My father-in-law Eugene Katz asked me this question a couple of years ago when I went to
to visit. He grew up with in Germany over ninety years ago, and I know all of the unusual foods that that he craved from his youth: blood sausage, teawurst, pickled herring, lachschenken.
I know where to find these delicacies and had made a special trip to buy them and bring them to him. And his response was: “Why didn’t you buy more?”
Gene died yesterday at 97, just six weeks after his wife, Elisabeth, to whom he was married for 62 years. He had been frail for a very long time, but he “lost his heart,” as he put it, when Elisabeth died.
Years ago I took a philosophy class and the rabbi who taught it said: “People are like books, some are light beach reading, some are informational and straightforward, and some are difficult and dark and mysterious and hard to love and understand. But still worthwhile.”
Gene was the difficult latter kind. He came by it honestly, growing up miserably poor as the youngest of eight children, the only Jewish family, in the town of Barntrup, Germany. His mother regularly threatened suicide. His father bought, sold, and slaughtered livestock, which lived in the home with them. They contributed both heat and smell to the household. There was no running water. There was running sewage right outside the door. An excellent student, Gene, then Egon, was nonetheless forced to drop out of school when “the Nazi business”—as he called it—took hold.
His older brothers did well in school, had scholarships to college, and, just as smart as them, he resented being apprenticed to a cruel baker. But things got far worse when he was arrested for a scooter accident. Jews were forbidden to drive according to the Nuremberg laws, and he was ordered to report to the Gestapo. He knew that meant being sent to a concentration camp and so he tried to escape. I wrote about this period of his life in the historical novel, To Cross a Line.
After several failed efforts to escape Germany, including one on Christmas eve, 1938, his older brother Bruno bailed Gene out of jail gave Gene his own ticket to China. Along with 20,000 other Jewish refugees, he spent the war in Shanghai, wondering the whole time what was happening to his family. As it turned out, his mother and two of his sisters had been murdered by the Nazis.
Gene was beyond fiercely loyal to those he loved, he spent years trying to find what happened to his family. He shamed his hometown in Germany into putting up a memorial. Unlike some Holocaust survivors, he enjoyed going back to Germany. “I like showing them I’m still here!” He also, oddly, liked the fact that I’m not Jewish, that his granddaughters’ heritage is a bit muddled. “It will make it harder for them next time.”
Whenever I was frustrated with his shortness, or unpleasantness, I’d ask myself, How would I be if the Nazis murdered my mother? My sisters?
In 1947 he came to the US and began a new life. Starting even below baker…as a janitor, this time…but having lost a kidney to disease in China, Gene put himself through school. He married Elisabeth, an outgoing nurse, who had also escaped Germany. They had two sons, Gerry and Jeffrey. And Gene became a certified public accountant. He worked for what was then one of the “Big Six” accounting firms, until he learned that as a Jew he would never make partner.
Then he opened his own practice in Vallejo, and he worked and worked so that his sons could have the life he never had. He made sure Gerry and Jeff were American in every sense. Gene and Elisabeth never spoke German at home. You better believe the boys played Little League and were Boy Scouts. He was rightfully proud of the life he was able to build for them. “I am not going to die,” he said years ago, “until Jeff makes vice-president.”
Gene loved birthdays, because he never got to celebrate them when he was young. He loved parades because it reminded him of the youth he never got. “I never had any of this,” he said, tears on his face, when we were at a college celebration.
Gene had no hobbies; he had obsessions.
In later years he and Elisabeth traveled extensively. He was fascinated with history and until just a couple of months ago he watched the news incessantly. He would read history books and underline and annotate them. If you have him half a chance–maybe a quarter of a chance–you’d find yourself in a history lesson yourself.
“When are you coming to visit?” Gene would say when I called.
“I was there yesterday!”
“Oh, sorry.” In recent years, and months, he softened a good bit, and I was surprised when he began adding, “I love you” to our every phone conversation. It was there before, in subtext, but he made it explicit.
My sister Alicia teaches middle school social studies and for years Gene spoke every year to her class. “He could take a big room full of wriggly eighth-graders and in just a couple of minutes, as he talked about his experiences, you could hear a pin drop in that classroom.
“Afterward the students would talk to me, still in shock at what they’d heard. ’Thank you for having Mr. Katz come and talk to our class,’ said one student. ‘I’ll always remember him. I’m going to tell my children about him.’”
He would like that.