Out of the Shadows
By Aloma Halter
(April 18, 2001) - Film-maker Naomi Gryn, the daughter of Britain's much-loved Rabbi Hugo Gryn, worked together with him on his memoirs from the Holocaust and finished writing the book for him after his death.
Naomi Gryn sets her bike against the display window of a bookstore on London's chic Marylebone High Street. She's waif-like, somewhere between 18 and 22, studying philosophy of science at the London School of Economics, and she dreams of becoming a filmmaker, an author, a broadcaster. Gryn studies the display. The entire window is taken up with one book, Chasing Shadows. It is a Holocaust memoir with a difference, begun by her survivor father and completed posthumously by his daughter.
Published by Viking Penguin, it first appeared in February 2000, when the libel trial between Holocaust denier David Irving and historian Deborah Lipstadt was at its height. Now, after five printings and the book selling out last August, the paperback edition has just appeared.
From the book's cover, the byline of Gryn's 40-year-old self, the self who compiled and edited, checked facts and added footnotes - to material from the 60 boxes of notes and lectures and jottings and drafts left by her father - looks back at the young Naomi, as if to say: "You did it, Nao. We did it."
Father and daughter. An exceptional team.
Chasing Shadows is the memoir of Rabbi Hugo Gryn, one of Britain's best-loved figures, whose popularity reached far beyond Anglo-Jewry. Upon his death in August 1996, many newspapers called him "the people's rabbi."
Born in the Carpathian town of Berehovo in 1930 and deported to Auschwitz at the age of 13, Gryn survived the Holocaust, went on to the US to train for the rabbinate, and eventually became the pastoral rabbi of a large congregation, the West London Synagogue, and flagship of the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain.
Besides being widely known for his interfaith work, Gryn was a frequent guest on TV talk shows and roundtables, and a hugely popular panelist on The Moral Maze, a BBC radio program which commanded wide ratings.
Chasing Shadows was an overnight success. The New Statesman hailed it as "not only an important historical document and engrossing memoir, but the only convincing case for a belief in God that I have ever read." The Evening Standard wrote: "This book is an essential witness to the horrors of the 20th century and also to the resilience of the human spirit."
Gryn had survived his experiences in the Holocaust with the belief that the reason he had to "spend much of my time working for better understanding between religious groups is partly because I know that you can only be safe and secure in a society that practices tolerance, cherishes harmony and can celebrate difference."
Naomi Gryn has worked widely in radio and television - as director, broadcaster, researcher, producer and presenter, and for a number of years ran her own production company, See More Productions. She enabled the recounting of her father's story - on film and in print - bringing it out of the shadows and into the light. And the father enriched his daughter with his legacy, with a central theme that has fueled and focused her professional creativity: the exploration of religious themes and ethical issues.
A glance at the list of Gryn's film productions gives insight into how important the Jewish perspective has been to her: The Sabbath Bride; The Star; The Castle & The Butterfly: The history of the Jews of Prague; The Last Exodus: The flight of the Jews from the Soviet Union.
Gryn's themes, however, have not been exclusively Jewish, and she's proud of films made for Thames TV and for Channel 4: Jesus Before Christ and Xmas In New York.
Without Gryn, knowledge of the early part of her father's life - a life that touched so many that, upon his death, volunteers had to be recruited by the family to help open the thousands of letters of condolence - would not have gained that extra dimension. The chemistry they shared, even in a family that is exceptionally close, was special.
Although the filmmaker had been an active ally of her father's all along, her siblings also supported him in their own ways. Her older sister, Gaby, bore the name of her father's 10-year old brother, who was sent to the gas chambers; and their younger sister, Rachelle, collaborated with Naomi at See More productions. Their brother, David, began as a painter and completed several haunting portraits of his father with Holocaust themes.
For the rabbi's 60th birthday, they all clubbed together to buy him a state-of-the art Sony Walkman so he could record his experiences, intending for him to write up the tapes and transcripts into a book.
Naomi, the second child, most resembles Gryn, not only physically but also in terms of personality and psyche. They shared the same garrulous enjoyment of - and ease in being with - other people; an irreverent sense of humor; and the same easeful, unstrained creativity.
In 1989 - when the filmmaker was just shy of 30 - she persuaded her father to return to his hometown, Berehovo - now in Ukraine - to make a documentary about his childhood.
"When we hit on the title Chasing Shadows," says the younger Gryn, "it held great resonance for us both. My mission was to give shape to the swirling shadows of my father's past, which are part of my shadow also. I think he would have wanted that to be the title of his book.
"What we wanted to show in this documentary," she continues, "was in contrast to what has become visual cliches associated with the Holocaust - the mass graves and the mounds of rotting corpses. My father and I wanted to give the film's audience a microcosmic peep into what was destroyed in the Shoah, the life and the culture that had disappeared forever.
"This was a two-year period when I became integrated with him on some level," explains Gryn. "We had both been upset at how much material had to be left on the cutting floor in the course of trimming down our filming into a 52-minute program for Channel 4. I managed to obtain for my father a publishing deal with Collins Brown but he never signed it. It wasn't just because of his amazing workload and being so busy and pressured; but I think he just couldn't bring himself relive the horrors of Auschwitz and beyond."
Ironically, it was also sent to Tony Lacey [subsequently Naomi Gryn's publisher] at Penguin, who passed on it in December 1989.
She describes the chain of events that led to Penguin publishing the manuscript some nine years later.
"In 1997, about a year and a half after his death, I was packing up my father's office. There were dozens of desk drawers and filing cabinets all stuffed with his notes, his lectures, talks, sermons - anything he'd said or read or thought might come in handy some day. He'd kept everything. I was cataloging his books and working through all the papers and documents, trying to create some order before filing everything into acid-free boxes.
"Behind a pile of ancient bank statements and check-book stubs, I found a worn orange foolscap folder. Inside was the handwritten manuscript of a book that my father had begun in October 1951, when he was a rabbinical student in Cincinnati.
"I understood that this was like finding a very precious home movie, that this was my father's first attempt to record the tale of his family's descent into the Nazi inferno. It forms the kernel of the book. At first, I was afraid and could not bring myself to read it."
Gryn says that there were many reasons for her decision to begin work on the manuscript. "First of all, several people had approached the family with requests to write a biography of my father, but since he'd begun his own biography, we all felt very strongly that he should have chance to tell his own story in his own words. Another factor for me was the element of tribute, of mourning. Working on this material was a way of working through my own grief. And it felt appropriate to complete a project we had started together.
"At the time I was setting up a Jewish and Moslem women's dialogue group and I was negotiating with David Cesarani, at London's Wiener Library, to use a room there for the group. I happened to mention to him the interesting material that I had of my father's Holocaust experiences, and he mentioned it to his agent, who immediately contacted me, and within a couple of weeks I had a deal with Penguin. By the summer of 1999 it was already in the proof stage.
"It was a very symbolic moment for me when I was first shown the cover of the hardback, off-white with gold writing. I immediately understood - it was just like the gold and off-white tallit that I'd once bought for him and in which, when he died, I asked he be wrapped for burial.
"For me, the cover of the book, like that tallit, represented closure and the final burial of my father."
Gryn transcribed and edited tapes her father had made, adding chapters compiled from his sermons and talks, tracking down the facts, and adding footnotes. She explains that she "approached it as if I were making a film with lots of disparate interviews and archive material which needed to be woven together as smoothly as possible. It contains his story; my voice ends with the introduction and then it goes over to his voice, at which point my involvement is as editor, to clarify with footnotes."
This writer, growing up in Gryn's congregation and having experienced him as her bat-mitzva rabbi, can attest to the fact that there was something quite special about Hugo's voice.
He was a wise, unassuming man with tremendous personal warmth and caring for his fellow men and it was all in his voice - a rich, deep, tobacco-stained and heavily accented voice, redolent of Gryn's Hungarian-Czech background. Actually, his was not the kind of voice would at first associate with fluent sermons or memorable radio programs. His sermons tended to be slow and meditative, and he'd hesitate and stammer, and make up for it with vivid, eloquent gesticulations and facial expressions. Rather than alienating them, this had the effect of bringing his listeners closer to him, as the pace forced them to slow their own thoughts and join Gryn as he set out on his spiritual, emotional and intellectual voyages.
His listeners were made party to the speaker's process of thinking and searching; even to his doubts. It was a voice lacking in rhetoric and oozing with humanity and warmth.
Later, what that voice was able to convey on the radio was that somehow being deported to Auschwitz and losing one's family could lead to the beginning of faith and a moral existence, rather than the end. It gave people hope.
As another of Britain's leading papers, the Observer, said in its eulogy: "What was it about him that touched a chord in so many people? At root, it was surely that in an age searching with increasing desperation for moral guidance, he didn't preach moral authority - he embodied it."
Because his daughter learned to type at the age of 12, she began working part-time at 14 to make money during her school vacations. "In 1978 I was on my way to university, but my father was desperate for some secretarial help; so I spent the summer working with him, which is when I got attuned to his filing system," and first got involved in his work.
Gryn's life is fueled by great enthusiasms and passions. While she's scathing about the sales director at Penguin, who, this time last year, in his infinite wisdom, cut the print run of the book just as it was being excerpted in one of Britain's most popular weekend papers, The Mail on Sunday, she raves about her wonderful editor at Penguin, Tony Lacey, "an exceptional, really fantastic person."
Neither does Gryn mince words about "anyone who disrespects my father" - such as Britain's Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks whom she describes as: "abominably yellow-bellied." She is referring to Sacks's actions around the period of Gryn's death when Sacks sought both to acknowledge a colleague and a rabbi that the rest of Britain was mourning with such open affection, and yet tried, with a backstabbing letter, to utterly dissociate himself from anything that smacked of the Reform Movement.
"But all this," says the younger Gryn cheerfully, is nothing compared to "my sentiments about some of the bigots and racists who call themselves rabbis in Israel."
Chasing Shadows appeared at the height of the famous Irving trial last year. Many newspapers were quick to point to the importance of the appearance of such a memoir at this particular time; even the heroine was another Penguin author - Deborah Lipstadt. The Daily Telegraph, for example, advised: "This book should have as wide an audience as possible; it highlights the danger of revisionist accounts of the Holocaust, and throws into relief the reality of individual suffering in ethnic cleansing."
Gryn comments, "What Irving was gunning for during the trial was that, scientifically, you couldn't exterminate that number of people in such a short time. However, the transport from my father's hometown of Berehovo was well-documented. There are even photographs of it in the Auschwitz Album."
Gryn produces the album, which is at hand because she's currently collaborating with the renowned historian Sir Martin Gilbert on a research project. "I felt that somehow these 'coincidences' were orchestrated by my father from beyond the grave to give him a chance to stand in the witness dock and say to Irving: 'Look me in the eyes and tell me it didn't happen. Tell me that these people killed didn't include my grandparents and my little brother, Gaby.'"
Gryn didn't talk much about losing his grandparents, his younger brother, and his father, Geza - who died only a few days after liberation, after having survived the war together with his son. Nor did he talk about the separation from his mother for many years.
"He'd answer questions. He'd made a decision: If any of us had any question, he would never lie, and answer as best as he could. But in 1978, a significant change took place for him, because that was the year he first saw Holocaust-denial literature which shocked him so much that he decided to talk about the Shoah publicly for a BBC program called In the Light of Experience.
"At that time," says Gryn, "I was in the throes of a splendid teenage rebellion, and the things I most enjoyed were algebra, smoking pot and hanging out with grubby guitarists from Glasgow. My father was hugely relieved when I announced that I wanted to 'go into broadcasting.'
"To encourage this new-found ambition, he invited me to come with him to this recording and I sat upstairs with the technicians as he was making the program, and for the first time when it wasn't just the family around him, heard him relate his experiences of his family being deported. Little did I guess that 20 years later I'd be using material from that program to complete the book."
This key anecdote in their lives contains it all: their close relationship; Gryn finding it easiest to share his experience with his daughter there, as he later would when they made the film Chasing Shadows; the fact that she didn't only listen passively, but chose to actively carry on his message.
Hugo Gryn survived with his father throughout the war. They pretended to be cousins and the senior Gryn was able to look out for and help his son in infinite ways. This is a very rare story of survival; most survivors were left completely alone. But not much is heard about Gryn's mother, Bella, in the book.
