Sharing the Silence-Transcript
This is the episode transcript. You can listen to the episode here.
(Intro) Welcome to American Rabbi Project, the podcast about American Judaism from the perspective of rabbis across the country. I’m Justin Regan.
(Justin Regan) This episode is another installment of a special mini-series where I interview Holocaust educators about their thoughts on Holocaust education and remembrance today. This tragedy is also known as ‘the Shoah’ which is the Hebrew word for ‘destruction’. The last episode Ms. Strobel Weaves History involved talking to Trudie Strobel an artist, educator and survivor of the Holocaust. Today we’re going to hear from the next generation. Specifically a rabbi whose parents were survivors.
Sharing the Silence
(Rabbi Peter Grumbacher) Hi there, my name is Rabbi Peter H. Grumbacher of Congregation Beth Emeth Wilmington, Delaware. I’m the Rabbi emeritus of this congregation.
(Regan) I interviewed Rabbi Grumbacher in Delaware in May of 2019. But I met him in November of 2018 in Staunton, Virginia. I was on my road trip at the time, and going through a rough patch. My hometown was reeling from the Borderline Bar mass shooting and the Woolsey fire. I was spending all my time holed up in an air bnb desperately reaching out to loved ones for updates. But that Friday night, I managed to drag myself out of that hole and drove 40 minutes through the Blue Ridge mountains to attend a special Shabbat dinner at Temple House of Israel. It felt like a somber occasion. Not only were people reacting to the fires and the Borderline Shooting and the Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting in Pittsburgh, but it was also the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht. ‘The night of broken glass’. A time when synagogues and Jewish businesses across Germany were burned and pillaged. It’s widely considered a major turning point in the early stages of the Holocaust. And that’s why Grumbacher was at this Shabbat dinner. He’s a Shoah educator who teaches people through the story of his Father.
(Grumbacher) And before I tell you my father’s story you have to understand the title is Sharing the Silence: The Child of a Survivor share’s his father’s story. Silence is what I grew up with. So I felt as a second generation as a child of a survivor ‘If I don’t do it, who will?’. And now that we are decades after the event and it’s becoming more and more ancient history I feel it really incumbent upon me to do so.
(Regan) Grumbacher’s parents grew up in Germany. Little by little their rights diminished as the Nazis gained more and more power. Laws were passed that stripped Jews of their citizenship and forbade them from having romantic or sexual relations with those whom the Nazis perceived as ‘true Germans’. These restrictions were race-based. It didn’t matter whether a person with Jewish ancestry practiced the religion or even converted to Christianity. In the eyes of the Nazis, it was set. And the laws would also be applied to Black-Germans and the Roma people. For the Jews of Germany, this boiled over with Kristallnacht. The next day, the Nazis came for Grumbacher’s family.
(Grumbacher) My parents were in my mom’s hometown of Hessian, Germany visiting my Grandfather who was in the Hospital. In the middle of the night there was a knock on the door and my father opened the door and there were Gestapo agents, asking for my Grandfather. And my father said he was in the hospital and when they asked him who he was and asked if he was Jewish he said ‘yes’, and they arrested him and he was deterred in Dachaeau.
(Regan) Dachau was the original concentration camp and the model for how the others were built. Prisoners were subjected to forced labor and medical experiments. But when Grumbacher’s father was there it was mostly a prison camp for political dissenters. The more heinous abuses would come later. Even before the arrest, the Grumbachers were trying to flee Germany. They wanted to go to America. And the necessary paperwork to emigrate came shortly after his father was detained. So his mother went to Dachau to give him the papers. She walked right up to the electric fence, surrounded by guard towers, and handed him the documents.
(Grumbacher) And he took the papers and went to the commandant of Dacheau, said ‘I have the papers to leave, put them on the desk’. The commandant could have killed him on the spot. But being the-those who are into detail looked at the papers and said [in German] ‘everything is in order’ and he told my father he could leave.
