‘When you’re eight, you do not understand that the world has trouble in it.’’
That’s the way Szmulek Rozental, a Polish Jew, viewed his life in his hometown of Lodz in summer 1939. Trouble would be an understatement for the dark days ahead.
On a bright recent morning, some 80-plus years later, spring was finally trying harder and the new warmth was having an impact: Eyes were up, shoulders down. There seemed to be more smiles on the Rose Kennedy Greenway.
Mike Ross was meeting with his father, now called Steve instead of Szmulek, at the entryway to the New England Holocaust Memorial, erected in 1995 and founded by Steve.
Father and son embraced, and Mike gave his dad some guff about not shaving, rubbing his knuckles against his dad’s white stubble. He told his father that he’d settled on a date for his wedding. Next September.
“You’ll be there, right dad?” Mike said.
“You made it,” Steve answered.
Two strokes have made speaking a challenge for Steve, and he steps with the aid of a walker. but he stands upright, the grip of his handshake firm.
The Holocaust Memorial is solemn and grand: six 54-foot-tall glass towers rise, representing the six main death camps, the structure etched with millions of numbers like those infamously tattoed to the six million killed.
Steve is set to launch a more modest but still powerful statement with the release this Tuesday of his memoir, “From Broken Glass: My Story of Finding Hope in Hitler’s Death Camps to Inspire a New Generation.’’
The book chronicles Ross’s five years as a child in various death camps before coming to the United States and leading a life devoted to helping young people find hope in hard places as a Boston social worker, using his story of surviving the unspeakable as inspiration, and reminder.
It opens with young Szmulek in a “dry and warm’’ season, living with his family in a cozy third-floor apartment on Kammiena #3 with creaky stairs and the rattle of horses and wagons outside, the smells of soup and cabbage within. In months, this gives way to the sound of German boots and acts of murder and brutality.
Szmulek’s family and others took flight. Their short period on the run would be followed by the longer nightmare of death camp.
Separation from family. Witnessing, experiencing, surviving starvation, beatings, hangings, rape. An old man’s skull is pulped by the boots of two child soldiers; a small friend sobs when the boy’s father takes his starving son’s bite of daily bread; an unconscious Szmulek is taken for dead and heaved onto a tangle of decomposing bodies.
While Steve’s is a work of history, it feels timely. A survey just revealed that over 40 percent of people 18-34 believed that the number of Jews killed was 2 million or fewer; 66 percent did not know what Auschwitz was.
Donald Trump’s presidency has coincided with a marked uptick in anti-Semitic crimes, including the smashing of two glass panels at the memorial in Boston last year (“the title of the book is deliberate,” Mike notes).
“All this happened while he was writing,” says Mike, a lawyer and former Boston city councilor. “After 23 years, the memorial found itself in a new role: as victim. That’s why the book is important. Right now. Today.”
Steve suffered a stroke in the middle of working on the memoir. Author and attorney Glenn Frank and former Massachusetts state representative Brian Wallace (whom Steve helped when he was young) completed the manuscript, spending hours going over stories and history.
Chapters move back and forth in time and place from the late 1930s and early 1940s in Poland and Germany, to Boston in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’90s
After the war ended, Steve landed in Dorchester, living in a house of other war orphans. He became a truant officer in Columbia Point, reaching out to kids and families in South Boston and guiding them back toward school, then a licensed psychologist for the city.
Heart trouble in his early 40s spurred his determination to keep “spreading his story widely, reminding students that they weren’t alone in struggling and there were people here to help,” he writes.
I tell him that one of the most striking things about the book is how he manages to maintain hope. Hearing this, his eyes light up. “I never lost hope,” he says, leaning toward me.
Mike remarks that the memorial wouldn’t have happened without him. Steve waves it away. “We have to remember,” he says.
As Ross and his son rise to make their way to lunch at the Union Oyster House, a passerby stops. “Steve Ross? It’s been thirty years!” The man shakes his hand, then embraces him, introducing himself: Bruce Donaldson, 56 years old, explaining that he grew up in Southie — “I was a D-Streeter!” — and that Ross had gotten his brother a job sweeping floors at Boston Edison. “Honest to god, the greatness that you’ve done,” he says, bowing his head to Ross.
“As kids he used to show us the numbers tattooed on his arm. He let us know his mom and dad were killed. And that we could make it through,’’ said Donaldson, who mentions that he is in recovery and suggests Ross’s lessons are still of use.
“As I stitched myself into the Columbia Point community,” Ross writes in the book, “I began to realize how much of my job amounted to simply being kind.” Ross reminds us, with words and acts, that it is this, above all, that is all of our jobs, all of the time, simply being kind.