Knowing one's family history and heritage is one thing; embracing it is another. In this episode we visit with Martin Miller who, for years, did not know his family's background. Once he learned, he was told to keep it quiet. After years of living in fear, he had a dream to embrace his heritage. He shares his journey with us and how, after all this time, lives in peace with himself.
Dennis Hodges: “Dream. Believe. Do.” is an approach to life and today I'm sitting here talking to my friend, Martin Miller. Martin, thank you for your time today.
Martin Miller: Thank you, Dennis.
DH: Martin, you have a dream, or had a dream rather, that you have achieved…. tell me about that dream if you would, please.
MM: Yeah. The dream was about the heritage. The dream was about the background. The dream was about mixed feelings that I went through as a child and then as a teenager, which was linked to my family. I never figured out and didn’t get an answer about what my background was -- and even I asked so many times. And then I find out that we are Jewish, and that our family was gassed in Auschwitz and the only person who came out of it was my grandmother -- that I actually find out by seeing her tattooed number on her hand.
DH: And that's how you knew that she had been at Auschwitz because of the tattoo?
MM: Yes, absolutely.
DH: And your grandmother is from where? From Slovakia?
MM: She is from Ukraine and it was a part of Czechoslovakia in that town Vusna Viznica and places like that. And yeah…
DH: So how old are you when you saw the tattoo?
MM: Well, I was like 12 when I saw the tattoo and then never figured it out before but obviously, she's had it forever. And I asked her and every time, she just didn’t say anything or she started to cry or she was saying some funny stories. So I was trying to search, search, search. And then I find out that somebody from the family that still was living in Ukraine at the time in Soviet Union in the 1990s -- which was very far family -- all of a sudden, they emigrated to Israel and they became an Israeli citizen. And then I thought, “Is this possible?” This must be a, you know, this must be it. I thought so, but it never had any kind of proof. And it was the proof. Anyway, I lived with that for a long time. I have come straight to my grandmother and I told her I know we are Jewish. And she couldn’t hide it and conceal it anymore and she said, “Yes, we are Jewish, but don't tell anyone.”
DH: Keep it to yourself.
MM: Keep it to yourself.
MM: And I said, “Why?” And she said, “Because another program is coming.”
MM: So, I was in an inner conflict to talk about it. And when they ask me about her religion to say “Jew” or to conceal it all the time, you know? And so I was kind of a practicing with my family -- with my mother and my brother. We were hiding it and we were secretly seeing people that had private worships and stuff like that.
DH: Because your grandma said “Keep it to yourself. Keep it quiet because they’re coming again.” Okay.
MM: And so I did. As the time went, I was kind of very private about it. And when I got married, then even more about my child, I thought we will reveal and we will tell openly that we are Jewish, then we can be beaten and we can be persecuted or whatsoever -- seeing what went on still in Czechoslovakia after the iron curtain fell down -- which was that people are still, in this part of the world, are anti-Semitic. And anti-gypsy and whatever.
MM: Yeah. About my dream, so I always thought that I will be, one day, I will be free to face it and I will be free to practice it and to speak about it -- and most of it -- feel like it. Feel like we're Jew. And my grand .
DH: About how long ago? A couple of years ago?
MM: No. She passed away I guess two and a half years ago. And I have to admit I was not crying at that time. And there was a real Jewish funeral that we were doing. We were with the family and with the Rabbi. She was buried in the Jewish cemetery. But that took me a lot. And I thought I need to go and do the pilgrimage route to two places; one is Israel and the second one was Auschwitz. So I went to Israel and went to the wall and stick there my dream and my wish into the wall, and went to the places. And then much stronger was to go to Auschwitz. And I went to the Auschwitz and I went to the barracks which where she was, because the barracks were under the nationalities, so I could go to the barracks where she was.
DH: Oh, is that right? So you can find actually the barracks where she lived?
MM: Yeah. And that was, that was very strong. And the first thing I came to Auschwitz was that I put the Kappa on my head, Yarmulke. And I was walking there, walking there. I spent two hours. It's not such a big place, by the way. And then I went back and I was under that gate “Arbeit macht frei”.
