As the debate heats up over where to send refugees from Syria and other conflicts, it recalls earlier waves of immigrants who flocked to the U.S. to escape harm.
On this episode of Story Corner, Jacob Winterstein retraces the route his grandfather took, decades ago, to escape the Nazis.
“As a child, this story was a story of great wonder, and now it’s a story that’s full of questions,” he said. “What does it mean for me as a person who’s lived in the same city his entire life to come from a family where they were forced from their home? Does it make me closed off? Does it make me fearful? Does it make me empathetic toward others around the world?”
Winterstein was recorded at the third annual Freedom Seder Revisited, co-sponsored by First Person Arts and the National Museum of American Jewish History. Listen to the story above. Read a transcript here, followed by a Q&A with Winterstein:
When I was in the fourth grade, my grandfather died. And I sat down on the living room floor with my dad, my brother, and my mom. And my dad rolled out an enormous map on the floor and pointed to Belgrade, Yugoslavia, where my grandfather was from. And he showed us with his finger how my grandfather, his sister, and their parents fled Belgrade after the Nazi invasion through what’s now Bosnia and Herzegovina, to the coast of what’s now Croatia, up into Italy, and eventually though the Alps mountains into Switzerland.
As a child, this story was a story of great wonder. And now it’s a story that’s full of questions. What does it mean to be the grandson of a refugee? What does it mean to be the grandson of someone who survived genocide? Does it make me closed off? Does it make me fearful? Does it make me a victim? Does it make me a survivor?
These are stories I wrestle with. These are stories I think about. What does it say about my identity? How does genocide shape an ethnic identity ,a religious identity, a personal identity? Does it make me empathetic towards others around the world? What does it mean for me, as a person who’s lived in the same city his entire life, to come from a family where they were forced from their home?
The story starts in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. My grandfather and his sister led a good life of great privilege and opportunity. They never thought that the war would come to Yugoslavia, but out of precaution, and maybe intuition, they built a bomb shelter in their house. On April 6, 1941, the Nazis bombed Belgrade. My family retreated to their bomb shelter, joined by many of their neighbors, one of whom was the vice president of Yugoslavia.
My great grandmother knew that, when the Nazis invade, they captured young men first. So when a car came to evacuate the vice president, she pleaded with him to take my grandfather with him. The vice president agreed, took my grandfather and his government vehicle to the airport, and sent the car back to retrieve the rest of my family. The car picked up the rest of my family, and with bombs dropping all around them, ash raining down, the car made it to a train station. My great grandparents and their daughter boarded the train to the city of Dubrovnik [now in Croatia].
Meanwhile, my grandfather was at the airport with the government officials, and it was soon discovered that this 19-year-old was not a government minister. And so he was forced to leave. he returned home, the only place that he knew, only to find that the rest of his family had already left. My grandfather ended up being captured by the invading forces. He spent his nights at an internment camp and his days working hard labor on the side of a road. Word got down to the rest of my family that my grandfather was captured.
One day my great grandmother sat in a café and, overwhelmed with the fear that her son was going to be murdered, she burst out into tears. A perfect stranger, a woman she had never met before came up to her asked her why she was crying. My great grandmother explained why. And this woman, who she had never seen before said, “I know someone that can make fake papers. And my brother works in Belgrade. And he will go to Belgrade and free your son and bring him back to you.” This woman, who was not Jewish, who had no family that was captured, who was not at risk of being murdered, risked her life to secure these papers, risked her brother’s life by him delivering these papers, and risked their lives by traveling with an escapee back to Dubrovnik. They did this. They were successful. My family was reunited in Dubrovnik.
In 2009, I decided that I wanted to go to Belgrade. I wanted to be the first Winterstein to return to Belgrade since my family fled in 1941. I wanted to see the city where my granbfather grew up. I wanted to retrace the route that he and his family took to escape the Nazis. I wanted to understand how far my family came, how much people sacrificed, what the journey entailed just so that I can be alive today.
So I spent time in Belgrade. I walked the same streets my family walked, visited their synagogue, stood where there house once stood, visitged their elementary school, had some fun nights dancing in Belgrade’s famous clubs. And then I took a train to the coast, to Dubrovnik, hoping to find the family who saved my grandfather’s life. All my family knew was that the woman who approached my great grandmother in the café, that her name was Miss Job. I only knew her last name.
So I looked for all the Jobs in the phone book, and I just went to the first one that was closest to where I was at the time. I knocked on the door, and this big, hulking man answers the door. He says, “Yes?” And I explained to him the story. He invited me, we sit down at the table, and he asks me to tell him the story again. And then he’s mulling something over, he’s trying to figure something out. He says, “So, you Israeli boy.”
I said, “No, sir. I’m an American.”
“Yes,” he says. “I understand. But your grandfather, he was a jew. And your father, he was a Jew. And so you, you are a Jew.” And kind of angrily, and in a huff, he closes the notebooka and he says, “You come with me right now.” And he gets up quickly and he walks to the door, and he says, “You stand right here.” And he opens up another door and goes in. And I become terrified.
I had just traveled through Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia. And if you know anything about that region, they just experienced a genocide in the ’90s. And I saw neo-Nazi graffiti all throughout those lands. And I knew that there’s many ex-combatants that live all over those lands, and there’s many people alive and well who have committed great atrocities. And I start to get afraid: Maybe this man is one of those men. Maybe he’s finally gotten the chance to meet one of those “Israeli boys” face to face.
And just as I’m getting completely overwhelmed with fear and am about to run away, he opens the door, and standing behind him is this beautiful older woman. He invites me in, we sit down. She serves us tea. He translates. And she says, “Well, I’m Mrs. Job. I married into the name. It was my husband who delivered those papers to your grandfather.”
It was incredibly overwhelming. The distance that I had traversed, the time that had passed, and to sit with the widow of the man that had made it so that I could be alive — and to bridge that distant connection between the two of us — gave me great faith in the connectedness in all of us.
In 2011, my grandfather’s sister, after hearing about my travels, said that she wanted to return to Belgrade for the first time since she left in 1941. She wanted to attend her 70th high school reunion (where one of her classmates confessed his love to her after all of these years). All of her Serbian came back to her; she was speaking Serbian with everyone. And then we took a plane ride to Dubrovnic, and we visited Mrs. Job. And my great aunt, her son, my father, Mrs. Job, myself — three generations of people, speaking two languages, could sit down around a table because one person was willing to risk their life. I hope that I can be someone that can extend generosity and braveness so that this beautiful gift of life that we all get to experience can continue, and thrive, and flourish.
Have you found any helpful answers to the questions you ask in the beginning of your story? Does being the grandson of a survivor of genocide make you fearful? Does it make you a victim? a survivor? And how has genocide shaped your ethnic, religious, and personal identity?
Being the grandson of refugees of genocide doesn’t make me fearful, it makes me strive to be empathetic. My Jewish identity is not one of perpetual victim-hood. My Jewish identity is one of exile and to paraphrase the Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman exiles seek to understand justice and injustice wherever they are. I identify with the stories, values and teachings of Judaism that say since we were once slaves/refugees/victims we stand with today’s slaves/refugees/victims.
Personally, being the inheritor of stories of fleeing makes me appreciate having a city that feels like home and to have a home that feels loving and supportive. I’ve lived in Philadelphia all of my life. When I travel, people ask me if I like Philadelphia, and I always say I like my home.
I like eating lunch at the counter in the Reading Terminal where my dad ate lunch everyday before he retired. I like being at a block party, and a song from The Roots that I listened to everyday in high school comes on, and people sing along. I like walking down the street because, while walking down the street I’ve been stopped by the sister of a friend who passed away, and she looks just like him. Or some little league baseball coach in Mt. Airy where I grew up stops to talk baseball with me, and it takes me a minute to realize he thinks I’m my younger brother.
One time a few years ago I was at a party with a friend I met at Temple University. My friend tells me he was just at home for the holidays and they were watching family movies of the magic shows he performed when he was a kid. In one of the videos he’s doing a magic show at a younger kid’s birthday party — at my birthday party. He had a home movie of my birthday party that he did a magic show at 15 years ago that neither of us remembered. That stuff doesn’t happen anywhere but home.
So many people long for their homes, and I feel grateful that I get to live with the people and places of my memories and that I get to continue to grow and make new memories while maintaining deep roots.
As you consider your own family’s history, what do you think of when you see and hear news about refugees and asylum seekers from Syria and Sudan and other places?
My family fled war and genocide in 1941. They were refugees. They paid human traffickers, they bribed public officials, they crossed deadly and vast expanses of nature, they broke laws, they entered countries illegally. They did everything they could to survive.
I will always be grateful for their sacrifices and will always side with those journeying and striving to live and give their children and grandchildren peaceful lives. I will always denounce governments and nations and people full of hate and apathy. People who use religious and ethnic differences as fences and walls between people, to stoke fear for their own political gain should be ashamed for using the world’s most vulnerable people as their scapegoats.
How does the story of your family affect the work you do as a writer, poet, performer?
I’ve written specifically about my family’s escape from the Nazis in my poetry. My poetry focuses on Philadelphia/Home and the separation I experience. Separation from the natural world as someone who has lived in the city my entire life. Separation from other humans, experienced in the mundane realities of not acknowledging the person sitting next to you on the bus to the personal and structural violence that my friends, neighbors and me have experienced.
As an event producer I create events that blur the line between audience and performer and create moments of connection between strangers. My grandfather’s life was saved by a stranger, so I like producing events where people get to know each other and be surprised by each other’s generosity, talent, or kindness.
What stands now where your family’s house once stood in Belgrade?
Nothing exciting. Some non-descript apartment buildings. But the neighborhood is still full of old architecture and remnants of Jewish life.