The Risk of the Single Holocaust Story

reading - 5

Misunderstandings and preconceived ideas have been smacking me in the face lately. One such misunderstanding I feel I have to address is that of the notion that because we have such a plethora of Holocaust memoirs and stories to choose from, that we understand the Holocaust survivor, or who we think a Holocaust survivor is. These preconceived ideas might block our thinking and shut out any other stories about the Holocaust because perhaps it is controversial in nature.

Take for example The Altered I . This is the memoir of my father-in-law, Joseph Kempler. He survived, miraculously, six different concentration camps from the ages of fourteen to seventeen. There is a lot in his memoir about growing up Jewish, and many details about the brutal camp life, including after Liberation when people were put into Displaced Persons camps. But his memoir is also controversial from the front cover that has a bold swastika above a focused blue eye, to the last several chapters of the book. His isn’t the typical Holocaust story that we might be familiar with. And for this reason a reader might be shocked, taken aback, offended, and perhaps disenchanted with the story on the whole. (I’ve written another blog on the subject of one-star ratings and how an author copes with the inevitability of receiving one,  published on Pypeline Editing Blog Page. That’s not what this post is about, but I think it is related).

Many people were targets of the Nazi regime and were imprisoned for being considered enemies of the state, or in the case of some six million Jews who lost their lives, considered sub-human. Who were targets of the Nazi regime?There were the Roma, the Intelligencia, homosexuals, people with disabilities, Poles, Slavs, and other groups the Nazis hated. But Joe’s story touches on another group who were victims of the Nazis, these were Jehovah’s Witnesses. Joseph Kempler was raised Jewish, then as a result of his experiences in the camps he became a self-proclaimed God-hater, but later, in the 1950s, he became dedicated as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. This was shocking to fellow Jews because this was was viewed as a traitorous act. Others who read Joseph’s memoir are surprised and made unhappy because of their preconceived ideas about who Jehovah’s Witnesses are. This isn’t about liking Jehovah’s Witnesses or becoming a Jehovah’s Witness, or any kind of recruitment for that particular religion. This is simply one man’s story of survival and why he made the decisions he did in order to survive. Joseph Kempler’s story is one of faith lost and faith regained, an account that might not fit into the stereotypical Holocaust story.

There is not just one type of Holocaust story, just as there is not one type of story about another person’s culture, background, or lifestyle. Tweet this!

I was inspired to write this post by the wise words of author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whose early writing reflected the British and American children’s books and stories she had read and loved, which predominantly centered around Western culture and that world view. The settings and characters were alien to her, a Nigerian girl raised in Africa. She ultimately found her writing voice and realized she needed to put to rest preconceived ideas and misconceptions about Africa and its people. And after listening to her Ted Talk I felt that she expressed it so beautifully, and more elegantly than I could do that I’m sharing it in this post. I hope that some readers will take eighteen minutes and listen to it and be inspired as I was.

“If we hear only a single story about another person, or country we risk a critical misunderstanding.” -Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

https://embed-ssl.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.html

Originally I saw Ms. Adichies Ted Talk on Books Outside the Box Blog Post

The Altered I: Memoir of Joseph Kempler, Holocaust Survivor is available from Amazon  in paperback and Kindle format and digital download on Google Play books.

Old Tales of Nevada with April Kempler Episode 212

Joseph Kempler family photo.

Joseph Kempler family photo.

I’m really excited and pleased to share the interview I did with John O’ Brien host of Old Tales of Nevada, a local television show. I was actually filling in a late notice cancellation, but hey, I’m not too proud! It was a real honor and a treat. I enjoyed it, and was thrilled by the prospect of sharing Joe’s story through this medium. It was my very first television interview, and I hope not my last.

Primarily, the interview had to do with Joe’s memoir THE ALTERED I, MEMOIR OF JOSEPH KEMPLER HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR. Joe was a young boy when WWII broke out in his home city of Krakow, Poland. He and his family had to pack up leave town when he was 13 years old, and by the time he was 14 he was working in a forced labor camp in Rakowice, Poland. He spent the next three years in six different concentration camps, Plaszow and Mauthausen being the most famous. Plaszow was known from the movie Schindler’s List, which parallels Joe’s personal experiences for a time.

