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.
In the '60's, I became an anti-Vietnam war activist in medical school at NYU. I joined the Medical Committee for Human Rights, MCHR, a social justice organization of medical people - medical students, residents, leading physicians, academics. I advocated for anti-war causes and cared for people at anti-war demonstrations. In 1969 I was arrested as a medic at a Chicago anti-war riot.
My legal case was eventually argued before the U.S. Supreme Court (Mayer vs. City of Chicago, 1971). It established the right of indigents wishing to appeal a misdemeanor conviction, to have their court costs paid by the state. In an article in the New York Times, an Illinois Supreme Court Justice marveled that in the United States a medical student could be legally considered an indigent. Yet, I owned nothing except a microscope and textbooks, and had medical school debts to repay (although small compared to medical student debt today).
In 1976, after my pediatric residency at Stanford University and the University of Vermont, I established my first pediatric practice in rural Vermont, on the Canadian border, in eastern Franklin County,. Mine was the first established pediatric practice in the county. In the 1980's I was an anti-nuclear activist and a New England delegate to Physicians for Social Responsibility. I gave lectures and wrote about the medical consequences of nuclear war, protested in favor of arms limitation treaties and against nuclear power plants. As I look back now, I believe my deep-rooted sense of mission for social justice, to repair the world, stems from the burden of the Holocaust that I carried without knowing it.
Silence and denial about the Holocaust is a well-described phenomenon that affected Jewish survivors, soldiers returning from World War II, Germans, Poles, and other Europeans who were occupied by the Nazis. The horror was such that a kind of national Post Traumatic Stress Disorder affected nearly everyone. The Holocaust was like the Evil Lord Voldemort from Harry Potter – “That which must not be named.” Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem in 1961 punctured the abscess of silence. For the first time the testimony of survivors was permitted in court and became an archive of suffering and survival. Elie Wiesel’s “Night” was published. The stories continue to pour forth to this day.
One evening, as a medical student at NYU, I came home for dinner with my family, something I did regularly. My Omi, my paternal grandmother sat at the table and, as the dishes were being cleared, she asked if I knew the story of my grandfather, Opi, and Dachau. I had never heard anything of this. She proceeded to tell the story of my grandfather being arrested on Kristallnacht in 1938 and imprisoned in Dachau. Omi went to high school with one of the administrative guards at the camp and was able to bribe him to secure my grandfather’s release after 6 months. I could scarcely believe what I was hearing. Why did I not know this family history? Many years later, in the 1990’s, my parents were interviewed as part of Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Project and my mother produced her identification card stamped “Jew” and her nursing certificate from the Frankfurt Jewish Nursing School from which she graduated in 1938, stamped with swastikas.
My brother and I had never seen these long buried artifacts, which have further inspired my dedication to telling stories left untold. I finally understand my mission with regards to Holocaust history – to be a link in a long chain of storytellers who help us remember. As a pediatrician, I immunize against infectious disease; as a writer, I invoke memory as our best immunization against the atrocities humans inflict upon each other – an ethical immunization that fosters respect, love, and justice against the disease of intolerance, hatred, and violence.