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?”
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.