Issue 68

Special Edition:

This issue of Opinion8ed2 includes a review of Counting on America plus an exclusive interview with co-author, Gary Reiner

Book Review:

Few biographies or autobiographies manage to capture the reader and draw them into the story the way good fiction does. Yet, from the title alone you can feel that Counting on America, A Holocaust Memoir of Terror, Chutzpah, Romance, and Escape does just that.

Kurt & Hennie

Hennie & Kurt’s wedding photo (used by permission)

This is the true story of Kurt and Hennie Reiner, a recently married young couple in Vienna and their narrow escape from the Nazis. It is based on Kurt’s writings, recollections, and documents and was assembled and recently published by their son Gary.

Young Kurt

Young Kurt Reiner in Vienna (used by permission)

Kurt (born in 1913) describes his relatively care-free early life growing up in Vienna, one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. As he reached his late teens, Hitler had risen to power in Germany on an openly anti Semitic platform and soon marched on Austria and Poland where he met little resistance. Things grew rapidly worse for the Jewish community and on Kristallnacht (the night of broken glass, November 9-10, 1938) Kurt and thousands of other Jews were attacked, arrested and shipped off to the Dachau concentration camp.

krystallnact riot

Nazi sympathizers attack Jewish storefronts on Krystallnact

Alternately both a page turner and a page stopper, Counting on America reads like a well written fictional thriller in which we hang on the author’s narrative, eagerly awaiting what comes next. Then inevitably, we are stopped in our tracks when the detailed description of life in the death camps is revealed. It’s certainly not light or easy reading and there’s only so much one can take in when grasping a firsthand account of Nazi atrocities.

concentration camp prisoners

Prisoners at Dachau line up for roll call

Don’t misunderstand me – Kurt’s story does not wallow in despair or bludgeon the reader with morbidity, but he does report what he saw and how he felt. Much is hard to fully comprehend or absorb. That’s where I found myself stopping for a break to let it all sink in and to take an emotional breather. A page turner with a built in governor to modulate the speed. Just the kind of device Kurt Reiner, the eventual aeronautic engineer, would have designed.

Hennie Reiner on arrival in the US, in an AP photo (used by permission)

Kurt was cunning and proud of his ability to deal with whatever was thrown his way. He was a life-long optimist and in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, he would respond “we have no problems” and would focus on potential solutions that could lead to a successful outcome and then work tirelessly to make them happen. And of course a little luck or perhaps divine intervention can’t hurt. Kurt was not a religious Jew, but can’t help wonder if so many narrow, last minute escapes that culminated in their freedom could have been the result of shear luck or happenstance.  Yet he also points out that despite their ultimate success, so many others were not so fortunate.

“Never forget” is an expression forever associated with the Holocaust but for Kurt, these were more than mere words – the impact of witnessing and experiencing the horror was ever present.

“Not a day goes by without thinking of the inmates at Dachau who died as I watched in horror.”

The ghosts of Dachau followed him wherever he went for the rest of his life.

Counting on America provides a first hand description of the gradual and steady rise to power of a crazed, xenophobic, racist megalomaniac and the unspeakable horrors that unchecked hatred can bring. Unfortunately, this is an eerily, all too familiar theme today, which amplifies a cautionary tale into a full blown air raid siren warning.

Jewish immigrants on SS St. Louis refused entry to US (L); US Border Patrol Arrest Immigrants

In yet another parallel to today, the book takes us along on the desperate journey of refugees fleeing oppression, willing to take wild risks and face innumerable dangers to seek a better life. Time and again their applications for political asylum were rejected but they forged on. Kurt muses that his internment as an Austrian/German citizen in France waiting for paperwork that would allow them to emigrate ironically worked in his favor – providing shelter and subsistence, albeit meager, thus avoiding the acts of desperation that refugees sometimes must resort to for survival.

Kurt wrote his memoir in the hope that it would preserve this terrible chapter in history so that all future generations would take heed and not stand idly by while bigotry and racism was carried out in plain sight.

With the rise of neo-Nazis and white supremacists under our current so-called POTUS, with his ban on people based on their religious faith, with the separation and incarceration of immigrants (including babies and young children), to name but a few reasons, the publication of Counting on America could not have come at a more appropriate time. This truly is a must read for all.



