The story begins sometime after 1880, in the far eastern reaches of the Holy Roman Empire, when my great-great grandmother died of breast cancer, leaving behind her husband and four young children. Great-great-grandfather Breuer remarried, to a widow with four children of her own. That made eight small, frightened children who had suffered the loss of a parent. But the parents were determined to forge one family out of two. Their love eventually melted down the differences between families. They had no idea the impact their love would have on their descendants.
Fast forward to March 12, 1938, Vienna. It was a Friday night. Around 7 that evening, Chancellor Schuschnigg, the head of the Austrian government, announced on the radio that Austria no longer existed. It was now a part of the German Empire, the Third Reich. Even before Schuschnigg finished his speech that Shabbat evening, Nazis had begun to attack anyone who looked Jewish; by Saturday morning the Nazi Blitzverfolgung--lightning persecution--had begun in earnest.
My grandparents, Konrad and Erna, were living with their two young daughters in the Jewish district of Vienna, called the Leopoldstadt. Their apartment was on the fourth floor of a building overlooking the Danube Canal, a narrow brown branch of the Danube River, which separates the Leopoldstadt from the rest of the city. The building is on one end of a bridge that connects Leopoldstadt with the main part of Vienna; on the other side of the bridge was a small dark building that, during the years of the Third Reich, housed the headquarters of the SS.
One afternoon, a few weeks after Chancellor Schuschnigg's broadcast, my grandfather was taking a walk to see his dentist; he never got there. He was arrested and sent to Dachau, a prison camp on the outskirts of Munich. Konrad was 37 years old. He taught Hebrew at the high school and spoke seven languages, including Greek and Latin. He and Erna had been married almost nine years; their two little girls were ages 4 and 7. Three months later, Konrad was transferred to the death camp at Buchenwald.
It's a little known fact that in those early days of Nazi rule, it was possible to buy your way out of a concentration camp--that is, assuming you had money, luck, and somewhere to go. This last was often a stumbling block: Many countries, like the U.S., demanded that immigrants show a source of financial support before they received one of the limited supply of visas. The financial demands, the paperwork, and the bureaucracy were daunting. In Vienna, the lines of applicants at government offices were endless.
Erna, my grandmother had a phenomenal store of drive and determination. She also had an angel, and an ally, in New York. Cousin Wilma, like my grandmother, was a descendant of the Breuer family. My grandmother traced her family back to the first Frau Breuer, the woman who died of breast cancer. Wilma was descended from the second Frau Breuer, the stepmother. Two separate family trees: one family.
Cousin Wilma, despite her new life in New York, still felt close to her family back in Europe. As fate would have it, she had more than just love to share: She also had money. Wilma had married a man with a big enough bank account, and a big enough heart, to offer whatever money she needed to buy her family's freedom; together they provided the means to allow Erna to secure Konrad's release from Buchenwald.
Konrad was given 24 hours to leave the German Empire. He reunited with Erna and the children in Vienna; they packed and left the same night. They took only what they could carry and the equivalent of $10, all the cash they were allowed to take across the border. They left behind their clothing, the furniture, books, the piano on which Erna played Schubert. They left behind the people they loved: siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, and friends. But, in the refrain of refugees everywhere, they survived. The family first set foot in this country in Hoboken, New Jersey, on Saint Patrick's Day, 1939. My mother, the younger of the two daughters, was not quite 6 years old.
Now my mother is herself a grandmother. And I think about this: If that long-ago stepmother, a woman whose name I don't even know, had been harsh and unkind, things might have been different. Had those two parents not tried to build a bond of love between their children and stepchildren, two cousins might not have had the strength, the courage, the love, to reach out to one another and help change history.
Recently in my shul, we read the story of Sarah and Hagar. Sarah was a stepmother, of sorts, to Ishmael, the son born to her husband, Abraham, and her servant, Hagar. But when Isaac, her own child, was born, Sarah insisted that Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael out into the desert; they were turned out of their home with the smallest amount of bread and water. In discussing the story, one of the rabbis pointed out that Sarah had a choice: She could have put aside her jealousy and decided to maintain the family in some semblance of harmony. And then the most haunting question: If she had, would the violence in the Middle East somehow never have happened? Would the descendants of Ishmael and those of Isaac have had a history of living in peace?
It's a well-known saying in Judaism that if you save one life, you save the entire world. In my own small family, that turned out to be true. Josh and his siblings--and all the rest of us--are here to prove it.