Concord Oral History Program
Interviewed by Renee Garrelick
Face to Face is a program that brings children of Holocaust survivors together with children of The Third Reich. Cantor Rosalie Gerut of Kerem Shalom and Ilona Kuphal, one of the founders of the program, spoke about their participation.
The program followed a Friday evening service and the music taped are selections from Cantor Rosalie Gerut and the congregation.
Rabbi Michael Luckens of Kerem Shalom provides the introduction to the Holocaust Memorial Program, marking the Fiftieth Anniversary of the uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto.
Rabbi Michael Luckens -- This is the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which began on the first night of Passover, April 19, 1943. With very few arms, several hundred Jews who became freedom fighters and several hundred Jewish residents of the Warsaw Ghetto proceeded to take on the armored tanks of the Nazis. The battle continued until the Ghetto was burned to the ground some 43 days later. And even after that, the Jews that had survived, emerged from the burned out buildings and from the sewers, where many had taken refuge, to continue the struggle. They would not give up hope and in our generation, neither do we.
Even in the darkest times, we dreamed dreams of a better 'world and sang songs of defiance, of courage, and hope. One of those songs became the unofficial anthem of the underground resistance movement in Poland and spread from partisan unit to partisan unit and from ghetto to ghetto. It was written by Hirsch Glick who wrote this poem in the Vilna Ghetto.
"Zog nit keynmol as du geyst dem letztn veg"
Never say that the road you are traveling is the final one
even though the darkened skies conceal the light of day.
The time for which we've waited is so near.
Beneath our feet the earth will thunder, "we are here."
We'll have the morning sun to set our day aglow.
Our dark yesterdays will vanish with the foe.
But if the time is long before the sun appears,
then let this song go as a signal through the years...
"fun dor tzu dor... from one generation to the next."
One generation comes into this world,
to be blessed with days of peace and safety.
Another travels through the valley of the shadow,
enduring the cruelties of hatred, persecution, and war.
And we are united-generations past, present and future,
in the bonds of memory.
And we come together this evening, united in our affirmation that cruelty and injustice need not be the human signature. We come this evening united in the hope that we can do better. We come united in the power of hope.
This evening we have a special program to commemorate and to remember and to look forward into the future. I'm pleased to introduce our two speakers. Most of you know our Cantor Rosalie Gerut, herself a child of survivors, who has spoken through her music near and far. The music of her parents and the Eastern European Jewish heritage. And I'm pleased also to introduce Ilona Kuphal. Ilona is the co-founder with Dr. Mona Weissmark of the Face to Face Program.
Ilona Kuphal -- I will tell you a little bit about myself and how I came to do this work and a little bit about the work we do. First of all, I was born in Germany in 1946. I lived in Germany most of my childhood. I came by myself to this country as a grownup.. My family still lives in Germany. When I was growing up as a child, I would hear about the war a lot. My family was in the East where they had escaped and there were always lots of stories about the war. But I did not know anything about the holocaust. I did not hear anything about it. I knew that my father had been a soldier, he was an officer in the Weapon SS. As a child, I was proud of that. I thought he was an officer and in Germany actually being an officer was still something to be proud of. I grew up and just knew about this awful war in our country and I knew for sure that I never wanted to be in a war.
When I was an adolescent, I heard more things about the Third Reich. I had sometimes heard something about Hitler but it was more like a comic figure. When I was about 15, there was the Eichmann trial, and that was really the first time that I realized there was a lot to learn here about the holocaust. There had been a lot right after the war but not for long, only about the first few years, and at that time, I was very little. After about 1949 nobody talked about it.
So when I saw on TV and heard about Eichmann, I read about him and I started to see pictures, and it was one of the great shocks in my life. I couldn't believe that something like that could have happened in our country. I remember especially what touched me very much were the pictures of the children going to the concentration camps. It was something that when I talk about it I have these pictures very clearly in my mind, I feel like crying every time I think about it. There was especially one picture of the little girl and her brother being taken. I couldn't understand how something like that could have been done especially to children.
