Here I am posing for the camera in the German side of the Catskills Mountains in 1959.
In one way, I was a typical American baby boomer. I was born into an Ozzie and Harriet suburban NY family, with a stay-at-home mom who looked like Natalie Wood, a blue-eyed humorous father who fought in World War II, and a jock older brother. I guess that made me the "Beaver" in our own Leave it to Beaver show.
But my parents were born and raised in Germany. Opa, my mother's father served in the Kaiser's army during World War I, fled from Nurnberg to Strasbourg in March 1933 and brought his entire family to America in early 1939. In April 1939, at the age of 18, my father fled by himself to London with a transit visa and finally landed in Washington Heights, Manhattan in November 1939. My father's side of the family wasn't as fortunate as my mother's.
My parents were refugees, a subset of what would later be coined "Holocaust Survivors". Hitler eliminated seventeen members of my family; squabbles and physical distance took away the rest from me. But unlike other children of refugees, I was one of the lucky ones. I was born in America, where as a full citizen I could prosper and join in the fight to be an American with all my equal rights. That is why I never dreamed to return to live in Germany.
After being released from Dachau after Kristallnacht, my father made his way to London where he was considered an enemy alien. Later he obtained a Visa to join his family already in New York where, once again, he would become an enemy alien until he gained American citizenship by joining the Army's Third Infantry. Leaving New York in 1942 he fought across North Africa to Anzio and then France and finally liberated Munich and Dachau and was the first American to enter his Hometown of Augsburg. This is just one of the coincidences that had a great impact on my life.
I grew up with an entrepreneurial drive, like so many other immigrant children. If something didn't exist, then it was my job to create it. But I was also born a criminal in all 48 states; who was not able to get married to the one I would love or have children. I was a gay boy; but a gay boy whose parents showed me unconditional love, way before it was the norm.
Like so many other Jewish children in my neighborhood I went to my Hebrew School at 3:45 pm after public school. But there was a big difference; I took it seriously. We learned about the history of the persecution of the Jews; but in my case it was my parents and grandparents that suffered directly. Almost everyone else on my block was Jewish and ancestors came to America around the turn of the last century; while my family landed in Washington Heights in 1939.
It was quite confusing growing up as a full blooded American, with all the requisite hatred of Germans, while being brought up with a pre-Hitler German culture. All the stories of the Holocaust only enhanced my fear that society could turn against me one day.
But it wasn't being a closeted German Jew that gave me pause; it was something that happened in Hebrew School that made me feel like a criminal that needed to hide. Back then, it was criminal for gay people to make love, punishable by jail, loss of employment and housing or worse. Gay discrimination was the law of the land; just as segregation was the law against African Americans (Jews, Catholics, Asians, etc.). In school we never studied the extent of segregation in the northern states of America. It took until my adulthood that I realized how America treated its minorities from 1896 until 1964. Is it any wonder that my life reads like a movie written by Anne Frank, starring Barbra Streisand, directed by Woody Allen and produced by Mel Brooks?
In a way, I felt like a closeted "Marrano", sort of a gay, "German-Jew-in-exile" having to hide my true identity in order to fit in. So rather than changing myself, I entered into a life long struggle to change the world's perceptions of people like me. I wanted to be de-criminalized, tolerated, accepted, understood, and finally loved for who I really was. What happened to my right of the pursuit of happiness?
I always remember feeling different from other Jews who lived on my mostly Jewish block. Sitting down with my parents planning my Bar Mitzvah in 1965, I noticed that there were very few relatives on the invitation list. When I asked why more relatives weren't invited, my mother stared at me blankly while my father quietly got up from the living room sofa and went down to the basement. A few minutes later he came back carrying a small beige cardboard suitcase with a brown and tan stripe down the center. After clicking the brass locks, he opened the lid and removed a large black and white photograph in a hand-made wooden frame. It showed a group of about twenty well-dressed, smiling people. The men wore suits with bow ties and were hatless and clean shaven, except for one elderly man in the front row in a black hat and long white beard. The women wore elegant long dresses with high collars and jeweled pendants around their necks.
"These two are my parents at their wedding," my father said proudly, pointing to a handsome couple in the middle of the picture. "The man with the beard is my Grandpa Gerson; next to him is Grandma Sofie. Behind them is Grandpa Moses." My father looked up at me like he was studying my face. "These other people are all their sisters, brothers, and in-laws. They would have loved to come to your Bar Mitzvah, but they couldn't get out." Couldn't get out. I'd heard that expression before and knew it referred to family members who were not able to come to America, but I had no understanding of the horrific reality behind that euphemism. My father didn't offer any further details and I didn't ask for them. No wonder I always felt cheated by not having a large close family. It would be years later when I learned that most of the people in that photo were murdered by the Nazis. As I grew older, the facts would unravel, culminating in a trip to Munich where I said Kaddish in front of the apartment house of my great-grandparents before they were relocated to the Judenhaus and then deported to their death.
I learned in Hebrew School that we all come from the children of Noah, and are all created in God's image, and are all equal under U.S. law. Isn't it time that we finally emphasize these ideals and finally love our neighbors as ourselves?
By reading this book, you will follow my life with its ups and downs seeing the world from my outsider's perspective. You will also explore the history of German Jewry and the modern "LGBT Rights Movement" in both America and Germany. Behind the scenes you will discover my parents' experiences as Holocaust Survivors during the Nazi era just as I did; namely, in dribs and drabs over the decades. By writing this book I wanted to understand and reconcile my issues with being German, Jewish, gay and American. I was brought up in America with a German Culture when people hated Germans, then came out as gay in a homophobic world, survived the AIDS epidemic, 9/11, and all that the world threw at me. This is a story of reconciliation; first of the personal kind and then on a global scale. I am sharing my revelations with you.
One underlying emotion that permeates my thoughts is that my family was not a perpetrator of oppression, either in America or Germany. I am a proud American with no personal relations who oppressed America's minorities; and I can be a proud German knowing that no one in my family was a Nazi. Being part of historically victimized groups has its advantages too.
I am very proud that America is on the threshold of fulfilling the dreams of many of the progressive founders, namely guaranteeing equal protection under the law to all Americans; and that Germany has also grown into a strong democratic progressive country.
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