Morrell Avram, grandfather of Rachel Avram ’18 and Alexander Avram ’23, was born in Bucharest, Romania, in 1929. By the end of World War II, at least 270,000 of 720,000 Romanian Jews had died because of the Holocaust. Morrell’s mother, who was born in the United States, left Romania with Morrell’s sister in 1940, yet, for unknown reasons, the State Department prevented Morell from joining his family despite being a US citizen himself. Consequently, as a Jewish teenager he lived in hiding with his father until the war’s end. In 1946, he immigrated to Baltimore, Maryland, and was reunited with his family members after six years. He now resides in New York City with his wife, Maria, and is currently writing a memoir. Today he is 88.
How were you and your family affected by the Holocaust?
Very directly and very profoundly. The Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933 when I was 4 years old, and they started getting imitators throughout Europe. In Romania, there was the Iron Guard, or the ‘Greenshirts.’ Slowly, the population became very hostile to the Jews living there. My cousin was beaten by his classmates. These things started repeating themselves. The government of Romania allowed it to take place.
The Romanians, independent of the Germans, killed Jews. For three days in January 1941, when I was 11, the Iron Guard roamed the streets of Bucharest, and any Jews they found, they either beat or took to a slaughterhouse. There, they hung them on meat hooks reserved for cattle to kill them in an agonizing and inhumane way, and they wrote on their bodies “Kosher meat.” This happened to hundreds of Jews in Bucharest, including one of my father’s best friends.
For six years, because of the Holocaust, I was separated from my mother and had a very bad adolescence. I had to hide a lot with my aunts. Each time my father would take me to a different aunt so that the Romanian Nazis couldn’t find me. I watched the beautiful synagogue in which I was educated in Hebrew as a young Jewish student go up in flames one night. This magnificent structure was doused with gas by some hoodlums and burned—along with the sacred Torah—with the fury and hatred of other human beings that I couldn’t understand.
By the end of the war, about one third [of Romania’s Jews] were deported to the Eastern territory in Russia, Transnistria, and all of them perished, except for a few, one of whom was my distant aunt. We didn’t know who was going to be killed next. We were supposed to be inferior. We were supposed to be subhuman. We were supposed to be humiliated; my uncle was made to carry a piece of veal from the slaughterhouse through the streets of Bucharest while people threw rocks at him.
I carry with me the memory of the hundreds killed like cattle in the slaughterhouses of Bucharest. Not everybody went to the gas chamber. They were killed in the fields, in slaughterhouses; they were shot. Many were, like in Poland, locked in barns and burned.
How is the Holocaust relevant today?
It’s relevant because there is a stirring of anti-Semitism. Until about five years ago or so, I said, “Oh god, I suffered when I was young, but at least there is no anti-Semitism anymore.” Anti-Semitism is back—in Eastern Europe, in the authoritarian states like Hungary and Poland. That kind of scares me. And even in the United States. The shock of my life, after I served for two years in the US army, was to hear on the streets of Charlottesville, ‘The Jews, they take what we want to have.” That reminded me exactly of Bucharest. I’m very vigilant about this and [about] all my children and grandchildren going through the horrible hatred of Nazism and the Holocaust. I would never accept that again.
How has the Holocaust affected your Jewish identity and your expression of it?
I was separated from my mother, humiliated, and told I was an inferior race. It made me insecure, and for a long time, I accepted everything I heard to be true. Because of this humiliation, it took me a long time to realize that I’m no worse and no better than anybody else on the planet.
What I learned from the Holocaust is that you gotta be what you are. It’s very easy—and some Jews do this—to convert. In the end, they’re not accepted anyway. Hitler would kill them anyway. [The Nazis] wouldn’t go by religion; they were going by race. That made me do two things: first, I understand the underdog; and second, I have become more entrenched as a Jew—[The Holocaust] made me be even more Jewish. Not because it benefits me. It obviously disadvantages me perilously because I never know whether or not I’ll be rejected because I’m Jewish.