As baby boomers, we had it soft. Many of our parents didn’t. Not just because they lived through the Depression, but because some lived through the Holocaust. That’s what BoomerCafé contributor Ron Gompertz writes about in this month of his father’s 90th birthday. He calls it, Bloom Where You Stand.
As a baby boomer growing up, I don’t remember not knowing about the Holocaust.
It begins with my father, Rolf Gompertz. He escaped the Holocaust. He came to the USA in his eleventh year after a childhood marked by state-sanctioned discrimination and oppression. His parents lost everything except their lives, yet considered themselves lucky. Most of their extended family perished.
I grew up with the first person accounts of survivors and the memories of their lost loved ones. So whatever difficulties I faced growing up paled in comparison with the daily trauma of living in a place where you are branded as sub-human, an enemy of the fatherland, someone to be persecuted and killed. How would I ever trust anyone ever again? How could I ever believe in the basic goodness of humanity?
Today, as my father approaches his 90th birthday, I think about these questions and arrive at a few simple conclusions about what saved him as a person: He had loving parents. He gives back. He kept his faith.
As the father of two sons myself, I can’t image how I would have responded on Kristallnacht, the night of shattering glass, November 9, 1938, when the Nazis’ pounded on my grandparents’ front door, entered their home, and menaced them. Any disobedience or heroics could have been met with deadly force.
Across Germany, the Nazis were destroying Jewish businesses, homes, and synagogues. 30,000 men would be arrested that night and sent to concentration camps. This was the dress rehearsal for the Holocaust.
They had come for my grandfather. When they tried to arrest him, he faced them down with unimaginable bravery. “Is this the thanks I get for serving the fatherland?” he demanded, waving the Iron Cross he had received for his service in the German Army during World War I.
“If they take you, Papa, I’m coming, too,” my then-ten-year-old father said, clutching a small suitcase.
The Nazi commander glared at my grandfather for a tense moment and then signaled his squad to leave. This confrontation, the defining event of my father’s life, could have easily ended with a beating, an arrest, or a bullet.
My father and grandparents managed to escape a few months later, having been lucky enough to secure an affidavit of support from a distant relative in Los Angeles.
Given what he witnessed as a Jewish kid during the rise of the Nazis, my father would have been a perfect candidate for a life of anger, sullen withdrawal, or a life lost in substance abuse. How did he transform these toxic experiences into a life of positivity? After growing up, marrying, and starting a career and family, my father realized that he had something important to share with the world.
He had to respond to Hitler. He had to honor his lost friends, his lost relatives, his lost community. Not by self-destructing or lashing out, but by giving back.
His survival, when so many perished, compelled him to speak out through his writing and teaching. He has shared his experiences with countless classrooms of school kids, graduating classes at police and military academies, and as a regular speaker at the Los Angeles Museum of Tolerance. A “Hope Lives” campaign has been established with the Museum to honor survivors of the Holocaust and to honor of my father’s 90th birthday.
My father’s credo is, “Bloom Where You Stand.” Thankfully, most of us don’t grow up facing epic historical threats or existential challenges on a daily basis. But every one of us has regular opportunities to speak out and stand up against injustice, discrimination, and intolerance. In this way, each one of us can make the world a better place by blooming where we stand.
R.S. Gompertz is author of the book “Life’s Big Zoo.”