Of course, I wanted to know. I went to my parents and I wanted to talk about it, I wanted to know what happened and I wanted them to tell me. But nobody wanted to talk. My mother would say "I don't want to talk about it. That was the past. You had nothing to do with it." My father didn't want to talk about it at all. Then I tried my teachers and they did not want to talk about it. I tried my church and my pastor did not want to talk about it, so it was like I felt totally alone. I got very aggressive at some point and I was starting to be upset especially with my parents, and they would get very upset with me. After a while I gave up, but it was a feeling very much of loneliness. I also didn't talk about it with my peers, my friends. It was something shameful, nobody would talk about it.
Only years later I realized when I talked to friends from my childhood after I had been very busy with this and talked to these friends, they said, "I didn't know you were busy with this, I was too." So we were very much alone, each one trying to find out what happened but being very separate from each other. So in a sense I gave up but I was still very interested and would still try to find out but more by myself.
Then I came to this country and for the first time I met Jewish people. I did not know any Jewish people. When I was a child, I only heard sometimes that there was something in our city that was owned by a Jew, like a store. I would always wonder what is a Jew. But nobody would talk more about it. It was like this mystery. So when I came to this country I met Jewish people. I wanted to talk to them, but what I found a lot was that when they would find out that I was German, I never had a very strong German accent so often they wouldn't know that I was German, but when I would say I was German, a wall would come down. Sometimes people would even turn away. Inside of me I would say I understand but why don't you see me? I felt very hurt but at the same time feeling I understand what you feel and I feel guilty. It took me a long time by working on myself to lift some of that guilt feeling, feeling that I am not guilty personally. I was not there; I was not born. However, I, as a German, have a responsibility that this is something in the heritage that I have taken over, that was given to me. I did not want it, but it was presented to me and I have to deal with it.
So for years, I have been doing a lot of research. I also have been in theater and I have been doing pieces and working on projects around this theme. It's been coming up again and again. I also wanted to find out if there other young Germans in my age group or my generation that also had to deal with this or felt that they had to deal with this or it affected them very strongly. I went around Germany in 1987, and I did a lot of interviews with people in my generation. What I found out was that everybody got the same answers. There was almost like all the parents in Germany from one end to the other had gotten together and said, "Okay, this is what we're going to tell our children." They were often the same sentences, exactly the same. And I found a lot of people felt very similar to me, perhaps sometimes not as deeply. People had different degrees, but I never found anybody who wasn't touched by this and felt shame or felt pain about it and also felt very lonely about it too.
I started reading a lot about children of survivors. What really struck me too was that some of the experiences or some of their reactions to their parents history and some of the feelings were quite similar to mine. I connect to the feelings of children of survivors. When people hear that, sometimes I get the reaction how can you say there is any similarity between the groups, a child of Nazis and a child of survivors, but we have a legacy together. We are descendants of people who have been involved in the past together in some way or another. Both groups of children have been affected even though our parents have often tried to protect us from this.
So I had been thinking for a while, how about bringing together people who have a great involvement, particularly the children. Then a year ago I met Mona Weissmark who had been thinking about the same thing and was working on looking at some of the similarities of children of survivors and children of Nazis. Mona's parents are both survivors. Her father survived Dachau and her mother survived Auschwitz, and so she has been very busy herself with this. When you meet somebody who you realize has the same vision, it is very electrifying in many ways. So we started working on having a joint meeting. We introduced children of survivors and children of Nazis. I went to Germany and interviewed several people there. We also interviewed some people living in the United States. We did our first meeting in September 1992 at Harvard Medical School. What was amazing was the reaction of the outside. We had through a friend of mine gotten an interview with somebody in New York in May and a few weeks before the meeting in September, suddenly a lot of media started to get interested. We did not ask anybody. People had heard about it and somehow it touched something in a lot of people. So for that one we had CBS Sunday Morning News with Charles Kuralt, and there were a lot of newspaper articles.
