitable schemes in the US, Canada and South America saving the lives of 14,000 British children and several hundred Jewish children. I have friends who are the grandchildren of survivors who thanks to DNA testing have found family members who had been given up for adoption to save their lives in the United States. DNA testing is really a game changer in furthering our understanding of the past. For example a friend of mine recently got his DNA results back and learned that he isn’t Italian at all and over thirty percent Jewish so it makes you wonder if his grandparents had been one of those children and what happened to those children and their legacies.
My grandparents had met that year in the basement of a YMCA where political discussions were being held. My grandmother had been the only woman in that group and she was also a college graduate and working as a second grade teacher. My grandfather was still a German citizen at the time and he told my grandmother that if she would agree to marry him he would even take her name which was pretty significant at that time. My grandmother, Ruth Cohn had been living with her parents, her sister Erna and her husband Manny as well as a German Jewish refugee they had taken in. My grandmother’s family were Polish/Russian Jews that had settled in Poland and then in Amsterdam New York in a factory town. My grandmother’s family had been very poor and she had worked in a factory to help support her family until her uncle and aunt became very wealthy and paid for her to attend college. My grandmother’s uncle had dropped out of school at 14 and made his way from a vaudeville performer to creating and running Columbia Pictures with his brother for over forty years.this had been a source of deep contention between my grandmother and her sister Erna for decades since only my grandmother had that opportunity. My grandparents had stayed close with this part of the family right up until my grandfather’s death and while her uncle had passed other family had paid for his funeral and hospital expenses when he had been very ill the last several years of his life. My great uncle was a product of his time and not the best kind of person. He had been known as a Harvey Weinstein. When I was a kid my family would pile into the car on Staten Island and drive to Long Island on Sundays to have dinner with my grandparents. I remember a dinner time family story was included in the Godfather two film of the horses head being cut off. While I know the director of the film claims that scene was based in fiction, it wasn’t. It had been my great uncles favorite horse and someone in the mafia had decapitated it and placed it in his bed over an issue with Frank Sinatra and someone they were both sleeping with a contract.
In December of 1943 my grandfather arrived in Casablanca, NorthernAfrica with 14,000 other men on an overcrowded Liberty ship as a part of the 88th Infantry Division. This would eventually become known as the “Blue Devils.” in Italy. My father was born a the end of April while my grandfather and the Allies went on to attack enemy lines at Mount Diamano and the Austene Valley.
To Be Continued… next week!