I was born in New York City in 1948, where German was my first language. My parents had narrowly escaped the Holocaust. My mother was from Mainz, my father from Munich. Some of my family did not escape. I grew up with the ever-present, but largely unspoken burdens of the Holocaust. My parents, my brother and I lived in the Washington Heights section of New York City, where German–Jewish survivors settled after the war. We lived in a street level tenement apartment with my grandmother, “Granny”, and Uncle Fred on Fort Washington Ave and 164th Street. (My father’s parents, Omi and Opi. Also lived in Washington Heights.) Everyone in the neighborhood spoke German. Business was conducted in German, at the butcher, the dairy, the fish store. Our newspaper, the local German language paper, Aufbau (German for "building up, construction"), a journal targeted at German-speaking Jews, a journal that was read around the world, had been founded in 1934. Hannah Arendt, Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, and Stefan Zweig wrote for the publication. My Granny leaned out the window watching over my brother and me playing on the sidewalk with our German-Jewish friends.
On those rare occasions when the adults spoke of the horrors they had witnessed and endured during the war, it was in hushed whispers, meant to be kept from the children. The Holocaust was the elephant in our cramped apartment, huge, but unacknowledged, at least to my brother and me. I could feel the ponderous weight of sorrow all around me. It was not articulated, yet it was everywhere; it was the atmosphere.
When I was five years old and ready to start school, my parents, brother and I moved into an apartment of our own in the Marble Hill Projects seven subway stops uptown on the IRT subway line, in the Bronx. That’s when I learned to speak English and determined that I wanted to be an American. I shunned anything European – anything that suggested the “old country”. My parents’ accents irritated me – embarrassed me in front of my new American friends. Except with Granny, who refused to acclimate to her new country, I refused to speak German. She and Uncle Fred were orthodox Jews who prayed every day. Uncle Fred rocked back and forth – davening – and mumbling Hebrew prayers for everything. We visited every Friday night for Shabbos, and Granny obsessively blessed me and my brother in Hebrew with the Priestly Blessing. It was with pure love that she placed her soft, challah-dough hands on our heads.
"The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious unto you;
the Lord turn his face toward you and grant you peace."
We bent forward to reluctantly accept her blessing, then went off to play again.
In elementary school I was a behavior problem – the class clown. Every week the teacher sent a note home to my mother reporting on my conduct. I was a mediocre student, but one thing I really loved to do was write stories. My older brother helped me with math, science and grammar. I finally became a serious student in 7th grade, after being inspired by my music teacher, Mr. Gardner, to play the trumpet. I was a really good trumpet player, (1st chair in the all-Manhattan Jr. High School Orchestra) and I learned that I didn’t have to be the class clown to distinguish myself.
The Holocaust lay dormant for me for many years, until at the age of 16, while on a teenage camping tour of Europe, I visited Dachau concentration camp. I was shocked by what I saw and I remembered the hushed conversations of my relatives about the Holocaust. When I left Dachau I wrote in the visitor’s book at the exit, with adolescent irony, “Never Again???” I was to learn more about Dachau five years later in a most remarkable fashion.