May 1, 2008
The fear of silence
Robert Geminder was six years old when he heard the dogs barking. He was hiding in a little pantry with his older brother, George. His mother, Bertl, would always tell them to be extra quiet, because you never knew when "the soldiers" would show up.
When the dogs got louder, he figured the German soldiers would soon open the pantry door and find him and his brother, crouching in the corner. He didn't figure that his mother, with the help of his grandmother, Golde, would think of stacking firewood in front of the pantry to disguise the smell of the boys. But that's what they did, and it worked. The dogs and their Nazi bosses left, and Robert and his brother could breathe again.
This was in 1941 in Stanislawow, Poland. Two years earlier, at the beginning of World War II, Robert was a 4-year-old living in a nice neighborhood in Bielsko in Southern Poland. In August of 1939, when the Germans invaded Poland, Robert's town was devastated by the blitzkrieg. His father, Mendel "Mano" Geminder, died of a heart attack while trying to barricade a living room window with a mattress. As the troops invaded, his grandfather was executed on the streets, leaving Robert, George, Bertl and Golde homeless and on the run.
They tried to flee to Russia but were turned back. Eventually, they ended up in Stanislawow, in one of 300 Jewish ghettos that the Germans had set up throughout countries like Poland, Hungary and Romania. Before the war, about 3 million Jews lived in Poland, the largest concentration of Jews in the world. It's estimated that 97 percent of those Jews died.
To this day, Geminder can't quite fathom how he ended up in the 3 percent that survived.
It helps, though, that this 72-year-old retired engineer and now schoolteacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District has a very sharp memory. As he shares story after story of his many escapes and close calls and plain old suffering ("I was hungry for six years," he says), it's clear that there were at least two reasons for his survival.
Extraordinary luck and an amazing mother.
One of his closest calls came on a winter day in 1942 when he was one of 20,000 Jews taken to a cemetery near Stanislawow. There, Jews were greeted by German snipers who shot them and pushed their bodies into mass graves. Geminder and his family were "lucky" enough to be among the first batch of Jews to arrive, which meant they were at the back when the shooting started. By the time the snipers got to them, after mowing down about 16,000 other Jews, it was dark and had started to snow, so the Germans took them back to their ghetto.
They survived there for a couple of years. On those rare times when the young Geminder was not hiding in closets, he remembers seeing "daily hangings and children being killed and thrown against walls."
One day his mother heard a rumor that the entire ghetto was to be "liquidated." Her rabbi told her to do whatever she could to "get the children out," so she came up with an escape plan with the help of a girlfriend. The two women hid the boys under their skirts as they walked out of the ghetto walls, ostensibly to go to their "slave labor" jobs. They never came back. Geminder's grandmother, the rabbi and everyone else never made it out.
For the next three years, until the end of the war, the Geminder clan -- which by now also included Emil Brotfeld, a man who would later become Geminder's stepfather -- wandered throughout Poland living on their wits and courage and hoping only to stay alive.
As he sits now in his modest home in Rancho Palos Verdes, where he has lived for 42 years and where he and his wife Judy are active members of the Conservative Congregation Ner Tamid, Geminder tells me he's got "maybe a hundred" stories of how they just barely made it.
"One of those things goes wrong," he says, "and I'm not here talking to you."
But while he's got many stories of survival, there's one story in particular he keeps bringing up: On May 11, Geminder will don a graduation cap and walk with students less than half his age to receive his degree in education from Loyola Marymount University.
He's especially proud of that story. But why would a man get a teaching degree 48 years after graduating from university with an engineering degree?
He can't say for sure, but he thinks it has something to do with the fact that he loves talking to people, especially young students. For as long as he can remember, early May has been "his busy period," when Jewish organizations from across the country recruit Holocaust survivors like Geminder to tell their stories in schools and other venues. So Geminder knows from talking in noisy classrooms, and what job could be better than schoolteacher for someone who loves to talk?
In fact, when you talk to Geminder, the theme of talking and making noise is never too far from his mind. What seems to haunt him most from his childhood as a "wandering survivor" is not the fear of hunger or the fear of death -- but the fear of silence. It's those hundreds of "shhhs" he would hear while spending most of that childhood hiding in silence.
He prayed that if he ever made it out alive, and had children of his own, that he would never be forced to keep them quiet. This is another way of saying that Geminder wasn't too hard on his three children, who are now grown-up, when they got a little, say, rambunctious.
Sixty-six years after crouching in a pantry in forced silence, Robert Geminder, survivor and proud new graduate, defines his freedom as having no fear to make a little noise.
Last October, VideoJew Jay Firestone taped survivor Eva Brown's story at her home in David Suissa's Pico-Robertson hood.
David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.