Thursday, April 30, 2015

For the van de Kars, tragedy and triumph

Louis and Rose Van Thyn visiting with Jannie
van de Kar (center) in Israel, early 1980s

     Abraham and Marianna van de Kar, a couple whose marriage survived the Holocaust, played a huge role in what would become the Van Thyn family. As in, we could not have done it without them.
     As I wrote in a recent piece, they were most responsible for my parents meeting each other.
     (And recounting the friendship of Rozette and Marianna is among my personal favorites of the more than 300 blog pieces I've done in about 3 1/2 years.)
     Appie and Jannie, as we knew them, have a story as fascinating as my parents' story.
     If anything, theirs is more tragic -- the loss of most of their families of origin, but also the loss of two children -- one a baby, one an adult.
     With some of my mother's recollections, from her Shoah Foundation interview in 1996, and with the help of the van de Kars' survivor daughter, Kitty Wiener, who lives in Nahariya, Israel -- the family's adopted hometown -- what follows is part of their story.
      Our families were united through location (Amsterdam, their hometown) and circumstance (Auschwitz and the Holocaust aftermath).
      There are similarities -- the pre-World War II experiences, the suffering in the camps; the new beginnings; a son born in 1947, a daughter born in 1951; a move out of The Netherlands to new frontiers; long, productive and mostly happy lives; grandchildren; respect, admiration and love from so many they'd known in Holland and those they came to know in their new homes.
      As I mentioned in the previous blog, my father and Appie were more acquaintances than friends in the mostly Jewish neighborhood in which they grew up; my mother and Jannie were in school together, but not close friends ... until the day they arrived together in Auschwitz.
       Our fathers, Kitty noted, "did not have the same special bond our mothers had," but as the concentration camps were freed, it was the Russian Army which Dad and Appie first saw, which is why they wound up wearing Russian Army uniforms they were given.
       Unlike my parents, each married to someone else as the Holocaust began, Appie and Jannie were married -- the day before the Nazis "arrested" them and sent them to the Westerbork transition camp in eastern Holland.
      "My mother (maiden name Barend) was supposed to get a grant to go to high school," Kitty wrote, "but her father was against it, thought she needed to learn how to be a Jewish housewife since her mother passed away when she was 9. So surely [he was] thinking that she would marry a Jewish man; he thought that what was best in these times.
       "Our mothers arrived on the same day to Block 10 [at Auschwitz]," Kitty added, "and never separated until they were freed, and saved each other by supporting each other every time one of them was on a breaking point -- and there were many."
       And here, as my mother told the story in her Shoah Foundation interview, was one of those breaking points.
       In Block 10, the Nazi "doctors" -- and I use that term loosely -- soon began their medical experiments and because no one got much to eat, Mom recalled they all lost weight ... except Jannie, who gained weight.
       "Now all our periods started," Mom said. "Not mine, but most women. And she [Jannie] didn't have a period anymore, but she grew. And so after six weeks being in Auschwitz, we knew she probably was pregnant."
        If the Nazis on site had known, it could have meant immediate death for her. But there was a great turn of fortune.
       "Now in our block, we had a Czechoslovakian doctor who was a 'preferred' prisoner," Mom said. "Her husband had invented something for the Germans, and she was in Block 10, and she was downstairs and she was in her own room and she had her two boys with her. Jewish. One boy was 6 years old and one boy was 4. And we went to her and we talked to her. She was wonderful. She had rescued other women.
        "When I came in Auschwitz, several women had died because they gave up; they didn't want to eat. And they had women who got sick, who got scarlet fever, and they put them in the sick room. She [the doctor] knew exactly when the SS would come in. They would come in at times unexpected, but she knew because she had connections. She knew when they would come in.
      "They never went into the sick room because they were scared to death. They would ask her, 'What are those women? Are they sick?' She would say, 'Oh, yeah, they have a little bit of cold.' So she really rescued a lot of women.
      "So we went to her and she examined my friend, Jannie, and she said, 'You are expecting.' And she says you are too far gone (along) for an abortion. She said we cannot let you walk around here all the time because the SS might find out. But she said what I will do is, as long as you don't show that much, you can stay in your work, stay in your commando. But when I know that the SS is coming, I will let you know and I will keep you hidden in my room.
      "And she did. There were two other women who had babies. And in the sixth month, she gave her some shots and, I'll never forget it, we walked the stairs 24 hours up and down, and then she got into labor, in the doctor's room, and she delivered a little girl. And the child was alive, but she couldn't keep her.
      "By then she had heard from men who came in our block, to bring the soup, they had a little note from her husband; she was in Monowitz [aka Auschwitz III], and one of those men had been in Monowitz and was transferred back to [main camp] Auschwitz. Had a little note from her husband [Appie] that he was still alive. And so they took the baby, and that was it."
       A bittersweet story. But like my mother, the sterilization efforts the Nazis tried did not prevent Jannie from having children after the war.
      Louis D. -- called "Loek" (Luke, in English) -- was born April 15, 1947, in Amsterdam -- two months and one day before me. Kitty was born in Israel in 1951.
      Yes, Israel. Because that was the promised land for the van de Kars, just as the United States was for my family. But the van de Kars left Holland six years before we did.      
The Shreveport Times photo, 1977
       "My father decided in 1949 that he wanted to join the Jewish fighters during the independence war in Israel and told my mother to join him after he would find a proper place for them to live," Kitty wrote. "She did not want to leave Amsterdam since they already lived in a nice apartment, and a shop with a shoe repair shop and also sold material to other shoemakers."
        "And in 1949 they arrived in Israel -- first my father and a few months later my mother with Loek, and lived first for a few months in a small settlement like a kibbutz, but decided they want to live in something more similar to the Dutch villages, and so found Nahariya."
          So they settled there -- for good. But Appie -- shoemaker by trade -- was an Israeli patriot, and Kitty said, "My father served in the Defense Forces Reserves until he was 45, and then joined a civilian group that guarded our town, until he decided he was too old for it.
         "(He did like the feeling that he could defend his country. WWII left him scarred, but he never showed it the way my mother did. She could never stop talking about her terrible years in Block 10, but she kept talking about Ro as the sister she had during these years.)"
         Military service is part of the Israeli tradition. Luke served as a paratrooper in the Israeli army and fought in the Six-Day War of 1967, serving into 1968. Kitty served in the army two years and her husband Danny did from age 18 to 21, was injured in a small war in 1968, but despite that continued to serve in the reserves for three decades as a paratrooper "until the age of 51 (when I told him enough is enough ...")
        Appie and Jannie visited Shreveport in 1977; my parents took them on a trip to New Orleans. A  few years later, my parents went to Israel and saw the sights and, as Kitty remembers, were guests at a Passover Seder service with the van de Kar family.
        I have written in previous blogs that while my parents certainly took pride in being Jewish, neither was devoutly religious. Their families of origin were not, either.
        I bring this up because Kitty wrote that as she and Loek grew up in Nahariya, their parents "were so very much against religion. They just could not believe in anything anymore after the Holocaust."
       Plus, there were in "a village whose founders were all from Germany, and were very stubborn and independent and did not let anyone get involved in their decisions of how to build the village and how to educate the children." Part of that was very little of the Jewish tradition and education so prevalent throughout Israel.
      Loek van de Kar, like the Van Thyns, wound up living in the United States, and sadly, died in the Chicago area at age 57 (Sept. 4, 2004) of cancer. Much too soon, obviously.
      He lived in Israel until he finished his army service at age 21, studied in Amsterdam and then received a Fulbright scholarship to study in the U.S., graduated from the University of Iowa in 1978, and spent nearly 24 years as a professor at the Strich School of Medicine, Department of Pharmacology, at Loyola (Chicago) University.
     He was, according to a tribute ( written by Dr. George Battaglia at Loyola, "an exceptionally creative, talented and forthright scientist and his research contributed to furthering many areas of scientific investigation," including cancer studies. He wrote more than 100 published papers.
      That tribute also noted -- of course I would like this -- that he was an avid soccer player, coach and fan. That's our Dutch heritage.
      As Kitty remembers, he made annual return visits to Israel and was usually introduced as "the professor from the U.S.," invited by the Hadassah Medican School or the universities.
       Loek was married for 25 years to Susan Schmitt and they lived in Hinsdale, Ill.
       "They never had children," Kitty wrote, "as he believed children should not live in this horrible world, and also believed the experiments done on our mother in Block 10 might affect the children in future generations."
       Kitty, who has been Facebook friends with my sister Elsa for years and visited with Elsa and husband Jim Wellen on their trip to Israel a couple of years ago, has been married to Danny Wiener for 40 years. For three decades, Danny was a quality control manager at a plant and Kitty,  now retired, was an administrative assistant to CEOs. Their daughter, Yael, is 39; their son, Uri, is 35.
       Appie van de Kar, Kitty wrote, "worked all his life as a shoemaker and had a very nice shop,"which he turned over to a man he took off a wayward path and taught him the profession."
       Appie's heart problems led to bypass surgery, after which he learned about EKG procedures and became a volunteer at the Nahariya hospital -- "and loved being there helping the staff," said his daughter.
       He died Oct. 6, 1993; mercifully well before his son's death.
       Jannie survived Appie by nearly 20 years, but had the heartbreak of losing Loek for almost a decade. She, like Appie, was a volunteer in the hospital, assisting people before and after colonoscopy tests.
       "After my father passed away," Kitty wrote, "she left her volunteer work at the hospital and regularly went to a place where she, with friends, prepared cakes, coffee and soft drinks for soldiers who came from the train to the bus station to be driven to their base in the north, passing through Nahariya on their way. She loved doing it, especially since the soldiers called them 'aunts.' ... They did it until they were 90; it gave them a sense of purpose and a lot of satisfaction."
       Jannie died April 26, 2013 -- nearly three years after my mother's death.
        Kitty plans "to translate my mother's memoirs" when she is "ready to deal with her horror memories. They suffered so much that it is unbelievable they managed to start all over after the war and seem normal to the outside world.
       "Only we know what really went on with them. People in our town only remember my mother as the beautiful Mrs. van de Kar, and remember her for the kindness she showed to everyone."
      Recalling the story of the van de Kars and the Van Thyns, Kitty Wiener says, "is less painful when you understand how powerless they were and to appreciate that despite all this horror they were strong enough to be able to start all over.
     "I think both our parents were remarkable by actually 'inventing' themselves and starting a new life in a new country, building a new home and having the faith in themselves to be able to raise children despite it all."
     To tell the story of Appie and Louie, and especially Rose and Jannie, she says, "would have meant a lot to my mother, who kept telling what happened to them during the war and how their friendship actually saved their lives. They supported each other and that meant everything to them."
      And to us.   

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Rose and her 'camp sisters'

Jannie and Rose: Reunited in Shreveport, 1977
 (The Shreveport Times photo)
       For my mother (Rose Van Thyn), out of the horrors of the Holocaust came some beautiful relationships, ones that lasted for the rest of her life.
       A few minutes after she stepped off the train -- the cattle car -- at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, she found perhaps the greatest friend she ever would -- Marianna van de Kar.
       Everyone close to her called her Jannie. Like my mother, she was from Amsterdam.
       She was the first of what Mom forever would call her "camp sisters." And, as you will see, she played a critical role in my mother's future.
       When she went to Auschwitz, Mom had an older sister, Anna (called Annie). What she didn't know then, what she wouldn't know until much later, was that Annie went to the gas chambers the day she and her husband (Nico Fierlier) arrived at Auschwitz.      
       Mom often said she and the others would not have survived 2 1/2 years in Auschwitz, in the cruel medical-experimentation program, without the support of her "sisters."
       Two other women -- Hilda Meier Kretsenstein (a German native who had married a Dutch citizen) and Trees Suttendorf Van Praag-Cigar (also from Holland) -- were in the group of four who suffered that time together in Block 10.
        The "sisters" group grew to 10 on the horrific "Death March," a couple of months of walking in the middle of nowhere in Poland and then Germany, from one concentration camp to another, in the middle of a typical brutal European winter.
       This, as my mother told it, with rags for clothing, some with shoes but some (such as Mom) with pieces of wood tied to their feet with string, and with less food than clothes.
        How? How did they survive all that?
        "You were really dependent (on others); you couldn't go through that yourself," Mom said in her 1996 Shoah Foundation interview about her life and the Holocaust. "You had to have people close to you. And we took care of each other."
         Through the dire circumstances in Block 10, the women somehow became Holocaust survivors ... and bonded forever. 
         The interviewer asked my mother: "Did you, among yourselves, the four women, talk about this?"
          "Oh, sure," Mom answered. "I always said when you spend almost 2 1/2 years, or over a year and a half, with women 24 hours a day, you know more about them. I spent more time with them than I spent with my own family. We knew everything about each other.
          "We knew everything about each other," she repeated, "and at night when the guards would leave -- and I know this sounds just crazy -- we would sing songs, and since my father taught us all kinds of songs, I knew songs the other women had never heard. And the four of us, we were very, very close."
          But to the very end of their lives, it was Rose and Jannie who were the closest. They each would wind up with their families far from The Netherlands -- Mom in the U.S., Jannie in Israel -- but they always remained in touch.
         There were joyful reunions in Nahariya, Israel, and in Shreveport -- and a 1977 story in The Shreveport Times about that, a subject I will return to in this piece.
          I cannot verify this, but I believe they lived longer than any of the "camp sisters." Mom died June 27, 2010; Jannie died April 26, 2013.
          Kitty Wiener, Jannie's daughter who lives in Israel, told me in a letter that although her mother was having memory issues near the end, "she kept telling what happened to them during the war and how their friendship actually saved their lives. They supported each other and that meant everything to them."
          Kitty added, in another note, "She could never stop talking about her terrible years in Block 10, but she kept talking about Ro as the sister she had during these years."
          The day in 1942 before they were "arrested" by the Nazis and sent to the Westerbork transition camp in eastern Holland, Jannie married Abraham "Appie" van de Kar -- who had grown up in the same (mostly Jewish) neighborhood as Louis Van Thyn and Rozette Lopes-Dias. (My mother had married Moses "Mo" Lezer in the same time frame; they also were sent to Westerbork.)
          Louis and Appie knew each other. They were in Auschwitz, or nearby camps, at the same time. They met again just after the Russian Army came in to find the prisoners in the camps the Nazis had abandoned in 1945. At one point, both Dad and Appie wore Russian Army uniforms they'd been given.
           Now here is the connection.
           Jannie and Appie, reunited in Amsterdam as survivors, were housed in the same diamond-cutting warehouse turned into barracks for displaced Holocaust survivors. Because they were married, they were given a separate room in the attic. Rose was among the women sleeping on cots on the bottom floor, and men were on the other side of the building.
            Dad had traveled back to Belgium, where he lived from 1936 to '42 and had married Estella (who died during the war), and had seen Appie, who suggested he come to a get-together of survivors.
            And so Jannie knew Rose, Appie knew Louis -- and they were introduced. They had grown up two blocks apart (Dad was two years older), but only knew of each other.
             They began dating, they married, and the marriage lasted a mere 62 years.
             It began because of the van de Kars.
             The first day at Auschwitz, Sept. 16, 1943 (Mom knew that date) ...
              "So when I came out of the car, in the car next to me was a woman my age," Mom said in her Shoah Foundation interview. "I had gone to school with her, to kindergarten, elementary school, high school, and then we lost track of each other. She went with another group [of friends] and I went with a group."
             That woman was Jannie.
             "Then when we got out of the cattle cars, she grabbed my hand," Mom said, "and we were waiting with those hundred women and she said, 'I don't know what's going to happen to us, but whatever is going to happen, we are going to stay together.'
          "...  And we walked about 15 minutes and we came to the gate of Auschwitz with the sign, 'Arbeit Macht Frei.' And then we went to the sauna, Block One. We went in there, we had to undress, the SS was in there with us, and they shaved us, our hair everywhere, and they sprayed some disinfectant spray or powder on us, and then they gave us ice-cold showers.
           "And we were really upset. Still didn't register where we were. Ice-cold showers, I mean in the middle of September. No soap, no towels, no nothing. They threw us some clothes. We had no striped clothes. I had, for example, a navy-blue, polka-dot dress which came to my ankles and my friend, my childhood friend who was -- and still is -- a very good-looking woman, 5-foot-10, very tall, had a very short dress. So we changed. And the SS was in there and they were making fun of us, the way we went in and the way we got out."
"Camp sisters" -- that's Rose Van Thyn (bottom left)
 and Jannie van de Kar (top row left)

      Here is how close Rose and Jannie were. The number tattooed into my mother's left forearm by the Nazis was 62511. Jannie's number was 62506.
      That fact was in the story done by The Times when Jannie and Appie visited with my parents in Shreveport in 1977. A copy of that story is posted below, and the photo of Mom and Jannie was taken that day by a Times photographer.
      Kitty Wiener provided the group shot of nine of the 10 Dutch "Death March" sisters (right).           
      In her Shoah Foundation interview, Mom said, "I was very close to my sister, but I'm closer with them [the camp sisters] because what we went through, and the bond we had -- all survivors have a bond. I knew their families, although I didn't know them personally, I knew, I knew who they were, I knew where they came from. We are so close.
          "It's like one of the 10 women I was with went back to Holland and moved to South Africa. I had not seen her in 40 years. She came here and it was like I had talked to her the day before. It was like 40 years didn't mean anything. We really picked up right where we left off."
            But the Van Thyns and the van de Kars, that was a special bond.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

It's true: Welcome to The City of Byrd

       My Woodlawn friends are going to love this, or maybe not. But this happened, so they should accept it.
       I spent parts of last Saturday afternoon and evening figuratively visiting The City of Byrd -- and it was a good experience.
       OK, I "crashed" the Byrd High School Class of '65 50-year reunion, and no one stopped me. But crashed isn't exactly correct; I was invited. Visited with a couple of dozen old friends -- yes, I had friends over there -- and they did not make me sing We Are The Jackets.
       But I could have; I know the words. Heard them far too often in the 1960s. Same for the Notre Dame Victory March, which also is the Byrd Victory March.
       Actually, I went to school with some of these people when I lived in the Line Avenue area of Shreveport. And I went to Sunday School, religious school, at the Jewish places of worship, and was in the B'nai Zion Temple confirmation class of 1962 with a dozen future Byrd High graduates. By then, I was about to be a Woodlawn Knight.
       On Saturday -- when I drove from Fort Worth a day ahead of my speaking appearance at the annual Shreveport-Bossier Holocaust Remembrance Service -- I was invited to a reunion of those Temple/Byrd High people.
      Ben Sour Jr., my best friend among the Jewish kids from the time we first met in about 1958, organized the reunion. In the 50 years since we all graduated from high school, I had seen only a couple of them.
       The afternoon get-together at a Shreveport restaurant was -- honestly -- exciting. I was happy to see them, and vice versa. Because a few didn't make it, and were in town for the Byrd reunion -- plus I wanted to visit longer with some others -- Ben suggested I also attend the night dinner for the '65 Yellow Jackets at East Ridge Country Club.
       So, a drawing of Jack The Jacket was the only thing guarding the entryway. I joined the Jackets.
With my friends Ben Sour, Danny Goldberg, David Goldberg
       I have written this about the Sunset Acres/Oak Terrace/Woodlawn kids of the late 1950s/early
1960s: They welcomed me, and accepted me, and were my friends. They were a big part of my life.
       The same for the Temple kids. I always considered them a classy group, smart kids from good  families, and almost all were much better at and more dedicated to the religious teachings than I was.
       On Saturday, it was hello again to Ben Sour, Roy Adell, Jay Cheatham, Cyrelle Gerson, Robert Levy, Fred Phillips, twins Danny and David Goldberg, Stephen Katz, and Marilyn Meyer.
       I thank them for the friendships and the memories of classes with Mrs. Sylvia Katz and, in our ninth-grade year, the confirmation grind under Rabbi David Lefkowitz Jr.  We were all in it together.
        There is a unique bond with one of the girls in the class, which I will get to at the end of this piece.
         But there also is a bond with four of the guys who were athletes in junior high and then at Byrd -- Fred Phillips, the solidly built offensive guard in football; Danny Goldberg, the tough All-State defensive end; lanky David Goldberg, a starter in basketball; and Jay Cheatham, a good-looking dark-haired, strong All-State outfielder.
         I was a manager for the Oak Terrace and Woodlawn teams that competed against the teams with these guys, but I didn't root against my friends. I was proud of the Jewish kids.
         Didn't like losing to them, though, and as Danny Goldberg kept reminding me, "You guys didn't beat us in anything."
         Well, it's true. Woodlawn was 0-3 vs. Byrd in football in my high school years. And, as I've written previously, it was a bitter rivalry. That was the game each year in Shreveport-Bossier; crowds of 20,000-plus.
          One of my friends who played football said to me a couple of years ago that he "played terrible against Byrd; I always regretted that." I had to laugh at that; it's a little late for lament. Believe me, I got over the losses years ago.
           In basketball, after going 0-for-almost four seasons against Byrd, we routed them in my senior year -- one of our four wins (in 25 games) that season when one of my best friends, Ken Liberto, scored 37 points, hitting 19 free throws. That was in 19 attempts.
          And in baseball, best I can remember, we won six of eight games vs. Byrd in three years. So we didn't lose in everything.
          But, yes, Byrd was king in football those years, district champion twice and robbed of a chance for three in a row.
          Then, too, Woodlawn did quite well in football after we graduated -- five consecutive wins (all of them one-sided) against Byrd from '65 to '69, five district titles in a row, one state championship and six trips to the state semifinals in a 14-year period (1965-78).