After that, of course, a lot of people heard about it and we decided to do one meeting in Germany. In a way it was harder to do in Germany because it was a big step for the children of survivors to go to Germany. Some of them had been born there but had never been back, and it was very scary. It meant they had to stand up and say this is who I am, this is what I feel about this. But also the fear of bringing more pain and memory to your family if you do this, and although there is a lot of talk about the holocaust in the last years, it has been dealt with in many ways, in film, in books, in school. Where in my time, there was nothing in schools. Nobody wanted to touch even the First World War. It's often dealt with very intellectually. You look at it and there is a certain distance still.
I think what has to happen a lot of times is to really look at it more personally in the open. It's almost like saying, "Okay, this happened" and feel it, really feel it. It was scary for me to go also because I did not know how my countrymen would react to it and my family too. There was also the fear that Neo-Nazis would come and so there were all these reasonable fears. We tried to do all kinds of things that were very security conscious. Actually we didn't have anything like that happen at all. We had much more positive experiences. The NBC program Dateline did a piece on this meeting in Germany, and we will show you this later.
Rosalie Gerut -- Many of you know me already, but I am a daughter of survivors. My mother was in the Vilna ghetto in Poland where there was a systematic starvation of the people there, and she claims the only way you can understand what it was like was to look at the pictures of the people in Somalia. People were dying on the streets. There was hardly a way to get food. She came from a Hasidic family, that is people with the black hats and black coats, a religious family, and her father was a rabbi. Before the war reached Poland he packed up the family of six children, taught them a few trades, taught my mother and she apprenticed a course on how to use a knitting machine, and he was taking them all to Palestine. That was his dream. He packed everybody up and as customary went to the rabbi to ask him for a blessing. The rabbi said, "Are you crazy? The war is going to end. This is nothing." So he unpacked and the family stayed. Before the ghetto was finally closed, he again went and found a horse and cart and said they were going to Russia. His wife's brother came and started screaming, "Where are you taking my sister, where are you taking these children? You are all going to die." And he gave in. You never know what kind of decisions you'll make in life and where they will take you.
One day my mother and her one sister went out looking for food and the Nazis came and rounded up people and took them away. The people didn't know where they were going to be taken. But when my mother and her sister came back after looking for food, there was an empty house. There was a pot on the stove with a ladle in it. I didn't realize but in my life 'there had been many instances that I aroused her anger, and one time it was when I left the ladle in the pot. She went crazy and I didn't know why she got so angry. Then when she told me this story years later I put it together. But we grew up in a very irrational household. You never knew what was going to happen. You might do something that was perfectly innocent and it would trigger a memory in your parents, and they would get hysterical, or get angry, or they would cry, and the house would get very dark and emotional. My mother was always crying about the children. She and one sister and a cousin were the only survivors in their entire family, hundreds of people. I heard about this all my life about how many deaths. There were a lot of outbursts from my parents, rage. They had no place to go because people here didn't know what to do with these people when they came. A lot of people even in the Jewish community did not know what to do with these people. There was no one to talk to, they couldn't speak English, and they held it all inside and it came out at home. Some kids' parents were very quiet, like there was some deep secret or something wasn't right, and they kept looking for what happened.
So I was a part of the holocaust whether I liked it or not. I talk about it as being a big bag that I really didn't want, and that I always had to deal with. I wasn't like the rest of the American Jews. They were so happy. What did they have to be so happy about? I couldn't understand it. They enjoyed life. I didn't know how to do this.