Joe’s story isn’t an easy one to hear or tell about, but I’m grateful people want to hear it and have supported me by purchasing the book, liking my Facebook page, and leaving reviews for The Altered I.

I thought I’d share the interview here with you. I welcome your comments, or any additional questions you might have.

 

The Altered I is available in paperback and e-book on Amazon, Google Play Books, and directly from the publisher Lerue Press at 775-849-3814.

You Are Telling an Important Story

Joseph Kempler and his older sister Dziunka (Judy) Laub

Joseph Kempler and his older sister Dziunka (Judy) Laub

Last night I received the sweetest email from a reader of THE ALTERED I: MEMOIR OF JOSEPH KEMPLER, HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR, and I wanted to share it. I might add that Deb, the writer of the email, is also compiling her father’s memoirs into a book. Reading Deb’s words touched me to the heart. I feel sad that her father had to walk a similar path and endure all the horrible things Joseph did in order to survive, but I feel connected in some way by the shared memories of a father who went through the Holocaust.

To ensure the information Joseph gave me was reliable and accurate I researched diligently, giving all I could to the task. I had to dig deep, so it is always reassuring, and validating when I get feedback saying exactly that! It isn’t that I wrote such an important story, it’s important information that must be related accurately. To speak the truth  is a heavy responsibility for any writer of history, but to track down the facts is equally important for such a topic as the Holocaust. I never want room for doubt that the Holocaust didn’t happen.

I hear often, and honestly it’s too often, how some young people today are being taught by their parents that the Holocaust is a myth, a legend, a fabrication. I struggle to understand this belief. So each time a young person has an opportunity to learn the truth, that is a victory. I encourage young people to read more memoirs of survivors. Not only of Holocaust survivors but read the memoirs of people who saved others who weren’t Jewish and could have been killed. Read the memoirs of soldiers who were there and witnessed it all. There are countless books written by people who were in the concentration camps, not only as prisoners-of-war, but as people who worked for the Nazis and who saw, and sometimes took part, in the atrocities taking place. Also, there were many others imprisoned in the concentration camps who weren’t Jewish but suffered alongside for their crimes against the state. Reading from various viewpoints and backgrounds will give a fuller understanding of that time and hopefully will substantiate that the Holocaust was real.

I realize this is getting more rare, but when a Holocaust survivor visits a  school a student should view this as an opportunity to ask their questions and get answers from the source.

Joseph and I have some upcoming Holocaust presentation events where people, old and young alike, can meet him personally, (shake his hand!) speak to him and feel connected to that particular time in history. Yes, it’s a hard history, which none of us likes, and would rather didn’t happen, but it’s important to keep it fresh in our minds because it truly wasn’t that long ago.

As time progresses and these survivors and soldiers who fought for their liberation die, so does the intensity of that event.

My words seem inadequate so I will let the letter explain everything.

 

(edited)

Dear April

I am reading the book you wrote about your father in law. This is unbelievable, the dates and journey your father in law took was the same as my dad.  My dad was in ghetto in Boryslaw then forced labor then Plashow to Mathausen (dates match up with my father’s transport) to Melk, eventually to Ebensee where he was liberated. My dad met a soldier years later who liberated Ebensee.

In 2007 to the date of his liberation I found his brother’s children. My dad believed his brother was killed in war. When his area was annexed to Russia his brother was drafted. The last my dad heard before he went to Plashow that his brother was severely wounded. After the war he contacted Russian military and there was no record of his brother. Can you believe the Russians changed the spelling of his first name by one letter and because of that he could not be found.

My dad is going to be 90. He still plays tennis goes to gym a few times per week.

You are telling a very important story.  I am humbled by your dad’s experiences. Your book is unique in so far as your father in law acknowledged what he had to do to survive. People don’t talk about that. Very painful.

How is he doing?

I will finish his book probably tomorrow.

Excellent job

Warm Regards,
Deb

 

As always you can find your copy of THE ALTERED I: MEMOIR OF JOSEPH KEMPLER, HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR at Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle, Google Play Books, LeRue Press 775-356-1004, and announcing The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum store.

