Ever since I can remember, my father told us the Stories. The same ones, repeated endlessly, about his childhood in Nazi Germany. Of course, he rarely told whole stories, because my brother and I already knew them. Usually, it was just, “You remember the story about…” and we would quickly respond, “Yes, we know that one…” to cut him off before he got going.
My father grew up in Nazi Germany. He was born in Berlin in 1928 and fled with his family in 1939. In the United States, he became a theologian and scholar of Jewish philosophy. He dedicated much of his life to dialogue with other faiths and traveled often to Germany to teach and lecture about Judaism. Those are the things others remember him for. But to my brother and me, it was the Stories of the first decade of his life that defined him.
When I was 12 years old, in the mid-1970s, at the height of the Cold War, my parents took me on a trip to Berlin, where my father had lived; to Budapest, where his family was from, and where his relatives still lived; to Auschwitz, long before it was on the itinerary of Jewish youth groups on their way to Israel. And my father told me the Stories there, too. Not for the first time, and certainly not for the last.
When my brother and I had children of our own, he brought each of our families with him to Berlin and Budapest again and told the Stories to his grandchildren. By the time my husband and I made the trip with our three children, dementia had already started to set in, but he was still able to show us all the places and tell all the Stories:
“We lived on Oranienburger Strasse, just down the street from the Neue Synagoge. We were very poor.…
“This is where I went to the Adas Yisroel school. My best friend was Manfred Lapper. He didn’t survive. I could never find him….
“This is the post office where we picked up the kosher chickens our relatives mailed to us from Budapest. They didn’t smell so good by the time they got here, but we ate them on Shabbos anyway….
“This is the building where we lived when my brother got mad at my parents, opened the window, and yelled, ‘I hate Hitler!’ We were terrified….
“This is the where I stood on Kristallnacht and watched the Nazis set fire to the Neue Synagoge. They rolled the Torah scrolls out on the sidewalk and charged people five pfennig to walk on them….
“This is where I stood when I watched a line of Nazi soldiers march down the street. There was a poor Jew on that corner, and as they walked by, each one gave him a kick. He was beaten very badly….
“This is where they brought my father the night they came and took him away to deport him to Poland. I ran to warn my brother at the synagogue because he was old enough to be taken, too, but I couldn’t get there. It was already surrounded by police. But he had lied about his age and they didn’t take him….
“This is the park where my father’s two sisters took me to play. I loved this park. My aunts couldn’t get visas. They perished.”
As a child, I cringed when my father started in with the Stories. We were New Yorkers; we were free. I was the child of highly educated academics attending a Modern Orthodox school on the Upper East Side, and I believed in my bright American future. I didn’t want to dwell on the bleak past. I hated thinking about the Nazi horror. I hated seeing my father’s eyes mist over with the memories. When we visited Auschwitz and my father knelt to kiss the ground, 12-year-old me wanted to run away and hide, I was so embarrassed.
But now, I am grateful. My father is no longer here to tell the Stories. But I am, and my children are, and so is my brother and his children. Our children will tell the Stories to their children. I’m sure with each generation, much will be lost, but not everything, and the Stories will live on.
The America I believed in — eternally welcoming, safe, and free — does not exist. Charlottesville teaches us that it is always at risk of becoming something else, and that the horror of the past is always just one Sieg Heil from breaking into the present. The hatred, prejudice, and pure evil that destroyed my father’s childhood in Berlin haunt us still. Freedom remains fragile for Jews, people of color, LGBTQ people, Muslims, immigrants, and all the other Others.
This is why my father gave us the Stories, like so many other survivors of injustice, hatred, and tragedy around the world. My father feared the complacency I craved. The Stories are the seeds he planted, ready to sprout whenever the conditions are right; whenever my complacency is shaken; whenever the ghosts of the past rise again.
Like right now.
In Trump’s America, where Nazis and white supremacists are crawling out of their hidey-holes and spewing their venom, the Stories are my truth and my strength. Thank you, Dad.
This is my father telling his story: