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Minnesota professor recalls growing up during Holocaust

Young Fred Amram and family. (Photo: University of Minnesota)1 / 3
Cover of Fred Amram's new book, "We're in America Now."2 / 3
Professor Emeritus Fred Amram (Photo by David Sherman)3 / 3

Two nights after the presidential election, a somewhat tender crowd of about 100 people filled the library rotunda at the University of Minnesota Duluth to hear author Fred Amram read from his new memoir, "We're In America Now: A Survivor's Stories."

The event was opened by a contribution from the Karpeles Museum. Director Doris Malkmus brought a copy of an official decree of Maximilian II in 1572, expelling the Jews from Austria of the Holy Roman Empire. Malkmus made this decree available to remind all that the persecution of the Jews went on for hundreds of years before there was a Hitler or a Holocaust.

The night of this event, Nov. 10, Professor Amram reminded his audience, was the 78th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the wave of violence in 1938 against Jewish people in Germany and German-occupied regions. It was a night of terror which marked the beginning of the Holocaust during World War II.

By reading sections of his book, Amram transported the audience back to Germany in the 1930s when being a Jewish child was frightening. One day as a child he and his mother found their favorite park bench with a sign over it which read, "Only for Jews." Young Amram felt special and joyful over the sign and couldn't understand why his mother didn't feel the same. Within a year, no Jewish people were even allowed in that park. Within two years Jewish people were being exported to concentration camps.

Amram was born in Hanover, Germany in 1933, just six months after the newly appointed chancellor, Adolf Hitler, created a dictatorship through the Enabling Act. Amram's family experienced escalating acts of persecution. Although they were able to emigrate to America in 1939, many members of their extended family were murdered through the extermination process. Amram, his mother and his father were never able to flee the memories.

At this same time in history, Jewish children from German-occupied territories were sent to the British Isles for their survival. Approximately 10,000 children's lives were saved because of this Kindertransport.

America was watching but not getting involved. The Washington Post conducted a survey asking Americans if they would be willing to bring in 10,000 Jewish children, and 83 percent said no.

"We're In America Now" is an ironic title. When the Amrams left Germany at the very beginning of World War II, they thought persecution was behind them. But once in America they found they were "dirty Jews." Amran endured bullying and persecution not from German SS officers, but from American children he went to school with.

Amram focused on the point that discrimination starts with petty annoyances and if no one stands up to it, it grows. Auschwitz didn't happen suddenly. The Jewish people were discriminated against in small steps which eventually led to their demise. What if someone had spoken up?

When asked by an audience member what he thought of the recent election outcome, Amram said, "I'm very scared. I think anyone who is not a white Christian might be feeling very scared." He noted that the Nazi Party grew out of a nationalist and populist movement.

The evening's events closed with a song by local artist Sara Thomsen, based on the famous quote by Martin Niemoller. ("Then they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me.")

Amram will visit Duluth again this spring when he and his artist wife, Sandra Brick, will provide the centerpiece exhibit for Duluth Art Institute's Holocaust Remembrance Day, April 24, 2017. Their display, "Lest We Forget," combines Brick's visual art with Amram's text.

“We’re In America Now: A Survivor’s Stories” is published by the Duluth-based Holy Cow! Press.

S.E. Livingston

Monthly Budgeteer columnist S.E. Livingston is a wife, mother and teacher who writes for family and education newsletters in northern Minnesota and lives in Duluth.