           Byrd in that time: no district titles, no semifinals.
           I think the Woodlawn people can feel OK about the '60s and '70s. Besides, we also had a great school.
          I always loved the history of the older schools in Shreveport-Bossier, the tradition -- whether it was Byrd, Fair Park, Bossier or St. John's (later Jesuit, now Loyola College Prep), Booker T. Washington. Once I became a sportswriter, it was a treat to go to the schools and visit.
          I was a fan of all of them, and now I have friends from all the schools in the area.
          My opinion: Byrd remains Shreveport-Bossier's "star" school -- the best academics, some of the best athletics. It was certainly that way in the 1960s. Those people at Saturday night's reunion have reason to be proud.
          All the schools were terrific then, but Byrd probably is the closest to what it was then. Its magnet-school program and its active alumni base have kept it that way, and they are updating the building and grounds, which have been there since the school's first year (1926).
          Here was one of the fun parts for me Saturday night -- not only seeing the Temple kids, but also talking with others who were athletes.
          There were old friends from baseball such as James Gillespie, who looks young enough to still pitch nine innings, and Glenn Theis; and some football players who I'd seen play but had never met -- Gene Hunt, the inspirational quarterback; Robert Pirtle; Bill Erwin, a tremendous all-around athlete in junior high and high school; and Joe Walker, who (as I told him) I considered the unsung hero of the team, a big-play guy at receiver and cornerback.
          Two other longtime friends from that Byrd Class of  '65: pitcher-turned-umpire/referee Clyde Oliver "T-Willie" Moore and Shreveport Captains owner-operator Taylor F. ("Frosty") Moore.
Gene Hunt, still No. 10
        I wrote about Dr. Gene Hunt previously, in relation to the Byrd-Woodlawn rivalry and his opposing QB for two years, Trey Prather.
        Gene gave a rousing speech at the Class of '65 gathering Saturday morning in the Byrd auditorium. That night, as I approached him, he was busy talking to someone and, before I even spoke, he handed me a CD entitled The Sounds of Byrd.
          I didn't even have to ask.  But I did laugh, and I gladly accepted. A few minutes later, I had a nice talk with Gene.
          On the drive home to Fort Worth the next day, I listened to the 30-minute CD, which includes sound bytes from 1964-65 -- football practice with coaches revving up players, the "Go West Day" against Fair Park to end the regular season, tunes from the Byrd band, songs from the choir, skits and cheers from cheerleaders and the pep squad, pep rallies with the principal, J.H. Duncan, firing up the students, the P.A. describing game action while Byrd wrapped up the district title with a 14-0 win against a very good Fair Park team.
           And then the raising of the Victory Flag back at the school, a rousing version of We Are The Jackets (I got chills listening to it, and sang along), the students chanting "We're Number One" (and they were), and then the Byrd alma mater.
           I discovered about a year ago that the We Are The Jackets tune is adapted from the theme song of the movie Giant.
           Listening to the Byrd alma mater -- which the CD narration said has been used since 1943 -- I thought I was hearing Love Me Tender. So when I got home, I did some research.
           Wikipedia says Love Me Tender, written for Elvis Presley for the 1956 movie, "puts new words to a new musical adaptation of the Civil War song Aura Lee, published in 1861. ... It later became popular with college glee clubs and barbershop quartets. It was also sung at the U.S. Military Academy."
            Hey, do you people at Byrd do anything original? Aura Lee, Giant, Notre Dame Victory March ... At least -- I think -- the Woodlawn alma mater and fight song were original compositions by our first band director, Richard Jennings.
            But, look, I loved the CD. We are the Jackets -- best of all!
            There was one more reunion within the reunion for me. Ben Sour happened to mention the name Stan Gove. When he did, I almost jumped. Stan graduated in the Byrd Class of '65, but in 1957-59, when we moved to Sunset Acres, he and his family lived just across the street from us. I jumped their back fence hundreds of times to get to the Sunset Acres Elementary playground.
            We were friends and playing companions; he was in my sixth-grade class. So to see Stan -- whose family moved to the Byrd district as we entered junior high -- after all these years was another treat.                      
             Of all the people at the reunion, though, I went back further with one girl -- Marilyn Meyer (married name Kaplan for the past six months). When I saw her Saturday afternoon, the first thing she said was, "I remember in third grade ..."
Marilyn Meyer Kaplan
        On Jan. 12, 1956, the day we arrived by train in Shreveport at 7 a.m.-- after leaving The Netherlands by boat 15 days earlier --  I was enrolled at Line Avenue Elementary School that afternoon. Marilyn was in my classroom that day; she was in my third- and fourth-grade classes, then again for five years in Sunday School.
        She was, as I told her, the smartest girl in the class -- in fact, in any class she was in.  
        Talking about those days was an emotional few minutes for me. I remember how difficult it was to make the adjustment to a foreign place.             
        "You were cute," she said, "and you were small. I was small, too, so I liked that. You ate strange food, and I remember that I was fascinated because you were from a different culture. That's always fascinated me throughout my life and career."
       She also remembered my frustration -- "books slamming and desk-pounding" -- and that "sometimes we liked each other, and sometimes we didn't." And, yes, I remember that, too. But when she apologized for her behavior, there was no need. Because I was not an easy kid to know.
       It's all ancient history now, and the seniors of 1965 -- Byrd, Woodlawn, etc. -- are somewhat ancient. But those of us still here are not history, and for that we're grateful. And I'm grateful that for one night, I hung out in The City of Byrd.