Holocaust Narratives Didn’t End at Liberation–Displaced Persons Camps

Many people don’t realize that the stories of Holocaust survivors continued months and years after they were liberated from concentration camps. Many of these survivors, including prisoners of war, had no homes or families to return to. What happened to them?

Millions were placed in what is called Displaced Persons camps. These institutions were difficult and challenging in themselves. Anti-Semitism still abounded. Living quarters were cramped with little privacy. Sometimes only a threadbare blanket separated individual families from each other. These close, and often unclean living conditions bred sickness.

In addition to physical discomfort, there were the emotional and mental anxieties bearing down on the survivors weakened shoulders. This was termed survivor’s guilt. Some displaced persons, wishing for a reunion with their family members went so far as to fantasize against all evidence that one of their family members had survived and was still living, or perhaps waiting for them in another country overseas. This type of thinking never went away and many carried the burden of guilt until they died.

Source: DPs Europe’s Displaced Persons, 1945-1951 by Mark Wyman

The Wild Place by Kathryn Hume

The Altered I: Memoir of Joseph Kempler Holocaust Survivor, as told to April Voytko Kempler

Read a sample from THE ALTERED I

 

I Sit Watching About a Hundred High Schoolers

Today I want to share an essay that Paul Kempler (my husband) wrote a little while back during a high school Holocaust presentation. I meant to re-blog his post but, I couldn’t seem to stop myself from simply writing an introduction to his exceptionally moving piece, and wrote my own blog post here.

A friend of ours, who stumbled across the post by accident, told Paul that she had looked into his heart after reading his words. So before I run on and on, I present Paul’s thoughts on his father’s Holocaust presentation.

Hug High School Holocaust Presentation:

April and my dad spoke to students at a local high school today and while they spoke, I wrote down my thoughts on the event. I’m posting them here. I called it my creative writing assignment.

I sit watching about a hundred high schoolers. These aren’t the most refined kids. They are the type that are always being torn in different directions. Many don’t have complete families and what family they do have is sometimes very challenged. Drugs and gangs are never far from the world that they live in. Often, their teachers say, they are disinterested and disrespectful.
These young ones sit in rapt attention. They are listening to a story of a man who endured many trials and this interests them. He is a holocaust survivor from Poland. When he talks of near starvation, beatings, hard labor and survival, they listen. Maybe the world they face isn’t that different from what this man’s experience is. He claims that his only thought was how to survive that minute. You didn’t think about the future. If you did, it was a death sentence. For to feel, was to allow emotions through and emotions were a recipe for death. These children or young adults in the high school auditorium can certainly relate to this. The modern world creates distance. What young one today really feels comfortable with their own emotions. If their experiences don’t damage them enough, so many are actually causing harm to themselves due to the need “to feel”. Cutting, addictions, even suicide are on the rise. This old man speaks to their hearts. They don’t fidget, they don’t whisper, they don’t sigh. Their eyes and seating inclination are both forward.
These are history students. Usually, there is a great disconnect from what they learn. So many years have passed. In this case, though, history comes to life in the person of an 87 year old man who lived through an important part of history. Some people deny that his story, like so many other holocaust survivors, is based in fact. Once these living historians are no longer with us, it becomes easier for those who challenge the story to gain traction for their statements. So, even though this man struggles to speak clearly and fluidly, it is important that he pass on this information to the newest generation. He tugs at his sportcoat lapels, tries to sit up straight as though this action will trigger his mind to return to the times when his photographic memory brought every detail to his tongue. It doesn’t work anymore. The twirling of his thumbs in a circular motion while the rest of his fingers are interlaced doesn’t work either. He tries smacking his lips and tongue, making small noises. But they don’t bring to mind the words either. He has a spokesperson though; his daughter-in-law. She spent 6 years interviewing him, chronicling the account of his life and tabulating all the information into a written document. She knows his story better than he does now. It is a shame that he is a shell of his former self, but it may have benefits too. If there was something traumatic you wanted to put behind you, memory and cognitive issues might be a blessing in disguise. He still claims to not sleep and have nightmares based on his past, but under these circumstances, he struggles to tell these children many specifics. His memoirist fills in the gaps for the eager ears in the auditorium.
Questions that the students asked were varied in content:
Did you ever go back to visit your home town? Was it hard to go back?
What did you weigh after the war?
If Hitler were here, would you forgive him?
What was the first time you saw a dead body and how did it make you feel?
Were any of the soldiers nice?
Would you like to take revenge if you could?
What happened to your family?
Did you ever think about escaping?
What motivated you to survive?