I went to a psychologist once in college when I became very depressed and said my parents were holocaust survivors, and he didn't have any information, so I gave up on that, and kept eating. It wasn't until the late 1970s that I found a group. There was an article in the New York Times by a daughter of survivors who started writing about it, and she interviewed other children survivors. That clicked. Oh, my goodness, this explains why I'm such an eccentric. Then I got involved in this group of children of survivors. We got together and sitting around in a room saying one after the other, my father ,was in Dachau, my mother was in... To me it was a way of dealing with it. To some people it's morbid but we needed each other and it was this place where we felt not alone. We felt our crazinesses were not just out of nowhere. We had reasons. It was just an incredibly liberating experience. It made you feel you were.not alone with this dark prison of horrible memories, worse than any movies you could see on television or in the movies. So this group was filmed and I wrote a song about this public healing and that song sort of caught on and I started getting contracts all across the country at holocaust memorials. I had to become the people that wrote those songs and give them life and each time had to go into that horrible pain and misery. One after another all over the country. One time I was in a plane and had a dream that people were walking toward me in black and to me they looked like the people who died in the holocaust, and they gave me a message and said, "Tell the survivors to stop mourning." I kept writing and wrote songs that were always positive, that had hope, that had this feeling of the continuity of the culture. I did an album which nobody wanted at the time, but it felt very important. Out of this holocaust bag which I didn't want came my role in music, the liberation of something I always loved.
Music was denied me. My parents said I would not become a musician. Out of this came my work with Joe Papp and theater and traveling to the Soviet Union. I felt I had to go to the Soviet Union, people were in trouble, I had to do something. Injustice was a very important point, justice and injustice. To see people suffering and not do anything about it. When we were in Germany, we said to the press that in Bosnia they should stop for a moment and realize that the children on both sides, on all sides, are suffering. So I went to the Soviet Union and I was scared to death that the interrogations by the KGB would bring up some holocaust remembrance.
I feel like I have to weed this dark thing out of me that was put in when I was born. My whole life is weeding it out, opening the bag, taking it out, getting light there, as I get older, I hope, someday I will be very light, 118 lbs. I was connected with the National Organization of the Children of Survivors and local organizations. I saw an article in a newsletter that said this group was forming for children of Nazis. For some reason, I don't know why, I knew this was important, and I knew I had to do this. I didn't make the first meeting because there were too many people, but I didn't hesitate at all going 'to Germany. I had been to Germany already. Once I had been in the airport five hours on my way to Moscow, and then the year before I had been in Munich to do a Yiddish play in Germany where 75% of the audience were non-Jewish. One woman who was our hostess knew we were all children of survivors and the writer was also a survivor, and she came up to me in the airport and she said, "I hope you realize that not all Germans are terrible people," and she had tears in her eyes. We just hugged each other. It was very special. I realized she was carrying around a burden also. My cousin who is a survivor of the holocaust and lives in Montreal with his second wife who is a German lady who is a non-Jew. You can imagine the family when they heard and it took them ten years to get to the point of getting married. She converted to Judaism which made her parents completely nuts so both of them lost on both sides. But they are a wonderful couple and very much in love. We cannot pass this thing to the next generation without knowing the people. There are people that deserve to be judged and there are people that are innocent, and we need to make that distinction.
Anyway I went to Germany and this was an incredible experience. We call it a "sacred circle." When I heard some of the stories of the children of the Third Reich, I was so moved. There was one woman who told that she had gone to so much trouble trying to find out who her father was. She drove to Russia to find the records. She didn't know, she thought he just died when she was 12. She found out he was a Gestapo murderer in White Russia. I found her to be incredibly courageous, a very courageous woman who was facing her history. She had only found out four years ago.
One woman sat there and she began crying, she said, "I can't understand how people could do this." Her father had been a Nazi in Poland. She said she felt for years that she couldn't live because of what he had done. She cried and said, "If I could give my life up and bring your families back, I would." Somehow we had concentrated our minds and our hearts in understanding this period of history. We carried this dark thing around. People would use the same analogy I would. I would talk about my heavy burden, my bag, and they would talk about their heavy burden, their bag, and we felt let's take some rocks out and get rid of them. It was a transformation experience.
Ilona Kuphal -- We are also starting a non-profit organization called People Helping People, Face to Face, Inc. which is dedicated to organizing joint meetings between polarized groups. We also believe that it could be preventive help. For Mona and I, this is our passion, working with children of the survivors and children of the Nazis. But we also have a lot of people coming to us for other groups, especially people concerned about Ireland. We don't work with groups of people who are at conflict but more with the children and to work with the teenagers of people who are in conflict. Our work is for both groups who are incredibly sensitive to injustices, to rebalancing justice.
