This article originally appeared in The Lakeside Ledger on Sept. 27, 2018
The Endless Steppe is a book of influence in my life. The author, Esther Hautzig, wrote of her experiences as a young Jewish girl in exile from Poland on the steppes of Siberia during World War II. It was hard for me to fathom such difficulties for a child of 11 or 12, as I was about the same age as Esther was in the story when I read the book. I never forgot the impact of that story.
Unfortunately, stories similar to Esther’s are common. And, just as unfortunate, there are fewer of those who help us to remember the horrors of the treatment of Jews during World War II. As a historian and one who experienced what was happening in Germany during the 1930s, Dr. Gerhard Weinberg shares his stories, as interviewer Gregory Peterson stated: “in defiance of forgetting.”
While Dr. Weinberg is a noted author of what local historian Rolland Kidder called the “bible of World War II”, it was Dr. Weinberg’s personal stories that resonated with me when he was interviewed by Greg Peterson at the Robert H. Jackson Center on Monday, September 24, 2018 with an audience of over 100. His stories reminded me of Esther; he was also a Jewish child growing up in the throes of a society gone mad.
Dr. Weinberg was asked about being a child in Germany in the early 1930s. He and his family, which included his father and mother and an older brother and sister, lived in Hanover, Germany. Young Gerhard, born in 1928, was bullied at school for the mere fact that he was Jewish. He “developed a habit” (his words) of waiting until his nose stopped bleeding before going home from school so as not to upset his mother. He was not allowed to swim-something that he was interested in learning how to do because he was Jewish. He was separated from his older brother who was sent to a Jewish school in Berlin (by the family) because of the foul treatment that the brother received in the local schools. Dr. Weinberg explained how his father, who fought for Germany on the front lines during World War I, was forced to open an office in the family’s living room of their apartment as he was no longer able to work in his former capacity. His father understood German “legalese” and helped his peers to navigate the process of how to emigrate from Germany. His father, thus the family, was protected from being expelled from Germany because of the father’s military service during World I; however, that ended in 1934 when the German President, Paul von Hindenburg died. In Weinberg’s words, his father was “tossed out.”
In 1938, there was an escalation of the mistreatment of Jews. According to Dr. Weinberg, as a 10 year old in that year, he observed that “people were nasty to each other.” As he learned of synagogues being set ablaze, he wondered how people could be “so mad at God as to set fire to God’s house” as he believes a synagogue to be. Despite all of the difficulties that he and his family faced, they did receive a promise of support from an uncle on his mother’s side of the family who had resided in the U.S. since the early 1900s. The uncle, a talented metallurgist with patents to his credit, sponsored the family’s emigration to the U.S. in September of 1940. The uncle sponsored another family of 3, as well. Families could not move unless they had this sponsorship and promise of financial support.
Once in the United States, the impact of the intellect of Gerhard Weinberg began. He served in the military. He pursued an education under the G.I. Bill becoming Gerhard Weinberg, Ph.D. He made an unbelievable discovery in a box of mislabeled papers that he made sure was published. He wrote articles and books. He shared his extensive knowledge at three different universities.
But while we can learn more about Dr. Weinberg with the click of a mouse, we can’t forget the little boy that he was. We have to ask, what kind of society condones the mistreatment of children? We have to admire the strength and courage it took for families like the Weinberg’s to look to the future, to take actions for change, and to become respected members of a different society across a vast ocean. And, we have to be grateful for the boy who grew into the man who became Gerhard Weinberg, PhD.: a highly respected historian, a man of conviction, one with a sense of humor and more stories to tell.