What do these questions teach us about the students? They want to connect with family. They want to believe that there is good in all people. They want to believe that there is a way out of any situation.
These are common threads to humanity. We all face similar challenges and evils, regardless of our background. I’m guessing that the children that sit in this room with the Survivor don’t have access to special treatment in the world. Their backgrounds are very similar, though separated by 70 years and the Atlantic Ocean. Both were very interested in their freedoms, though they were pressured from all sides. Both wished for closer connections to family. Both learn to survive using whatever skills or manipulations they can.
In the end, we are all damaged in some manner. The scars are not always visible. But, sometimes they are. Maybe it is a tattoo of a number on your arm, given while a prisoner in a concentration camp. Sometimes it’s a burn mark on your hand where an overzealous parent has put out their cigarette in an attempt at discipline. But these scars withstanding, the majority of damage we all endure is internal. It is good for these students to realize that no matter what we face, we have the opportunity to persevere through them. Conquer or overcome might be too strong of a word. This survivor has a special gift. He has developed something that helps him. Faith.
I’m not sure how these young students view faith. Do they possess it? The Survivor claims to have begun life as a practicing Jew, then as a result of his experiences a God-hater, then an atheist and finally religious again, via a different path. He claims that his search for “God” has helped him endure. Most holocaust survivors had a very different path when it comes to their relationship with a higher being. Most became quite anti-God, assuming that he had abandoned them. They returned the favor. This is a common reaction when having gone through something traumatic. The Survivor didn’t get on this road to faith until far after the war had ended. What will bring these students to the same place of faith? Will they ever grasp for it or will they rely on their own strength to overcome whatever comes their way? Only time will tell, but the story they are hearing provides a key to how to find that path. Maybe they recognize this. Why else would they pay such close attention? No one is looking at their phones or acting otherwise distracted.
Humanity is closely connected. In any group, there are leaders and followers. In this auditorium of young souls, some would have been Nazis and some would have been persecuted, while others would be observers. Would those observers have stood for what was right or would they looked away as atrocities occurred under their noses. (The smell of human flesh burning is pretty hard to ignore.) This is the message of the Survivor.

Holocaust Presentation at High School Prompts Insightful Questions from Students

Joe and I gave a Holocaust presentation yesterday at a local high school. This was challenging for me in several ways.

Typically, Joe and I will go to a school, or library, or other venue at a specified time and speak for roughly an hour or two, followed by a question and answer session. I enjoy this sort of thing. I’m always nervous, but afterward we have a jolly time interacting with the audience. And the book sale and signing is always a boost. But, recently I was asked by a teacher if Joe and I could speak to each of her World History classes in one day. Soon, other teachers wanted their classes to join in the discussion. One thing led to another, the presentation grew and grew, and it turned into a big day. Joe and I arrived early in the morning (7:30 a.m.) at the Little Theater on the school campus, and gave the presentation to each class period, there were seven of them! Each class period was 50 minutes long with anywhere between 50 to 150 students in the audience. I had thirty-five minutes to give Joe’s life story before opening it up to questions from the students, and then a five minute break in between before doing the whole presentation over again. Over and over, seven times.

What did I get myself into?! This was a bit more than I had anticipated, and I had never done this format before. Rising up early in the morning, making sure Joe had gotten up early, and making it to school on time for first period, was stressful in itself. Getting to school on time was never a goal I could reach for most of my school days, but now I had to do it with an 87-year-old Alzheimer’s patient.