I also wanted to mention that at the meeting in Germany we had a non-Jewish, non-German person who was a facilitator. I think this was especially important for the Germans. It was especially very important for one person. He himself was SS. He had the courage to come to this group. He wrote me a long letter. He had heard about our group, and he wanted to tell me about what happened to him. When he was 60 years old he had a dream and in it he was called a Nazi pig, a war criminal, and so on. There were actually three dreams. He was 17 when he was drafted into the Weapon SS and he went along with 'everything. But when he was 60 he started having these dreams. At our meeting, nobody knew he had been in the Weapon SS and when he talked about it, there was total silence. It was very tense for a while.
Rosalie Gerut -- As I listened to him tell about his dream, I said "What am I going to say to my mother?" That I sat here with you. My mother lost everybody, what am I going to say? He thought a minute and he said, "Tell her that I promise to bear witness and she should do the same." I never told her.
Ilona Kuphal -- In the end it was a very important experience for all of us, for the children of the survivors and also for the Germans. He, in a way, represented our parents' generation and he got our anger, the German anger. But he was very point blank and very honest. I think he was a very special man. In the end he was a very unifying force.
In Germany, there are many activities that remember the holocaust. Many, many churches have memorial services for the holocaust. Conciliation was started after the war in the 1950s where they had young people go into the countries that were affected by Germany during the war and do a kind of social work in those countries. They felt there was still a distance at that time, but I think a lot of places are working to change that now.
I have talked to my mother about the holocaust. I think she is finally understanding what I'm trying to do. My mother hasn't talked much about how she felt at that time, just little bits and pieces.
Rosalie Gerut -- I've got two chapters of a book documenting my parents experience as much as they would tell. My father couldn't talk about it, but his nephew talked to me and I have their story from his vantage point, and I've got parts of my mother's story.
It's not to say that we don't have people in Germany who don't like Jews. There is that I'm sure, still.
Ilona Kuphal -- It's having generation after generation have certain feelings or prejudices against each other and not seeing each other like you and me. It is a cycle and it is a hate, and we are trying to break that cycle and start to look at each other as human beings. It's starting to see and understand something about the other person. By doing it together and looking at it together, looking really at what happened, it's not about beginning, it's more of remembering the holocaust, but remembering it in a new way. It's also something we do for our children.
Rosalie Gerut -- It's about facing those things that frighten us and confront them, and we can help each other through them. A rabbi called me after a show and said what is really amazing is that Hitler had not succeeded. We were sticking together.
Ilona Kuphal -- That's what it felt like very much listening to the first group -- this is the sweetest revenge.
Not everybody in Germany took part in the destruction of Jewish people, there were those that were bystanders who sometimes didn't like it, but they didn't do anything. Also the children that we are working with, they are not all children who parents who were in the army or party members. What is important to us is how it affected all children. There were a lot of children raised with very fine morals. It's almost like after we find out about it, you need to go to the other side and be very moral or something. I was brought up with a lot of values, otherwise I wouldn't be where I am, so not everybody was actively involved in it. I think we as children are upset that the parents let it happen. It's not that they did something, it's what they did not do. The lesson that we learn is that you cannot just sit there. You have to do something. I think that is why a lot of the children on both sides are very active in peace movements and in social causes.
My father is now dead. For a long, long time my father and I did not talk and I blame him for that. His inability to talk was very painful to me. Now after the work I've been doing for years is that I start to sort out the men that did things. I know what he was but I don't know what happened in detail. I don't accept what he did but he is still my father. For a long time I didn't know what to do with it, it was like total rejection, but he's also my father and there is a love too. I wish he were alive especially after now, I would love to be able to reach out to him more and talk to him more, in a different way without all the blaming. So perhaps he could hear me too.