(Regan) Grumbacher’s parents were fortunate. They got out of Germany before the trapdoor closed. That wasn’t the case for countless others. Many tried to flee, but it wasn’t that simple. Most countries, including the United States, were unwilling to let them in. This was most infamously the case with the St. Louis, a ship of Jewish refugees who were refused entry to the United States, Cuba and Canada. After floating just miles away from freedom, they were sent back to Europe where many would perish in the Shoah. And the U.S. Congress rejected a bill that would have let 20,000 Jewish children seek asylum. Once he made it to America, Grumbacher’s father wrote a letter to Albert Einstein asking him to sponsor his Mother and sisters. They had a small family connection, and the famed physicist worked hard to rescue people from the Nazi regime. He personally sponsored about 250 people. But Einstein wrote back to Grumbacher’s father saying he couldn’t help. The U.S. State Department had cut him off.
(Grumbacher) My father wanted to get the necessary affidavits for his mother and sister to leave. He was unable to do so and I found out subsequently that they died in Auschwitz. He knew that they died in the Holocaust but not Auschwitz.
(Regan) While many Jews were trying to get out of Europe, Grumbacher’s father returned. This time as an American Soldier. He chose to fight the Nazis as opposed to serving in the Pacific theatre. And that choice ended up serving him well. Specifically during one battle in Italy when his platoon was surrounded by German soldiers.
(Grumbacher) And my father realized there was something that had to be done and he figured he was going to be the one to do it. So in his most authoritative voice he yelled out in German, because that was his mother tongue, ‘Surrender. We are surrounded by the Americans’. And miraculously, the Germans surrendered to him. The people in his unit couldn’t believe it. But knowing his voice, I could believe it. So that was an amazing story. I always get goosebumps when I tell it because if it had happened differently I wouldn’t be here telling it, just as how if the commandant not allowed him to leave.
(Regan) It’s quite a story. And in a way it’s central to Grumbacher’s identity. He’s spent the last two decades telling it to people all over the country and a major reason he joined the rabbinate was because his parents were survivors. Yet growing up, he heard none of it.
(Grumbacher) When I finally got more information about my dad, I spoke to my four friends, the five of us grew up together, four of us were children of survivors. And I asked them what they knew about the Holocaust. And every single one of them said ‘hardly anything’ Nothing was spoke about it. And it was surprising because Washington Heights the neighborhood I grew up in was called ‘the Fourth Reich’ because there were more German-Jewish refugees that settled in that area then anywhere else in the world. There was nothing said. And it wasn’t so much nobody in the schools or nobody in my family. But even in my synagogue. Which was mostly made up of Holocaust survivors.
(Regan) It’s similar to how Trudie Strobel, the survivor interviewed in the previous episode, did not talk about her experience until later in life. Strobel eventually told her children, but many others never did. Grumbacher says that could cause unhealthy consequences.
(Grumbacher) Looking back at it, it was fine. But I was lucky because I had friends and acquaintances who grew up in similar circumstances. It just confirms what Hellen Epstein wrote years ago with the book Children of the Holocaust which dealt with second generation survivors. Many of them grow up with major psychological and emotional difficulties, because this black cloud was hanging over their home. They didn’t know what was going on. The parents did. So they grew up with this cloud of silence and something was going on that created this secret basically. Nowadays many of those people who were children of survivors have major issues.
(Regan) Things started to change in 1960 when Israeli agents captured Adolf Eichmann; the man considered to be the architect of the Holocaust. With that, many chose to end their silence.
(Grumbacher) And the reason they did that was because if he’d been on trial and no witnesses came forth he would be let free. But thousands came to Jerusalem to testify against him. And people who were here who couldn’t get over there felt like it was there responsibility to say something. They were witnesses in this country. And that’s when it all began. When Eichmann was captured it was the beginning of Holocaust education by the survivors themselves.
(Regan) While this shift occurred on a societal level, it was still not the case in Grumbacher’s living room.
(Grumbacher) But when I first realized something was going on was when I was 8 years old or so. And I asked my grandmother, my mother’s mother, what happened to my other grandmother. And she said in German ‘A guy named Hitler killed her.’ I didn’t know what that meant. And when I told my mother that my Alma, my grandmother, told me that she looked at me with a look I had never seen before or since, and the look told me that’s something we don’t talk about. So that’s when I started to be really nosey.
(Regan) Still, it wouldn’t be until Grumbacher was a rabbi that he made serious headway with his father.
(Grumbacher) We were having a family celebration and my brother in law, who at the time was a teenager, I was in the kitchen, I heard him say, from the dinning room, ‘Hey Ernie (my father) I heard you were in Dachau. What happened?’. And I couldn’t believe it. But what I really couldn’t believe is not so much that he asked the question was that my father started answering. And I knew if I walked into that room he would stop talking. Eventually I had to. I walked in, that was it, he stopped talking. The next day he my mother and I were alone and I said to him ‘Listen, Larry, the brother in law, is not a blood relative. Why didn’t you tell me any of that?’ And my father in his unique style said ‘Ach!’ which means ‘leave me alone it’s not important’, you know you fill in the blank. But finally I said to him ‘no no no now you have to start talking’. And he did a little bit. And he did a little bit more.
(Regan) Grumbacher managed to get bits of the story from his parents. But large portions of it would not come out until after his father died. It’s then Grumbacher heard about a cousin of his who did a class project on his father. And a lot of the story was there.
(Grumbacher) Family members as I said they have that secret over their heads. He probably felt safe and I really believe he felt like he had to say something to somebody. And I also believe that he was hoping, I mean he didn’t know the question would be asked, but I think he was hoping that his talking would be heard by me. And I really think that is the amazing thing about that.
(Regan) And through him, he would tell it to the world. Grumbacher first felt the need to share the story after the Columbine Shooting. To talk to people about violence and his personal connection to it. And he’s been telling the story ever since.
(Grumbacher) I usually start by asking, especially if it’s a group of kids, if they know what the Holocaust is. That 6 million Jews died. I have something to say about that in a second. But six million is an incredible number. But, if you tell the story of one person that brings home the point. The only person I can talk about is my father. And I always open it for questions. And I always end with the same point. If any of you want to thank me, you thank me by this; if a Holocaust denier comes up to you and says the ‘Holocaust never happened’ look them in the eye and say ‘The Holocaust happened’ three words that’s all you have to do. Because the deniers, they know the Holocaust happened. They’re denying for other reasons not the least of which is anti-Semitism. And now a days it’s decades since the war. More and more people are minimizing it or denying it all together.
(Regan) There is plenty of data to confirm Grumbacher’s concerns. According to the Anti-Defamation League only 54% of the world’s population has heard of the Holocaust. In the U.S. a 2018 survey by the Conference of Jewish Material Claims Against Germany found 11% of U.S. adults have not heard of or are unsure if they have heard about the Holocaust. And that number is doubled when it comes to Millennials.
(Grumbacher) The question is what do we do about Holocaust memorial day programs? Years ago I said ‘this has to change’. Because older people might be going to these programs but younger people weren’t. Well how much the more so today? Fewer and fewer people show up at Holocaust memorial programs. But interestingly before this talk I wrote an article a couple weeks ago about how a think tank should be made by rabbis and educators to come up with an idea how Yom hashoah programs should be fashioned so that they would attract people.
(Regan) Grumbacher himself doesn’t think he has all the answers. But he says making education programs more active could help.
(Grumbacher) One idea that I had put into practice quite a number of years ago. When we had our community Yom hashoah program and I was in charge of it, I didn’t do the one speaker for large group of people. We divided it into groups the people who spoke were survivors and educators. Took a subject that wasn’t linked to death and destruction but rather to the whole idea of what do we learn from this? How to we build upon our knowledge. What can we teach churches? What can we teach in schools? And we got together and we thought about it. I thought it worked very well. I was told it did also. But that’s the kind of thing we have to start thinking about. Because that might, and I stress might, attract younger people. And it has to be put in a way that’s positive. People are sick and tired of hearing abut 6 million Jews died. I’m not minimizing it. But they are. They’re not minimizing the number but they are minimizing the Holocaust. It’s like an unconscious ‘whatever’ that kind of a response. But younger people need to tell us what it is that might attract them.
(Regan) He’s also witnessed the power of a personal story.
(Grumbacher) But you talk about one and they stare, they really really stare. They are fascinated by an individual story. But these are the things that I feel-and I know there are many other things out there as well. But one story at a time. That might work.
(Regan) Grumbacher says the need for Holocaust education also ties into addressing a rise in anti-Semitic incidents. This interview was recorded shortly after the terrorist attack at the Chabad synagogue in Poway, California; one person was killed and three others were injured. The admitted shooter said Adolf Hitler was a role model of his.
(Grumbacher) We were living in a fairy land type of environment. No more. No more. It’s getting very difficult. And we have to ask people straightforward ‘what are your feelings towards Jews?’ I’m talking about non-Jews. But you go out to speak to people who are Christians who are Muslims who are Hindus who are Buddhists say, ‘what do you think about Jews?’ And to knock off the stereotypes as best as you can. When I speak in school I talk about stereotypes. And I always say stereotypes, there’s something true behind stereotypes. I’m not going to go into the details. But I say stereotypes are more enhanced of what is the quote unquote ‘truth’. I think people need to express themselves, tell educators how they feel about Judaism and Jews so we can talk about it. Dialogue is important. And I know one thing, misinformation is out there.
(Regan) For Grumbacher, Holocaust education is personal. And it should be so for everybody.
(Grumbacher) Every individual has to be the best person that she or he can be. There’s also one more thing. The Jews can’t in this point in history. We cannot own the Holocaust and just say ‘That’s it. Nothing worse happened to anybody.’ It’s a matter not so much of numbers but of intensity and hatred. And there were so many times where people were killed because they were this religion or that race or had this particular perspective. We have to teach about all kinds of holocausts, I believe in order to make ours Kosher. It’s not just ours. Even the Holocaust ‘capital H’ that happened to the Jews is not just ours. There were Gays that were killed, there were political prisoners who were killed. It was not just the six million. But millions of other people. We have to distance ourselves from this notion that ‘We had it worse than anybody.’ Even if we did.
(Regan) Of all the people I talked to for my Holocaust education series, Grumbacher is the only person who is a rabbi. By that nature, he does more than educate but also helps to connects our world to that of The Divine. So I asked him what is his response to people who question how G-d could have let something like the Shoah happen?
(Grumbacher) I can only reflect what my father said. He was, as I said, very involved in the synagogue and people would say to him ‘Ernie after everything that happened to you and your family how can you believe in G-d, let alone do stuff in the synagogue?’ And my father’s answer was always this; ‘G-d had nothing to do with it.’ I really started thinking about that. So I’m able to compartmentalize. G-d is not omnipotent. Sometimes G-d leaves it to people to screw up their own lives. It doesn’t have to be a divine move. So my feeling is as the Reconstructionists say, although I’m not Reconstructionist, G-d is the influence for the good. And our roles as rabbi our role as lay people is to spread good and do good and be good.
(Regan) As the world approaches the day where there will no longer be any living survivors of the Shoah, it’s important to realize many of their children have stories to share as well. The tale of Holocaust survivor and soldier Ernst Grumbacher is also part of the narrative of his son Rabbi Peter Grumbacher. The silence he grew up with, the struggles to pull the story out of a reserved parent and sharing it all with a world that needs more perspective on trauma and violence.
(Regan) This was the second part of a special mini-series on Holocaust education. Next episode will be the conclusion where we hear from those who teach the tragedy to college students and young children.
(Regan) American Rabbi Project: Sharing the Silence was written and produced by me Justin Regan. Derek Povah handles the web stuff. Thanks to Jeremy Krones, Sarit Rathbone, Beth Vanderstoep, Dylan Abrams and my parents for the assistance. You can contact me by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow me on twitter with the handle @rabbiproject and facebook.com/rabbiproject. And until next time, Shalom and Safe Driving.