Full Disclosure:

I believe my review of Counting on America is objective and this wonderful and important book will resonate with most readers…but for me, a personal connection made it even more moving.

I grew up in Long Beach, NY just several hundred feet from the Reiner family. Kurt and Hennie were among my parents’ closest friends – they attended my bar mitzvah and wedding. Although I was not the same age as the Reiner children, the families spent many a summer day together relaxing at the beach.

Kurt (left) at my wedding; Hennie and my mom (center); Gary’s younger sister’s birthday party (me on extreme right)

Yet in all those years I was unaware of their tragic and heroic story.  I knew them “only” as warm, caring family friends – the sole outward connection with this story was their distinctive Austrian accents. Hennie smiled easily and was gregarious, Kurt was a bit more reserved but friendly with a droll sense of humor.

Looking back, and knowing them as I did, it’s hard to imagine how they managed to put this experience behind them and lead successful and rich lives. Kudos to Gary for keeping his word and ensuring his parents’ story and their legacy were preserved.


Counting on America is available in paperback or e-book on Amazon:

www.amazon.com/Counting- America-Holocaust-Chutzpah- Romance/dp/1628654910


 

Interview with Gary Reiner, co -author, Counting on America

 

Gary Reiner (used by permission)

Thanks Gary for agreeing to talk with us about your book.  I imagine it is quite emotional for you, so please feel free to provide as much or as little information as you feel appropriate and are comfortable with.

Opinion8ed2: Your parents’ personal story is so moving and emotional…Can you talk a little about whether you were aware of their experiences before coming to America while you were growing up or was it only revealed much later?

Gary: It really wasn’t discussed at my house during my teen years. And my parents’ friends, most of whom were European, didn’t mention it either. It wasn’t until my forties that my father asked me to help him with his memoir.

He did ask me at 16 to send a letter to Austria that had swastikas drawn on the envelope flap that first drew my attention. My curiosity got the best of me and I opened it. I was appalled to read “Nazi bastards, die, go to Hell” or words to that effect. Not knowing his background, I refused to mail the letter. Apparently, as I learned later, it was addressed to persons that he knew had thrown my grandfather down a flight of stairs and turned him into the Gestapo. I just found out recently that my sister Michelle was asked to also mail letters when I was no longer available.

Opinion8ed2: Wow, I’m beginning to see how your folks must have tried to put this nightmare behind them after arriving here to start their lives over again.  It must have been an awfully heavy burden for them to keep their story hidden.  That would explain their reluctance to discuss it both within the family and with their friends.  And of course, this reluctance to talk about it was not uncommon among the survivors.  Those letters were probably a way for your dad to cope with all that pent up anger.

I imagine it would have been difficult to avoid some reference to the Holocaust and their experiences when the subject of your grandparents, aunts, and uncles, all of whom were killed came up.

Gary: Discussion of my relatives did not come up. When you grow up without them, you do not have any idea of what you are missing. I remember that I once went to my best friend’s house, when I was around 12, and was introduced to his grandfather. “Gary,” he said, “this is my grandfather, Jacob.” I had to ask, “What is a grandfather?” I know it sounds incredibly naïve, but I have met many other holocaust survivors’ children that tell a similar story.

Opinion8ed2:  That’s amazing. Clearly even though they attempted to shield you from the pain, you and your siblings were still impacted.  After eventually learning of their experience, was it talked about openly? Did they feel comfortable answering questions about it?  Or was it verbowten, too painful to discuss?

Gary: Of course, when I got involved helping my father write his memoir in 1985, it was talked about openly. But, not so with my mother.  When asked a question about her parents, she could not utter a complete sentence before starting to cry.

Opinion8ed2:  Can you tell us a little more about the process of preparing the book. I know it was based on your Dad’s own writing and that you fleshed it out with historical detail and original documents your parents preserved. How did you go about organizing it? Were there difficulties along the way?

Gary: My father was not much of a writer. However, he had extensive documentation of what he had gone through so there was a trail to follow. Also, he was able to recall dozens of events that were triggered by his memory and the documentation. The problem I had was that he first recorded them on paper without regard to chronological order. So I had to piece together the stories within a time line that created flow and comprehension. For example, the first material that I saw may have been a particular event followed by another event that not only took place months later but had no relationship to the former. He was not trying to be a story teller as much as a recall writer, for lack of a better phrase.