       Danny Goldberg laughingly told me that if I was around for their 60th class reunion, they might award me an honorary degree from Byrd.
       I told him that I have 10 years to think about it. I'm thinking my Woodlawn friends are not going to approve.



Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Holocaust Remembrance Service speech -- April 19, 2015

     (This is my presentation of Sunday, April 19, at the 32nd annual Shreveport-Bossier City Holocaust Remembrance Service, at St. Mark's Cathedral in Shreveport. This is lengthy, but several people requested to see a written copy.)

Living With Survivors

      What was it like to be the child of two Holocaust survivors? This is something I have not discussed publicly in much detail, although I have written about it on my blog. Some of what I say might surprise some people who knew my parents. Some are more familiar with parts of it.
     To begin: It was interesting. It was always a learning experience, and still is. However, it was difficult at times. There was a lot of love in our home, but there also was a lot of anxiety, stress and tension ... and anger. I was proud of my parents, but there were too many uncomfortable moments through the years. It's not unusual to have conflict in a home, but what was unusual was that the parents were Holocaust survivors. More on that in a moment. 
      I am honored to have been asked to speak today because it is a family tradition. For more than a quarter century, my mother and father -- both Holocaust survivors who spent roughly 2 1/2 years as prisoners in or near Auschwitz -- took part in this service, often as candle lighters (my sister Elsa also has done this, and so have I). My mother, who for the last 25 years of her life was a Holocaust educator and speaker for school groups, civic groups, churches and at military bases, on several occasions was the keynote speaker here.
      She always had a strong message about her experiences, about the Holocaust and the threat of evil that remains in the world today. We just have to look at the rogue nations and the terrorist groups such as ISIS, and we know it’s up to world leaders to deal with the types of genocide we still see. And we know the threat also is here in this country.
     So I think of my parents today and of Mr. Isaac Ain -- also a Holocaust survivor who came to live in Shreveport, who loved fishing and was a good friend of my parents. He regularly attended this service with his family. 
      Each time we light these 11 candles at the service, it is personal. It is about those 11 million who were murdered -- Jewish and non-Jewish -- and it is about our family, mostly wiped out on both sides. My parents were the only survivors from their immediate family. They lost their parents, my Dad's brothers and my Mom's sister, and their first spouses. 
     An example: My mother's parents came from large families, so my mother had 35 first cousins. Only one survived World War II; he was hidden with his parents on a farm in South Holland. All the other cousins and their parents died in the gas chambers or otherwise. I knew the surviving cousin; he became the editor and columnist for the Jewish newspaper in Amsterdam for a couple of decades. So newspaper work is part of our family.
      The Holocaust was their first-hand experience. Rose and Louis and Mr. Ain are gone now; the survivors are dwindling to a few. It is up to my generation to carry on the story, to tell the world of the terrible misdeeds of the Nazis and the aftereffects. 
      I am no scholar on the subject, but I learned from my parents. I read and heard the newspaper and TV coverage on them, and I watched the Shoah Foundation interviews they did in 1996. To be honest, there were times when I could not watch the interviews; it was too difficult. This was especially true just after their deaths (in 2008 and 2010). But when I felt that I was ready to write about them and could deal with it, I watched the tapes, and transcribed them.
      The blog -- which I began three years ago after retiring from full-time newspaper work – has many pieces on our family, especially a 34-part series on Dad’s story, which was never told fully because he did not speak English well enough to tell it publicly. 
      In fact, as I began to write these pieces, some of my friends I'd known for years -- for instance, a college coach and some of my high school classmates -- were surprised to hear that I was the son of Holocaust survivors. Most people knew I was Jewish -- I got kidded about that a lot, but in a good way -- but they did not make the connection. It was not something I made a big deal of when I was in school; it just didn't fit into the situation and kids would not have understood. Once we moved from Holland and from the Line Avenue area in Shreveport, there were only a couple of Jewish kids in my schools. More of Elsa's friends might have known about our family history because my mother spoke to her classes at times. 
      My parents were beautiful people -- engaging, talkative (anyone who was around them knew that), they talked about the Holocaust to anyone who asked or wanted to listen (unlike some survivors, who did not want to deal with it at all, or those who were obsessed with the subject). My parents balanced that well. Another thing: They loved to eat (again, many people knew that ... when you're basically starved for 2 1/2 years, you appreciate food when it is abundant). 
     They were charming and my mother could be very funny. Dad enjoyed a good laugh and he was a storyteller -- which came through in the blog series -- but he wasn't a jokester; he didn't initiate the laughter. My mother was a prankster, she was zany, and her speeches always had some one-liners. Elsa and I got this nutty sense of humor from her.
      But we also got this from her: a rage, a fiery disposition. Yes, she was very sweet at times, and she loved sweets, and she was a great cook and seamstress. But she had a temper, an anger, and so did we. 
      Because there was another side to my parents -- the residue of the Holocaust. Our house could be anxiety-filled, and it could be loud. My good friend Casey Baker, who was there a lot, told me it was the loudest house he'd been in. Voices projected naturally, and screaming was natural.
      As I was writing this speech, about a month ago, Bea saw a story from Scientific American magazine entitled: “Descendants of Holocaust Survivors Have Altered Stress Hormones.” A research team project in New York City studying mass trauma survivors and their offspring has determined that Holocaust survivors often are linked to the same post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that is associated with soldiers coming back from war. No surprise, I suppose, but I'd never seen PTSD used before in relation to the Holocaust. 
     Two portions of that story:
      -- Their latest results reveal that descendants of people who survived the Holocaust have different stress hormone profiles than their peers, perhaps predisposing them to anxiety disorders. 
      -- They had previously established that survivors of the Holocaust have altered levels of circulating stress hormones compared with other Jewish adults of the same age. 
      So that was Elsa and that was me -- altered stress levels. Subjected to PTSD? Perhaps. But this is not an excuse or a copout. Much too often I've done a poor job of handling stressful situations and that has caused me much trouble. And to this day, I still cope with it. 
      Dealing with stress was something my parents had to endure from the late 1930s when the Nazi German threat grew so large in western Europe. Think about the stress of being a POW, as my Dad was when the Nazis overtook the Dutch Army; being restricted in all they did -- curfews, jobs, having to wear the yellow star, seeing your parents and your family "arrested" and taken away to who knows where, and then yourself and your spouse, and going through all the camps-- the degradation, the horrors, the killing, the labor, the starvation, the beatings, not knowing day-to-day, minute-to-minute, what was going to happen. Knowing that people were dying in gas chambers closeby. Not knowing where the rest of your loved ones where. Knowing that each day might be your last. 
      And then, when they did leave Auschwitz, to wander for a couple of months in foreign territory, the world in total disarray for them and everyone. What was going to happen next?
      They were still unsettled when they were fortunate to meet back in Amsterdam met late in 1945. Each had lost their spouse; they had not known each other, although they grew up only a couple of blocks apart -- and after they married in October 1946, my mother soon found out she was pregnant. She didn't believe the doctor, she told him he was crazy, that it was impossible.
      And here is why: My mother never thought she'd have children. Many of you know this: She was subjected to medical experiments by the Nazis in the infamous Block 10 at Auschwitz, was told she would be sterilized. She took many, many shots in places you don't want shots ... and yet, she was one of the few lucky women who survived the war and did have children. 
      When I arrived 2 1/2 months early and at 2 1/2 pounds, a preemie in 1947, I didn't go home for several months. More stress for them: They didn't know if I'd make it. When I did get home, I think Mom actually was scared to deal with me ... that's what she always said. Things went much more smoothly when Elsa arrived four years later.
      So here we were, these two "miracle" children, if you will. I think about how Mom talked about how she was such a spoiled, overprotected child,and I know we were that way, too. I got most everything I wanted –within reason. 
      And we were not disciplined a great deal. Dad almost never dealt with that; it just wasn't in him. I think the beatings he had taken in the camp -- four beatings he talked about -- and the brutality he had seen kept him from being hard on us. He wasn't a harsh person; he was a basically gentle man. He wasn't a philosopher; he was an in-the-present person -- you knew what he was thinking. He was a true survivor in that he figured out what he needed to do that day or in a particular situation to survive another day and move on. I think this served him well in the camps.
      So my mother handled most of the discipline at our house, and at times, she could rage. The wrath of Rose was not a good thing. 
      No question we were "difficult" children -- at least I was, and I can be a "difficult" adult -- but as I look back parenting was "difficult" for my parents. Maybe having a baby 2 1/2 years after escaping the death camp was too soon for them. The trauma and the shellshock might not have worn off, especially for Mom. 
      It was tough in those early years, a struggle financially in Holland and then -- more stress -- after we immigrated to the U.S. through sponsorship from Jewish people here in Shreveport. The adjustment -- getting settled in this new land, this city in the Deep South, not knowing anyone, learning a new language -- was so great. It was totally foreign.
      As I got old enough, I went my own way. I escaped into my world -- athletics, and then tied in with journalism -- with a single-minded dedication to something that I always loved and thus I missed out on much which might have done me some good. Dad also loved athletics and we enjoyed a lot together, but he also had a life -- much of which was trying to keep Miss Rose happy. Tough task at times.
      They tried hard to be good parents, but along the way, there were things that we missed out on, personal things -- physical and emotional -- that I came to regret and had to learn on my own later. I could give you details, but I'm going to leave it at that. 
      Dad was not negative about the Holocaust; he somehow always could take a positive view of things. What hurt him most, as he expressed it, was the loss of his little brother (age 10) and of his baby nephew (named Nico, age 2). He could not understand how the Nazis could kill such innocents.
      But there were times that he could be anxious about things -- work-related issues, plane trips, money matters, and dealing with Mom. I know he was subjected to some anti-Semitism; I remember that once at work a guy making anti-Semitic remarks struck him in the back with a board. No major damage, thankfully. But Dad usually was good about adjusting to people and situations.
      He did, however, have his prejudices. He never embraced Germany as a recovering country, as a benevolent world power. He never liked German products. No way was he going to ride in a Volkswagon; a couple of my coaches had Volkswagons and they teased him about riding with them, but no way.
      And here is a story. When Bea and I first married, Bea had a rustic coffee table, a nice piece of work, she had put it together and adorned with labels off wine bottles. German wine bottles. First time Dad came to our house and saw that table, saw those labels, he said, "This has got to go." 
      The table went, thus saving our marriage. 
      There is what is known as survivors' guilt: "I am alive and the rest of my family isn't, and why God, is that? What did I do to deserve this?" While that did not seem to affect Dad much outwardly, I think survivors' guilt greatly affected my mother. She did not own up to that, however. She didn't like the "guilt" connotation, nor did she want extensive counseling, at least not until much later in life.
      My mother was more complex than Dad, more a "big picture" person. She was not afraid to speak her mind or face audiences. She could be outspoken. She was a wonderful, courageous woman, very smart, well-read, self-educated. She was a prolific writer -- for every speech she made, she wrote a script. She wrote some profound poetry about the Holocaust. 