"Her other son, my uncle Gaby," says Naomi, "was taken from her and sent to the gas chambers and she was sent to do slave labor. Meanwhile, she didn't know that her older boy and her husband were together throughout the war. Both my grandmother and father separately made their way back to Berehovo and met there." Naomi notes that when her grandmother saw Hugo walking alone from the train station, she understood that her husband had died.
"And the most courageous thing she ever did was to encourage her son, my father, to start a new life in the West. So, aged 15, my father went to Prague to resume his education. The Soviet border had come down in the autumn of 1945 and it was on New Year's Eve that my father smuggled his mother into Czechoslovakia and took her to Karlovy Vary where she had a couple of surviving brothers.
"My father then made his way to England, with the other 'boys' who were brought over by the Central British Fund, taught English, given an education and generally helped. Meanwhile his mother remarried and lived with her new husband in Czechoslovakia.
"Soon, because of Communism, they were cut off in Eastern Europe and they couldn't see one another for years. Bella was only given permission to come to England for my parents' wedding in 1957, a month after they were married and by which time my parents had already left for America, so there was no point. Later my gracious, gorgeous mother, Jacqueline Selby, traveled with her own dad to visit Bella on the way to Hugo's first pulpit, in Bombay."
About the success of the book, Gryn says: "There are such important issues at stake, particularly about the need [for people] to regard each other with mutual respect. And rejection can feel like a judgment about the value of Jewish life. The worst thing that could have happened would have been if the book had been ignored; if it had just sunk into oblivion.
"Sometimes, when people express a feeling of saturation with the subject of the Holocaust, you feel a little despondent, as if they're too disinterested to hear my father's story. But I'm not entirely unsympathetic. The Holocaust is difficult 'to sell': It's not sexy, it's not fun - it's hard. After the book launch, for example, an Irish Catholic neighbor, who has himself experienced some of the dire consequences of racism and armed conflict, told me: 'Don't take this the wrong way, I wish the media would stop talking about the Holocaust, and that it just became part of the school curriculum instead...'"
Gryn remarks that Penguin "have been magnificent about supporting the paperback," and the British newspapers are full of adverts for Chasing Shadows.
Gryn spent a full year working on the book daily. There wasn't a particular moment or juncture when she decided to take the Holocaust "on board," it was simply "because I always enjoyed being with my father and the things he was involved in always fascinated me. He was such good fun, that it was worth the risk of the sadness in order to have the pleasure, I suppose; that's how I came to shoulder some of his Shoah baggage.
"These days, when a big episode happens, like an earthquake or fire, or like the Oklahoma bombing, a team of counselors is sent to debrief the victims, and then need to be 'debriefed' themselves, relieved of the trauma absorbed from their contact with the victims. In Shoah families, there are children who help to 'debrief' a parent or the parents, and who then themselves need debriefing. Well, we children of survivors have often found creative outlets to debrief ourselves, which is what happened to me, in a way, with this book; it was part of the process of healing after the trauma of my father's death."
Gryn suffered quite a trauma herself in 1994, when she almost died in a car crash in Israel.
"I'm lucky to have survived, even though the recovery period seemed to go on forever. But one of the things that most offended me about this accident was how the insurance company's defense tried to use the fact of my being the daughter of a survivor to basically say I must have been unbalanced and unstable before the accident - so the dumping of this truck-load of oranges on my head and neck had little to do with the blinding headaches, and the various head and neck injuries I sustained from the collision!"
The "appalling" term "Second Generation" for children of Holocaust survivors, "makes me squirm," says Gryn. "Increasingly, people are looking to the children of the survivors, who are now reaching middle age, to somehow act as a continuation of their parents' stories.
"The way I see it is that being 'Second Generation' simply means that we have a duty, inasmuch as we can, to help our parents have their voice heard - if that's what we feel we should do. But we weren't there. So it's not at all about us, but about helping and facilitating our parents."
Growing up in a home as the daughter of a survivor "was normal because it was our home. But there were some things - like my mother never boiled cabbage because the smell reminded my father of burning flesh and gave him bad dreams; or we children never asked him for the end of 'the story' because we did not want to add to his pain."