The other difficulty for me was putting the events in context with the political circumstances. I discovered that for every action he took, there was an action that precipitated his move. In other words, my parents’ flight path can be viewed as a series of spontaneous defensive moves in response to a series of hostile government or military actions.

Opinion8ed2:  It’s interesting to hear you say that Kurt was not much of a writer…can you elaborate?

Gary: He was not a good writer in the sense that he told the tale using bad grammar and not with particular emotional expression. Kind of like “I stepped in a hole, I got out, I then crossed the bridge, I then bumped into an alligator.” But, I talked to him about different events and got a better sense of his perception of the situation. Of course, I also know how he thought.

Opinion8ed2: Well, that’s obviously a testament to your skills as an author and editor because the narrative in Counting on America is very well written – both in terms of the language and how the story is laid out. Having known Kurt, I think you also captured his voice and droll wit exceptionally well.

You talk about how your dad’s notes were disorganized and out of chronological order. I’m not a psychologist but can imagine that may be a result of memories long suppressed returning in bits and pieces like a shattered crock that was uncovered by archeologists and needs reassembly.  Perhaps a more apt analogy is a jigsaw puzzle because each piece has a historical context which you could use as a clue in reconstructing the story…

Gary: Yes, it was like putting together a jig saw puzzle. In fact, that’s what I did with the first drafts. I cut out events that he wrote and pasted them together as I presumed the order that they occurred based on the dating of the documents that are included. He was not here when I matched up the documents to the narrative. Sometimes, the documents were used to help me figure out what he was making reference to. So for example, when he talked about the tax document where he forged the date, I had no idea what he was talking about until I found the document. I should end this by saying he was actually a good writer because if he wasn’t, the story would not exist.

Opinion8ed2:  Good point.  I’m curious, it seems like your parents were fluent in German, Yiddish, French, Czechoslovakian and English. How did they learn so many languages and did they retain these later in life?

Gary: My mother was actually working as a translator before they were forced to leave. She had a photographic memory and could learn a foreign language in weeks, as she did in Italy. I was once dating a woman of Cuban ancestry and discovered my mother speaking to her in Spanish for twenty minutes. I have no idea how she learned that language. In any event, she spoke English, Italian, French, German, Yiddish, and Spanish. Dad was school trained in German, French and English. He learned Czech from his Czechoslovakian maid.

Opinion8ed2:  Has the family maintained contact with your Argentinian relatives?  Have you met or been in touch with them?  Were you in touch over the book and/or did the book help you get back in touch?

Gary: No, and I regret not having done so. However, I do plan to reach out this year and let them know about the book. I am a little concerned as they apparently have converted to Catholic, and may be upset if not previously made aware of their heritage. A delicate issue. I think!

Opinion8ed2:  Do you recall your feelings when the Holocaust was studied in school?  Did it make you uncomfortable?  Did you ever share your parents’ story at these times?

Gary: The Holocaust was not discussed in school when I was growing up. Those were the days of the “dark secret.”  None of my friends knew about my parents’ background except that they came from Austria. I knew of no other children of Holocaust survivors.

Opinion8ed2: As I stated in the review, I think Counting on America is not only a fascinating and important read but a significant piece of history that must be preserved.  Do you have plans for publicizing the book and sharing its message?  Have you approached any Jewish organizations or Holocaust museums about the book?

Gary: I have donated about five dozen documents to the US Holocaust Museum Memorial. They are digitizing the information and making a visual on-line record. I am currently reaching out to different Jewish organizations and arranging speaking and book signing engagements. If anyone is interested in having me talk to their organization, I can be contacted at GaryReiner@countingonamerica.com

Opinion8ed2:  Thanks so much for taking the time with us…but more importantly for getting Counting on America published.  I imagine it must have been an arduous task but so well worth the effort.

Gary: If you count the years from when I first started to help my father, the task took place over thirty years. If that isn’t arduous, I don’t know what is. Thanks for asking me the above questions. It was a pleasure to share my experience with you.

Published on August 25, 2018 at 3:35 pm  Comments Off on Issue 68  
%d bloggers like this: