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< Echoes of Memory

The Most Difficult Decision of My Life


By Al Munzer

The Holocaust deprived me of a father, sisters, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. I was fortunate, however, to be reunited with my mother when I was three and a half. She was one of 110,000 Jews deported from the Netherlands, and one of only 5,000 who returned. It was not until I was five or six that I became fully aware of the many missing members of my family. I boasted that I would make up for the loss and have 12 kids of my own, and I conjured up a whole loud brood around the dinner table. But that was before I learned the facts of life and that it takes more than the wish of one person to make a family. Slowly, throughout my childhood and teens, I came to understand that I was different and that marriage and having a family of my own wasn’t likely to be. It would take many more years and many more turns in my life to finally come to terms with the reality that I was gay. It was a burden shared by many others in my generation, but all the heavier a load for those who, like me, were among the privileged to have survived the Holocaust. Like them, I felt that my survival was conditioned on avenging and restoring the lives of the millions of our people who had been killed by the Nazis. It is a thought that I pondered for many years and that sometimes still haunts me. Have I failed in what is a sacred obligation? 

Even during childhood and certainly during adolescence, I was more attracted to boys than to girls but did not ascribe that to anything beyond the norm. While I attended Brooklyn College, most of my friends, except for Warren, were young women. It was two women who took me to a baseball game to teach me the intricacies of that American pastime. The only thing that stuck with me was the eighth—or is it the seventh-inning stretch? Another friend, Joan, introduced me to the joy of horseback riding Sunday mornings in Prospect Park and along Eastern Parkway. We shared a bond because we both came from families who had survived the Holocaust. Her aunt went all out with food and drink to try and foster an ongoing relationship, but neither one of us took the bait. It wasn’t until I found out that two other women whom I had befriended had a fight over who was my exclusive romantic interest, that I learned that I had violated American ground rules for dating. Over the years, I did have several long-term romantic relationships with women but whenever the idea of a permanent relationship and marriage came up, I panicked. Eventually these relationships turned into friendships. All the while I fought the attraction to members of my sex. I even briefly sought psychotherapy, hoping I might yet find a way to what I still felt was my obligation to restore life that had been lost during the Holocaust, clinging still to that family of 12.

It was my mother who finally gave me permission, in truth encouraged me, to take the path that brought me to a loving 41-year relationship with Joel. After she moved to Washington, I would often take my mother on a ride to some of the sights around the city, like the National Arboretum or the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. At least once every summer we would spend a day in Annapolis, typically taking one of the boat rides around the bay. This one time, however, my mother demurred and instead pointed to an outdoor café, “Why not relax and just sit and schmooze and have some coffee and cake.” We found a nice, comfortably shaded table and placed our order, black coffee for her, milk and sugar for me. We talked about this and that, and then she looked me in the eye and took both my hands and said, “This is not a good world to bring children into, do not feel any pressure to provide me with grandchildren.” This was the same mother who, two years earlier, connived with another woman to set up a match for me with the woman’s granddaughter, a match that went as far as a visit to the rabbi who would perform the marriage, but that ended abruptly and painfully on some flimsy excuse about the phrasing of the wedding invitation. This was also the same mother who clearly loved children. When she moved into a senior living facility, the Ring House, she quickly set out for the window and was delighted that it overlooked the playground of the Jewish Community Center; “I have a view of the future,” she said with a broad smile on her face. 

One year after the conversation in Annapolis, I sat in a Friday evening Shabbat service at Bet Mishpachah, when a friend I sat next to turned to me, pointed to the man at his other side, and said, “Alfred, have you met Joel?” And then, turning to the other side, “Joel, have you met Alfred?” Two weeks later I introduced Joel to my mother at a Shabbat dinner at her home. By the end of the dinner, they had become fast friends even to the point that my mother felt free to warn Joel of some of my shortcomings. “He has two left hands,” she said, using the Dutch expression for “all thumbs.” Our family of two had grown to three. From then on, my mother would introduce us as “my two sons.” The three-way bond strengthened as we traveled together to Alaska, especially when Joel and I held my mother, I taking one arm, he the other, to keep the fierce wind in Ketchikan from blowing her off the unexpectedly steep gangplank of our cruise ship. 

Joel and his parents, in turn, adopted me as a member of their family. There would be no grandchildren, but there would be plenty of love. I will never forget Joel’s mother anxiously waiting for us at the front door, whenever we came for a visit to Manchester, Connecticut. Joel’s father had escaped the Holocaust in his native Poland by gaining a scholarship to the Jewish Theological Seminary and becoming a rabbi. He now became my mentor as I prepared to deliver sermons at Bet Mishpachah. There are surprising, intimate moments deeply implanted in my memory, like the visit to the Jewish cemetery of Manchester, where Joel’s father, in a way reminiscent of Our Town, lovingly shared anecdotes about his congregants who were buried there.

Just as I had become a member of Joel’s family, he now became an integral member of the Dutch Indonesian Madna family who rescued me. Letters were no longer addressed to “Bobby,” the name I was given while in hiding, but to “Bobby and Joel.” Just as Joel had walked me through memory lane in Manchester, I took him to all the places in Den Haag that played a part in my childhood. When the US Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, Joel’s sister-in-law was the first to call and ask, “So, when is the wedding?” Even times of sadness spoke to the love for each other’s families by the support we gave each other during the slow decline of my mother and thenJoel’s father and mother. It was at my mother’s funeral that I came to understand the depth of Joel’s attachment to her. As we walked away from the grave after the service, it was Joel who burst into tears, and it was Joel who needed my embrace and comfort. The number of children I dreamed of having—12—has long become absorbed in the hundreds of kids who have been touched by the story of my family during the Holocaust and who surely will keep the lessons alive for generations to come. But now, the most important number in my life is two. Also now, it’s the number one that I fear. 

© 2022, Alfred Münzer. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.

Tags:   alfred münzerechoes of memory, volume 14life after the holocaustfamilydeportations

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