These days, Michael Kirschenbaum lives in Cambridge, Mass., not far from Harvard’s ivy-covered halls, but when it came to celebrating the High Holy Days, he headed south, back to Monmouth County. His parents have passed away but his younger brother still lives not far from where they grew up, on a chicken farm in Howell.
There used to be many reasons to get away from there, among them the sometimes smelly chores of chicken care. And then there was the talk that went on between his parents and their fellow “greenehs,” Holocaust survivors whose descriptions of Nazi atrocities gave him nightmares.
“Why did I have to go to bed with images of Jews packed into cattle cars and withered boys in striped pajamas, their eyes too big for their heads,” he writes in his memoir, Not to Believe.
Underlining those visions was the daily reality of the number — 83193 — tattooed in Auschwitz, still visible on his father’s arm, and anecdotes his mother told of her survival, fighting with the Jewish resistance in the Polish woods. It was more than their elder child, born in Munich in 1950 but already very much an American, wanted to know.
It took a terrible loss of his own — the death of his beloved wife Ronnie in 2001 — to inspire the book and open up a whole new avenue of understanding with his parents.
He and Ronnie were together for 30 years. She died of cancer, and two years later Kirschenbaum’s mother Bronia passed away. Together, father and son shared the challenges of widowerhood. His father, Godel, died in 2010, at 93, shortly before Kirschenbaum finished the first draft of the book, but by then the rebellious son had become deeply proud of the old man’s courage and decency.
Kirschenbaum describes his memoir as “the story of overcoming loss and grief to find love and make peace with history.” He is proud of the achievement, but for the tall, quietly-spoken “yeshiva boy, an ex-hippie, a new-age pilgrim, a high flyer in the high-tech boom,” learning to write such personal stuff didn’t come easily.
“When Ronnie died, more than half my identity died with her. So much of me was bound up in my relationship with my wife, I started writing at least in part to see what was left of me after she died,” he said. “Much of my impulse to write can be traced to my origins — the need to leave something behind as evidence of survival, an urge to investigate and perhaps transcend the darker side of human nature.
A new light
Godel had grown up in a small Polish town. After liberation, he wrested a living on the black market in Munich. He, Bronia, and Michael came to the United States in 1952 and initially lived in the Bronx. But Godel wanted to be his own boss, and the opportunity to buy a 20-acre farm in New Jersey offered that possibility. He used the same drive and ingenuity that had allowed him to get by in Europe after the war to learn the chicken business. Michael, and then his brother, Benjamin — five years his junior — were expected to help out once they got old enough.
Kirschenbaum attended the nearby Lakewood Hebrew Day School and then commuted into Manhattan to attend Yeshiva University High School in Washington Heights for two years, before his parents ran into financial trouble and he had to transfer back to Southern Freehold Regional High.
His father was frustrated by what he saw as his older son’s indolence. Kirschenbaum said his father told him, “You don’t know what it takes to make a living. You’re lazy. Everything comes too easy for you. You would have been one of the first to die in the camps.” In the end, Godel let him know, he had come to appreciate his son’s gentle strength.
For all Kirschenbaum’s resistance as a kid, that childhood engendered a deep interest in the cultural forces that had shaped his world. He studied European social history as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, he told NJJN, “trying to understand the origins of the Holocaust and more broadly, the turmoil of the 20th century that led to the rise of fascism and communism and eventually the counter-culture/student movement of the ’60s and ’70s that dominated my college years.”
And then, through a chance friendship, he found himself in the new world of computer science. “I count working with NASA as one of the highlights of my career,” he said. He wrote “patterns of bits in a computer’s memory” that left the solar system aboard the Voyager spacecraft, and he also worked on the Galileo project which traveled to Jupiter.
In the 1990s he shifted to marketing, and did management consulting as a partner in The Jacobson Group, helping companies like IBM take advantage of advances in technology to help teams work effectively across barriers of time and space.
“I grew up in a community of Holocaust survivors,” Kirschenbaum said. “Writing helped me see them as people and not just symbols of a tragic past. As a child I had hidden from their stories. As a writer I was interested in them as people and saw their histories in a new light.”
The book can be ordered from Gorham Street Books, at gorhamstreetbooks.com.