      Publicly she was positive. But what you saw in public was not always what was going on with her. In private, she could be harsh about some things, whether it was at home or in the world. 
      And here is a truth: At times, my mother simply could not deal with life. She would have periods of mental exhaustion; there were times when she had to be hospitalized to recover.
      When we were kids, a year or two after we came to the U.S., she would have hours, days of screaming, crying fits, wailing ... she could not stop. These weren't nightmares; this was just terror. Who knows why? I suspect it was survivors' guilt, the flashbacks to the concentration camp and the "Death March" through Poland and Germany.
      As a young kid hearing this, it was frustrating. It was painful. It was unsettling. I remember wondering if it would ever end. And in a sense, it never did. Through her life, my mother never was a very good sleeper. Any noise or light would keep her awake. But more so, it was her mind that kept her awake; her past haunted her and, yes, even though she didn't like this word, kept her depressed. And she often was in physical pain because of nerve endings in her legs.
      Dad did the best he could with it, but sometimes it was too much for him and frustrated him greatly. Thankfully, there were always people to step in and help.
      One story: We went to the Louisiana State Fair during the day -- Mom, Elsa and me. This was about 1960, so I was 13 and Elsa was 9. We went into the House of Mirrors, a maze of mirrors. We could not find our way out; this went on for minutes. My mother grew frantic, panicky. Finally, someone noticed and helped us get out, but once outside, Mom went into hysterics, and we had to call Dad to come pick us up. The feeling of being trapped was too much for her.
      Here's what else being children of Holocaust survivors meant for us: Elsa and I were aware always that (1) we did not have living grandparents; and (2) we knew what those number tattoos on my parents' left forearms meant. My parents told us these things, they were as open as they could be about the Holocaust with us, told us what they thought we could handle. 
      In Holland, I never thought much about our grandparents not being there; we had people -- most of them survivors --who cared for us. But when we moved to Shreveport, to Sunset Acres, and the kids who lived around us would get visits from their grandparents. I think back on it now and remember a sense of envy.
      We were fortunate, though, to have some surrogate grandparents in Shreveport -- Mrs. Janice Cahn was like a mother to my mother; Mr. Abe Gilbert, my dad's boss, and his wife and the extended Gilbert family did so much for my parents and we were like family.
      Still, it's not quite the same thing. So you might understand why my parents enjoyed being grandparents (five times) and how much we enjoy our grandkids.
      About the number tattoos: People my parents met would notice and sometimes they would ask what the number meant. When my mother spoke to groups, especially students, that number was a good "show and tell" item. 
      Dad was No. 70726. Mom was No. 62511. His number was large, and had an extra mark where the person doing the tattoo screwed up as he started. My mother's number was smaller, which kind of matched her physical size. She was a little woman, for those who don't know.
      I mentioned that my Dad encountered some anti-Semitism. I can say this; I was quite lucky. Never in my 67 years have I encountered anti-Semitism directed toward me personally. I think that's remarkable, and it's probably a good thing because I might not have handled it well.
      Here's what else I could not handle -- visiting Auschwitz. I have no desire to do that. I know some of you have seen the camp. Dad did return, in 1952, to help dedicate a monument for the people who perished there. He was one of two people to do the honors at the Dutch portion of the monument. And in 1986, he returned to Germany to testify in a trial against a Nazi SS officer accused of killing groups of people during the "Death March." Dad did not remember him from Auschwitz and told the German government that, but they insisted he come to testify. They paid for the trip, so he took it -- and took a side trip to Holland afterward.
      My parents were honored publicly repeatedly in the latter part of their lives, and we were grateful for that. Maybe their sense of entitlement at times -- feeling they should be treated  special because they were survivors -- bothered me some, but writing and speaking about them is a way of honoring them again because there is so much to be admired.
      Probably the most admirable aspect was their remarkable willpower and their pride. Hope some of this got passed down, too. 
      Almost to the end, at age 88, my mother made her speaking appearances. The last couple of years, it would take a great deal out of her; she would be physically and mentally exhausted and it would take days for her to recover. she took a great deal of pride in standing before an audience; in the final years, she could hardly walk and she had to make a concession -- she had to sit while she spoke. That was difficult for her, but she did it. She didn't want to give up.
      She never wanted to give up -- that's how she made it through the Holocaust in the first place. 
      I borrow from one of her last speeches at one of these services: "There are people who trivialize the Holocaust or bend the brutality of it to their convenience, making it a symbol. It was not, it was a fact. The memory of the Holocaust is the black sun into which we cannot bear to stare." 
      Those are her words. Here are mine to those who deny the Holocaust: I heard the crying and screaming at my house. I know about the sleepless nights. I saw the numbers tattooed on my parents' arms; they did not ask for those. And, yes, I never knew my grandparents, aunts and uncles. I wish I had. 
      Near the end of his Shoah Foundation interview, Dad was asked if he had a message for humanity.
      "Oh, that we have peace," he answered. "I pray for that. I still pray a little bit. I pray we have peace, and I hope we see it in our lifetime, [but] what's happening in Israel, I don't think I will see it in my lifetime. They're fighting for so many years there already, [even] before Israel."
      Dad, we are still praying for that. The world always must keep peace as its top priority and repel the threats and actions of the terrorists, of those with evil intentions.
      The two people who brought me into this world and the families they lost, are unforgettable ... and cherished. Those 11 candles are personal.
      We won't let people forget the Holocaust. We can't.