Today is Veterans Day. Many of us will miss that great parade in Petaluma, but more importantly, families across the land will miss family members who gave the ultimate sacrifice in the name of country. This is not a right or left sentiment. Hats off to them, and thanks to the local scouts who help us remember by lining the main thoroughfares of Sebastopol with scores of American flags on national holidays like this one. I’ll try to find a vet to feature next week.
Yesterday was an important day as well, though one far less well known. It was Kristallnacht. On the eve of Nov. 9, 1938, and into the next day and night, Nazis terrorized the Jewish communities of Germany and Austria by smashing and burning hundreds of synagogues and Jewish businesses, and arresting tens of thousands of Jewish men. It is considered the first act of mass violence of the Holocaust that would eventually take the lives of six million Jews, and millions of others as well.
Ernest Newbrun, though only 6 years old at the time, has memories of that day. His wife Eva, a little too young to recall the day, was also in Vienna that day, as was my mother. Erni and Eva are my in-laws, who like many other city folk, had a weekend home up here in Sonoma County. It is a weekend home no longer as they have transitioned up here during these days of COVID, making the area their full time home. Back in San Francisco, they loved the opera, lectures, museums and loads of theater. Now, Erni spends most of his time gardening, bread making, swimming, giving lectures on Zoom, and studying Torah. As they like to say in Erni’s adopted country of Australia, “There’s no flies on him!”
Erni lives with his wife of 64 years, Eva, and has three grown children, six grandkids and two great-grandkids.
Where and when were you born, Erni?
In Vienna, Austria, in December of 1932.
Nov. 9 and 10 were profound days for the Jewish community back in 1938. What do you recall from back then?
I was only 6 years old, but I have a few clear memories. We were very fortunate as the Nazis never came to our home. We didn’t own the building we lived in, and we lived on the second floor. Below us, was the grounds-keeper and his wife. They were Nazis and had put out the Nazi swastika flag, so when the Germans came through looking for Jews, they skipped our house.
Later that day, they picked my father up while he was out in the street and arrested him. The jails were full of Jews and others who had been detained, so he was kept with hundreds of others in a school house. My mother was out of her mind. I remember when he was released and returned home, they had shaved his head, like everyone else who was sent to concentration camps.
My memories of Kristallnacht were actually from the day after. There were gangs of Hitler youth on flatbed trucks riding around with things they had stolen from the synagogues, including a shofar (a ram’s horn that is blown on Rosh HaShanna and Yom Kippur, and other important days). They were trying to blow the thing, but couldn’t manage much of a sound.
How soon after that did your family leave Austria?
We left as soon as we could, a few months later, after a visa was arranged. We fled by train, and boat, and eventually got a Dutch ship in Rotterdam for the Dutch East Indies. We ended up in Sydney, Australia, as did others who were fortunate enough to get visas.
The man in Australia who had sponsored us, a gentile, offered the visas to our uncle after Kristallnacht, when he and others clearly saw the writing on the wall, and wanted to help.
How long did you stay in Australia?
I was there from the age of 6 to 21, when I went to England for a year of graduate studies. Then it was on to Rochester for more graduate studies, and later to Alabama for another degree, and eventually to San Francisco for a Ph.D. We stayed put in San Francisco where we raised the kids and I ended up at UCSF from ’65 to ’94 where I was a Professor of Oral Biology (in the School of Dentistry).
Like many others from San Francisco, you were drawn to Sonoma County and bought a house on an acre just south of Sebastopol.
It was just a weekend and summer place at first. It’s so much warmer up here than in the city. Since COVID struck, we’re up here full time. There’s lower risk up here, and it’s just so pretty and easier to live here. We love it here and of course we have family nearby as well.
Let’s talk about the election results. How are you feeling about it?
I have a mixture of relief to be rid of the Trump administration and all he personified, and of disappointment that the Blue Wave didn’t happen. The republicans will probably continue to obstruct progress in the Senate.
This may be too much of a rhetorical question, but here goes. Did President Trump’s authoritarian nature worry you as a European refugee who had fled an authoritarian regime?
Yes. Had he won, there was every likelihood that his history of turning up his nose at democratic principles, would have led to more despotic measures.
Erni, not only were you an esteemed faculty member at UCSF, but you served as the president of the International Association of Dental Researchers. You have been an outspoken advocate for communal water fluoridation. How do you feel about our county, where with a few exceptions, we’re not fluoridating?
It’s a failing on the part of the Santa Rosa City Council, and a lack of support from the water board. If they did it, others would follow. Fluoridation is clearly one of the most significant public health advances since the 1950s, and of course we should have it here. Not having it reflects a broader distrust of science.
Okay. Here’s the question I’m asking everyone, and in light of the announcement a few days ago that Pfizer has a vaccine that they claim is 90% effective, it’s a question not based on fantasy. If the FDA announced tomorrow that they had approved a COVID vaccine, would you go out and get it?
Absolutely. At my age, I’m in the high risk category. The SF Chronicle wrote about the Biden COVID task force. It has individuals addressing both the medical/scientific aspects, and people focused on addressing the suspicion Americans have about the vaccine and science in general.
Around here, I know you love attending opera at the Rialto, theatre at Cinnabar, Ragel Park, and the Joe Matos cheese factory, but it’s Mimi’s that you love the most. So what are your favorite flavors?
That’s easy. The walnut and strawberry ice cream.