DH: Right. “Work makes you free,” or whatever, right?
MM: Yeah. And I was stopped by a guy who must be seventy at the time. He stopped me. His accent was really Brooklyn accent. And he said, “What are you doing here? Who you are?” And I told him just a little bit what I'm doing there, who I am and where my grandmother was in which barracks. And he said, “You have got on your hat.” And I said, “Yes.” And he said, “Are you not afraid?” And that was the second I got an insight and I said, “No, I'm not afraid.”
DH: And that was the point.
MM: It was the point. It was the point that I realized that I cannot be afraid and I don't want to live with the fear for the rest of my life.
DH: That's amazing.
MM: The fear to be revealed as a Jew, and the fear that they will come to my house and kill me because I'm a Jew.
DH: That you’ve grown up with, that you’d heard your entire life?
MM: Sure. So, I basically decided that Nazis killed all my family and my mother’s name is different because she got married. So I decided that I'm going to carry on the torch of my family and…
DH: Because your birth name was Mataseje.
MM: Yes. It was a different name. It was according to my father. And I decided that I wanna carry on the torch and I wanna show -- not be afraid, not to have a fear -- to carry on the Jewish name, which is Miller. And I decided in my forty years of age to change my birth name -- and so I did.
DH: Was it just you? You have a brother, and you have kids and your wife?
MM: First of all, I spoke to my wife about it. I told her the whole story. And she didn’t hesitate a second and she said that she will carry on the name with me and she changed her name also to Miller. And she didn’t hesitate a second and she agreed that we will change the names of our kids. So all our kids have a Jewish name – Aron, Doron and Zara Zoe Miller. So that's my family. And my brother, I spoke to him as well and didn’t take him longer than 30 seconds, and done the same thing with his whole family.
DH: That's amazing. Okay. That's not a small decision to make, Martin. It's a huge decision to get back in touch with your heritage and to adopt your grandmother’s name and carry the tradition forward. What was the big obstacle that you’ve encountered or some obstacles you ran into in trying to live this dream?
MM: The main obstacle is… was, it was the fear. And if I was able to determine that the obstacle was the fear; why I was able to determine and that diagnose myself, that what I'm afraid of and why am I afraid of that, then I was able to diminish this obstacle to a zero. I'm not talking about the technical obstacles such as I had to take my case to the court for a court decision. I didn’t doubt a second about it that I'm going to be successful with the court proceeding. I didn’t think much about the technical obstacles like the announcement and changing of all my documents -- every documents of my children and the family. That was comparing to the main obstacle of just…
DH: The fear. So how did you overcome the fear? What did it take for you to break through that?
MM: I believe that I will be fine. I believe that we have the God’s help, save myself if that's going to happen. Still, I believe that it's not going to happen, and I believe in a positive future, which means that I completely changed my approach and my thinking.
DH: It's beautiful.
MM: Yeah, it is! It's really something that most of the people are dreaming of. I've dreamt about it a lot. It is to free myself. To be a free person in the world. So this is, I would say, the main stuff.
DH: So just two more quick questions, for you; one is any key lessons that have come out of this from your stand point? Any big learnings that you’ve found in the process of realizing your dream?
MM: The big key lesson is as follows: we are going through the inner conflicts through all our lives. We are in a conflict with lot of important stuff. When we feel ambivalent, we feel we don't know. And the key lesson is it worth to sort out the inner conflict and to go either way – one or another – but either way. I would use the well-known words: “If you think you can, you can. If you think you cannot, you cannot. Both is right.”
DH: That's right. Yeah. Very true. And finally, any advice you’d give to people that are trying to realize their dreams? Any words of advice you’d like to share with them?
MM: I would like to share with you that you should talk about your inner dreams, and about your dreams with the people that you trust and with the people that you love. You can carry that dream and make it through easier when you talk to someone.
DH: That's beautiful. Martin, thank you so much for your time.
MM: Thank you, Dennis.
Comments will be approved before showing up.