Back in 2011, I took a class called Aging and Society, a sociology elective. One of our assignments was to conduct a life history interview with an elderly relative or professor. I chose to interview my grandmother, my dad’s mom, who was born in Nazi Germany and has seen enough events in her lifetime to justify an interview or three.
I bring this up because next week marks the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, or the night of broken glass. German authorities pillaged Jewish businesses and households for two November nights – this marked a transition to a more intense Nazi regime, right before millions were brought to concentration camps and the world exploded into the Second World War. This was also the beginning of my grandmother’s escape to America.
I’ve never shared the paper I wrote, but I have re-printed it below if you would like to read it.
My grandmother was born in Germany in 1933. She stands at just over five feet tall, resides in West Hartford, Connecticut, and has three children. An only child, she was raised Jewish, and though she could not control her circumstances, she was born into a country about to turn against her religion. Adolf Hitler had just come to power, instilling the seed of Jewish hatred into German culture. Her early years gave her a unique and challenging life course, one that has shaped her adult life dramatically. My grandmother has lived a well-rounded and introspective life due to personal and societal events.
Growing up in Germany was difficult. Hitler took to power the year she was born, and soon most non-Jews hated her family. When she was four years old, she could not go outside to play because the nearby children would throw stones at her and call her a Jew. Her parents had to walk her to friends’ houses where they usually played indoors. Her early-life situation demonstrates the significance of social movements on a birth cohort. However, my grandmother’s father believed that it was not dangerous to live in Germany at the time, since his haberdashery was doing quite well, and non-Jews still did business with him and liked him. He felt that Hitler’s rule and the wave of anti-Semitism would pass. Jews in Germany had historically been treated rather well, and Jews did not have to face a cumulative disadvantage. Prior to the Holocaust the opportunity structures and mechanisms of allocation had affected social class rather than religious preference.
This changed on November 9th, 1938, when there was an incident in Germany called Kristallnacht, or the night of broken glass. On Kristallnacht, young teenagers and soldiers throughout Germany went on a rampage and started throwing stones and bricks into houses. Synagogues were set on fire throughout the country, and my great grandfather ran to the local synagogue to save a Torah from being burned. The morning after Kristallnacht, the Nazis took over his store, and he was arrested and forced to a detention camp that later became a concentration camp. The camps were so overcrowded that after two weeks he was released, and that is when he started making plans to leave Germany. In late 1939, my grandmother and her family escaped to England. They could only take clothing and a few pots and pans (and my great grandfather also took the Torah he recovered). They could not take any silver or jewelry, since the Nazi’s had already pocketed their valuables.
From 1939 through 1940, my grandmother lived right outside of London, and it was at this time that the German air raids began. She was just starting school, and on the first day she was fitted for a gas mask. “Just like you carried your lunch to school, I carried my gas mask,” she says. “Fortunately, while I was there, there was no bombing.” In 1940, she left England with her parents and came over to the United States. Her boat was behind a minesweeper, a special boat that was trained to look out for mines in the Atlantic. When she arrived in the U.S., she started first grade while her father found a job in a Connecticut factory. She did not know a word of English, but she soon learned the language. My grandmother was only a young girl at this time, but she remembers feeling comfortable that her parents would find a way to survive. Her parents taught her the importance of honesty, kindness, and religion. “They led by example,” she says. She saw how they lived and how they interacted with others, and even though she witnessed pure evil at a young age, she did not become jaded.
The early part of my grandmother’s life was defined by an uncontrollable and atypical social circumstance, but she began to take control of her life and anticipate changes after adapting to American society. She met my grandfather in high school, but even though she went to the senior prom with him, she did not think that he was going to be her future husband. “He wasn’t a BS artist like most guys at the time were,” she says while laughing. After high school, she attended a small women’s college in Connecticut. “College was different in those days because it wasn’t co-ed living,” she says. “I think friendships were closer because we bonded more readily.” After two years, she went to a specialized medical technology school at Hartford Hospital, where she became a licensed medical technologist. My grandfather studied pharmacology at UConn, and many years later they would build their own pharmacy business together. The two continued seeing each other during college and were married in their early twenties; the age norm for marriage was much younger in those days. My grandmother defied the female gender role when she graduated college and began to work, since the feminine culture at that time discouraged working
My grandmother continues to defy age norms by engaging in physical exercise and intellectual conversation at an older age. She plays tennis several times per week, cooks her own meals, cleans her house, listens to country music for its narrative value, and generally challenges the stereotype of old women. I have witnessed her capture a snake in her garden with her bare hands. She also hosts major holiday dinners on Thanksgiving, Rosh Hashanah, and Passover. She disobeys the modernization theory of aging, which states that industrialization leads to less contact between the family, since she regularly sees her three children and six grandchildren.
