Having grown up next door to his grandfather, Mike Newman though
t he knew all about the cheerful, kindly man he called “Opa.”
So when he later learned his grandfather had survived a harrowing journey as a child through Nazi territory during World War II, the Northern State University history major yearned for details. Sadly, his grandfather’s Alzheimer’s disease had drawn an impenetrable veil over the answers to Newman’s many questions.
Newman will seek the answers on his own when he travels to Europe on a research trip partially funded by an NSU Undergraduate Research Grant. From May to June, he’ll follow his grandfather’s trail across Europe during the Holocaust. With the information and impressions he hopes to gather, Newman plans to write an honors thesis that may someday lead to a novel based on his grandfather’s life.
“He was a huge part of my life,” said Newman. “But until later in his life, I knew nothing about his struggle with the Holocaust. He spoke about it to almost no one.”
The late Henry Newman, born Heinz Najman in Vienna, Austria, arrived in America in 1945 and joined the U.S. Army. While stationed in postwar Germany, Henry began dating and fell in love with a German girl, Newman said.
“I could never marry you,” he told the girl. “You’re German, and I’m Jewish.”
“Why does that matter?” she retorted.
Newman said that clinched it – Henry and Gina were married and settled in the U.S. after the war.
Family members knew Henry had suffered through the Holocaust but was reticent on the subject, Newman said. Henry did include a few details in 30 pages of handwritten memoirs, in which he mentions experiencing Krystallnacht, a night of mass anti-Semitic violence in Germany.
“(The memoirs) had a very emotional impact on me,” Newman said. “In all of my time with him, I never realized he went through something so traumatic.”
Newman pieced together bits of Henry’s journey from his grandfather’s memoirs and grandmother’s memories. His grandmother, Gina - “Oma” – was Henry’s confidante. She helped fill in gaps in the memoirs, Newman said.
Newman describes the young Henry as an adolescent boy who “ … traveled throughout five countries, often illegally; learned four languages; put his life in the hands of complete strangers and lost some of the most important people in his life.”
After being driven from their home in Vienna, Henry, his parents and siblings went to Brussels, Belgium, hoping to sail to the United States. Before they could do that, Germans invaded Belgium. Henry Newman’s father was arrested and interned. Henry and his mother escaped to France just before it, too, was invaded.
Ten-year-old Henry was bewildered, Newman said.
“He couldn’t understand why Hitler hated him and his mother and father,” Newman said. “His family was not devoutly Jewish.”
When he was 13, Henry and his mother were sent to a concentration camp outside Paris, where Henry befriended a French guard who helped him escape. The boy made his way alone across the country to stay with family in the south of France.
The fate of Henry’s mother – Newman’s great-grandmother – is not recorded, but Newman can surmise.
“I have found the train number with which she was sent to Auschwitz. Eight of 10 people sent there were killed, so it’s fairly likely she was killed.”
Henry’s sisters made it safely to the U.S.
Later in life, Henry didn’t reveal ill effects from the ordeal, Newman said.
“He wasn’t negative about anything in life. He was always a very happy person. He appreciated he had made it out of that and went to where he could lead a happy life.”
Newman feels as though Henry’s descendants share his positive outlook and tolerant attitude.
“He got this idea out of that: Don’t hate people based on who they are, because they can’t choose that. I might be idealizing, but that’s always the message I got from him: ‘Be a caring person.’ I can’t imagine it wasn’t forged by this experience.”
Newman is taking a crash course in German from Northern’s Dr. Ginny Lewis, and plans to make use of his two years of high-school French.
The grant from Northern, awarded in October 2012, will fund about ¾ of the transportation and lodging costs of the trip. Newman plans to stay in hostels and buy his own food.
He’s thankful his grant application was successful.
“Without that grant, this wouldn’t have been feasible,” he said.
To develop a sense of what life may have been like for his grandfather and other Jews in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Newman plans to stop in every major city though which his grandfather traveled: Vienna, Brussels, Paris, Pau, Toulouse, and Lyon.
Newman has mapped out a route pinpointed with tidbits of information - his grandfather’s addresses in Vienna and Brussels; the name of cousins with a shop in Paris; a second cousin on his grandmother’s side living just outside Vienna.
Newman also will stop in temples and synagogues to search their archives - an invaluable hands-on opportunity, since many genealogical records are not online.
Newman fervently hopes to find one elusive but priceless bit of information: the name of the guard who befriended and saved his grandfather in the Paris camp.
“I would really like to find this guy to find if he has descendants. My entire family owes a lot to this person.”
Newman’s family supports his effort.
“I can’t talk to Opa, but Oma has assured me he would be very proud of me and my dad and his sisters have done the same. I’m very close with Oma, and that’s a big piece in why it’s so important. I’d like to tell this story for her as well as for him,” Newman said.
“My goal is to write story in a way that I think would make (Opa) proud of it. If do end up publishing it, the vast majority of any profit at all would go to Alzheimer’s research, because if not for Alzheimer’s, I could have had this discussion with him.”
Follow Newman’s journey on his blog: