5/02/2011

Surviving by Running; Surviving by Staying; Surviving by Surviving

All four of my grandparents were living in Europe during the Nazi rise to power: 2 in Germany and 2 in Romania. My maternal (German) grandparents each came to the US independently – they did not meet until much later, marrying in New York in 1948. My grandmother came with her family as a teenager in 1938, settling in Washington Heights. My grandfather came alone in 1937, leaving his parents behind, having graduated from ILBA – the Jewish Teachers’ Seminary in Wuerzburg (which he initially attended because he could no longer attend public school). He settled in Baltimore soon thereafter, accepting a job as a music teacher (initially – he eventually became principal) at Beth Tfiloh in Baltimore. His father, my great-grandfather, died (of natural causes, but no doubt accelerated by the war) in Stuttgart in 1942, and my great-grandmother managed to then secure passage to America via Portugal on a kindertransport. She was among the last Jews to leave before the implementation of the Final Solution. Both grandparents lost extended family members in the war, but their immediate families and many other relatives managed to escape to the US before the war; a handful survived the war and made their way to Israel afterward.

My Romanian (paternal) grandparents got married in the mid-1930s, lived in Grosswardein for a little while, and then moved to a small town in Transylvania called Orastie, where my grandfather became rabbi. Romania, an Axis country, was terrible for the Jews; the best that can be said for them is that they were unsystematic about killing us, and as a result the majority of Jews in Romania at the start of the war survived. Parts of Transylvania were annexed by Hungary, which for a time was considered more benign for Jews (that situation ended in the spring of 1944, when the Nazis occupied Hungary and implemented the Final Solution there). Several of my grandmother’s family members pleaded with them to flee to Hungary with them, but by grandfather insisted on staying put. Most of my grandmother’s family was wiped out – she was 1 of 15 siblings; 3 died before the war, 9 died in the war, and 3 survived. My grandfather’s brothers had made it to Palestine in the late 1930s with (secular) Zionist youth groups.

My grandfather’s insistence on staying put, as best as I can reconstruct it, had to do with his status in the town. As rabbi, he had cultivated relationships with several local powerbrokers, including the local sheriff (“cultivated relationships with” probably means nothing more than “liquored up”). As a result, his family was protected by local police whenever the regular army was in the neighborhood; there are stories that he even faced a firing squad before the sheriff intervened. He felt that there was no place safer for his family than in a small town where he was respected. Turns out he was right.

None of my grandparents ever spent time in a concentration camp or ghetto. None of them had to suffer inhuman torment, had to go through hell, or had to hide in a barn. Did that make them Holocaust survivors or “merely” Holocaust refugees? And does it really matter?
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