As the course of history has passed, my grandmother has witnessed some of the most significant social movements and cultural changes, some of which impacted her directly while others she has viewed through a distant lens. The Holocaust was the most important historical event for my grandmother because it fundamentally changed her country’s philosophy and made her an outsider in her hometown. The choices of individuals are limited by the environment in which they live in, and the Holocaust limited my family to two choices: attempt to survive in Nazi Germany or escape to an unfamiliar country. Her life course was a product of timing and the ‘linked lives’ perspective, since the choices of the Nazi’s inextricably affected my grandmother’s childhood. The Holocaust also caused a structural lag in Germany due to disconnect between freedom and society.
My grandmother believes American society has changed for the worse over the last several decades, which upholds the stereotype that the elderly tend to be more conservative and less accepting of new social trends. She laments the rising crime rates and the larger disparity between classes. She believes that the cohort of the technology era has made society more disengaged and impersonal. The U.S. also has the highest rate of inequality for income among developed countries, resulting in low social mobility. My grandmother adds that even though the south was not integrated when she was younger, the northeast was, and her high school had a Jewish valedictorian and a black president. The disparity of race in Connecticut was not there, and it was a gentler time. She sums up the changes in six words: “We could leave our cars unlocked.”
After living in the United States for 71 years, she is pleased with the many social movements that have made our country more equal and more just. The Torah stresses equality through the sanctity of life and the dignity of human person, and she has always believed in civil rights, equality for all, and social responsibility. The sit-ins and march-ins that were part of the south were important to change the country’s focus to equality, and she was proud to witness the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964.
When asked about major political moments, she quickly stated that she has had two where were you when moments. The first moment was John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, and she thought it was a loss of innocence. She was very young at the time, and my father was only four years old. “I felt crushed and saddened,” she says, and even though it has been nearly fifty years since the assassination, I can still hear desolation in her voice. The second moment was September 11th. After 9/11, my grandmother felt a sense of doom. She thought it might be the beginning of a war. There was a sense of foreboding that life would never be the same. She had witnessed religious hatred during her early years in Germany, but this was the first time she had seen ethnic hatred. She was afraid of other attacks, and she was worried that I would have to grow up in a world where terrorism and violence would become prevalent in society.
Growing up in Germany during the dawn of the Holocaust shaped my grandmother’s life significantly. She learned from a young age to appreciate freedom, which has given her a unique perspective on life. “I was a child of unrest in Nazi Germany,” my grandmother says. “So I try to tell people: hey, don’t sweat the small stuff.” She wants people to know her story so that they can value the freedoms that many were forced to surrender over the course of history. “But most importantly,” she adds, “I want people to know that I have lived my life as honestly as possible, and as kindly as possible.” She exhibits a cohort effect that is shared by many Holocaust survivors by looking at the world reflectively and quietly.
My grandmother is proud of her marriage, since it taught her some of the most important values in life. Marriage taught her how to live with someone else and the values of kindness and sympathy. This didn’t happen all at once; it was an accumulation of many years of living together. During the early part of her marriage, she was focused on making a living, and then later she had to raise children while my grandfather was working. After raising three well-adjusted children, she feels like she has lived a good life with no regrets. “I think the feeling of being loved is what I am most proud of,” my grandmother says, and I can almost hear her smile over the phone. Her children, her parents, and her whole extended family have given her a wealth of pride. Her high level of satisfaction upholds the activity theory of aging, which states that those that remain physically and mentally engaged have the greatest sense of satisfaction.
As my grandmother ponders advice she could give to a college student, she realizes that the key to a good life is to keep it simple. “Be true to yourself, and be honest,” she says. “You don’t want to do anything that would cause anyone harm or bring disgrace to your name.” She also hopes students today appreciate the value of hard work and are able to be empathetic with others. However, she also understands that students today live in a much different world than she did. She graduated college during a time of economic prosperity and American optimism, but today the economy is struggling and jobs are more difficult to come by. She is glad that more students today have a broader view of the world through study abroad and community outreach, and she hopes this trend continues. But overall, my grandmother believes that today’s college students have a very hard road ahead of them, more so than she did.