Shaped by Genocide, Driven by Love
Why Fred Amram speaks out
Fred Amram (M.A. '59) thought he and Alice Musabende couldn’t be less alike. The 83-year-old author, inventor, activist, and professor emeritus of speech communication and creativity at the University of Minnesota often speaks to schoolchildren, military organizations, and civic groups about his experience as a Jewish child in Nazi Germany. When he met Musabende, a young survivor of the Rwandan genocide, she was speaking on the steps of the Capitol in St. Paul. She told how one day when she was 14, she came home from an errand and found that her mother, father, sister, and two brothers had all been slaughtered. At the end of her speech, she raised her fist and shouted, “Never again!”
“At first I was a little upset, because ‘Never Again’ is our slogan; it’s a Jewish slogan—it’s what we say about the Holocaust,” Amram says. “And then, all of a sudden, I started to cry, and I realized that Alice is my sister. We’re both child survivors.” Now when Amram, a board member of St. Paul–based World Without Genocide, gives his talks, he tells Musabende’s story too. “We survivors share common bonds. In our hearts, we have the same nightmares and the same fears. The same anger and the eagerness to help.”
Last year Amram published a memoir called We’re in America Now. It tells the story of his childhood in Nazi Germany, his father’s conscription into slave labor, the family’s flight across the border to Amsterdam and then New York, and his experience as a refugee: the bewilderment, the guilt and embarrassment, and his yearning to fit in as an American. The memoir, a series of interrelated short stories, came about as a result of his talks, and he’s enjoyed his foray into creative writing. “I tell people that I retired from the University so that I could write without footnotes,” he says with a laugh.
In his talks, Amram also talks about the eight stages of genocide. They’re part of a theory that although each genocide is unique, they all tend to evolve in the same way. And, he says, there’s a point early on at which the progression can be stopped and atrocity averted. “When I came to the United States,” he says, “we had water fountains that said Colored Only and White Only. So there was the same kind of segregation that we experienced in the early days of the Holocaust, where there were benches set aside for Jews and others for Aryans. Ultimately in the United States it got turned around so those water fountains were integrated. In Germany the people didn’t speak up, and the separate benches and the separate schools became death camps and slave labor camps.”
As a former refugee, Amram believes the United States should be more welcoming to refugees. During the 1930s, he points out, the United States’ immigration quota for Germans was 25,000—for both Jews and non-Jews—and the nation’s laws made it exceedingly hard to obtain visas. “In the early days, Hitler didn’t want to kill all Jews; he wanted to get all Jews out of Europe,” he says. “All these people could have gotten away if somebody would have taken them. And we’re seeing something like that now. Refugees are running for their lives. But the United States has not been very welcoming.”
Since retiring from the U in 2001, Amram has continued to live the part of a professor of creativity. He designed and patented a customizable backpack, curated several exhibitions on women inventors, and collaborates with his wife, artist Sandra Brick, on her mixed-media artworks. And he plans to keep writing. He’s just returned from a writers’ residency with a draft of his first novel, a fictionalized story about his colorful forebears. “My paternal grandfather was, in the old country, a cattle thief,” he says. “And his father, in the old country, was a kosher butcher. Now, just knowing that, you know there’s a story there.” If it’s anything like Amram’s own story, it’s sure to be a tour de force.