In Gryn's book one sees how the "boiled cabbage" smell made its imprint. He must have been one of the very few people who saw the inside of the gas chamber at Auschwitz and lived to tell the tale. This chilling episode is at the core of Chasing Shadows, when Gryn has wandered off from his father's side as they're waiting to be assigned work details, and the curious 13-year-old has decided to explore a weird, windowless and foreboding-looking building that he at first thought might have been a bakery. He follows a group of children younger than himself, aged six to nine, inside, and befriends Karel, a little boy from Theresienstadt.
Gryn is fortunately spotted as being the wrong age by an officious gas-chamber guard and told to get dressed quickly and "buzz off." However, he still lingers, curious to see what will happen next: "The children lined up in twos and the double door opened. A strong smell came out of the hall beyond. It was a smell I had never experienced before.
"Sweetish, yet not sweet.
"The hall was lit by electricity and beneath the ceiling ran the usual metal pipes, but from where I stood, I could not see much of the interior. The floor. I noticed, was dry.
"The children went in, and Karel waved to me as he entered.
"My dressing, however, was completed and the man who had asked us in made signs at me towards the front door. The meaning was obvious. As I passed him he said something like: 'Are you lucky!' As I opened the front door, the double door behind me was closed by the officer. Outside, I took a deep breath. I was glad to be out again. It was inexplicable, but I felt very relieved. It was curious, I thought, that no soap was given to the children, and only two people were supervising their showers. When we showered, there had been a whole army of barbers and other assistants swarming around the place. Very curious! Going back to the square, I went round the other way. The wall on the other side had no windows either. There were piles of clothing and even what seemed to me ashes of burnt clothing. All the time the chimney smoked. Black smoke came gushing out with an occasional shot of red flame. It was not so bad during the sunshine, but at night it looked frightening.
"Back on the square everything seemed normal - that is, if the word 'normal' could be applied to anything that happened in Auschwitz. Dad was still talking to the Pole [with whom he had been talking when Hugo first slipped away], but he looked quite agitated."
The account of the gas chamber experience was not, however, the most harrowing part of the book for her. The time she "really broke down was when I downloaded an account from the Internet by Major Cameron Coffman, one of my father's American liberators, an officer with the 71st division of the US Army. A decent man from Fort Thomas, Kentucky, who'd already seen a few years of service and the brutality of war. But, as he wrote in this eye-witness report: 'The living and dead evidence of horror and brutality beyond one's imagination was there, lying and crawling and shuffling, in stinking, ankle-deep mud and human excrement.'
"I'd already been working with the material for almost a year, but I found I was shaking and wanted to vomit... Any of those people starving and crawling about in the filth between the corpses could have been my father. I got his grandson's permission to reprint it as an appendix in my father's book."
It wasn't easy for Gryn to deal with living with this material, with which she had such a close connection, day after day.
"It was quite a dark period for me - a confusion of grief and anger. At times I felt very distressed. In order to do this project, I had to extend myself to the personality of my father, and I enmeshed myself as much as I could in order to sympathize, and then afterwards it was quite a long process, getting unmeshed, coming back to myself."
One of the reviews at the time, from The Financial Times, said: "It is a brave act to have made this book happen." Naomi Gryn, and she alone, made that book happen.
Last month the paperback edition of the book was launched at the Imperial War Museum in London. "Now that my father's testimony is in responsible hands, my job is done," says Gryn.
"I chose the Imperial War Museum in London, which houses Britain's new Holocaust exhibit, for the venue of the launch because my father figures prominently there - a video made of him giving a short eyewitness account is one of the handful of survivor videos that is continually being played... so his presence was very much 'there.' But the next thing I'm working on - and I'm determined to keep away from the Holocaust! - is the biography of a 52-carat diamond which was once worn as a hair ornament by Catherine the Great."
Even if her next project is only half as successful as Chasing Shadows has been, it's hard to imagine Naomi Gryn being any different from how she is now - getting around London on her bike, or still leaning out the window of her colorful, bric-a-brac-filled flat and cheerfully waving at her neighbors across from the flowerpots. Neither can one imagine her without that unique, infectious laugh of hers.