Eulogy for Kurt Grishman, 1919-2017

My name is Jake Adler. Kurt Grishman was my great-uncle, the older brother of my grandmother, Leoni Adler. Kurt and Leoni were particularly close, so our extended family spent plenty of time together while I was growing up. I have fond memories of holidays spent together in Bethesda, and many visits to Hyde Park and Rhinebeck.

As I said at Lore’s funeral, she and Kurt were the great comedic duo of my childhood: she was the slightly scatter-brained, carefree pixie with joie de vivre to spare, and he was the exasperated grump.

Kurt came by his grumpiness honestly. At just two years old, he experienced the death of his father, Leo. Alongside this loss came an early sense of responsibility to be “the man of the house.” He was a caring older brother to my grandmother, Leoni, always her protector. This became even more important as he entered his teenage years. He became bar mitzvah at roughly the same time that Hitler seized control of the German government, and his teenage years were marked by the passage of the Nuremberg Laws, among dozens of other laws which prohibited Jews from participating in German society. While Kurt and Leoni were granted some special privileges due to their father’s service in the German Army during the First World War, these did not shield them from experiencing daily discrimination and anti-Semitic bullying at the hands of peers, and, more disturbingly, authority figures.

On the night of November 8, 1938. Leoni answered the apartment door, and the SS came into the apartment and took Kurt. He was eighteen years old. He spent nearly a month interned in Sachsenhausen, a work camp 35 km north of Berlin which would serve as the model for and administrative center of all other concentration camps.

Kurt was released from the camp on December 3, 1938, just days before his nineteenth birthday. From the day he was released, Kurt was never silent about his experience in the camp. His sister Leoni remembered that after his release, their mother, Toni, insisted that he wear a hat to cover his shaved head. Kurt obliged, but made a point, while walking through the neighborhood, of tipping his hat to every person he encountered, making sure that everybody could see what had been done to him.

By December 19, they had left Germany, heading to Amsterdam, where they stayed with Kurt’s aunt, uncle, and cousin for over a year, before traveling to the United States on the Pennland. Aboard the Pennland, Kurt and his sister and mother met another family fleeing Berlin. The Spitzes offered to introduce Kurt to their daughter, who had recently arrived from Britain. And so it was that Kurt met Lore Spitz, in Times Square, on New Year’s Day. They were married in 1943, and raised three wonderful daughters together: Joan, Linda (aleha hashalom), and Wendy.

At sixteen, he began an apprenticeship as a tool and die maker, a trade in which he would continue for the rest of his professional life. Outside of work, he was still a lifelong tinkerer, taking pride and pleasure in making things: lamps, jewelry, knife handles. A photographer, he loved teaching his children and nieces and nephews to make pinhole cameras, and built his own photographic enlarger out of two coffee cans and a lens.

Kurt loved classical music. He was one of the original members of the Hudson Valley Philharmonic, the founder and artistic director of the Rhinebeck Chamber Music Society. He was a conductor for the Woodstock Chamber Orchestra. No matter that, as his daughter Wendy pointed out, “he wasn’t the greatest violinist, and he hated to practice.” Kurt was a builder. He built up the resources that he wanted to see in his community. He followed his passion, and was committed to creating opportunities to bring music to his community. He would work twelve hour days as a toolmaker at the Wire-O Corporation, come home to wash up, and then head out to play with the Philharmonic.

Kurt was absolutely committed to the needs of his community. He saw where something was needed, and set about working to mend the gap. And herein is the secret of Kurt’s appeal. He was a grump, but he was a personable grump. He didn’t let the experiences that had hardened him harden his heart. He had a deep intellect, a strong sense of humor, and a sharp wit. He connected easily and deeply with people.

Kurt never felt particularly drawn to Judaism. He had grown up in a fairly secular home in Berlin. He told me once, seventy years after his emigration, that he always felt more German than Jewish. He was never particularly fond of Jewish ritual, preferring walks in the woods to Rosh Hashanah services, and he loved to eat lobster on the family’s annual vacations to Cape Cod.

He took me aside once, several years ago, and asked me why I would want to become a rabbi. He told me he didn’t understand – he thought that we had moved past all that. At the time, I was not fully prepared to answer his question – to explain the ways in which Jewish communities could be forward-thinking – engaging with rituals in a meaningful way; embracing faith and rational thinking. I would have loved to have shared this quote from Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism:

“It is a mistake to lump together into the one category of disbelievers and atheists all who say they do not believe in G-d, and to classify as believers all who profess theistic belief. A significant classification would divide [people] into two distinct groups holding two directly opposed attitudes towards life. Those who consider life as a meaningless vanity, as ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’ are the real atheists, though they may prate of G-d. But those who, at great danger and cost to themselves, are identified with some cause of social reform or humanitarian benefit, enjoy and communicate the experience of life’s worthwhileness, despite all its tragic waste and ugliness, must be classified with religious believers. They act as witnesses of G-d, regardless of what they say. In their desire to break with the limited traditional conception of G-d, they may proclaim themselves atheists, yet they are the first to accord genuinely divine honors and adoration to persons, texts and events through which the world promises to come one whit nearer to their hearts’ desire.”
MMK, The Meaning of G-d in Modern Jewish Religion, 1937

Despite his wariness of organized religion, Kurt had great appreciation for life. He expressed gratitude for his arrest on Kristallnacht, since he might not otherwise have felt the same urgency to leave Europe without that experience. He found great joy in music, dinners out with family, and a nice glass of Scotch. He embodied the quote from the Jerusalem Talmud:

רבי ירמיה אמר העוסק בצורכי ציבור כעוסק בדברי תורה

Rabi Yermayah said, the one who is occupied with the needs of the community is like one who is occupied with the Torah.

Kurt strove to make his community and his world a better place. He made it his mission to increase beauty in the world through the promotion of music. Kurt embraced life, in its beauty and in its sorrow, in its consonance and its dissonance.

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