My Jewish grandfather was a seventh-generation goldsmith in Odessa in the Ukraine. After he and his fiance were caught in crossfire during the murderous pogrom of 1905, they vowed never to raise their children in such peril. He brought his wife, children and in-laws to America.
My Bavarian grandfather, a pacifist Catholic farmer in the tradition of beatified Nazi resister and martyr, Franz Jaggerstatter, refused to fight for Germany in WWI. Germany had suppressed his Czech language, and his nation's freedom of self-rule. He stowed away on a Norwegian sailing ship for two years before landing in Canada. He walked across the New York State border and met his Lutheran-Hungarian bride in Philadelphia.
Holiday dinner conversations in my youth sparkled in English, Yiddish and high and low German dialects. The old guard's wild tales of life before America underscored strong beliefs in peace, personal responsibility and the power of love and dignity. They were a cultural mix religiously, economically and artistically. They shared exuberant diversity and intense belief in learning, along with ironic, heartwarming and sometimes dark, humor.
They rooted dialogue, stories and settings in my heart. Their suffering taught me to give back for blessings received. They championed my love for literature, music and fine arts. I sought spiritual understanding through the Tao, Judaism, Christianity and Eckankar.
My father, an eighth generation jeweler, a platinumsmith, was born in the United States. His experience taught me never to forget the Holocaust. As a twenty-one-year-old American tourist, then a sculptor, he and his older brother, a violinist, were in Salzburg, Austria on the eve of Kristallnacht in November 1938. They heard the glass shatter in the looting of Jewish businesses and smelled the synagogue burning. That night my father realized why his parents had fled to the US after the 1905 Pogrom. The following day in Munich, he almost picked a fight with an SS standing in front of a Munich art museum. My uncle, born in Russia, grabbed my dad by the scruff of his neck and whispered, "Moishe, what the hell's the matter with you? You'll get us arrested! My passport is in my Jewish name, Pincus. They'll know we're Jews! We don't know if we have protection as Americans and we're not going to find out—right, boychik?"
Apparently, my dad's oral history would not be my only enlightenment. In 1957, in fourth grade, a boy in my class accosted my neighbor and me on our walk back to school at lunchtime. This classmate called my neighbor a "dirty Jew" and me, the cute little blonde, pigtailed gamine with pierced ears who was a carbon copy of her shiksa mother—had a knee-jerk response and slugged that boy hard in his stomach.
Ironically, film footage of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising had been shown on commercial tv prior to this incident, here in Joseph-McCarthy/Ku-Klux-Klan America (in Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love).
My mother brought me through an upsetting childhood experience that ignited my passion for human rights, not unlike my father's reaction to being in Nazi Germany.
After this altercation, my mother made sure I understood non-violent civil disobedience. Wise, tender-hearted and strong-willed, she set high standards. Crippled with Rheumatoid Arthritis for nineteen years, she could not stand for long periods of time. She took me to Quaker meetings of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). My mom taught me respect for all people and explained Civil Rights and Afro-American history to me. In 1959, she sent me to stand in her place, in the municipal courtyard of Philadelphia, with a small group of resisters, in silent, weekly anti-nuclear war/peace vigils sponsored by the WILPF.
I was twelve years old. To this day, I remember how people passed us and stared. I looked back and silently gave them love in a piece of my conscience, hoping my message would resonate in their hearts.
That history haunted me into adulthood. My marriage to the late Reginald Libby, a WWII Marine veteran, inspired me further to write the first book of the trilogy, Ingrid's Wars: The Resistance Between Us, over fifteen years ago.
I worked in Poland and in 2005 visited Auschwitz. It was a devastating reminder. If my grandfather and grandmother and their family had not left the Ukraine, they would likely have died in a pit from gunshots to the back of their necks—Genickschusse—in the Odessa Massacre of 1941.
Yes, I am passionate about human rights. It is my sincere hope that The Resistance Between Us will resonate in your conscience, your heart and your soul. May we, in peace, heed the lessons of history—and may we truly learn to love our neighbors, whoever they are, and wherever they may be.
Phyllis Kimmel Libby
photo credit, bio, Bozena Bejnar Slawow