Thankfully, I had a team of great friends behind me. My husband Paul, was a stronghold for me. My team from LeRue Press, Kathy and Tanisha, who arrived early with over 500 sample chapters excerpted from the memoir THE ALTERED I: MEMOIR OF JOSEPH KEMPLER, HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR, and bookmarks, plus several copies of the book on hand in case anyone wanted to buy a copy on the spot (which several did!) The teacher who organized the whole affair was a doll, enthusiastic, helpful and generous.

After the first three class periods I seemed to hit my stride and my focus. I wanted to convey a positive message to the students not just relate the sad events of Joe’s life. I wanted to show the students that they could stand up against peer pressure and racial prejudice and do the right thing despite the circumstances being intense.

Well, I believe it was a success. The questions from the students were incredible. These were some standouts for me:

If Hitler were here would you forgive him?

When was the first time you saw a dead body, and how did you feel?

Would you take revenge if you could?

What motivated you to survive?

If you had blond hair and blue eyes did that guarantee you survived? (A student noticed Joe had blond hair as a youngster from old photos I had running during the presentation.)

What do you think? Insightful right?

Despite a raging headache by the end of the school day, I felt relieved. Relieved it was over, but also happy with the students. They were quiet, respectful, and curious. After each class period there were several students who wanted their picture taken with Joe, or just to shake his hand. Some hugged him. It was adorable to see. Everything I had gone through emotionally and mentally in preparation for the presentation had been worth it for these students. I was glad Joe could do it too. I was concerned about him getting up early, (he fights it!) concerned about remembering his own history, concerned about his energy level, concerned about the kids understanding him, he is soft spoken, has a bit of an accent, and slurs his words more than he used to. My fears subsided as we got underway. Joe was a real partner. He was awesome. He only forgot what he wanted to say a couple of times and I was able to help him get on track and expand his thoughts.

I most likely will never do another all day presentation again. It was relentless–wash, rinse, repeat. Some times I got lost in my thoughts and couldn’t remember if I had said this or that. Each time was a little different, but for the most part I was on track. Near the last period, Paul whispered to me, “Keep it fresh!” I really have a new appreciation for what teachers go through each day, and I’ve determined I’m kind of spoiled … but in a good way.

I’ll be posting Paul’s thoughts on the day in a future post. It’s a wonderful essay and I can’t wait for you to read it!

 

 

Goodreads Giveaway for The Altered I: Memoir of Joseph Kempler, Holocaust Survivor

This is very exciting news: LeRue Press, publisher of THE ALTERED I, is hosting a Goodreads Giveaway. Ten copies will be given away.

Enter to win starting today, September 16-October 7, 2014. U.S. residents only, sorry Canada!

Click here to enter.

Synopsis:

Joseph Kempler is eleven years old in 1939, when World War II begins. German soldiers have invaded his hometown of Krakow, Poland. Forced with his family to leave their home, business, and belongings, Joseph embarks on an adventure that changes his life forever. The family seeks shelter with a Polish peasant family in a small village, but the threat of discovery by the Nazis becomes imminent. Ultimately, Joseph determines that the best course of action is to join his brother, Dolek, in a forced labor camp. Thus begins a tortuous existence surviving six different concentration camps from the ages of fourteen to seventeen. Along the way he abandons family and faith. He curses God for allowing the Holocaust to happen and becomes an atheist. After a brief encounter with Christians imprisoned in the same camp, Joseph is stunned by their demonstration of faith, a faith he a had long-since left behind. This group of Bible students, known as Bibelforscher, leaves an indelible impression on his mind. Years later, after emigrating to the United States, he converts to a Christian faith. The Altered I chronicles Joseph’s journey from his zealous beginnings in Judaism to his conversion, while shining new light on an untold story of the Holocaust.

 

Front Cover-Altered I 3rd revision

 

Author Bio:

Born in Southern California, April Kempler currently resides in her “adopted” city of Reno, Nevada. She lives with her husband, who doubles as her editor-in-chief. April Kempler’s first book titled The Altered I, a Holocaust Memoir, is a first-person narrative about the Holocaust. April loves reading, a habit she picked up as a child. Instead of playing with the other kids, she could be found with her nose in a book. She reads a variety of genres, but is especially drawn to historical fiction.

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